Even in a brief conversation, Amy A. Quark can masterfully explain the links between cotton farmers in Benin in West Africa and their counterparts in the United States.
More importantly, Quark makes you care.
This assistant professor of sociology at William & Mary takes what some may consider esoteric details about cotton bolls or coffee beans and turns them into lessons about global politics and economic control.
For undergraduate students awakening to the machinations of power and cultural hegemony, Quark’s courses, Globalization and International Development and The Sociology of Food and Agriculture, can be eye-opening — and enlivening.
“This week, a student got so excited by the material that he begged me to write a longer response paper,” Quark says. “It was three times as long as I’d asked and he included charts and graphs.”
Quark, who came to William & Mary in fall 2009, is impressed by the caliber of students attending the College and their level of intellectual interest and pursuit.
“I’m blown away by the students here,” she says. “They are genuinely curious and are so thoughtful and engaged.”
She feeds their curiosity by taking classes on field trips and engaging students in research on international topics.
One recent field trip was to Day Spring Farm, not far from the campus. The lesson was on alternative food systems. Students learned how the risks and rewards of the farm are shared by consumers who buy shares in the farm at the beginning of the season. A lack of rain, or a proliferation of pests, can affect the consumers’ haul but not sink the farm.
Quark’s students also are conducting research on pesticide residue standards in soft drinks, a question at the center of controversy in India because of the use of polluted water to bottle soft drinks. The question becomes: who sets the standards internationally, should it be uniform across the globe and what should the standard be?
Quark’s students also are working with a chemistry professor, Jonathan Scheerer, to understand the technical component of measuring water contaminants.
According to Quark: “I’m trying to give them the tools to understand how they can be effective in making change in the world around them.”
A native of Mossbank, Saskatchewan, Quark grew up on a farm that has been in the family for four generations. Once predominantly planted with wheat, the farm — now run by her brother — has diversified into chickpeas and lentils.
As an undergraduate in Canada, Quark said she tried to escape anything that smacked of the rural life and existence in her hometown. But the more she studied international development — her major — the more she realized those issues centered largely around agriculture.
“All of these places — Mossbank to Indonesia — were linked into the same global market and subject to many of the same regulations and pressures and market forces,” she says.
Using case studies from various regions of the world, and mixing in the historical context, she juxtaposes some of the “big ideas” about development that emerged in different regions during different periods, such as postWorld War II. Students read and discuss where the ideas came from and evaluate their effects.
“For example, we may look at Latin American industrialization versus East Asian industrialization and why one worked better than another,” she says. “We try to make sense of the different strategies and theories.”
Many of her students, Quark says, are engaged in service work that has development at the core. “They’re going on alternative spring break, studying abroad in developing countries, getting involved in fundraising efforts for organizations that do development work. They are trying to plug themselves in to all of these efforts.”
Her goal in teaching, she says, “is to try to connect some of the dots for them — to help them put those efforts into a bigger context so that they understand the structure of the global economy and the political system. Then they will have a much wider array of tools to help them understand what they’re doing in an organization — like what does it mean to be involved in micro finance versus building a school versus being involved in an activist campaign looking at U.S. foreign policy.
“So many students are so passionate about these ideas,” she says. “I want to help them figure out how they can address these issues in an effective and meaningful way.”