Chocolate, Culture and Capstones

Chocolate pieces from the Behind Bars: Revealing Chocolate’s Bitter Sweetness course The cornerstone of Central’s liberal arts curriculum is the Core, a combination of course and proficiency requirements that ensure a student’s Central education is grounded in an understanding of the breadth of human thought and experience.

Central’s seniors are required to take a Liberal Arts Seminar (LAS), commonly referred to as a capstone course, to metaphorically tie a bow on their Core curriculum. Seminar topics seek to engage students through writing-intensive projects that explore independent inquiry, critical thinking and persuasive communication.

Every academic year, the college offers approximately 15 capstone courses on a wide variety of interdisciplinary subjects. In the past, offerings have included:

  • Buddhist Tradition: Tibet and Himalaya
  • Community Participation: Political Engagement/Media
  • Faith and the Search for Meaning
  • Food for Thought
  • Food Justice
  • Peace, Justice and Social Change
  • Science Fiction and Empire
  • Sport in America
  • Sustainability Around the World
  • The Bowling League: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Disability in America
  • The Future of the Past
  • Where Science and Fiction Collide

Here we dive into two recent classes.

CAN CHOCOLATE BE COLLEGIATE?

Behind Bars: Revealing Chocolate’s Bitter Sweetness, the newest senior capstone course, made its debut this past spring. The course is designed to give students perspective on an indulgence many take for granted: chocolate.

“I researched and designed this course after taking a chocolatier class,” says Cynthia Krenzel, associate professor of music. “I was very interested in teaching a global sustainability class, so it all just started coming together. That, and I love chocolate!”

The course examines chocolate as a reflection of our world—both the sweet and the bitter. Students encounter the beauty of fine chocolates. They also learn about often-unethical labor practices surrounding the harvesting of cacao—seeds from small tropical American evergreen trees from which cocoa, cocoa butter and chocolate are made.

Foreground: Calvin Bill ’18. Background: Monica Powers ’18

Foreground: Calvin Bill ’18.
Background: Monica Powers ’18.

“I didn’t know what cacao was or that it came from a seed,” says Monica Powers ’18, a communication studies major. “It was helpful for me to learn about the background. Professor Krenzel challenged us to think of chocolate as something other than ordinary. While we can enjoy and appreciate chocolate, there are repercussions that come along with it.”

Through the history of chocolate, students witnessed how religion, colonialism, trade and the mixing of cultures converge. Although the majority of solid chocolate produced today is consumed by Western Europeans and Americans, chocolate’s story grew from ancient Mesoamerican roots. Chocolate made its way from the rituals of the Aztecs to the European continent.

“This class definitely earns its global sustainability credit,” says Calvin Bill ’18, a biochemistry and Spanish major. “I learned a ton about why chocolate isn’t necessarily the most sustainable because of the process of harvesting for a better yield. Most people who grow the cacao have never even tasted chocolate, which is something I never thought about before when eating a chocolate bar. It definitely made me want to buy fair trade goods.”

Chocolate scholarship is inherently interdisciplinary. In addition to the history of chocolate, students examined approaches as varied as sociology, global economics and human geography. The class even hosted guest faculty speakers from those related fields.

“I was interested in the class because I thought, ‘Chocolate seems cool,’” Powers says. “We ended up learning about slavery that is involved in chocolate, and I’m passionate about stopping human trafficking and social justice, so it ended up being a really great fit for me.”

Cynthia Krenzel

Cynthia Krenzel

The class also offered some hands-on opportunity.

“Chocolate is more than a commodity and product: it is an art,” Krenzel says. “So students receive basic instruction in, and a healthy respect for, the art of chocolate-making.”

Students worked with white chocolate, milk chocolate and dark chocolate to make truffles, molded pieces and designs.

“We had lessons on how to make truffles and molds and different fillings,” Bill says. “We had to learn how to temper the chocolate, and that’s been the most challenging part of the class. You have to be very precise because there’s a small temperature range to do it correctly. Tempering is how you make it look good—it becomes shiny.”

Students had to spend two-hour increments in the kitchen tempering chocolate and practicing making chocolate delicacies to prepare for their final.

“I call it chocolate lab,” Powers says. “We have to write 500- to 600-word journal entries after each lab explaining what we did, what it was like and showing pictures of our processes.”

CULTURE AT CENTRAL AND BEYOND

Writing-intensive subjects are common in LAS-410: Human Rights, Politics and Culture, taught by Jeffrey Bass, associate professor of anthropology.

Jeffrey Bass

Jeffrey Bass

The course examines how philosophers and social scientists think about a range of human rights issues while at the same time trying to figure out what human rights are. Students look at a series of human-rights case studies. Some topics include the rights of women, children, minorities, gays, animals—even the hypothetical rights of artificial intelligence. Students also debate democratic citizenship, the use of torture and the rules of war.

“It’s so valuable to understand where people are coming from,” Bass says. “Understanding why people view the world the way they do and being able to put one’s self in others’ places is something I hope these students take away from this course.”

Helping students to become informed citizens and well-rounded individuals are additional goals of the course. Though students can write their position papers from any side of an issue, they must also develop the strongest argument they can against their own position and respond to that argument.

“As a liberal arts college, we are about creating well-rounded students,” Bass says. “Central’s mission is to graduate citizens who are locally, nationally and internationally engaged.”

Bass is currently adapting Human Rights, Politics and Culture into an introductory course for first-year students that will explore topics such as the movement to grant personhood rights to apes and whether sports teams with potentially offensive mascots should be required to change them.

A SPRINGBOARD

College is a place to explore, learn as you go and grow from what you know. Capstone courses aren’t designed to “cap off” a Central education, but to springboard students into the next phase of their lives.

“Something I appreciate about capstone courses, and a liberal arts education, is that learning about things that aren’t necessarily directly about our majors challenges us to learn from a different perspective. I think that’s a skill I’ll use outside of college,” Powers says.

Powers offers one last piece of advice to those struggling to decide on a capstone course: “Even if a class isn’t directly applicable to your major, there are transferable skills you’ll learn and practice—such as public speaking, teamwork and improving written and oral communication—that can be applied to life in general. So, pick a class that interests you and be open to what you can learn.”

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