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Bridging culture and curriculum: Dr. Christy Shields’ innovative work on food offers opportunities for experiential learning


Professor Dr. Christy Shields

Renowned anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said that food is not just good to eat; food is also good to think. Associate Professor of Anthropology Dr. Christy Shields, who helms a burgeoning interest in food studies at AUP, couldn’t agree more.

“You can explore nearly any topic through food, especially in a place like Paris, where you can have embodied experiences,” Shields says. She knows from experience. Shields, a cultural anthropologist, has lived, worked, and studied in Paris for many years. Her research focuses on food, identity, and the senses, principally in France and the United States, and she has conducted many cross-national studies to examine the dynamic between them.

A study trip abroad during college ignited Shields's interest in food and cultural intersections. During her junior year at Northwestern University, she spent a formative year studying abroad in the Jura, a region in the east of France, along the Swiss border, renowned for its cheese and wine. There, she discovered not just a different food production system, but a way of life based on local foods, taste, and community. 

No food product represents this gastronomic ecosystem more than Comté cheese. A cooked and pressed cow’s milk cheese, Comté is an artisanal product firmly grounded in a shared belief of terroir, which, in Comté, translates into a diversity of tastes born from the relationships between environmental conditions and the practices and traditions of producers. Comté is also a civic institution. Locals buy their cheese from local fruitières, or cheese-making dairies, cooperatively owned and operated by producers. These institutions traditionally stand alongside other community hubs such as town halls and churches in village centers, and are at the heart of Comté's strong solidarity system, that has protected its farmers from market pressure. Thanks to such solidarity, Comté farmers remain among the best paid dairy farmers in France.

All this makes Comté a ripe tool for learning. Shields has studied this system extensively and shared her expertise with AUP for many years. In 2010, in partnership with sensory educator Claire Perrot, she developed the award-winning Comté Practicum, a graduate study trip in the Jura using ethnographic and sensory methodologies to explore taste and terroir with Comté cheese producers. Shields’ courses also integrate food-related ethnographic films, case studies, and civic projects, such as working with a 6th-grade class in Paris to explore vivre ensemble (living together) through film and food and produce a documentary. Now, in partnership with Associate Professor Elizabeth Kinné, she is considering formalizing these elements into a minor in Food and Wine Studies.

For Shields three key pillars form the base for such a program. The first is an ethical grounding, with the aim of creating a Franco-American dialogue. “Food studies at AUP need to be enriched by a sustained encounter with the literature and studies going on in France. The French and Americans have a complex relationship. I don't think we can ethically have food studies in Paris without including the French,” she says.  Though France’s culinary heritage remains prominent, the program will incorporate an international lens. Shields says, “We are long past the days where France is the sole mecca of food. And France itself is extremely global.” AUP’s diverse student body, she notes, brings an inherently global perspective, and food studies also surface naturally in other AUP cultural programs including trips to India, Iceland, and Morocco.

Food is changing all the time. You have to start exploring –maybe what you’re going to do isn’t being done yet.

Dr. Christy Shields Associate Professor of Global Communications

Another component –integral to studying at AUP– is experiential learning. For Shields, this starts with multisensorial experiences of taste, or “listening to the cheese:” “You need to know enough about the way that it's produced in the region to understand the language being spoken through its sensory characteristics.” Tasting often ignites curiosity. “For me, learning always begins with surprise. Students arrive thinking, great! We're going to eat a lot of cheese, and they're thinking about it at a surface level. But when you start showing them all the depth, it sets off that spark.” 

The third pillar is change–working towards sustainability in the agro-industrial system. In recent years, social scientists have moved beyond critiquing food systems to integrating a focus on solutions. “People are thinking about transformation. Students want to be involved and food studies at AUP should be in engaged in such processes. As an international institution in France, we're positioned in a sort of liminal space that can encourage innovated thinking and contribute to change.”

Ultimately, for Shields, food studies at AUP needs to be built upon community. “If you have community, you can have vulnerable conversations,” she says, and cites an example from a recent event with AUP alumni working in the food industry. At the end of the evening, a student shared his dream of opening a restaurant, but said he struggled to envision unique value in a world of culinary sameness. Shields says, “food is changing all the time. You have to start exploring –maybe what you’re going to do isn’t being done yet.” The best way to have these conversations is with everyone at the table.