Learning by doing: the UNISG experience

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UNISG Masters students get ready to visit a pig farm near Parma

To an anthropologist it makes perfect sense that one of the best ways to learn is to go out into the field to experience life first-hand. Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, certainly understood the power of experiential learning when he set up the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Besides being the first truly interdisciplinary university with a focus on food studies, the thing that sets UNISG apart is the emphasis placed on hands-on learning. ‘Stages’ are an integral part of both the graduate and undergraduate programs (the French term ‘stage’ can be translated as an apprenticeship). At UNISG, stages vary in length from three to ten days. Although much briefer than traditional anthropological field schools, UNISG students travel to various parts of Italy and throughout the world (Australia, Kenya and Japan are just a few destinations) to better understand food production and culture all over the globe. Petrini’s goal is to give these young gastronomes a better understanding of the diversity and challenges faced when it comes to food not only at home but all over the world today.

I have to admit I had not fully understood or appreciated the concept of the ‘stages’ until I attended two days of the cured meat stage with the Masters students last week. The smell of the pig farm and the cool humidity of the culatello cellars are strong sensory experiences that I will never forget. Using all of the senses to learn certainly makes sense when studying food. Although this type of learning does require a great deal of travel, it is a truly indispensable experience because somethings cannot be learned from books alone.

This new little university struggles at times to find a balance between traditional academic approaches and a new experiential model of student-based learning. However, this project shows incredible potential and will perhaps lead the way for new ways of thinking about food from production to consumption. Learning by doing and experience is what really sets the University of Gastronomic Sciences apart.

Garbology in the Langhe

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I often think about garbage (literally I mean garbage) and so do many anthropologists and archaeologists. There is even a name for studying waste: garbology. I heard a paper at the last American Anthropological Association meeting on a study that looked at garbage from a school cafeteria to get a better idea of what kids were really eating. It was very interesting and this is a popular research technique for studying eating habits and nutrition. However, I thought about taking this idea to the street.

This morning I woke up to beautiful blue skies and a stunning, rare view of the Alps. It was the ideal day for a good long run. The air was crisp, the road a little slippery in the shade but there were just miles of rolling hills in front of me waiting to be explored. I head out towards Salicetto and hung a right at Pocopaglia and as I headed back to Bra the long way my eyes began to study the roadside. I was astounded at the amount of garbage. This isn’t Naples but it makes me angry to think people just throw things out of the windows of their cars into this otherwise lovely landscape.

So what did I find? First of all, lots of empty cigarette packs. The analysis of this one was a no brainer: it seems obvious that smokers do not respect their bodies so it is unlikely they are going to be very sensitive to the environment around them. Secondly, there were scads of plastic water bottles. As you may know, Italians are the largest consumers in the world of bottled water (despite the fact there is excellent tap water here). So what are they thinking throwing this totally unbiodegradeable garbage on the side of the road? I have been reflecting on this one for awhile. Perhaps this littering has something to do with having very little civic sense and no vested interest in common spaces. I have noticed that urban parks in Italy are often full of litter and largely unusable because of their toxic nature. The nastiness of parks stands in sharp contrast to carefully kept private yards that are surrounded by 12-foot high fences and patrolled by angry German Shepards. The home and the private sphere are the scared sanctuary of the family, while the public sphere is where everyone just tries to survive even if that means destroying common property and space. What happened to community and civic pride? Love thy neighbour?

Plastic bottles on the road side out in the middle of ‘nature’ are just a small symbol of a more toxic and bigger issue that has to do with a sever “tragedy of the commons” that is endemic throughout Italy. Not only is there no sense that public spaces belong to everyone rather than belonging to no one, the rampant and senseless consumption of bottled water turns water, an essential necessity for human life, into a commodity. This is potentially very dangerous.

Old Spandex

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Why do all male runners in Italy wear totally outdated spandex running gear? This is the question I asked myself as I circled the park near my house in Bra, Italy. It’s as if the technology of microfibre and and the calming effect of mellow colours has not reached this crazy country. Surprisingly not at all attractive for a country known for fashion.

It was a crisp morning after an unusual snowfall but I decided to go for a run because the road was clear and I was dying to get a few kilometers in for my mind as much as for my body. New shoes, black running tights, a microfibre shirt layered with a breathable grey windbreaker jacket and a grey running cap to seal the deal, I was off and running. Unexpectedly, there were quite a few runners in ‘my’ park this morning. I usually get out there earlier but I was lacking in motivation something terrible this morning. I guess most Italian men suffer from the same lazy affliction: the park was full of men running. They go around and around the asphalt track that weaves along the outside of the park–how boring! I do one lap as a warm up and then head out on the road. To me the purpose of running is seeing something, going somewhere and getting lost (it makes the run longer and more spontaneous). However, as I did my warm up lap around the park, I couldn’t help but notice the old school running gear. Favoured coulours included sunshine yellow, tomato red, and Mediterranean blue with contrasts of white and black. Wow! It certainly brightened up my run:) Of course, there were no women, because women don’t seem to sweat in Italy.