The Chicken

Cheryl Laz, Associate Professor, Sociology and Women & Gender Studies; Rob Sanford, Professor of Environmental Science, University of Southern Maine

SENCER Model Course Logo

Chicken—Gallus gallus domesticus—is a creature of both nature and culture. Its domestication, the use of chicken for food across the globe, and its place in cultures around the world generate many questions. The course is organized around three significant ways we encounter chickens in our society: as food, as the object of policy and politics, and as cultural symbol. Each section of the course offers a different perspective or frame for Chicken. Within each section, students read, hear and view scholarly and popular materials that emphasize different disciplinary perspectives (sociological, political, environmental, biological, cultural, and anthropological), conclusions and points of view. Throughout the course, students are introduced to fundamental scientific concepts to build an appreciation for science as a way of asking and answering questions, to show how science enhances our ability to understand culture and society, to reason about and evaluate alternatives, and to be more informed and engaged citizens.

Instructor’s Goals:
Collaborative, interdisciplinary teaching that prepares the student for college writing, encourages critical thinking, and that meets the “Entry Year Experience” objectives of the university’s general education curriculum

Student Learning Objectives:
As a general education course, The Chicken Course must address the following objectives:

  • employ a variety of perspectives to explore a significant question about the interrelationship between human culture and the natural world
  • pose and explore questions in areas that are new and challenging
  • describe, explain and analyze course concepts, orally and in writing
  • reflect upon and link learning in the course with other learning experiences (for example co-curricular experience)
  • recognize that an individual’s viewpoint is shaped by his or her experience and historical and cultural context
  • develop and employ skills to locate and critically evaluate information relevant to course questions (i.e., information literacy)
  • engage in respectful dialog with others that honors diversity
  • identify dispositions and behavior that foster academic success and recognize university resources and services that support learning and personal growth

The syllabus includes the following statement of learning objectives, drawing on the university-designated outcomes and adapting them to the topic of “chicken” and the interests and training of faculty in Sociology and Environmental Sciences. Students who successfully complete EYE 129 will be able to describe, explain, analyze and evaluate, at an introductory level, orally and in writing, a variety of perspectives which position Chicken at the intersection of human cultures and the natural world.

Students will know:

  • How the production and consumption of chicken as food has changed in the US over the past century, and how these changes are related to the broader transformation of agriculture and food production
  • That alternative methods of raising poultry exist alongside dominant, industrialized methods, and that each has advantages as well as disadvantages
  • How the exercise of power at the local level and on a global scale can help solve, and create, problems related to animal welfare, the environment, diet, and public health
  • That Chicken can be viewed through a variety of frames or lenses, and that each reveals something about us as members of a culture
  • How individual experiences and choices are related to larger cultural and historical patterns

Students will be able to:

  • Describe some of the many ways that Chicken is the product of both culture and nature
  • Locate and critically evaluate information relevant to answering a variety of kinds of questions
  • Engage with a range of texts of different types (popular and scholarly; written and visual; in the sciences, social sciences, humanities and the arts)
  • Use writing effectively as part of the process of learning, and for purposes of exploring ideas and for self-reflection
  • Articulate, at a level appropriate for a first year college student, their own views and support those views with reasoning and evidence
  • Communicate effectively by writing clearly and correctly and by engaging in meaningful and respectful dialogue
  • Exhibit intellectual curiosity and a propensity to act on that curiosity by posing and exploring questions in relation to both familiar and unfamiliar topics
  • Articulate, at an introductory level, points of connection between/among different courses and between learning and experiences inside and outside of the classroom

Linking Science and Social Issues

As the course is not specifically a science or a discipline-based course, it does not have fixed concepts or “disciplinary learning” at its core. There are, however, many science concepts integrated with discussions of social issues; understanding of these concepts enriches students’ understanding of chicken “culture” (symbolism, stories, representation in the arts), enhances their reasoning about social and political questions, and enables them to critically evaluate policy alternatives. The chart below indicates some examples of science concepts that help students address specified civic, social, and practical questions in a more informed and thoughtful way.

Linking of Science concepts and Civic or Social Challenges

Virology, virus, bacteria, disease, epidemiology are taught through:

How should the poultry industry be regulated? What sorts of public health challenges does poultry production and consumption pose? How can these challenges be addressed? What is avian flu? Should we worry about avian flu? What bacteria cause food borne illness? How can food safety be improved?

Genetics, evolution are taught through:

How have chickens been bred for meat production & for egg-laying “efficiency”? What are the advantages & disadvantages of this breeding? How do viruses mutate and evolve?

Behavioral science, natural behavior, avian behavior, ethology are taught through:

What are the various housing systems used in poultry production? What are the advantages/disadvantages of each? How does each inhibit or permit natural behaviors?
What are the effects of crowding and stress on chickens? How can chicken coops be designed to respect chickens’ natural behaviors? How has chicken behavior been represented in painting, sculpture, stories, artifacts, and folk culture?

Ergonomics is taught through:

What are work conditions in the poultry industry? How do the work conditions affect worker health?
How can work in poultry industry be organized to manage risk?

Probability and statistics, basic quantitative literacy, understanding scale are taught through:

How should we understand and evaluate risk (for example, of food borne illness, or mortality from H5N1)? How big is “big?” (a flock of 100,000 chickens) and how small is “small?” ( H5N1 virions are 80-120 nm in diameter); how do we label and understand these numbers and units?

Ontogeny is taught through:

What is distinctive about chicken ontogeny? How does the developmental biology of the chicken contribute to human culture (in our food system, in medicine, in biological research)?

Nutrition, fat, calories, carbohydrates, proteins are taught through:

What is nutrition? What is a healthy diet? What is the nutritional profile of chicken? Of eggs? How has the nutritional profile changed over time? What do chickens require for good nutrition?

Scientific method, empirical evidence, hypothesis, theory, concept, reliability, validity, peer review are taught through:

How do we know what we know about chickens, work conditions, public health, etc? How can we gather, use and evaluate evidence in deciding among alternative courses of action (for example in designing a chicken housing system, or in deciding whether, how much, and what kind of chicken to eat)?

Classification, Social construction of knowledge, phenomenology are taught through:

What is a system of biological classification? What are taxonomic ranks? How are systems of scientific classification related to social and cultural categories? How have scientific and social systems of classification shaped our thinking about and relations to chickens?

The Course

The Chicken Syllabus

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Sample Assignments:Group Project

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Exercise: Chicken Ordinance

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Exercise: Children’s Book Analysis

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Bird Flu Activity

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Role Play Group Project

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The Chicken Course has been deliberately designed as an interdisciplinary, introductory-level, general education course. As an interdisciplinary course, it does not reside in any single department, nor does it fulfill a specific departmental/major requirement. Instead, it intentionally puts multiple disciplines into conversation with one another around the topic of chicken to show the ways that science complements and is complemented by other ways of seeing/knowing. As an introductory-level course, The Chicken Course aims to develop skills in analysis, critical reasoning, writing, oral communication, self-assessment, and collaboration to prepare students for more advanced coursework and lifelong learning. As a general education course, The Chicken Course is oriented to the goals of liberal learning and engaged citizenship as articulated in the SENCER ideals. Perhaps the over-arching question is “Just what do we do about chicken anyway?”In the first part of the course, Chicken is the tour guide as we explore their production for meat and eggs. Chicken is a window into dramatic changes in the food industry and in kitchen literacy over the past century. Chickens are not only good to eat; they are also at the center of local and global political debates. At the local level, municipalities regulate the keeping of chickens as well as poultry and egg production through law and local ordinances. At the global level, bird flu and fear of contagion generate a variety of national and international responses. In the second part of the course, Chicken illustrates how policy and politics intersect with science, epidemiology, and ecology. Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss proposed that animals are not only good to eat, but also “good to think.” Cockfighting, while now illegal in all fifty US states, is nonetheless still practiced here and around the world. If roosters are the stars of cockfighting, hens are the stars of plenty of stories of their own, including “Chicken Little” (“The sky is falling…”) and the “Little Red Hen.” In the third part of the course, we explore humans’ love affair with chickens in the realm of culture– in sport and story–to examine what Chicken and our relationships to them have to say about us as humans.

