Food History Pedagogy Part II: Leading Discussions

Leading Discussions on Food History (and beyond!) and Preparing Your Presentation

This post is part 2 part of a series on pedagogy. 

Whether you are a professor, teaching-assistant, student, or independent scholar, it is likely that you will be in a position where you teach material by leading discussions. The context may be during a class, conference, seminar, or a meeting. Of course, the setting and the relationship between the members of the group will influence the discussion. However, I have included some advice about how to teach food history material in a discussion-based format. Due to the variety of contexts and situations, I alternate between the terms "class," "participants," "students," and "members."

As discussed in Part I: Preparing the Presentation, it is common practice to begin a discussion-based class with some kind of opening presentation. Here you may give the class an overview of the materials that will be discussed, cover theoretical or methodological frameworks touched on by readings your students have done, or introduce new materials.

Part II: Leading the Discussion

Again, depending on the class or setting you may divide the class into part one being the presentation and part two being the discussion. It can also be useful to go back and forth between the two, opening class with a presentation, leading a discussion, presenting new material, going back to discussion or an activity, and so on. Mixing up the styles of teaching can thwart monotony.

Ways to open up discussion:

It can be daunting for some participants to raise their hands and speak in front of the entire group, however they may be more inclined to participate more in small groups. I recommend changing group sizes. Sometimes assign partner work, sometimes divide people into small groups, and sometimes have the whole class discuss the material together. It can be useful to have students come together with the entire class after small group and partner work to share what they discussed earlier.

Don't just mix up group size; mix group members. Some students will gravitate to one or two peers. As the semester continues, promote mixing of the groups by assigning random numbers to students.

Another tactic to open up discussion is to have participants do a concrete activity that they can then discuss. Consider giving students a few minutes at the start of class to write a journal entry in which they reflect on a topic-- later they can discuss their entry. Having written notes gives emboldens some students to share their ideas more confidently.

If you work with cookbooks or other kinds of primary source materials, provide students with access to those materials in either hard copy or PDFs. With a partner or a group, students can then complete a worksheet reflecting on the document or object.

Ways to deal with silences:

Learn to embrace the silence. I'm still trying to cultivate this skill myself as I have the tendency to want to fill silences.  Allow people to have time to gather their thoughts and respond.

In order to force myself to allow for silences, I keep my water bottle close by and take big gulps of water. This technique also helps me moderate my lecture pacing.

Sometimes people are silent because they do not understand the question. Try reframing the question in another way. Also try opening up the question to allow people other avenues through which to respond. Try linking the question to something concrete/ an example.


It’s better to be over prepared and have additional material that you can return to later rather than being underprepared.

If you are leading  the discussion with a group/other people:

Make sure you practice together ahead of time. This will allow you to smooth out the tone of the presentation and facilitate creating steady pacing.

Think about balancing the voices in the group, so there is an equitable sharing of time and space.

Even if you prepare your aspects of the presentation individually, try to make your material all come together thematically in the beginning and end. What is your cohesive argument? Point? Goal?

If someone says something offensive, troubling, or provocative during a group discussion

Try to guide the discussion to be about the idea/concept rather than the person who brought it up. Is there a way you can ask the class, what are the historical traditions or ideologies that have led to that question?

It can be helpful to already establish your group discussion guidelines ahead of the class. Does your group want to spend time creating a set of guidelines with class members?

In my courses, I share a set of productive discussion guidelines in the syllabus. I explain to my students that I will assume positive intent behind questions and comments. I want my students to feel comfortable taking risks and intellectually exploring

I also work with my students to think about "calling in" rather than "calling out." This brilliant article by Ngọc Loan Trần on Black Girl Dangerous explains,“I picture ‘calling in’ as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do fuck up, we stray, and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes, a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.” As Sian Ferguson explains on Everyday Feminism, "Much like calling out, calling in aims to get the person to change their problematic behavior. The primary difference between calling in and calling out is that calling in is done with a little more compassion and patience. Sometimes people – especially people who are shy, new to social justice activism, or easily hurt – receive messages better when they’re sent gently."

It is also okay to leave a subject and return to it later.  Make clear that you will come back to it and then actually do so.

Remember- this is a process.

There will be days when the discussion goes really well and days it doesn’t. Peoples’ energy levels ebb and flow (including your own). Be gentle with yourself.

If a discussion didn't go well, it is valuable at a later time to reflect on the reasons why that happened. Could you have prepared more in advance? Could you change how you organized the class? Did something happen completely out of your control? Think how to make improvements for the future. Consider asking participants/students for feedback.

You will develop your own set of tools and skills over time. Developing one's pedagogy is an ongoing process.


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