“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
-David Foster Wallace, “This is Water”
When I walked into my English Critical Thinking and Writing (CTW) class on the first day, I had no idea what to expect. My professor, Nick Leither, showed the class David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water.” After discussing the speech, Professor Nick switched gears and flicked the screen over to the next slide. The screen displayed the course overview, reading “Food Porn: Reading Food, Self, & Culture.” Both intrigued and confused, I left class on that first day with two questions. First off, how can an english class be entirely dedicated to food? Also, what the hell is water? I had no clue what was to come during the two quarters of this class.
I should first explain that I did not sign up for this class. Every freshman at Santa Clara University (SCU) is randomly placed into a mandatory CTW class before even arriving to campus. I was honestly quite displeased when I learned that I had been assigned a 7:30-9:10 PM CTW class. Convinced that my brain would not be capable of attending class at this time of the day, my naive-self even talked to my advisor to see if I could switch into a different CTW section at a different time. As you can probably guess, my advisor told me to suck it up, and viola- my “Food Porn” CTW class at 7:30-9:10 PM was here to stay for two quarters. Although I was first unhappy by my CTW course placement, the class and its material caused me to reflect on my lifestyle and personal values, which which will continue to stick with me- not only for the remainder of my college experience- but for the rest of my life.
Throughout the duration of the course, we focused our studies on two American authors’, Jonathan Safran Foer and Dan Ariely, national bestselling books, Eating Animals (Foer) and The Honest Truth About Dishonesty (Ariely). Eating Animals first exposed me to the implications of eating meat. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), as of 2012, the average American consumes 132.3 pounds of meat per person a year (Molla). Not only is meat such an important source of food, but also an important source of revenue in the American economy. The meat industry is responsible for 1.2 trillion dollars in revenue, equivalent to 5.6 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product (Molla). Factory farms have become a staple to this great demand for meat, producing 95% of pigs, 78% of cattle, 99.9% of chicken.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), factory farms involve 70 billion total animals each year (ASPCA). The billions of animals that are trapped in factory farms each year are raised in confinement, crammed into filthy feedlots and stuffed into unsanitary metal, wire cages and crates with poor air and lighting quality. These animals are roughly handled by factory workers and endure painful, gruesome physical mutilations and alterations without given any sort of anesthetic (Todhunter, 2016). Factory farms prioritize profit and efficiency at the expense of the environment and human and animal welfare.
Foer spent three long years tediously researching the unethical practices and terrors behind factory farms and eating meat for his acclaimed Eating Animals. Foer explains that factory farmed meat comes from “drug-stuffed, disease-ridden, shit-contaminated” animals, revealing that “According to a study published in Consumer Reports, 83 percent of all chicken meat (including organic and antibiotic-free brands) is infected with either campylobacter or salmonella at the time of purchase” (139). Foer also explains the unethical treatment of animals, even those claimed to be “free-range” and “organic.” Terms such as these are merely just fluff words in the American food industry. USDA does not even have set definitions for these fluff words. Foer writes that “you can call your turkey organic and torture it daily” and that the USDA does not even have a set definition on free-range, as a farmer could essentially keep an entire flock of hens under their sink and call claim them “free range” (45).
Prior to CTW, I always tried to eat organic, grass-fed, free-range meat. The term “organic” made me feel better about my actions of eating animals, as I had always known subconsciously that there was something wrong with eating meat with today’s processes of farming. Dan Ariely’s The Honest Truth About Honesty explained this notion as “self-signaling.” Self-signaling, as defined by Ariely, is the idea that despite what we seem to think, we don’t have a “very clear notion of who we are. Instead, we observe ourselves in the same way we observe and judge the actions of other people —inferring who we are and what we like from our actions (62). Reflection on this, I realized that my “organic” meat eating was just a “self-signal” that made me feel better about my actions of eating animals.
Foer writes “Perhaps in the back of our minds we already understand..that something terribly wrong is happening… We perhaps know more than we care to admit, keeping it down in the dark places of our memory– disavowed. When we eat factory-farmed meat we live, literally, on tortured flesh. Increasingly, that tortured flesh is becoming our own.” It was here that I realized what the hell “water” was- at least a certain aspect of it. I was just another fish swimming in the “water” of the American food industry.
At the conclusion of each CTW class, my peers and I would walk back to our dorms together and talk about how stunned we were from what we had learned in class that day. First quarter, when I was first exposed to the course content, each class left me feeling more guilty and disgusted from eating meat. A question hung over my head- whether to go vegetarian or not? The repulsion and guilt eventually got the best of me and by week 7 of the quarter, I decided to quit cold turkey (no pun intended).
I even wrote on the topic in my other classes. Winter quarter I had to write a speech on an issue of social justice for my public speaking class. My speech was about the unethicality of factory farming. This quarter, in my US Politics (Poli 1) class, we had to write a memo to a California representative about an issue we believe was important to solve. I wrote to senator Kamala Harris about the importance of solving the issue of factory farming and increasing the practice of sustainable farming. These essays outside of my CTW class only increased my knowledge and passion on the issue. Did I grow tired of writing countless essay after essay about food sustainability? Yes. But the more I learned about the problem, the more I wanted to share the knowledge and expose the information to others.
In fact, I was not the only person that was influenced by the course. In just my section of the course, I know of three other people that felt the impulsion to cut out meat- one of which being Robin, one of my best friends. Robin and I would go back to our dorm after class and tell our dormmates what sickening things we had read and learned class that day, sharing the findings of Foer’s Eating Animals. I am sure that our friends got sick of us grossing them out with all of this undesired information. However, eventually Robin and I broke through to one of our friends after our first week back in the class in the spring quarter. Our friend EK, who isn’t even in the class, caved in and decided to go vegetarian. I have a passion to spread what I have learned, because as Foer says: “Not responding is a response – we are equally responsible for what we don’t do.”
I do not know why or how I was randomly placed into this “Food Porn” CTW class. However, I am a firm believer in the cliche saying that “everything happens for a reason.” I am grateful for the past two quarters spent in the course, as it lead me to discover what “water” is. It has altered my lifestyle and changed my food views for the better. These values will remain instilled in me not only for the rest of my college career, but for the rest of my life. Not to also mention how grateful I am to have met some of my best friends today through the class. I have Professor Nick and my CTW course all to thank.
Ariely, Dan. The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone-Especially Ourselves, 2012. Print.
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (2017). “Farm Animals Need Our Help.” ASPCA. Web. Retrieved from <https://www.aspca.org/animal-cruelty/farm-animal-welfare>
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.
Molla, Rani. How Much Meat Do Americans Eat? Then and Now. The Wall Street Journal, 2 October, 2014. Web. 2 December, 2016. <http://blogs.wsj.com/numbers/how-much-meat-do-americans-eat-then-and-now-1792/>
Todhunter, C. (2016, March 09). “Violence on the Factory Farm: How Not to Feed the World.” Retrieved from <http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/03/09/violence-on-the-factory-farm-how-not-to-feed-the-world/>