| April 3, 2019

David Szanto, Researcher, Artist, Consultant, and Teacher

David Szanto, Researcher, Artist, Consultant, and Teacher

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David Szanto graduated with a PhD in the Individualized Program (INDI) from Concordia University. His dissertation focused on gastronomy, using performance, systems theory, and material practice. He is a researcher, artist, consultant, and sometime teacher.

(March 2019)


Q: What led you to enroll in a PhD program?

Well, I have to back up a little bit. My return to academic studies was in 2005, when I did a Master’s in food culture communications in Italy. I was 37 at the time, and I had not been planning on doing academic work after my first degree: I went off to Italy because I’d broken up with my partner and decided I was going to do something that I wanted to do for me, now that I had the freedom.

Food had always been a big part of my life, and I’d heard about this program, so I did it. I started working for the university directly afterwards. I was doing largely outreach, communications, and some teaching, and one of the things that started to creep into my consciousness around 2007, 2008, was that there were no PhDs in the same framing of food studies that this university had offered at the Master’s level. It was, and it remains, fairly exceptional—an experimental institution, in that it regards food through a very cross-disciplinary lens, including the materiality and the contextual, experiential nature of food and food systems.

I really wanted to push that towards the PhD level because I wanted to formalize this question: what happens when we interact intersubjectively with our area of study.

The other motivation was to set up a precedent for other Masters students with the same inclinations, who also wanted to do a PhD in the same kind of cross-disciplinary and embodied way. This was burning in my head as a question—How can I do this for myself, but also, how can I do this for other students? I was really trying to set and create a path.

I was living in Montreal, working for the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG) in Italy. I contacted some scholars in Food Studies at Concordia, but I wasn’t exactly sure what a PhD in gastronomy would mean, and so they directed me towards the certificate program in design. It helped me think about how design could be a way to examine food, and my head just exploded: I knew what my PhD was going to be.

I enrolled in what is now called the INDI program, which offered the opportunity for a committee to cross faculties and be truly experimental, so including advisors who worked in food studies, social sciences, science communications, etc.

Q: An interdisciplinary committee was important to you, then. Did you get a lot of mentorship from them?

Though I have a great deal of respect for my committee and I enjoyed collaborating with them, I would not call any of my advisors or supervisor mentors. By the time I started the PhD, I was 43. I’ve always had a strongly developed sense of self-direction, and by that point I was teaching at Concordia and UQÀM and in Italy, and had myself been a type of mentor to a great number of students. I was probably arrogant enough to think that I didn’t need or want a mentor. I tried to be a bit of an activist within academia, so if anything, I might have called my advisors a bit of a foil for my pushing back against the establishment.

One of my committee members also left Concordia a couple years into my PhD, without telling me—I found out through a request to change their email address. I stopped having wholly open-hearted trust for supervisor relationships after that experience; it might have contributed to my potential resistance to the idea of mentorship. There’s also a kind of patriarchal power there, and that mode of mentorship is something I’ve resisted, even though I’m part of that system; some of my Masters students have gone on to work on PhDs of their own.

Q: What about a feeling of community during your program?

INDI is not the most community-oriented program, since members of a given cohort don’t generally see each other during coursework. I was very focused on building a little bit of community. I organized monthly lunches and things like a graduate student food studies group. This was partly to be welcoming to new people coming in, partly because I wanted food studies to change, and partly because I wanted to have some community around myself—the inspiration and stimulus of the people doing the same kind of work, to bounce ideas off of, to learn about different sets of theory and practice.

Q: You’ve mentioned teaching already: did you teach much during your PhD?

I taught for four years at UQÀM, and then four years at Concordia, teaching an introductory food studies course handed to me by my supervisor. And then at the same time, I was teaching gastronomic sciences in Italy, where I would go for a couple of weeks at a time to teach intensive seminars. I also made that location one of my research sites. I gave up on teaching at UQÀM at a certain point because I was doing too much.

At UQÀM, I got a strong sense of the breadth of interests that students bring to food studies; the group was extremely diverse. Then, at Concordia, I got to design the course, worked with a TA, with university administration, and it was an incredible experience in terms of learning about what it means to be a professor in an academic institution. The courses I taught at UNISG also helped me figure out my research, thesis, theory, methods. Teaching and research became integrated, an amazing feedback loop of learning, teaching, research, performance, and context. And I did it ethically, with the students understanding that they were part of this process—and they enjoyed it.

Q: How did your funding play into your experience?

I got an incoming scholarship, and a bit of money from my advisors, but the teaching gig was a substantial amount of money for me. That funding supplemented what I was earning from the university in Italy.

I got the FRQSC in my first year, and the next year received the SSHRC and the Vanier, so I turned down the SSHRC and canceled the FRQSC. I consider myself extremely lucky and privileged and grateful for all that funding. The Michael Smith Travel Supplement also helped me spend some time doing research in Italy.

The funding ended exactly at the same time that I finished the program, and it encouraged me to be a little bit more prompt in finishing the degree.

Q: How long did it take you to finish?

It took me four and half years. I spent 13 months writing the dissertation, because I wanted that process to be very much a performative, transformational experience of what I was thinking and doing. I wanted it to be gradual.

