Labor Portrait Paper in Human Ecology 375

Professor Jennifer Gaddis, Inter-HE 375

Course Description

Inter-HE 375 Human Ecology of Food and Sustainability is an intermediate course with an enrollment of approximately 30 students who range from freshmen to seniors. The course uses food as a lens to explore the historical roots and current practice of human ecology as an interdisciplinary field dedicated to advancing social justice and community well-being. Throughout the semester, students learn about food systems—from fields to factories, retail, restaurants, and homes—via experiential learning activities and reading assignments that feature first-hand perspectives of food chain workers. This “labor portrait” paper asks students to actively contribute to the growing literature on food chain workers by collecting an original oral history that gives insight into what food chain workers do and how they feel about what they do. This paper was one of two major half-semester projects for the course. Each student submitted a polished draft of the labor portrait paper to a UW-Madison Writing Fellow and later submitted a final revised copy to be featured on the class website:

Assignment: Labor Portrait (35%)

For this project, students will conduct and record an oral history interview (45-60 minutes) with a person of their choosing. The interviewee must engage in some aspect of food work, including but not limited to: researching, growing, harvesting, processing, distributing, stocking, selling, purchasing, cooking, serving, or disposing of food. You may focus on wage-labor or domestic (unpaid) work.

The purpose of the assignment is threefold: (1) to develop research skills related to qualitative interviewing and data analysis, (2) to learn how to write a narrative essay that gives “voice” to the person whose story is being told, and (3) to contribute to public understanding of food work by sharing curated stories of what people do and how they feel about the work they do within food systems.

The tasks for this assignment are broken into steps: choice of interviewee (ungraded), a set of interview questions (5% of grade), an index of the oral history recording (5% of grade), and an essay draft for peer review (ungraded). The final product of this assignment is a written “labor portrait” of 1500-2000 words containing at least one photograph (25% of grade).

We will look to the table of contents, writing style, and general approach of Studs Terkel’s “Working” for inspiration. Please review the readings from week 2 to familiarize yourselves with expectations for the final written product. The labor portrait will be shared publicly via if the narrator consents. In this case, you will be asked to share the final version of the labor portrait with the oral history narrator so they can make any requests for changes before we post it.

  1. Selecting an interviewee

You may interview someone who specializes in a particular element of food work (i.e. growing, harvesting, packing, transporting, purchasing, preparing, or serving food) or someone who has more general experience. I will review and approve your choice. Please use the template on Learn@UW to provide the name and occupation of the person you plan to interview, a brief (1-2) sentence explanation of why you think the person will make a good interview, and a plan for how you will contact the person and collect the interview. (September 11: Choice of interviewee + justification due at 5pm on Learn@UW — ungraded)

  1. Preparing for the interview

Drawing on the materials Troy Reeves passed out in class and your notes from his lecture, you will develop a short  (1-2 page) question guide for your oral history interview (5% of grade). I will provide feedback on this no later September 21. Please note the more you invest up front in generating themes, questions, and follow up responses, the more feedback I can give you.

To begin, I recommend brainstorming a list of questions and organizing them topically and/or in the order you plan to ask them.  Remember that you’ll need to probe for detail and rich stories. General questions typically get general answers, so you should do your best to tailor the questions to what you know about the person’s food work.

In the final submission, your questions should be organized using topical headers to separate different lines of questioning or phases of the interview. I encourage you to include follow up questions and “probes” that you might consider using to help the narrator go deeper with his/her answers. If your list of questions gets too long (beyond 1.5 pages), use comments or color-coding to indicate which of the questions you view as crucial vs. questions you’d like to ask if there is extra time. (September 18: Oral history interview guide due at 5 pm on Learn@UW — 5

