On Thursday, October 10, English Department Chair Jennifer Cognard-Black, Ph.D., delivered the Robert Foster Cherry Lecture, “Just Food: Social Justice and the Literatures of Food.” Cognard-Black is one of only three finalists in all of the English-speaking world for this prestigious award presented by Baylor University, recognizing her dedication and passion for teaching at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM). She will present various lectures at Baylor University throughout the fall of 2019.
Cognard-Black’s background of food literature is well-developed, as can be seen by her five books and many articles. She first taught a course on the subject, “Books that Cook,” in 2007, which prompted her to delve further into the matter. “The food we consume tells a good deal about where we come from, who were are and what we are,” she explained.
In this class, Cognard-Black implemented service learning projects and active learning into her curriculum, prompting her students to examine how food speaks for itself in literature. She further explained that food literature is the consumption of language with the ears and eyes but also with the mouth. The inclusion of food in literature, she stated, could serve as a cover for deeper political meanings.
Cognard-Black demonstrated the deeper political meanings hidden in literature by food as she read an excerpt from Joanne Harris’ novel, “Chocolat.” Beforehand, she asked that each member of the audience grab two pieces of chocolate from the table outside on their way into the lecture. At this point in the lecture, she asked the audience to take out one of their pieces of chocolate and consume it as she read aloud from Harris’ novel. In combining the consumption of chocolate and the comprehension of the excerpt regarding the food, the audience members were able to read between the lines and see the underlying meaning of the text.
The inclusion of these themes and concepts into her classes at SMCM allow Cognard-Black’s students to utilize experiential hands-on learning. She remarked that the stories of eating which she and her classes analyze push towards the experiment in moving past the classroom. Her ultimate goal is to push into pedagogical methods which her students can carry with them into the real world. Her aim in this class was to “assign ‘real work,’ not homework.” This “real work” made students more aware of civic injustices and exposed them to novels and journals containing social justice themes. As was mentioned earlier, students in her classes on food literature and social justice completed various social action projects which were centered on food insecurity, such as hunger, which she considered a big problem considering the right of all U.S. citizens to food.
Although it was challenging for both Cognard-Black and her students to grapple with such devastating and depressing injustices related to food, the challenges brought many rewards. These projects, Cognard-Black explained, “took on the literal phrase, ‘actions speak louder than words.’” These experiences left her students with valuable lessons regarding the necessity of food and its role in society as well as literature.
“It was my students who inspired me to do this,” Cognard-Black answered when asked how she became so invested in such an important and often overlooked topic. She was inspired by the interdisciplinary requirements of the topic, and wanted to look into how to address these current issues. Cognard-Black wishes for her students to leave her food literature classes with a certain level of mindfulness in regards to what they are eating and to avoid eating as we are taught to eat in this culture.
Cognard-Black will continue to consider the role of food in both social justice and literary terms as she teaches a Master’s level class at the University of Amsterdam in the spring of 2020, traveling on behalf of her second Fulbright Scholarship. The mixture of her American expertise of food and the new culture of the Dutch is sure to bring new revelations and realizations regarding how people consider food and its role in society.
Although she will be out of the country for the spring semester, Cognard-Black will return in the fall of 2020. Her lectures vibrate the classroom, leaving students with a newfound sense of deep, introspective knowledge. She truly is a gem among the SMCM faculty, and all of her students and coworkers wish her the best as she competes for the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching.