Students from all backgrounds are invited to a class that explores, questions and celebrates our connections to the vegetable kingdom.
Irwin Goldman PhD’91, professor and chair of the Department of Horticulture, is an eminent researcher in vegetable breeding and genetics, with a particular interest in carrot, onion and table beet. His lab has bred numerous cultivars that have been used to make commercial hybrids grown by farmers all around the world. He and his laboratory currently hold more than 75 active germplasm licenses, some of which are handled through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.
But in spite of Goldman’s prowess in both research and administration—he has served CALS as an associate dean and a vice dean, and as interim dean some five years ago—teaching remains one of his greatest passions. “Our most important job in serving the public is to make sure our students can obtain what they came to the university to get: a top-notch education,” says Goldman. “I see this as one of the primary reasons for being placed here by the people of Wisconsin.” He brings that devotion to the many kinds of students he teaches: from the graduate students under his research wing and the horticulture majors he advises to undergraduates and other learners who may not be science majors at all.
And students clearly benefit from his dedication. Claudia Roen BS’15, until recently a student assistant in the CALS communication office, was a senior biology major last fall when she took Goldman’s class, “Plants and Human Wellbeing.” She found it so enlightening that she was moved to conduct the following interview to learn more about both a fascinating subject—and what excites Goldman about teaching it.
What inspired you to teach Plants and Human Wellbeing?
I have been desperate to teach this class for probably 10 years, and I love this material, but it hadn’t previously fit into any of the courses I was teaching. I remember very clearly one January day over winter break sitting at my
dining room table reading about the spice trade—and thinking, if I don’t just say I’m going to do this and put
this class together, it won’t happen.
At that moment I began to write a syllabus and presented it to the department with the hope of teaching it the following fall. That was a few Januarys ago.
What do you hope students will take away from this course?
The whole point is connecting to plants and plant-derived materials and asking, where does this come from? How does it serve us? It’s a way of thinking about the world. If you approach the world that way, it’s part of being an educated person.
For example, one topic covered in the course is aspirin. There are natural compounds in plants that serendipitously have these health-improving effects on humans. What did we do with that information? There’s an industry created around it, and what does that look like? We can apply these questions to a number of plants used in pharmaceuticals.
Or in another lecture we discussed the tale of Johnny Appleseed and the history of the apple in America. Afterward we sampled more than a dozen apple varieties. Partly it’s a gimmick, but for people who have only ever eaten a Red Delicious, it may be surprising to try something very different.
When I was 18 or 19 I lacked exposure to a lot of things. One of my professors brought in mate. In Argentina it’s like drinking coffee, but to me at the time, it was so exotic. I feel that if I can supplement the lessons with things to eat, things to try and taste, I can provide some exposure to the diversity of what’s out there.
Have you found that there is one topic in particular that seems to excite or engage the students?
The treatment of human beings in the production of food that we consider to be delicacies is probably the most important to them, and it’s the single most recurring topic that students write about in their reflection papers. And that’s a good sign—the fact that they have begun to think critically about food production in ways that may change their behavior or make them think differently about the world.
A good example is the lecture on chocolate, which I think for many students is the first time they had heard about chocolate production and the negative working conditions, essentially slavery, associated with it. It is remarkable to listen to a worker from the cacao plantations who toils all day to produce chocolate for the Western world but who has never tasted chocolate. We discussed chocolate cultivation and its importance in our society, sampled several varieties of chocolate, and watched a video that featured cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast—which produces more cocoa than any country in the world—tasting chocolate for the first time after a lifetime of harvesting the crop.
Has teaching the class provided any surprising or unexpected lessons?
Regarding students, probably the most surprising thing for me is the tenderness—and I have to use that word—that people feel for plant materials. When you get them alone or uninhibited, it brings them to tears. At the end of the semester students are asked to present to the class something they’ve made from plant materials. Students have presented food, musical instruments, body lotions and more. They are deeply connected to certain things, and that comes across when they’re talking about something that is important to them, some dish that their mother makes. There’s something there that is very profound.
What kinds of students take the course?
I’ve had students from a wide range of backgrounds. People from Letters and Science, people from all over campus and beyond. I’ve had a handful of returning adult students, and I also had some senior auditors who were taking it because they thought it was an interesting subject that they could sit in on. It was a much wider array of students than I would typically have in a normal horticulture class.
People connect to this subject in different ways. Some people are interested in aromatherapy, or they’re interested in gardens—it’s a catch-all for all things that connect to plant materials.
How do you see this course as a reflection of the goals and the values of CALS?
A big part of our college’s mission has always been to make science and scientific knowledge accessible to a broad audience, and this course certainly accomplishes that. No prerequisites are required; it’s open to anyone who wants to explore the topic. Obviously a deeper understanding of how food is made and where it comes from is an integral part of CALS. CALS contains the whole spectrum, from the soil that we grow things in all the way to policy and legislation around food and everything in between—the genetics and the biochemistry involved in breeding and growing. I love that about CALS.
And the connection between plants and human wellbeing is a recurring theme across that spectrum.
What we study and teach in CALS often connects to outcomes that impact humans, and one of the most fundamental impacts we should consider is their wellbeing. In fact, I find that it may often guide some of our most important projects.
What are your hopes for the course, and where do you see it headed?
Up to now the course has been listed as a 375, meaning it’s an experimental course. When I presented the idea to the Department of Horticulture, I pledged to teach it for two years as an experimental course and if it worked out, I’d ask to make it a permanent number. Now I’m pleased to say that this course has been given the permanent number Horticulture 350, and it will be taught every fall semester.
Ultimately, I would like to make it available online or through some other medium—as a MOOC, perhaps—because I do think students and a wide range of other learners could get something out of this even if they weren’t in the room. I want to make it available to as many people as possible.