Shake It Up!
Or, Does a Shamrock Have a Flavor and What is Seasonal Teaching?
I hope you are getting the opportunity to enjoy the first signs of spring wherever you are; in Washington, D.C., the weather is warming, and with better news about vaccine distribution and perhaps a reduction in COVID-19 cases, the hopefulness of the season has put me in good spirits. In case you missed it (and you likely did), I talked to Endocrine Web about the need for public health practitioners to understand history in this piece about race and diabetes. If you enjoy this free content, consider becoming a regular subscriber and receive WEEKLY hot takes on fast food AND teaching.
Having grown up going to Catholic school in a city that chooses to dye its major river green in order to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve long been a fan of the various treats inspired by the strangely secular-kinda religious-somewhat regionally specific holiday. Corned beef was always on sale at the local supermarkets, and at least one of my classmates would bring green-frosted brownies or a raisin-studded soda bread to share on St. Patrick’s Day. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods; Chicago is a city of extraordinary segregation too. White, ethnic communities in Chicago have sustained neighborhood enclaves, even in the face of gentrification and suburbanization with greater levels of success (if that is the right word—this success has been partially realized by violence and intimidation) than in other U.S. cities that were reshaped by European immigration. As Henry Binford notes in the entry on “Multicentered Chicago” in the Encyclopedia of Chicago:
No single feature of Chicago's social geography is unique: not the flat setting, not the immigrants, not the industry, not the politics, not the racial conflict or the urge to plan. It is in how and when the prominent features of Chicago's development came together, and how they interacted, that the city's distinctiveness lies. Between 1850 and 1930, in a city sprawling as no city ever had, Chicago produced hundreds of new communities, most of them tangled together physically but having clear and strong integrity in the minds of their residents. As the Irish and the Germans and the Italians and Jews moved outward—and, for so very long, the African Americans did not—both the real and the imagined localities exerted a powerful influence on the unfolding and changing meaning of “neighborhood” to the citizens. There has always been more than one Chicago in this location on the lake, and the metropolis that residents celebrate and visitors acclaim today is a product, a synthesis, not only of the many Chicagos of today, but of all those that came before.
The global celebration of St. Patrick has taken many forms. A good number of revelers may not realize when they participate in annual pub crawls or attend a municipal parade, they are celebrating a patron saint of Ireland and the arrival of Christianity to the Irish people. St. Patrick’s Day is among a handful of holidays rendered broad enough to creep into the American marketplace without ethnic or religious reference. St. Patrick’s commercial greening has not been as aggressive as Big Pumpkin Spice’s domination of the fall, but the McDonald’s Shamrock Shake is the best representation of the idea that March 17 makes all people honorary children of Ireland for one day. In my very informed opinion, the Shamrock Shake is the worst thing to ever grace a fast food menu. Yet, still the verdant, soft serve treat enchants millions every year.
The origin story of the Shamrock Shake illustrates why I study fast food. A minty milkshake is never just a minty milkshake! The Shamrock Shake (like it’s springtime companion, the Filet-O-Fish) was allegedly invented by a McDonald’s franchisee in Connecticut; but, as often the case in fast food lore, there are others who have claimed to be the first to develop the idea of a green treat for St. Patrick’s Day. Originally flavored with lemon-lime sherbet, the mint flavor was adopted at some point in the 1970s, and the Shamrock Shake some of us love today has been an optional seasonal offering for decades. In 2012, McDonald’s made the Shake available nationwide from late February through St. Patrick’s Day, and mint flavored coffee treats have been added to the McCafe coffee service.
The Shamrock Shake played a pivotal role in one of the key fundraising efforts among McDonald’s franchisees, the Ronald McDonald House. The Ronald McDonald House program provides accommodations for families with children who are seeking extensive medical treatments. The first House was built by a Philadelphia man who noticed the number of families sleeping in cots in hospital rooms and hallways because they couldn’t afford nearby hotels. His own daughter was undergoing treatment for leukemia at a children’s hospitals, and after her recovery he couldn’t shake the memories of all those families. So, he found an old fraternity house and drew upon his experience as a home builder to renovate the property, and with that act he created the international program known today. The Shamrock Shake was used as a fundraiser for the newly established House, and your Shamrock Shake continues to fund other franchisee-supported, local charities.
