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Feb 26, 2016

Why I Teach My Students About Chocolate

This week, we’re delighted to welcome a guest post from Kristy Leissle, or as some may know her, Doctor Chocolate. Dr. Leissle earned a PhD from the University of Washington by studying chocolate in 2008, and a few years later, came to visit us when we were still just a few folks sorting beans in a Palo Alto garage. Here, she tells us about a class she teaches at UW Bothell concerning a certain subject you’ve probably already guessed by now. 

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Photo by Marc Studer, UW Bothell Photographer (L337)


“You teach a class on chocolate?”

I hear the question often. The tone is vaguely incredulous—though usually inflected with, “How can I enroll?”

I’ve taught Chocolate: A Global Inquiry at the University of Washington Bothell since 2010. While I teach across Global Studies and African Studies, I am pretty sure I was hired for my proposal for this class. Looking back on my job interview now, I realize how unusual a hiring decision it was.

UW Bothell is one of only a few universities that has interdisciplinarity at its foundation, which means that instead of relying on one discipline (say, anthropology or biology), we combine many different research methods to understand a subject. This, I think, is perfect for studying chocolate. Food is multi-dimensional, and chocolate particularly so.

During research for my dissertation in 2005, I started looking at why West Africa—where I conducted most of my doctoral fieldwork—has a limited market for chocolate, even though the region produces about 70% of the world’s cocoa. To understand this, I had to study the political economic forces that shaped industrialization in the region, as well as regional food culture. Knowing about factory capacity to make chocolate wasn’t enough; I had to know too whether people wanted to eat it. I found that while there was not much of a sweets culture among Ghanaian cocoa farmers, they still wished they could access and afford chocolate⎯its lack was a sign, to them, of their own material poverty.

For my PhD, I studied chocolate using ethnography, history, political economy, and cultural studies. When I started teaching Chocolate: A Global Inquiry at UW Bothell, I introduced my students to interdisciplinary thinking as well. We studied complex questions like, “Is chocolate a health food?” In this case, I wanted them to grapple with the popular idea that chocolate is high in antioxidants.

Our first approach was to look at the actual nutritional studies that found chocolate to be high in antioxidants. But then we backtracked: why do we believe this invisible particle—an antioxidant—is the key to our good health? For this, we read Michael Pollan’s account of “nutritionism,” which is the idea that any food equals the sum of its parts—calories, vitamins—as opposed to seeing it as a whole, complex thing. To better understand nutritionism, we delved into history, and considered other ways that humans have understood food. We haven’t always reduced it to a calorie count!

But even this wasn’t enough to answer the health question. We also had to consider the politics of information. For example, who or what institutions funded the studies that showed chocolate to be high in antioxidants? What might have been their agenda in supporting that science? And what other aspects of chocolate might have been left out of those studies? It’s a rabbit hole, really. One of the coolest aspects of interdisciplinarity is that it allows for complex answers to complex questions. But the answers typically lead to more questions.

With every academic quarter lasting only ten weeks, I had to draw some boundaries. But they were wide. My syllabus began with history, then moved through chocolate manufacture; supply chain economics; global politics; industrial biographies; advertising and marketing; health; labor ethics; and trade justice.

One of my favorite sections looked at how books and films present chocolate as a socio-cultural thing, giving it meaning beyond food. We watched Chocolat to study chocolate’s symbolism in struggles between good and evil. We read excerpts from Harry Potter, considering why J. K. Rowling chose chocolate as cure for a dementor attack, which sucks all happiness out of the human soul. And, of course, we studied chocolate advertisements.

The most provocative of these were from a series by Divine Chocolate, which ran in the UK. The ads feature women farmers from the Fairtrade certified cooperative in Ghana, Kuapa Kokoo, which supplies cocoa for Divine. Each of the women is smartly dressed, standing in a powerful pose and holding a piece of chocolate. As such, they look totally different from virtually every other image we see in the US of black African women, who are usually shown as impoverished, or, at best, as the beneficiaries of Western aid. But these women look nothing like that. My students had long and challenging discussions about why seeing a black African woman cocoa farmer looking sexy and powerful, holding chocolate, was so startling and—in many cases—unbelievable to them.

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These images appeared in the Journal of African Cultural Studies (2012) 24:2. Original images were reprinted with permission from Divine Chocolate. Photograph by Freddie Helwig and St. Luke’s advertising agency.

We were examining chocolate through critical political, historical, and ethnographic lenses, but I soon realized I wanted to incorporate the
experience of chocolate into my class. I had the idea after watching visitors mindfully tasting samples at the Northwest Chocolate Festival, where I served for four years as the Director of Education.

I made changes to my syllabus that were quite unconventional, from an academic perspective. I incorporated regular tastings, using generous donations from chocolate makers. My students created flavor profiles, learned to identify different manufacturing methods, and used synesthetic language to describe flavor and texture. Eventually, I reached a point where every lesson had a tasting component.

I also radically changed my assessment. When I began teaching Chocolate: A Global Inquiry, I felt I had to be very serious about it, to counter expectations that it was a “soft” option. I administered brutal examinations, including a giant, multiple-choice final for which a 100% score was all but impossible.

As I worked on the Northwest Chocolate Festival, though, and watched craft makers educate visitors, I thought—my students could do that. So I did away with the multiple-choice exam and announced that the final would be a festival. Each student would select a chocolate that was “teach-able”—had some interesting feature—and sample it at his or her booth as starting point for discussion. They would create a flavor profile, advertisement, and poster, and talk about those too. We held the festival in our classroom. I sent out a campus email announcement and wondered if anyone would come. I told my students that if no one came, they could just visit each other’s booths.

IAS Part Time Lecturer Kristy Leissle's class hosts the UW Bothell's first annual Chocolate Festival. The festival seeks to serve, educate, and explore the world of global chocolate.

Photo by Marc Studer, UW Bothell Photographer (L337)

Well, about half the University of Washington Bothell turned up. We wrote questions on slips of paper that visitors could ask—but would never think to ask—my students. The enthusiasm was astonishing: visitors clutching questions and rushing from booth to booth, excited to be learning about chocolate. Meanwhile, my students, who had now assumed the role of expert, realized that they could teach.

IAS Part Time Lecturer Kristy Leissle's class hosts the UW Bothell's first annual Chocolate Festival. The festival seeks to serve, educate, and explore the world of global chocolate.

Photo by Marc Studer, UW Bothell Photographer (L337)

Chocolate: A Global Inquiry requires a lot of work that most of my classes do not, from soliciting donations to prepping samples to planning the festival. But it is also one of the most gratifying. I often hear from former students, who tell me they cannot buy or taste chocolate without thinking about something they learned in our class. It’s the nicest thing, to hear that teaching matters to real life. What instructor could ask for more?



  1. Tamara + Zan, Batch Craft

    Such a lovely way to educate and engage the students, not to mention the campus! While the challenges surrounding cacao are difficult, it’s this kind of passion and sensitivity that will bring about the changes necessary to move the industry forward. Thank you Doctor Chocolate!

  2. Mose Killean

    So I gave the “adults” money and set the high price of one Smartie for a penny. Cue outrage. If the children had no money, how could they be expected to pay?



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