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UVM Students BARF for Credit

Local Matters


Published November 23, 2005 at 6:56 p.m.

BURLINGTON -- College kids complaining about on- campus food is nothing new, but four University of Vermont students have actually figured out a way to get credit for it. Last month, for their Poli Sci 195 class, Matthew O'Hearn, Nick Carter, Anna Kobey and Ben Walsh started UVM BARF at http://uvmbarf.blogspot.com -- the vomitous acronym stands for Blog About Residential Food. "Tired of the high price and low quality of food at UVM?" they ask in a message in the site's sidebar. "We think the food here sucks and we want to do something about it!"

In their posts, the students attack Sodexho, the university's official food vendor, and chronicle their quest to get the university to allow more downtown merchants to accept "points" from the meal plan. They invite their classmates to get involved, too. They've started an online petition, which has 28 cybersignatures so far, and have designed downloadable posters promoting it. The flyers show a vending machine below the words, "the best food at UVM." The students have posted the flyers around campus, and have appeared on the campus radio and TV stations to spread the word.

The blog and the ensuing campaign is the students' final project for a class called "Politics and the Internet." They have been studying online social networks, political blogs, the Clue Train Manifesto -- a book about the Internet and how it is changing society -- and, of course, Howard Dean's innovative Internet presidential campaign. Their teacher, Zephyr Teachout, has some firsthand knowledge of the subject -- the 34- year- old lawyer was Dean's former director of Online Outreach and Organizing. This is the first college class she's taught.

Near the end of the semester, Teachout invited her students to choose between doing a final paper or a project that would demonstrate what they'd learned. She says she let the students pick their own topics. "There's a lot of leeway," she explains.

One group of students started http://www.KeepVermontersWarm.com -- a website with the goal: "to keep low- income Vermonters warm this winter." Another group launched a blog called Burlington Noise -- at http://burlingtonnoise.blogspot.com -- dedicated to the less altruistic goal of allowing students to make more noise off- campus. "As college students at the University of Vermont," writes "noisemaster," the blog's author, "we have found that the laws concerning noise ordinances downtown are being abused by the Burlington Police Department."

Teachout is currently a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet, Law and Society. She says before she came to UVM, she looked through the catalogues of both Harvard and Dartmouth, trying to find politics classes with the word "Internet" in them. She didn't find any. "How can you talk about the French riots or Al Qaeda without talking about the Internet?" she asks.

Teachout had broached the idea of teaching a class with the faculty at Dartmouth, but began talking with UVM after deciding to move to Burlington. "So much potential power is in the Internet," she says. "I want students to have a sense of their own power."

Neither Teachout nor any of the students have received any feedback, positive or negative, from the UVM administration. The new prof says she'd find any kind of response "fascinating."

Matthew O'Hearn says he and his fellow BARFers plan to submit their petition to Melissa Zelazny, general manager of UVM Dining Services. Zelazny did not return phone calls for this story.