by Michaela Dwyer
Department of American Studies
Cast on new ground
Must first perceive
That it knows nothing.”
—Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
My spring semester began with Octavia Butler, and with a series of then-unanswerable questions: How do we forecast food futures? Who can access survival? What tastes like home? As a Graduate Research Consultant in Dr. Michelle Robinson’s Literary Approaches to American Studies course (AMST 201), I collaborated with Dr. Robinson to situate Butler’s novel—a core text for the course—as a way for undergraduate students to think creatively and experimentally about food. The dystopian text—set in a near-future America where apocalypse seems both imminent and already underway—asks variations on the questions Dr. Robinson and I identified. Faced with limited possibilities for self-sustenance, Butler’s teenage narrator strikes out in search of fertile land to plant “Earthseed,” a self-created religion (and, later, a community). She writes in diaristic missives, recounting her travails and listing changes to her survival kit.
Dr. Robinson and I used this idea of the “survival kit” as a way for students to investigate the values they attach to food, place, and community—especially in the face of a precarious environmental future. We applied for and received a UNC Food for All Micro Grant for the course; this grant enabled us to prepare a “speculative food tradeshow” for the students. The tradeshow included around 30 food samples and food accessories deemed appropriate (by health gurus, apocalypse survival advocates, etc.) for survival scenarios such as those fictionalized in Parable of the Sower. Students immersed themselves by testing instant dinners, energy chews, and protein powder. All throughout, they were on a mission: to identify the object that most accorded with their own “recipe” for survival.
This food object became the kernel for the students’ “speculative food writing” project. Pedagogically, I built on Dr. Robinson’s previous discussions of speculative fiction to ask the students what speculative food writing might look like. Taken at face value, “speculative” signals an orientation toward the unknown, and to the imaginable. As a GRC, I tried to model this approach for the students. I developed a lecture/workshop on speculative food writing using an essay of my own (“Southern Maps,” written for Dr. Bernie Herman’s Writing Material Culture course, another American Studies offering) as well as my background in nonfiction writing. I distilled a set of possibilities for a “speculative” approach to writing about food objects that borrowed from documentary writing pedagogy (i.e., turn outward into the world and displace oneself from the familiar; write as a way to make things legible but also as a way to allow for multiple interpretations; consider your positionality as a writer.) Students drew out these themes in their own essays, which you can read (in addition to more information about this course and project) at www.seedsofsurvival.web.unc.edu.
This course project encouraged students to adopt a flexible, creative, and imaginative approach to humanities research. It proposed research as, quite literally, a form of doing. Preparing material in consultation with Dr. Robinson in turn required me to expand the bounds of my own research philosophy and methods. I left this course hungry (no pun intended) for more opportunities to embark on tactile and embodied forms of intellectual exploration.