veggie games

I like to play a game with my students.  I lecture on a topic.  At most 20 minutes, no more.  I give ten or fifteen students a sheet of paper.  During my 20 minutes they have to write one question for me.  I stop talking.  I collect the papers.  I shuffle them.  I read aloud the question and give my best impromptu answers.

This game works best with topics that matter to me. I have to think & work. I go with my honest gut feeling, even if it leads me into unpolished reflections.  I let the students ask whatever they want–personal questions of me, political questions, abstract ones.  I tell them the worst that could happen is that I’d decline to answer.

Today we talked about vegetarianism.  I opened the discussion with a five minute interview with a vegetarian.  A very young vegetarian–a ten year old.  This articulate ten year old (my daughter) was asked how long she’d been a veggie, why she’s veggie, and if she ever desired to eat meat.

After playing the interview, I proceeded with my own top five reasons for being a vegetarian.  Those top five reasons go something like this:

5-Vegetarian food is healthy.

4-Vegetarian diets are good for the environment.

3-Factory farms are pretty nasty.

2- Vegetarian food tastes awesome.

1- I love animals.


Here are some of the wonderful questions from my students:

“How does your daughter know she’s a true vegetarian if she has never eaten meat?”

“Was it hard for you to get your daughters to become vegetarian?”

“Do you believe it is easy to be born into a family of vegetarians?”

“Do you eat tofu?”

“Animals eat other animals.  Why is it seen as barbaric if humans eat other animals?”

“Why is it bad for humans to kill other animals?”


One of my favorite reasons to teach vegetarianism is that I’m able to foster a discussion that connects abstract moral theory to everyday living.  My students read Singer’s 1979 piece and they also listen to an interview of a nine year old explaining her moral reasoning for zoo abolitionism and total vegetarianism.  I disclose my own reasons for being a vegetarian and allow curious students to ask personal questions about my moral theory and how it affects my everyday life choices.

I also offer a possible psycho-analytic reason for my 22 years as a vegetarian.  I was born in Kansas City in 1974 and was raised in a tough urban environment.  Around 1982 my parents fled the city and moved to rural Kansas.  We lived in a farmhouse with no running water and no indoor toilet.  We began accumulating farm animals like a goat, a pig, chickens, a duck here and there, a peacock here and there, lots of dogs, lots of cats, etc.  I became attached to the pig, which I viewed as a family pet.  We gave him an uninspired name “Porky,” but it was a name nonetheless, which, to me, signified family membership.  I bonded with Porky the same way I bonded with my dogs.  Porky was a family pet and my friend.  Then, one day, Porky was gone and there were pork chops on the table.  You guessed it.

I enjoy talking about vegetarianism because it allows me to be a different kind of teacher.  I get to tell stories–my stories.  I get to answer real questions.  I get to poke and prod at social conventions.  I get to hear from hunters eager to know what I think about the moral status of deer.  I get to hear from sons and daughters of farmers who also named & ate their farm animals.  Most of the latter seem a bit resigned to the ‘naturalness’ of eating a family pet.  Although, I’ve yet to come across one of my students who has eaten the family dog.  There’s always one or two who say that they’d be curious enough to eat some dog meat if it was offered to them, and if the seasoning was just right.

I do worry that in teaching about my vegetarianism I come across as preachy.  So, I simply address my preachiness head-on and try to keep a sense of humor about it.  “Man, I’m really sounding preachy aren’t I.”

I think some of my students suspect that its no accident that I teach vegetarianism on the week before Thanksgiving.  Okay, I’m just going to plead guilty on that count.

Today was different in one respect.  For the first time ever I accompanied my discussion with images of factory farms.  We looked at battery cages, mega meat chicken farms, and dairy cattle.  I’ve never used images like this in class.  I don’t like looking at the images myself.  If I’m going to use propaganda, I prefer it to be text rather than image propaganda.

The next step would be to assess how the story telling method of philosophy works.  Do students retain more or less?  Are their powers of critical thinking awakened or dulled?



Psychologist Derald Wang Sue has a wonderful word for a phenomenon that I’ve been trying to name for a long time.  It’s what happens when a white professor like me begins talking about affirmative action.  It’s what happens when a classroom has a majority of majority students and heads turn to the diverse body in the room.  It’s what happens when our conversations about Ferguson go off track and more than one person looks for a way to move on, escape, stop talking.  It’s what happens when a usually bored and placid face looks nervous and tense.  Race talk.  That’s Sue’s word for it.

“When topics of race or racism arise, they [whites] become anxious, constricted, and cautious in what they say. Remaining silent and consciously screening and censoring out anything they consider to be racially offensive become the hallmark of their communications.” (

One of the deep ironies of race talk is that whites’ anxious, constricted behavior can easily be interpreted as racist behavior.  Whites are so awkward when we talk about race that we come across as hiding something, as unable to cope, as making no sense.  The fear of appearing racist becomes a self-fulfilling act.

Sociologist Jonathan Patrick Schreiner (who wrote an MA thesis on the innovative Race Relations Project at Penn State) found that white students have a “nearly universal fear of stating their opinion or race.”  The most common response to why white students didn’t like race talk: they feared offending a member of the other race.  For many white students at Penn State, participation in an extra-curricular race dialogue program was their first experience with inter-race dialogue.

White’s don’t have a monopoly on awkwardness during race talk. But it does affect us differently. Now here’s an interesting thought: if race talk affects students of color differently, then do color-blind student learning outcomes make sense?

One of the hardest lessons of Sue’s work on race talk is that white professors are not good at spotting and dealing with racial micro-aggressions in the classroom.  If that hypothesis is correct, then we whites need to become more reflecting about when race talk is occurring in our classroom and how to effectively acknowledge it.

My field, that of Philosophy, prides itself on dialogue.  We take the idea of Socratic method seriously and try to engage in meaningful speech with our students.  And we pride ourselves on being able to talk about tough moral issues.  We also pride ourselves on teaching critical thinking.  The notion of race talk presents very blunt challenges to us–challenges about how ‘critical’ we’re being.  To paraphrase Nancy Fraser, the question is what’s critical about critical thinking?