Journalism students eat up food course
December 12, 2011
For Katie Burke, a junior journalism major, reading the food section in the newspaper is something she looks forward to every week, so when she heard that the Department of Communication was offering a food writing course, she jumped on the chance to sign up. “Having the opportunity to work with who produces them and developing skills to learn about food writing was the selling point,” she said.
Now, at the closing of the quarter, Burke is happy that she took on the challenge. With Artist In Residence and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Usha Lee McFarling, as the instructor, students have taken on numerous assignments, each with a unique focus. “From writing about changing taste buds, to doing an in-depth feature on a gardener,” Burke said.
McFarling said that while the course generally concerns the subject of food, food touches on so many external topics, which really helps the students develop their abilities with many forms of writing. “They’re doing profiles, but they just happen to be profiles of community gardeners. They’re looking at ethnic and cultural diversity, but they’re doing it by looking at immigrant store and restaurant owners,” said McFarling. “They’re really getting many basic feature writing skills.”
The students have also examined environmental issues surrounding food waste and explored inequity and poverty with stories on food banks. McFarling points out that “the topic is food but it runs through every aspect of life.”
In the past decade, food writing has become increasingly popular, McFarling said, which was one of the reasons she thought that such a course would be interesting to students. From weekly sections in the newspaper to food blogs (like Emeraldbites, written by Communication students Alana Garcia and Melissa Ferrer), it’s become apparent that writing about food can become a legitimate career.
McFarling invited a handful of professionals who have made it as food writers to speak to the class, such as Molly Wizenberg, creator of the Orangette food blog, and Nancy Leson (BA, 1992), food writer for The Seattle Times. Along with showing students that they can be passionate about their jobs, the visits encourage them to sharpen their skills for their assignments.
“Usha put a lot of work into getting guest speakers to come in, and they have been incredible and have made the assignments we get a lot more interesting,” Burke said. “It also gives us the chance to work on our interviewing skills and how we handle sources.”
While there are students in the course who are extremely interested in trying their hand in a career in food writing, McFarling found that many students were interested in gaining more skills as a journalism major, and the topic of food writing gave them a new angle with which to experiment.
“I have students who really just wanted to take advanced writing,” McFarling said. “I have one student who said, ‘I really don’t like food. I’m a picky eater. I think I’m going to have a hard time in this class.’ Of course, she’s doing great because she’s such a good journalist! You don’t have to love your topic to write well about it.”
Mary Jean Spadafora, a senior journalism and political science major, is one of those students. Although she’s found some assignments difficult, she said she’s learned a lot about feature writing. “I’m not a big foodie, and so the articles that aren’t as newsy, like reviews and anecdotal stuff, have been hard for me,” she said. “I like concrete information, but I think I’ve found a meticulous way that I can fit fluffier details into my story to fit my writing style.”
McFarling said that teaching the course has been a lot of fun. She enjoys helping her students identify interesting angles for stories and teaching them how to ask the questions readers want to hear the answers to. “I’m really trying to make them entrepreneurial and creative, and think of ideas. Not just passively taking information and state the bland facts, but to go out and make a story,” she said. “Make someone who would never think about reading an article on food garbage go, ‘Oh, wow! I didn’t know that!’”
The students have learned a lot about feature writing, and McFarling said the quality of work coming from the COM 467 students has been impressive. “There’s really publication-worthy stories coming out of this.” With that in mind, McFarling set up a partnership that would give the students’ work greater visibility.
The Picardo Farm P-patch is one of Seattle’s community gardens. A gardener in the community herself, McFarling spoke to the leaders about working together. “They had a Facebook page and a website, but they didn’t have a lot of content on it. So I said, ‘What if my students each picked a different gardener and wrote a short profile on them with photos, and this would be a collection that you could post to the Facebook page of the garden, or put on the city’s website?’” The P-Patch leaders immediately agreed that it was a win-win situation. The students’ work will be posted to the P-Patch websites starting in January.
With the success of the introduction of the food writing course, McFarling says it could very well become a staple in the course cycle for journalism students. In fact, the topic of food studies has the possibility of becoming its own undergraduate major at UW in the next few years. McFarling said, “I realized I inadvertently was riding on a trend,” as the UW Department of Public Health called together representatives from a number of departments on campus to talk about this possibility.
“The minute I heard about it I thought, ‘That’s perfect,’ because you can combine the nutrition, the science, and they want to combine cooking classes,” McFarling said. “I advocated that Communication should be a part of it, whether it’s writing restaurant reviews, or teaching people about what’s good nutrition.”
Whether it’s focused on food, or another “cool journalism” topic, McFarling looks forward to instructing this feature writing course again. “Once you know that skill, you can go on and write about anything,” she said. Reflecting on what she’s learned, Burke said, “This class has helped broaden my writing skills and definitely increased my interest in feature writing as a future career.”