“That Book Changed My Life.”

This pronouncement was delivered by a graduating student about Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland after she read it in my Anthropology of Food class last year. A searing indictment of the tomato industry in Florida, this slim, evocative book had a powerful effect on the students in that class. As I taught it again earlier this semester, I was once more struck by the way students were moved and motivated by this account of horrifying human rights violations and environmental destruction in their own backyard.

A lot of attention is rightly paid to what happens in the classroom, but as teachers, one of our first and most significant tasks is creating a syllabus. Of course, the presentation and discussion of the material in class is critical, but first we have to decide what we are going to ask students to read.  This is a powerful position; while I can think of dozens of reading suggestions I have made to friends or family members that have been ignored or deferred, my students (almost always) read what I ask them to.  Part of our role as instructors is to curate students’ initial exposure to knowledge and information, and there are always difficult choices about what to include and exclude.  Ideally, students become so inspired by class reading that they track down more information on their own, and at my institution we build that option into the curriculum in the form of individualized tutorials, independent studies, and senior theses. However, even in an environment that heavily emphasizes independent scholarship, the vast majority of subjects are only covered in class and through assigned reading. The pressure to include what is important, and to do so in a balanced way, is intense.

Tomatoes on the vine. Photo courtesy wikicommons
Tomatoes on the vine. Photo courtesy wikicommons

While I see merits in every reading I assign, Estabrook’s book is one of a handful I have taught in the past few years that have been unusually successful in stimulating student interest and driving meaningful discussion and critique. (I could unfortunately devote another column to those choices that fell painfully flat.) Estabrook is not an anthropologist; he is a food journalist. He does not draw on theory, anthropological or otherwise. He includes extensive ethnographic detail in the book and clearly did targeted interviews, but there is no discussion of methodology and little reflexivity. Anthropology students have a lot to critique in Tomatoland, but there is no mistaking the effect the book has on them.

In part this is because the story he tells is riveting. It includes unconscionable pesticide exposure leading to devastating birth defects, “modern day slavery” conditions for our nation’s agricultural labor force, and the regulatory morass created by the excessive influence of the agricultural industry in Florida. Even without explicit theoretical context, this extended case study vividly illustrates the costs of the industrial food system and the consequences of a global capitalism reliant on cheap and expendable labor.  This is also a local story for my students.  The tomato fields in question are a short trip from our campus in south Florida. When Estabrook discusses pesticide pollution, it is their air and water being affected.

But, clearly this book also compels my students because it suggests the potential for positive change and demonstrates that they can be part of it. Like all anthropologists, I cover many issues of injustice and oppression in my classes, and the danger in continually focusing on the structural causes of inequality is in making students feel helpless and hopeless. In the case of Florida farmworkers, however, grassroots activism is actually making a tangible difference. The Coalition of Immokolee Workers (CIW) is a farmworker organization from Immokolee, FL, which has been remarkably effective at stimulating change in the tomato industry, most notably through their Fair Food Program. Like most college campuses, we have a chapter of the Student/Farmworker Alliance who works with CIW to coordinate student activism in partnership with farmworkers. Just weeks after my class read Tomatoland, they had the opportunity to participate in a protest against Publix, a Florida supermarket chain that has stubbornly resisted joining the Fair Food Program. In short, the book changed students’ lives because it showed change was possible.

Certainly, relevance and accessibility are important for a “life changing” book. But, my students aren’t afraid of complexity and they aren’t alienated by ambiguity. They like theory, too, and the most negative critique they had of Tomatoland was its lack of theoretical discussion. For the most part, they accept the challenge of reading tough material, and they understand there is value in reading perspectives they do not agree with and in considering the implications of those differences in opinion. However, they resist work marked by excessive rhetoric, jargon for the sake of jargon. They are skeptical of navel gazing, vigorously protesting when reflexivity shades into narcissism, and they tend to reject prose and subject matter that is too self-referential. Successful class readings are most often those which balance critique and provocation with vivid ethnographic detail.

Crafting a syllabus is both an art and a science. Individual texts become more meaningful when they are positioned appropriately in the semester, when the context of the class or the confluence of local and global events imbues them with significance. But there is also the magic that happens when we providentially bring the right book to the right student at the right time. As scholars, we know books can change lives because it happens to us all of the time. As teachers, we know that a dramatic shift in a student’s worldview may be just one life changing book away.

Erin Dean is an associate professor at the New College of Florida. She is an environmental anthropologist whose research focuses on conservation and development in Tanzania and Zanzibar. She situates her anthropological work within the interdisciplinary subfield of political ecology, and she is particularly interested in how control of land and resources is negotiated and ordered based on gender, age, ethnicity, class, political affiliation, and institutional status.

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