Evaluating Learning

Group Project Rubric

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Assessment of student learning is both formative and summative. Formative assessment of student learning occurs through the extensive use of low-stakes writing assignments. Low stakes writing sometimes takes the form of brief, in-class writing. More often, it takes the form of focus questions. Focus questions–assigned for most class periods and described on the syllabus–require students to bring written answers to class; their answers–together with the texts–are the foundation for class activities.

The questions draw on Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, are keyed to the assigned text(s), and guide students’ reading by providing structured opportunity for comprehension, application, integration, and reflection. Students may add to or revise their answers as we work in class. Focus questions are collected at the end of class, reviewed and assessed. Throughout the semester, these provide a significant opportunity for formative assessment. The student’s original answer together with subsequent changes, additions, etc. made in class provide indicators of progress toward learning outcomes. Details can be found on the course syllabus and Focus Question assignment. For higher stakes writing (i.e. formal essays), students write drafts that are reviewed by a peer and by faculty before revision and submission for a grade.

Assignments are carefully sequenced to provide students with multiple opportunities for engagement with core concepts, questions, and readings. The elements are intended to build on each other, such that each subsequent encounter with the material provides the student with a richer, more nuanced, and/or more complex understanding.

A student’s grade in the course is comprised of several components and each component is evaluated using a rubric. Components (essays; focus questions; group project; attendance, preparation, and engagement) are described in detail on the syllabus.

In addition to assessing student learning in the context of evaluation, we also assess the extent to which the course more generally is achieving its goals. Student course evaluations—done electronically—use a combination of university-designated questions and instructor-designed questions specific to the learning outcomes for this course. In addition, a final essay prompt (“Write an essay which describes how the chicken course is about more than just chicken.”) enables us to assess the extent and kind of student learning.

Background and Context

Course History

This course was developed jointly after years of backyard chicken-keeping and joking about how much fun a “chicken course” might be. In 2011-2012, with the implementation of the University of Southern Maine’s revised general education curriculum, its co-creators submitted the course for review by the university’s Core Curriculum Council. [By that time, we had so long referred to the enterprise as “The Chicken Course” that no other name would suit. We also found that the silliness of the name gave it visibility and spurred conversation and inquiry.] The course was approved and first taught in Fall 2012; it has now been offered four times. In its development and delivery, the course has been fully collaborative, with both faculty in the classroom every day, participating in instruction, assessing student work, and co-designing activities and assignments. The course has had strong enrollments, filling to capacity (of 25) three of the four semesters.

Institutional Context

The Chicken Course was developed as an interdisciplinary Entry-Year Experience (EYE) course in USM’s general education Core. Every entering student with fewer than 24 credits must take an EYE course. While some are offered in majors, The Chicken Course does not have a home in any single major or academic department. As a general education course, The Chicken Course must meet learning outcomes common to all EYE courses and this includes exposing students to a variety of different perspectives and “lenses” including the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts. EYE courses are also aimed at developing college-readiness skills (in writing, oral presentation, critical reasoning, etc.). In addition, EYE courses are intended to promote retention by creating a community of learners and by facilitating relationships between faculty and students. As a consequence, one by-product is recruitment of students to fields taught by the instructors.

Related Resources

The Chicken Course is visible and well-known in the university community. Members of the university community serve as guest speakers in class and many regularly send us materials for possible use in class. The course, particularly its elements of civic engagement and the integration of co-curricular learning, has been used as a model for other EYE courses. In addition, as a culmination of their “campus chickens” group project (in which students work in teams to investigate keeping chickens on campus), the class gives a public presentation.Students may also produce posters and other information materials as a way to help engage the public in thinking about big questions such as “What are we eating?” or “Are we setting ourselves up for a pandemic?”