Every college campus is brimming with hungry students who are on social media. But The University of Tulsa is special for how Emily Contois and Zenia Kish, both assistant professors in media studies, are breaking new ground in the study of food and media.
Media studies is often perceived through a narrow lens, but not at TU. “We think about media studies at The University of Tulsa in a really broad, transformative way. That media are all the things that connect humanity together. All of us in the department do very different sorts of research, but we’re united in thinking about how these forms connect us,” Contois said.
Many researchers explore food and how it brings societies together. Contois, however, takes a different approach: “I’ve always been interested in how food shows us our anxieties, tensions, contradictions and paradoxes. Food has been a way for me to understand my own identity and a tool to understand American identity.”
Though this is only her second-year teaching at TU, Contois has been researching food and media studies for 15 years. “The subjects are constantly changing and are deeply interdisciplinary fields. They are always bringing these new, disparate ideas together. I never get bored,” she said.
Contois began studying food as an undergraduate for her honors thesis on the language of the dieting industry. Her investigation into food and media studies continues today in two new books she is writing and a course she is teaching this fall at TU.
Diners, Dudes & Diets: Gender and Power in U.S. Food Culture and Media
“I’m looking at a moment of gender crisis at the turn of the millennium. It’s in this moment that food TV, cookbooks and commercial weight loss programs all try to target men, sometimes for the first time,” Contois said.
She argues in her forthcoming book, Diners, Dudes & Diets: Gender and Power in U.S. Food Culture and Media, that men are targeted through the concept of “the dude.” “The dude” is a form of masculinity that celebrates being a slacker, not an overachiever. This creates a safe pathway into food culture, which has historically been feminized.
You Are What You Post: Food and Instagram
Contois and Kish are also co-editing and contributing to the edited volume, You Are What You Post: Food and Instagram. The book explores how Instagram shapes, reflects and changes our food culture. The volume has 18 chapters from contributors around the world who are thinking critically about what Instagram means for identity and the food system.
“As media scholars, we study not just the media that we personally like to use, but what is socially significant. It was the same with Instagram for me,” Kish said. She did not use Instagram much personally or understand why it had become such a popular platform before co-editing the book. “The more I learn about how socially significant Instagram is, the more fascinated I became,” Kish said. She points out that public places like museums are being remodeled to make them Instagram-friendly and restaurant dishes are designed for phone cameras.
“Media studies as a discipline is just beginning to open new lines of inquiry into the intersections of new media and the food system,” she said. Part of that intersection includes the politics of agriculture and food which Kish has always been interested in.
“Farms are the source of most of our food, so we wanted to include some chapters in the book on farmers and the food value chain,” Kish said. “People today are keen to learn more about where their food comes from and Instagram is a powerful tool for telling that story.”
Both Kish and Contois are accomplished early-career scholars in the interdisciplinary field of media studies and new to TU last year. Kish comes from a postdoc at Stanford University with a PhD from New York University and Contois comes with a PhD from Brown University as well as masters degrees in Public Health Nutrition and Gastronomy.
Freshman Research Assistant Makes Waves
Another contributor to the book is Hana Saad. Saad met Contois during her First Year College Experience course at TU. “She came and talked to me for one of her assignments. I actually blogged our conversation,” Contois said.
Saad ended up declaring her major in media studies and will graduate in 2022. Saad joined the Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) program as a co-investigator with Contois and Kish. “She’s been indispensable, and it’s been great to work with an undergraduate student who is only just becoming a sophomore,” Contois said.
One of Saad’s major contributions to the book was the literature review. A literature review summarizes everything that has already been published on the subject researchers are writing about and then shows how their work contributes something new to the field. “My role as a co-investigator included much of the preliminary research for the book,” Saad said.
Over the summer, she collected peer-reviewed and news articles that related to the book’s topic, food and Instagram. “I compiled these into Zotero, essentially creating a database that contributors to the book can use while they write their sections,” Saad said. “Later I will help Drs. Contois and Kish edit the book and ensure it’s ready for publication.”
Saad said working with the professors has been invaluable experience because they are incredible scholars who are passionate about their research. “Working alongside them has opened my eyes to the amount and depth of research that can be done in the media studies field. They have also made me feel supported in my academic career,” Saad said.
Food Media Class
Ben Peters, Hazel Rogers Associate Professor of Media Studies and chair of the department, said, “Drs. Contois and Kish’s You Are What You Post and Contois’ Food Media course are pioneering bold approaches to media studies. Food connects our species to all living things, and once we see food as media, food raises the stakes on practically everything,” he said. “As Dr. Contois has written, ‘Food always has something to say.’ Professors Contois and Kish are poised to translate its many messages, online and off, for the world with this new book and course.”
This fall Professor Contois will teach Food Media at TU for the first time. The class will explore various forms of food media, including food memoir, food porn, Instagram, cookbooks, blogs, dietary advice, TV shows and films, along with food writing, criticism and reporting.
“In media studies, we’re very much about helping students marry academic theory with practical application,” Contois said. Students will learn how to style and photograph food in a virtual workshop with a professional food photographer. The class will also visit Mother Road Market to learn from business owners who have started their own food businesses in Tulsa.
Students will have the opportunity to build their written portfolio as well. Revised class writing and Instagram food photos can be submitted and published to Spoon University. TU grad Annie Martin recently founded The University of Tulsa Spoon University chapter.
The class will draw on many food media sources including the Special Collections at McFarlin Library where the class will make connections between contemporary digital media and historical examples such as cookbooks, menus, posters and advertisements.
Contois and Kish will also conduct a focus group with the class about Instagram. The students offer a unique perspective from their age group and as students from a region of the United States that often does not get studied in regard to food culture.
“Students do not always realize that the words we read in class were written by real, live people. In this class, that is impossible: the students, after reading their work, actually interact through social media with the authors,” Contois said.
She will use Twitter to bring more than 30 working food writers into the class as students read their work. Students will ask the writers questions via Twitter and then discuss their responses. “This is a way to make that connection as well as to bring our reading alive,” Contois said. “All of these folks were willing to volunteer their time to talk to students at The University of Tulsa. That was part of why I made the whole class public. So learn along with us!”
Follow along with the Food Media class this fall. The syllabus is free and open to the public.