By: Sarah Nicholas
STARKVILLE, Miss.— Mississippi State associate professor of English Jervette R. Ward appeals to all senses in her graduate level course, EN 8583: Food and Identity in Literature, a course where students link literature and food in unique ways.
As a final project for Ward’s 2019 spring course, eight graduate students organized a community event benefitting the Mississippi Food Network, using insights they gleaned from literature to connect Southern food with social issues.
“The Starkville Table of Culinary Justice: Investigating the Southern Plate,” was held May 1 at The Fellowship Place and catered by The Little Dooey.
Approximately 50 tickets at $50 per ticket were sold. The proceeds are helping provide nourishment for local citizens via the Mississippi Food Network, an affiliate of Feeding America focused on feeding Mississippians.
“Community-based and service learning is important to me,” Ward said. “One of the major takeaways for many of the students was how food and food access is tied to power and privilege.”
Ward said throughout her class they discussed access to food and food scarcity and why access to healthy and tasty food should not be a privilege but rather a right.
“I want students to leave my classroom not only having learned about culture, language, and literature, but I also want them to be inspired to serve and to give back to our larger community,” Ward said.
Samuel G. Kealhofer, a graduate student in Ward’s class, said students planned the entire event, from food and location to sales and scheduling.
“The night was a big success and the presentations demonstrated the pivotal role food plays in history and society,” Kealhofer said, noting presentations topics included fruit and sexuality, agency and cookbooks, southern cuisine and appropriation, soul food and “making do,” and sweet tea as a tool of oppression.
“The class took a critical lens to American literature and examined how food is often used in literature and real life to convey social status, power, and wealth, family and community,” Kealhofer said. “The class offered a unique perspective and connected food to larger cultural concerns such as social and economic justice and cultural appropriation.”
Ward said, “Through food and literature, we are able to learn about our own identities and cultures, and we are able to explore the identities and cultures of those not like ourselves. Food may be considered a necessity, and literature may be considered a luxury; however, the combination of the two can be viewed as a worthy indulgence.”
Originally scheduled to teach her course in Alaska, once she relocated to Mississippi, Ward said she was “even more excited about the opportunity to engage in this area of research and teaching back home in an area that is known for its food.”
“This semester I had a brilliant group of English graduate students who eagerly explored literary theory, civil rights, colonialism, and Southern Black identity,” Ward said. “All of these topics have intrigued me because they are major societal issues that one would not always think to view or address through the lens of food. Yet, each week we read and discussed various texts that explored all of these issues. We also ate each class period, so attendance was never an issue!”
Dan Punday, professor and head of the English department, said Ward’s class is a combination of public scholarship and fund-raising, and “tells a good story about how academic research can engage with the community in very concrete ways.”
“From my point of view, this class is a wonderful example of public humanities that connects sophisticated graduate-level research in food culture and writing to the broader Starkville community,” Punday said. “The event prompted a lively discussion of the community’s personal experiences with food, informed by the graduate students’ research. The fact that the event also benefited local food organizations shows that much more commitment to connecting the university with the community.”
Ward received her Ph.D. from the University of Memphis in literary and cultural studies in 2011. She is the editor of a 2015 Rutgers University Press publication, “Real Sister: Stereotypes, Respectability, and Black Women in Reality TV.”
Ward has served as president of the Anchorage Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Inc., one of the oldest Black service organizations in the country. Her research and teaching areas focus on American literature with an emphasis in African American women’s literature. Ward is a life-time member of the College Language Association (CLA) where she serves as the English area representative on the executive committee. She also is a member of the executive committee of the Modern Language Association (MLA) Languages, Literatures, and Cultures African American Forum.
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