Teaching in the W. E. B. Du Bois Center

by Carol Connare
May, 2022

Spontaneous, heartfelt applause. Upon hearing it, I knew this class was different. From our first meeting, students in Food Writing clapped for one another when they read their writing out loud.

I have taught writing at UMass for more than a decade. What students needed this semester felt different from any other semester. They needed connection. They wanted laughter. They showed up ready to heal. They were determined to learn in person, after too many classes, meetings, appointments, moments, and hours lived online. I never had to ask anyone to please put their phone away. The Du Bois Center became our soft landing, a place where on Mondays and Wednesdays from 11 to 1 we gathered together in person to learn in a shared space, to enjoy and talk about food—to become food writers.

One of the most important aspects of the course, an advanced writing class in Journalism, is that students trust each other and me. As creator of the course, I aim for this to happen as early as possible, because the sooner we all feel safe sharing our writing and inviting critique, when we agree to provide thoughtful feedback to each other in return, the sooner begins our journey to becoming better writers and editors. The course is designed so that students become an editorial sounding board for each other, testing their ideas, sharing resources, reading their writing, and, this year, providing rounds of applause.

Food writers at the cheese counter at Provisions in North Amherst, Ma.

This was the most diverse group of students I have taught. Countries and cultures represented included Brunei, China, India, Israel, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Persia, Philippines, and Russia. Massachusetts students spanned the state, from Cambridge and Duxbury to Ludlow and North Adams. Students from LGBTQ+ and Wiccan communities were represented.

If not for the explicit celebration of diversity in the W. E. B. Du Bois Center, which I teach from the outset, I am certain that a middle-aged white female instructor working in a white space could not have fostered the strong connections that were made among these students.

A natural way into Du Bois for writers is his writing—decades and decades of powerful writing. I spend time explaining photos, artifacts, and stories of Du Bois that are in the space with us. I speak his words aloud, something like a land acknowledgement, yet for a room on floor 22 of a library named for him. I encourage students to speak his words in the space: I offer prizes for Du Bois trivia questions at the opening of class. Students use their phones to find answers, and they read aloud passages by and facts about Du Bois, to their peers, within the hallowed Center.

I am no Du Bois scholar, yet as I read and learn, I allow Du Bois to inspire me, which makes me part of a varied group of thinkers. I am lifted by his legacy and the space that is the Center. Here, I rise to my best teaching and learning self, as my honor-offering of gratitude to W. E. B. Du Bois.

Standing in Massachusetts, I always point out Du Bois was the first Black man to graduate from the state’s earliest land-grant institution, Harvard, yet he was made to re-earn his undergraduate degree from Fisk University in order to do so. I am trying to foster a place of power for non-white students in the room who often experience having to work harder than folks with lighter skin to get the same results. I believe consistently invoking Dr. Du Bois creates a sacred space for all who share a common goal of being present and ready to learn.

Partly I think due to the diversity of this year’s food writers, and the eagerness of students to interact face to face, this was the most productive semester I’ve ever experienced in terms of being able to help each student grow as a writer, and hopefully, as a person, even while wearing masks for the majority of the semester. They looked deeply inward, writing about their own struggles with weight, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, controlling parents, lack of access to quality food, and what it feels like to be a picky eater in a culture that prioritizes the celebration of cuisine. Their ability to look outward sharpened as they tackled topics like the environmental impact of prepared meal kits, the healing power of chocolate, the intersection of food and poetry, and the questionable social justice of tipping culture. They interviewed grandmothers, friends, and aunts to track down family recipes and their origins. They profiled cheesemongers, dairy farmers, baristas, beekeepers, chefs, bartenders, wedding planners, mushroom farmers, ice cream makers, bakers, and waitresses, among other food professionals. The students’ writing took us around the world, smelling delicious meats and fried foods offered by street vendors in Quanzhou, China, blowing on hot spoonfuls of a Russian grandmother’s borsch, and sampling the freshest seafood while gazing at a Bruneian water village. We ate the famous crabcakes of Maryland, met the infamous Taylor Ham Roll of New Jersey, and found the best slice of pizza in New Haven, CT.

One class we spent a half hour exploring the Meyer Weinberg collection in the ominous black filing cabinets that encircle the room. Everyone pried open a drawer and we shared with each other what we found, evidence in our hands of the fight for equal education, across America and around the globe. Fittingly, we unearthed early research on the impact of providing breakfast to school children as a way to level the socioeconomic playing field.

I invite writers to improve their writing through the lens of food, and we teach each other about our foods, our challenges and our triumphs, and how different cultures are expressed at the table. Through the communal consumption of food and food writing, we taste different points of view. I ask them to open themselves up to praise and criticism, which goes much better on full stomachs.

Another way this semester was different from any other was how eating was integrated into our learning. In the past, I would provide snacks for the first few classes, then have a non-mandatory snack sign-up. Many students were highly motivated, competitive cooks who wanted to share and impress: a student from Ashfield once brought in raw milk from her family farm; a fraternity brother from Washington, DC, baked a fluffy key lime pie, a family recipe from his immigrant grandparents who, now living in Florida, put the backyard fruit of their adopted homeland to tasty use.

This year, most students were living in campus housing, even the seniors, having missed out on nearly two years of campus life. Access to full kitchens was almost nil. Meanwhile, I had switched the time frame of the course from late afternoon to the lunch block in response to student feedback, envisioning potluck feasts! Instead, at 11 o’clock, 20 minutes before class officially began, students began wandering into the Center looking hungry, in need of home cooking—something different than the nation’s number-one dining, or near-to-campus takeout.

I am not a baker by nature, I’m a home cook who prefers savory to sweet. Despite this, by semester’s end I had baked hundreds of choco bar puffs and just as many of my healthyish chocolate chip cookies. I made dozens of muffins: banana chocolate chip, blueberry coffee cake, banana maple, and corn, plus two dozen mini quiches, three chocolate-matcha cakes, dozens of decorate-your-own sugar cookies on Valentine’s Day,  three violet quiches, one sweet potato cake, three attempts at “Scarborough Fair” focaccia (made with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme), olive tartlets (the lone bomb, in my humble opinion, which I fed to my chickens), gingerbread cake with chocolate ganache, Sweet Potato Tea Cake, and a double batch of Ottolenghi’s spice cookies. We also had a pizza party, attended a cheese tasting, foraged for wild edible greens, and visited the dairy farm owned by a UMass alumna, where the wildly popular chocolate milk in the dining halls hails from.

It seems I needed people to cook for as much as the students needed homemade sustenance.

I am not alone in being an instructor in need of a space where food is welcome and supported. Food is an equalizer, and when it is offered in a space plainly devoted to the rights of all, in my experience, magic can happen. Friendships and kinships and understandings happened. This year’s food writers have pledged to stay connected, and are starting up a supper club for those in the area, and for anyone coming back through.

I hope I will continue to teach in the Center. If so, I found this gem recently, in a letter from W. E. B. to his daughter, Yolande; he writes that the thing “I want to harp upon is your overweight.”  I can just imagine how future students will react to a parent writing such a letter. In the same letter, we learn W. E. B. Du Bois’s dieting secret: “One little method I used when I was getting too fat was to lay off cream and sugar in coffee and bread on weekdays, and then have a mild orgy on Sunday. That sort of left something nice to anticipate.” 

As usual, Du Bois offers advice worth heeding: here’s to mild orgies (of cream and sugar) every Sunday.

—W. E. B. Du Bois to his grand-daughter, Yolande Du Bois Williams, in 1954.

Leave a Reply