  1. Conducting the interview

It is up to you to schedule the interview at a time that fits both your schedule and the schedule of the narrator. If at all possible, please conduct the interview in person at a place that is quiet and convenient first and foremost for the narrator. You must audio record the interview, which should last between 45-60 minutes. You may use your phone or check out a digital recorder from College Library or the UW Madison Oral History Program. Troy Reeves will provide information for how to do this. If the audio is of sufficient quality, and the narrator consents, the UW-Madison Archives will house the audio file and index of the interview you collect. When you meet for the interview, ask for permission to take pictures and ask if the interviewee have any pertinent photos to share with you. You will need to have at least one high-resolution image for the Food Chain Chronicles website. Ideally you will leave the interview with at least one portrait of the person you interviewed. You may also want to take photos of particular objects that the person shows you. Some people don’t like to have their picture taken—this is fine. Ask the oral history narrator to help decide on a photo that signifies his/her story. You must also remember to obtain a written release from your interviewee in order for the material to be used for this project. This form will be posted on Learn@UW for you to print. I will require you to submit this in class on October 2. 

  1. Analyzing the interview

After conducting and recording your interview, you will prepare an index of the FULL 45-60 minute oral history recording (5% of grade). You will likely want to transcribe some parts in full (to include in the labor portrait), but this is not necessary for the index. If you’re unsure how to make an oral history index, view the two examples included as an attachment with this assignment prompt. The Oral History Program website has a lot of other examples for you to peruse as well. The basic idea is to provide a time-based summary of the audio recording so that others can move through the interview and find pre-identified themes. The index should be sufficiently detailed such that you (and other researchers) can navigate the audio file and find all of the pertinent pieces. Ideally, it will allow you (and other researchers) to quickly return to pieces of the oral history without having to listen to the surrounding pieces that don’t relate to the same theme/story. Make sure to highlight at least 2-3 key moments, as in the two example indexes. (Oct. 2: Oral history index, recording, and consent form due at 5 pm on Learn@UW — 5%)

  1. Writing the labor portrait

While likely a new writing challenge for many of you, I’d like for your labor portraits to be written from the perspective of the person you’re interviewing. If you are confused by this requirement, please refer back to the Studs Terkel portraits (Week 2). Using italics, he provides some contextual information and postscripts that are “out of character,” but the rest of his prose really gives life, or voice, to the person he interviews. This is what you should strive to achieve, which is why the questions and follow up probes are so important. You must generate sufficient detail or it will be hard to write an honest, compelling labor portrait. Note that you are allowed to reorganize the person’s words, but you are not allowed to fabricate experience/detail. The final portrait should be 1500-2000 words. It must include one photograph, but can include more.

You must submit a polished draft by Oct 12 and meet your assigned writing fellow for a 30-minute conference. Failure to do so will result in an automatic deduction of ten points from your final paper grade. Oct. 23: Final paper due at 5 pm on Learn@UW — 25% of grade


Interview guideExemplary (A, AB)Acceptable (B, BC)Unacceptable (C, D, F)

Completion of assignment

(____/25 pts)

Interview guide is comprehensive and detailed enough for a 45-60 minute oral historyInterview guide is somewhat short and overly broad.Interview guide is very short and in need of major development/re-focusing.

Application of course content

(____/25 pts)

Demonstrates mastery of course content by using techniques for generating questions that were discussed in class/readingsDemonstrates some engagement with course content by somewhat successfully applying techniques that were discussed in class/readingsDemonstrates little to no effort to use the techniques discussed in class or in the readings

Contextual understanding

(____/25 pts)

Questions are nicely targeted to the oral history narratorQuestions could be more specific to the particular oral history narratorQuestions are totally generic; no clear evidence that the student tried tailor the list of questions to the oral history narrator

Clarity of questions and overall guide

(____/25 pts)

Questions are clear. Interview guide is logically organized with groupings of questions and use of headersQuestions could be worded more clearly and/or the guide isn’t very well organizedQuestions are worded poorly and/or there is no logical organization to the guide
Total point score:Grade letter score:


IndexExemplary (A, AB)Acceptable (B, BC)Unacceptable (C, D, F)

