Thursday, May 8, 2014

Obermann Co-sponsors Next Year's "Food for Thought" - First University of Iowa Theme Semester 

It began with a small group of people and a big idea: rallying academic, arts, and community events around a common theme, connecting people and programs in original ways.

Over the last few months, that idea has taken root. Next spring, it’ll bear fruit with a collection of initiatives under the banner “Food for Thought.”

The University of Iowa’s first theme semester will highlight perspectives on food—the traditions it inspires, its relationship with health, the economics behind its production, and much more.

“We wanted to start from a topic of broad interest,” says Teresa Mangum, director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. “Food is universally important, but it’s also especially significant for an agricultural state like ours.”

Mangum developed the original pitch for a theme semester with Linda Snetselaar, associate provost for outreach and engagement, and Chuck Swanson, director of the university’s Hancher performing arts program. Doris Witt, associate professor of English, joined the team to coordinate academic activities.

“This is a grassroots, multi-disciplinary project,” Witt says. “We hope everyone across campus will join the conversation to share ideas and get involved in planning activities and events.”

Fall appetizers

The theme semester itself—the “entrée,” as organizers put it—is spring 2015. But “appetizer” events will take place throughout the fall.

Food will be a focus for the Iowa City Book Festival Oct. 2-5, sponsored by Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature. Other fall anchor events may include the launch of a community recipe collection project highlighting cultural traditions and running through the spring.

Organizers have drawn inspiration from similar initiatives on other campuses, including the University of Michigan, site of a theme semester program that dates from 1980. Starting out, they’re integrating events and courses already on the calendar.

A theme semester website currently in development will offer a guide to food-related classes for fall and spring, from nutrition courses to Witt’s own class, "Writers on Food." Academic connections are central to the overall project.

“It’s eye-opening to see all the existing courses that touch on topics related to food,” Witt says. “The theme semester aims to tie them together and provide experiences that complement what students are discovering in class.”

Main course

Come spring, museum exhibits, scholarly symposiums, original performances, and big-name speakers will fill the menu.

In February, the Szathmary Symposium will highlight culinary manuscripts, cookbooks, and other food-related works, drawing inspiration from thecollection that late chef Louis Szathmary donated to the UI Libraries.

In April, Hancher will premiere its latest commission from Working Group Theatre, titled AllRecipes Are Home. First proposed early this year, the play inspired the theme semester’s emphasis on food.

“Plans for the play actually steered us toward our topic,” says Hancher director Swanson. “The play's focus on the role of food in family, tradition, and community convinced us this would be a great theme-semester subject.”

After opening in Iowa City, the play will tour Iowa communities, one of several events that will take the theme semester statewide.

“This isn’t just a campus initiative—it’s an Iowa initiative,” says Snetselaar, whose office builds relationships with communities across the state. “It’s an opportunity to show how much the university is shaped by Iowa culture, and how much it responds to our state’s needs.”

UI expertise in the health sciences will help drive the theme semester. Campus partners include the Carver College of Medicine's Obesity Research and Educational Initiative and the College of Public Health's Nutrition Center.

Snetselaar and colleagues are already looking ahead to a second UI theme semester, collecting potential topics and enlisting more campus and community partners. They say the experience to date has changed their view of the university.

“It’s been an incredible chance to learn and to discover so many shared interests,” Witt says. “In part, that’s why we selected this topic—it unites us in so many ways, but also shows the places where we differ.”

~Lin Larson