Faculty Interview – Blending Food History with Monica Perales and Todd Romero

Taking Photo of Food with Phone

This Fall Monica Perales and Todd Romero, associate professors in the UH Department of History, are co-teaching a blended course on food history. Passionate about their subject and exploring new ways to reach their students, I caught up with them to ask what this course looks like, what challenges they have faced, and how they solved them. Below is an edited transcript of our exchange.

Taylor Fayle (TF): Why was America Eats: An Introduction to Food History a good candidate for
a blended course?

Monica Perales (MP): We thought America Eats would make a great blended course because it is the kind of topic that lends itself to a lot of creative and active learning activities. You can certainly read about the development of the American food system, but food is something that we experience with all of our senses, so why not bring some of that to the course? We also felt that Houston is such a great laboratory for examining a wide range of processes related to food — it is an international city that is home to many vibrant cuisines, it is an important transportation hub — which provides students the opportunity to think about how the historical issues we are discussing in class are alive in their own city and communities today. They can read about, say, how immigrants in the 19th century adapted their foodways and customs in New York City, and can then examine how 21st century immigrant communities in Houston transform the food landscape in their own city.

TF: Given the experimental and creative aspects of the course that you identified, what changes have you noticed in your roles as instructors in the blended environment?

Todd Romero (TR): I think we have found that the blended or flipped classroom demands that you deemphasize some of the most performative aspects of the traditional classroom like lecturing. Instead, we double-down on crafting creative and thoughtful active learning exercises that dovetail with the online portion of the course. I suspect we spend far more time working preparing for the classroom than one would for a carefully crafted lecture. You also have to figure out how to facilitate student group work and develop assignments that teach key competencies (research, analysis, writing, and presentation). Blended instruction has also led us to experiment with new kinds of student work, at least for most historians, such as ethnographies, digital stories, creative performances, and the like. For me, this has meant that it sometimes feels like I am ceding some of my control over how the students engage the material. I no longer get to play the “Sage-on-the-stage” that often, a role, it turns out, I enjoyed a great deal more than I realized given my initial discomfort with the flipped or blended classroom.

we double-down on crafting creative and thoughtful active learning exercises that dovetail with the online portion of the course

TF: How do you make sure that the online portion of the work aligns with the
in-class activities? Or, how do you ensure that your students make the
connection between the work they do online and the work they do in class?

MP: Aligning the online and face-to-face course activities has admittedly been one of the biggest challenges in creating a successful blended course. The short answer is a lot of experimentation. One of the things that I think has worked really well is developing tightly organized modules where the reading and podcast material serves as a basis for out-of-class and in-class assignments that are closely linked. For example, one of our recent assignments was to consider food chains — what are the various paths that bring the foods we eat to our table. So students watched a podcast on historical shifts in transportation and food production in the 19th century and read a great piece on a group of students in San Francisco who investigated how many miles the ingredients in a simple food truck taco had traveled to make it to their plate outside of class. In class, students worked in groups to investigate an assigned “dish” — they examined company websites, called local restaurants and suppliers. Then after, each student wrote an individual report and groups presented their findings in class the following week. Connecting the various components — the research, understanding historical context, writing, presentation — made it clear how what happens online is directly relevant to what we do in class, which is deeply integral to our class learning objectives. We have had to experiment with finding the right assignments that allow for this building block approach, and figuring out the right blend of work. Sometimes this means adding or subtracting online material, or simplifying an overly ambitious exercise to get that right level of “connectedness.”

Embracing the uncertainty has been a challenge for me, but this has also been one of the more rewarding aspects of doing a blended course

TR: I’m with Monica on this issue: trying to keep the online and face-to-face elements of the class tightly connected has been the single greatest challenge of the class. Students sometimes try to strategically neglect one of the elements–especially the online material–but it really hurts their performance in class and the semester grade. We are slowly testing different kinds of assignments and work over time, and the Food Chain assignment is one of our most successful efforts to date but the class remains a work-in-progress.

TF: So it sounds like you need to be very intentional with the sequencing of each module. Overall, how have your students reacted to the structure of the course?

MP: The reaction from the students has been mixed. Some have adapted quite easily to the pace and format of the class. There are others who have trouble understanding the nature of a hybrid course — that there is both an online and a face-to-face component, and that both are required. There is a false assumption that we constantly work against that online is less work or is somehow “easier” than a regular class. The ones who seem to struggle are often those who wait until the last minute to engage with the week’s module, and realize too late that there are layered assignments that do take time and effort to complete. However, I don’t think that this is particular to blended classes — many students still wait until the night before to do the reading in a more conventional course, too! I think, though, that given how conversant students today are with online platforms, it seems that students really embrace the online content which mixes reading with video and audio podcasts. It keeps things a little more fresh and engaging. And as more faculty experiment with this kind of course, the more we can continue to raise the bar in terms of what we offer and can expect.

as more faculty experiment with this kind of course, the more we can continue to raise the bar in terms of what we offer and can expect

TF: Speaking of getting more faculty on board, what advice would you give to those who would like to experiment with a blended course for the first time?

MP: My advice would be to embrace experimentation and flexibility. As with any class, it takes time to make sure all the pieces are working together, but in a blended class, there are more moving parts. Experimenting with content and assignments is critical — assignments and course materials that work in a traditional class setting may not work in a blended setting. Embracing the uncertainty has been a challenge for me, but this has also been one of the more rewarding aspects of doing a blended course. I feel like the format has allowed me to be more creative in planning assignments and learning activities and I want to bring some of these assignments into my traditional format classes too.

TR: I’d advise faculty interested in blended learning to start small with a single class or week, and be ready to recalibrate and tinker with assignments that don’t work as initially planned. Some of the best material we’ve had this year has arrived from small adjustments to work that fell a little flat last year. Collaborating on a course has also been incredibly rewarding for me in two ways. On the one hand, I’ve become more mindful of my classroom strengths and, sadly, weaknesses because you have to explain your premises and approach when co-teaching a class–a good thing. On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed seeing what values Monica brings to the classroom and have learned a great deal in the balance.

TF: Thank you both for your time and for sharing your insights.

Are you teaching a blended or flipped course or innovating in the classroom and want to share your experience? If so, reach out to me at tmfayle@uh.edu.

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