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SIS Students Going Bananas for Class on Commodities

(Photo: Jeff Watts)

Ten years ago, Elizabeth Cohn, SIS/PhD ’95, then a professor at Baltimore’s Goucher College, was challenged to create her “dream course.”

The Latin American scholar set out to craft an interdisciplinary course that would examine the political, economic, cultural, environmental, and social issues surrounding breakfast table commodities—coffee, sugar, and bananas. And with that, Breakfast in the Americas was born.

“By tracing coffee beans from the hills of Peru to their coffee cups,” she says, “students are going to better understand their place in the world. I challenge them to think more deeply and with more complexity.”

When Cohn returned to AU to teach at the School of International Service three years ago, she brought her wildly popular course with her.

Cohn uses books and film to bring to life for her 22 students the lives of the commodity company owners, producers, and consumers, and trace the role coffee, sugar, and bananas have played in the historical development of the western hemisphere. In the process, they also explore environmental issues, globalization, price fluctuations, terms of trade, corporate social responsibility, and labor conditions in Latin America.
Though international relations major Meghan Farrar had studied many of these topics before taking the senior seminar, she was “hoping for an interesting and challenging class where I would learn a lot. So far, I have not been disappointed. 

“The class pulls together all of the theoretical knowledge I’ve gained in the past four years in a very practical manner.”

Noting the unusually dynamic class discussions, Farrar explains, “Anyone can read the books, but the interesting part is rehashing the readings with people who have a completely different perspective than you.”

Eric Liard, also an international relations major, adds: “By far, the best part of the class is its structure. The flow is determined entirely by the students.”

In a recent class, for instance, nearly every student jumped into the discussion of top-paid Hollywood actress Carmen Miranda’s role in fostering positive relations between the United States and Brazil in the years before World War II.

While most of the class agreed that Miranda was exploited by both Hollywood and Washington, one student disagreed, contending that the samba singer knowingly played into Latin American stereotypes—and suggesting his classmates’ sympathy was misguided.

“Keep going,” urges a bright-eyed Cohn. “I think you’re onto something, but I want to push you a little.”

That’s a common refrain in Cohn’s classroom.

“I want my students to think in new ways, to challenge each other, and ask really important questions,” she says.

Those questions and that curiosity have led one student to research the rise of obesity among Mexicans, a second to examine the role commodities played in Argentina’s economic meltdown, and a third to trace the rise of the communist party in El Salvador in the early 1900s. Some of their papers will continue to develop into senior capstone projects.

“They come in with a wide range of interests in Latin America,” Cohn said. “I have a hard time keeping up with them and the different ways in which they run with the topic. That’s what makes this such a tremendously fun class to teach,” she acknowledges.