Faculty Spotlight: Lisa Young

Teaching Professor and Lecturer IV, Anthropology

Spotlight on ANTHRARC 180: First-Year Seminar in Anthropological Archaeology, Food at the University of Michigan

Have you ever wondered what the landscape of Ann Arbor might have looked like 110 years ago? Would you believe us if we told you that we know precisely what was served at a sorority banquet on March 7th, 1914?

Dr. Lisa Young recalls, “There was a huge bur oak tree in the front yard where I grew up, and [my mom] was always talking about the history of that tree. But it was intertwined with stories about people too.” This early exposure to the relationship between natural and human history led her to participate in an archaeological project as a high school student. She fondly remembers spending the week with a teacher of Cherokee ancestry, who led the students on hikes to dig sassafras, catch fish for dinner, and collect clay to make pottery.  She recognized then that “Indigenous perspectives are so important for us to understand what’s going on in the landscape in terms of food, and how that then informs archaeology.” Ultimately, Dr. Young attended the University of Michigan to study anthropology and history while focusing on the ancient history of Indigenous peoples in North America. Today, she focuses on the Southwestern United States, working with members of the Hopi tribe to research the archaeology of traditional food systems and “help translate what has been done in the field of anthropology and museums to communities.”

Her work on past food systems led to the creation of ANTHRARC 180, a first-year seminar focusing on food systems at the University of Michigan. This course was developed after she was approached to create a course on the future of food at the University of Michigan for the University’s bicentennial in 2017. She decided to use the past as a lens to explore changes in the food system that fed UM students and the importance of sustainable food initiatives on campus today. To create a UM-focused research project, Dr. Young recalls spending “a lot of time talking to the archivists and librarians here on campus” who introduced her to the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive and the UM student scrapbook collection

For the historical project in ANTHRARC 180, Dr. Young has students examine what their predecessors ate by researching banquet programs that students in the early 20th century saved in their scrapbooks.  She uses the menus from these banquets to introduce the students to the importance of local food in the past. At this time Washtenaw County had over 3500 farms that produced many of the ingredients for the dishes served at the student banquets. This research helps students see the dramatic ways that our food system has changed over the last century. She chose to focus on the 1910-1920 period, which includes World War I because “there are interesting discussions in the Michigan Daily about students promoting the federal government’s food conservation program.” This focus allows students to explore the historical context of food conservation and activism, linking past efforts to current sustainability practices. Noting that many previous calls to action mimic the calls now, “buy local, don’t waste, [and] eat less meat.” She also motivates students to think about these banquets as more than just a meal, but a time to connect and build relationships, a topic she has increasingly emphasized since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The role of student activism and leadership is an overarching theme she emphasizes throughout the course. She brings in student leaders from various programs at U-M and incorporates activities for students to attend events around campus. These outreach activities transition into the second project of the course, which involves examining food systems at U-M today and interacting with the individuals who work to make these programs possible.  In collaboration with campus groups such as the Campus Farm and the UM Sustainable Food Program, Dr. Young encourages students to consider “those economic and social aspects of food that are so important to understanding the sustainability of local food.” These social aspects of sustainability are often much harder to quantify than the environmental, such as carbon emissions. For example, recalling that when visiting the spring plant sale “one of the first-year students took a selfie with a student leader from the UM Sustainable Food Program … how do you quantify [that connection]?” 

For other educators teaching sustainability, Dr. Young’s advice is to “think of campus as a living lab” and “think about your own interests that you bring to the class and your own perspective about sustainability.” She emphasizes that utilizing the campus as a laboratory and highlighting student leadership can demonstrate to students early in their academic careers that impactful work is possible within their current environment.

For students interested in topics around food, Dr. Young will be teaching ANTHRARC 296: Topics in Archaeology, Local Food Producers, the course that inspired ANTHRARC 180, in the fall.

As a part of the Year of Sustainability, we are interested in sharing, uplifting, and highlighting stories about the people who make up LSA and have experience teaching about sustainability. We sat down with a series of LSA faculty to discuss their background and courses and will feature these conversations in our Faculty Spotlight series.

To contact the LSA Year of Sustainability Team, please contact sustainable-lsa@umich.edu . 

By stejenna

Jenna Steele is the Year of Sustainability and Carbon Neutrality Program Assistant for U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.