Length and content of interview


(____/20 pts)

Length of interview at least 45-60 minutes; topics stay on point and interviewer makes good use of the pre-prepared question guideInterview somewhat short of 45-60 minutes; topics stray somewhat afield and interviewer struggles to focus the oral history narrator using the question guideInterview substantially shorter than required; questions and answers are off topic; seemingly little effort made to redirect the narrator to the pre-prepared questions


(____/25 pts)

Well-written, concise overview of the interviewee and the topics covered in the oral historyOverview has good content, but could be written more clearlyOverview is poorly written; there is not enough detail to give the reader a strong idea of the narrator or content

Log of interview

(____/25 pts)

Clear sub-headings for different topics; time stamps and description of basic content are rich enough to allow an outside viewer to easily navigate the interviewVery little use of sub-headings; time stamps and description are easy to follow but could be more detailedNo sub-headings for different topics; little attention paid to making the index usable for future readers/researchers

Key moments

(____/20 pts)

Several highlights from the interview are identified and marked as “key moments” in the interview log; contains clear explanation or direct transcription of key momentAt least one key moment is identified and explainedEither no key moments are identified or there is no explanation of the key moment

Audio file

(____/5 pts)

Uploaded audio file to folderNADid not upload audio file to folder

Consent form

(____/5 pts)

Turned in hard copy.NADid not turn in hard copy.
Total point score:Grade letter score:


Paper one (final)Exemplary (A, AB)Acceptable (B, BC)Unacceptable (C, D, F)

Completion of assignment


(___/15 points)

Includes Writing Fellows cover letter and has thoughtful self-evaluation; length (1500-2000 words); great title; all content drawn directly from oral history; photo included; uses italicized introductory comments and postscript where necessaryIncludes Writing Fellows cover letter, but doesn’t demonstrate much critical reflection; incorrect length; decent title; some content general rather than specific to oral history; photo included; missing italicized introductory comments and postscript where necessaryNo Writing Fellows cover letter; substantially shorter than is required; no title; content not taken directly from oral history, no photo included; does not use italicized introductory comments and postscript where necessary

Insight into food work


(___/25 points)

Clear, compelling picture of the work the person performs and how he/she feels about the work; successfully highlights experiences that relate to the gender, race, ethnicity, age, or class of intervieweeThe work and/or how the person feels about the work isn’t totally clear; some attempt made to highlight into how work experience is impacted by gender, race, ethnicity, age, or classVery little attention given to the specifics of food work or how the person feels about the work; doesn’t make any effort to dig deeper into how work experience is impacted by gender, race, ethnicity, age, or class

Richness and detail of the labor portrait


(___/25 points)

Gives the reader a clear sense of who the narrator is and what values he/she holds; the individual experience of the person is clearThe individual experience of the narrator partially comes throught, but could be made more striking—the labor portrait lacks details that would add depth and nuanceThe labor portrait doesn’t give the reader a sense of the individual—it reads as if it could be about anyone

Tone and style


(___/25 points)

Does a wonderful job emulating Studs Terkel’s writing style; the oral history narrator’s voice drives the story—the reader feels as if the narrator is speaking directly to him/her; the storytelling is fluidMakes a clear effort to emulate Studs Terkel’s style; the oral history narrator’s voice is somewhat apparent – the reader feels as if the narrator is speaking directly to him/her; there are no awkward starts or stops in the storytellingDoes not succeed in emulating Studs Terkel’s writing style; the student’s voice is noticeable in the text, rather than making the reader feel as if the oral history narrator is sharing his/her story

Organization, spelling, and grammar

(___/10 points)

Story is well organized; writing is free of grammatical and spelling errorsHas many interesting points, but is poorly organized or weakly written; has some grammatical or spelling errorsHas many grammatical or spelling errors; it’s difficult to understand the “so what” of the labor portrait
Final numerical score: Letter grade: