By Scott O’Connell ~Telegram & Gazette Staff
LEICESTER – After a brief tour of the crops, students in the College of the Holy Cross “Food and Power” summer course soon realized what a good portion of their field trip to Cotyledon Farm on Tuesday would entail: good old-fashioned labor.
Separated into groups, the 16 students, many of whom are athletes at the school, were assigned either weeding or rock-removing duties – just two of the myriad tasks it takes to operate the farm.
“It’s hard work. It’s sort of a ‘grow your own vegetables’ character-growing experience,” said history professor Christopher Staysniak, who teaches the class.
Mr. Staysniak, who also taught a more traditional version of the course last fall, said the summer edition, which has incorporated multiple field trips and visiting presenters, is intended to explore the complex network of modes of production, people, and politics that result in food being virtually instantly available to people like his students.
“I don’t really have any background in it. But I’m a big fan of experiential learning, and I thought food lends itself to that,” he said.
The class, which wraps up next week after running three times a week since June 4, is part of an elective summer academic session the college piloted last year. There were seven courses offered this summer in all, according to Holy Cross’s website, covering topics including terrorism, the psychology of adolescence, and environmental chemistry.
While the college’s administration has not officially decided whether to continue the summer session after this year, the program’s director, Ronald Jarret, said he thinks “people are moving ahead as though it will be.”
“It seems to be a win-win. The faculty seem to be enjoying the opportunity, and students seem to be doing well and it enjoying it as well,” he said.
Students in Mr. Staysniak’s class were appreciative of the option to take a course over the summer, even as they wiped sweat from their brows after toiling under the sun at Cotyledon Farm.
“If I weren’t in a class, I’d be resting all day,” said Miles Alexander, a junior on the Crusaders football team, who added that the credit-bearing course is also a convenient alternative for athletes if they’re unable to pack in enough classes during their season.
Sophomore Renée LeBlanc, a volleyball player at the college, said even Tuesday’s expedition, weeding and all, wasn’t a bad way to spend the morning.
“I don’t mind it at all,” she said during a break in the shade. “It’s nice to be outside.”
“The main benefit (of the summer classes) is the students are just not so stressed out” like they might be during the regular academic year, said Mr. Staysniak. “Here we can really sit with the material and take our time with it. They offer a really rich learning experience in that sense.”
Tuesday’s class, for instance, was intended in part to show students the smallest end of the food production spectrum, or as Cotyledon Farm manager Amanda Barker put it, “give them a sense of the scale of something opposite to industrialized agriculture.”
While Cotyledon’s farm share program, which takes up a 1-acre plot off Henshaw Street, has “multiple objectives,” according to Ms. Barker – not the least of which is becoming sustainable – probably “the most important part of it” is its emphasis on labor and building relationships, she said. It’s a lesson also rooted in Mr. Staysniak’s curriculum for the course, which among other aspects of food production also looks at the disparity in power people have along the chain of delivery, from the migrants employed to work at large farms to the poor people living in “food deserts” who have limited access to fresh meat and produce.
“We don’t necessarily think what the background of (our) food is,” he said, explaining that a key goal of the course is to get students to think about where their food comes from, and who is providing it.
Students said they found the class illuminating.
“I really liked it,” Ms. LeBlanc said. “I feel like I learned a lot.”