When I was on the road promoting my book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, I received a lot of questions about my thoughts on the philanthropic work of McDonald’s franchisees, especially among African American communities. Black franchise owners have supported the United Negro College Fund, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and they have provided major gifts to historically black colleges and universities. I never oppose generosity. But, I do oppose any society that fails to provide for people in their most vulnerable moments, like when their child is receiving lifesaving surgery and there is no state-funded program to keep them off of a cot in a hospital lounge. The Ronald McDonald House is one of the many ways that corporate donations and underwriting can obscure the gaping holes in the social safety net. Medical bankruptcy, despite the expansion of health care access after the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, is still experienced by families in the United States each year. In this synopsis of the research on medical bankruptcy in the United States (and why it’s hard to get a clear picture of it), various reports indicate that households with medical debt are contending with collections agency calls, unpaid sick leave, and deciding between paying their mortgage or their medical bills.
A variety of factors cause bankruptcies. Many people with medical debt have other debts as well. They may also have a lower income, little savings, or have lost a job.
Medical debts are generally unexpected—many Americans live paycheck to paycheck due to the cost of living, low wages, or living beyond their means. A sudden medical bill causes havoc in the financial lives of struggling people.
Almost a third of the respondents surveyed by KFF claimed they weren't aware that a particular hospital or service wasn't part of their plan. One-in-four found that their insurance denied their claims.
Many insured people are not aware that their policies have limits.
So, what can we do? After slurping our milkshakes and passively supporting local charities, we should use the inevitable sugar rush (63 grams of sugar per SMALL Shamrock Shake) to fuel the fight for better health care access, higher wages, and more equitable tax policies. You shouldn’t have to depend on the luck of the Irish or the odds being in your favor to survive a medical crisis!
For all the educators out there—and the people who love them—springtime makes you VERY aware of the distractions that you and your students have to contend with during the academic year. The weather warms up, and whether in-person or virtual, your mind starts to count down until Spring Break or Summer Recess. How do you lean into the fact that students may struggle with focus in the upcoming months? How do you remain focused on the end-of-the-year after what may have been the worst teaching year ever? A few ideas:
1) Take your virtual classes outside. Class outside is the educational equivalent of a failed state. Background noise, your students seeing their friends as your class sits in a circle, and seasonal allergies, are among the many reasons class outside always seems better in theory than in practice. But, virtually, you may want to Zoom from the outdoors for a portion of class to treat your students to a change in scenery. It really makes a difference to hold class from a porch, patio, or well-wired park.
2) Incremental assignments. One strategy I sometimes use to prevent burnout is to convert one assignments into digestible chunks. My students have been learning virtually for a year, and it’s wearing on their nerves. Mine too. So, instead of assigning many small projects over the course of the semester, I’ve broken the final paper into pieces. Students have to generate paper topics, turn in a bibliography, prepare an outline, and then they will turn in their final paper. With each assignment, students are asked to revisit what they turned in previously. For example, when they write the bibliography, they will be asked to engage with texts that touch upon topics we have covered in class. The outline for the paper will ask students to connect ideas for their paper to concepts I’ve introduced in my lecture. This incremental approach yields stronger final projects, which means less stressful grading.
3) Backward movement. Some years, in courses that require students to write multiple short papers, I have students submit shorter papers at the end of the semester. Why? Over the course of the class, I try to show students the possibilities of tight, short writing by having them practice it. The first paper may be 5 pages, the second paper is 3 pages, and the final paper 1-2 pages. After each assignment, I talk to students about efficiency and clarity in arguing a position and sharing information. Short writing is good writing, and in light of recent events, that may not be a bad thing to teach.
4) This time matters too. At the end of my class last semester, I told my students that I had been in a constant state of thinking and saying, “When this is all over, I will…” The isolation, the grief and the anxiety that COVID-19 has stirred in all of us can feel unbearable, and it’s very easy to treat this time in our lives as not real or important. But, I had to stop doing that so often, because I was missing all of the life I was actually living in the right now. It’s a simple thing to say, but our students need affirmation that this is not a ‘lost' year’ or a degraded one because it failed to meet their hopes or expectations. So, in that spirit, I encourage you to incorporate some type of assignment or discussion that asks students to reflect on the present. Maybe instead of a traditional group assignment, you ask students to interview each other about the past year of the pandemic? Have them come up with a COVID-19 memorial project and research other projects that commemorate epidemics. Create an oral history project. Create a virtual time capsule. Challenge your students to find a non-Zoom or non-Teams way of communicating with someone and have them share about the experience. Let our times guide your teaching.
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Until next time,
Your Favorite Prof