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Student-created ‘Eating Plants’ exhibit now on display at Monmouth College

Barry McNamara
Students from Brianne Donaldson’s Introduction to Liberal Arts class stand with her by their exhibit, installed on the staircase in Hewes Library.
“Eating Plants: Vegetarian Stories from the Heartland,” an exhibit featuring personal accounts by members of the Monmouth College and local community, is on display in the college’s Hewes Library through February.
Located along the staircase leading from the main level to the second floor, the exhibit was created by students in visiting assistant professor Brianne Donaldson’s “Introduction to Liberal Arts” (ILA) class.
Each year, Monmouth’s first year-students read a common text as part of ILA, which is the first in a series of four courses in the college’s Integrated Studies curriculum. This year’s text, Ian Leslie’s “Curious,” was intended to get students thinking about what they didn’t know, and what they were curious to learn more about.
Once the reading is completed, ILA classes take off in different directions. Donaldson’s students next read Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals,” which inspired lively classroom discussions about the meat industry, factory farms and animal rights and, ultimately, to the exhibit.
“This is an important story in our time,” Donaldson said of the decision more and more individuals are making regarding their daily diet. “This is going to be in the students’ world, and be much more of a social issue. They will probably have a girlfriend or boyfriend who’s vegetarian, or a close family member or friend.”
Students didn’t just learn about vegetarian lifestyles, explained Donaldson. They also became immersed in the local community, from interviewing a local auto mechanic about his vegetarian lifestyle, to working with a local bakery, La flor de trigo, to provide treats for the exhibit’s opening reception.
“It’s a great conversation, and it helped them put skills into practice – not just liberal arts skills, but skills like what to wear to an interview and how to get over their inhibitions about talking to others,” said Donaldson.
“This project really pushed us out of comfort zone,” said Kenzi Lafferty, a pre-law student from Canton, one of two student co-hosts for the reception. “We started as freshmen in college, still dependent on home. As the semester moved along, you see yourself being molded into an adult and starting to thinking about ‘big picture’ things. You realize that not everyone is like you.”
“Through this project and others, Professor Donaldson pushed us to get us out there,” said the other co-host, business major Justin Gardner of New Lenox. “It took us on a journey, for sure.”
Neither Lafferty, who grew up on a farm, nor Gardner are swearing off eating meat as a result of their class project, but they both appreciated the opportunity to learn why some chose vegetarian lifestyles.
“We were able to look at this issue from a lot of different perspectives,” said Lafferty. “It was interesting to learn how each person came to this point in their life.”
Also interesting, said Donaldson, is the number of people in the area who have vegetarian stories to tell.
“They share this lifestyle in common, but they don’t necessarily know there are others like them on campus or in the community,” she said. “By creating a public event, people can learn they’re not alone and just out there on the margins.”
Learning what’s “out there” beyond an individual’s limited experiences was a major part of the exercise, said Donaldson, who came to Monmouth in 2014 from California.
“When I moved here, I wanted to learn my habitat,” said Donaldson, who has since discovered 15 places to hike and now knows the best places in the region to get good Indian food, among other examples. “Culturally, this area is so unexpectedly rich. Some students never connect with anything in their town.”
Earlier in the semester, Donaldson devised other projects through which students could exercise their curiosity, including exploring the history of the college or town, or subjects such as minority students on campus or the history of the Burmese immigrants in town.
“The idea was to move beyond books and have them meet real people,” she said. “Move beyond the dorm and the classroom and share with each other. There’s a slaughterhouse in town. I wanted to bring that reality to life, and not just have it blow by them.”
With the exhibit now installed, and the final meeting of her class just hours away, Donaldson reflected on the semester’s experiences.
“In this class, we saw that caring for something can make us curious about it, but being curious can also lead us to care about things we did not previously,” she said. “Permission to care about the life of animals, the environment and our local and global neighbors in industrial agriculture has been a subtle, but significant, aspect of this project.”