Both my parents are academics, so when I was a kid I wanted to be like them. I wanted to get all three degrees in as little time as possible. You know, if I finished quickly, it would mean I was better than everyone else! And then at a certain point, I realized that’s not the point of education.

So when I went back, the Master’s program was completely transformational in a physical, emotional, and intellectual way. And I saw the same thing happen with my Master’s cohort. Why did that embodied, intellectual, emotional experience with food transform so many people in such a radical way?

As I started doing this work, I recognized myself as an academic, and an activist to the extent of changing food systems, and an artist, as art and design practice have become part of the research-creation approach that I took.

Q: What have you been doing since you graduated?

At UNISG, we had one last idea for an international outreach project, which effectively became an informal postdoc, in which I did research and participated in events in over 18 months in 15 different countries. It was a very good experience, but it also burned me out.

By the beginning of 2017, I quit the university in Italy, didn’t have a job, and I told myself I was taking an unpaid sabbatical. But, within a couple months, I was already reacting to being unemployed, and I started looking for an academic job—because that’s what I figured I should do. The word “should” was ringing very strongly in my head at this time, and after 10 years in academia, it was the world I knew and what I was trained, qualified, and recognized as doing. So this was my world and there wasn’t much to do but be in it.

I started applying for jobs by March 2017, and I applied to jobs everywhere, non-tenure, outside of Montreal, interdisciplinary, and as I got closer to jobs that I should be wanting more and more, I realized that I really, really didn’t want them. A lot of the people who had finished their PhDs around the same time as me had gotten tenure-track positions, and they were miserable.

I applied for postdocs—after all, it’s the “waiting room,” it’s what you do when you don’t get a job—and got close to receiving one, and then when I realized it would pay me less than minimum wage, I just got angry. And I knew the statistics, so I started thinking it was okay to not try for academia. After more interviews for postdocs, I thought “Why am I doing this? Why don’t I open myself up to other kinds of work?”

Just after that, I had dinner with a former student, and I asked her to let me know if she heard of anything in administration or communications. She had a friend in publishing, and three days after I told the universe I was no longer into academia, I got the job I’m in now.

David Szanto describes how the difficulty of being a graduate student was freeing, until he tried to find a job in academia.

The difficulty and discomfort of being a graduate student was sort of the best part of academia for me: it was liberating and freeing, and you’re encouraged to do experimental work across disciplines and whatever you want, as long as you get things done. But the disconnect is that once formed as that kind of “open-to-the-world” academic, institutions have very little space for hiring that kind of person. I was endlessly told that everything I do is too experimental, and I didn’t belong to any discipline, and therefore not in a university. If you want to be an academic? Be normative. A university preserves its own structures rather than welcoming radical change.

Q: What else do you think grad students should know?

There’s a glamour to the elitism and idealism of what it means to be a graduate student, but there are also ways for good researchers and writers to do other kinds of work in the world. Ask yourselves those questions before and during your program. Do you have a giant burning question? Do you want to be interdisciplinary? Where do you want to get a job? Do you want to change the system? These questions need to be raised in a much more honest way. I was very well-funded with a high profile scholarship, and I couldn’t get an academic job—and, ultimately, I learned that I probably didn’t want an academic job. It’s an interesting contradiction about what graduate studies should be doing in the world.

My graduate student experience was transformational, and I don’t have a single regret. It influences everything that I do, and vice versa. I can speak academic with collaborators, and also be my artist self. I can be a performer, and I can collaborate with a roboticist to make an installation that is guided by my food systems theory, but also activates food in interesting ways in an art gallery. Or, right now, I’m working on a marketing strategy for the open publishing company that I work for, and built in to the top-level strategy planning are theories that were part of my graduate work. Even my yoga practice turns out to have been an influence on my doctoral work, as well as vice versa—questions and reflections I have now about yin yoga, or the effects of different asanas (postures) and vayus (breaths) are often answered by the experiences and insights I gained as a PhD student.

So that doctoral period is constantly present. It’s really valuable. It is something that I embody and that I love. And so, despite all my awareness of and resistance to the power structures, my PhD experience is producing value in the world, through the work that I now do in non-academic ways.


Many thanks to David for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find more about him at davidszanto.com or iceboxstudio.com.

David Szanto graduated with a PhD in the Individualized Program (INDI) from Concordia University. His dissertation focused on gastronomy, using performance, systems theory, and material practice. He is a researcher, artist, consultant, and sometime teacher.

(March 2019)


Q: What led you to enroll in a PhD program?

Well, I have to back up a little bit. My return to academic studies was in 2005, when I did a Master’s in food culture communications in Italy. I was 37 at the time, and I had not been planning on doing academic work after my first degree: I went off to Italy because I’d broken up with my partner and decided I was going to do something that I wanted to do for me, now that I had the freedom.

Food had always been a big part of my life, and I’d heard about this program, so I did it. I started working for the university directly afterwards. I was doing largely outreach, communications, and some teaching, and one of the things that started to creep into my consciousness around 2007, 2008, was that there were no PhDs in the same framing of food studies that this university had offered at the Master’s level. It was, and it remains, fairly exceptional—an experimental institution, in that it regards food through a very cross-disciplinary lens, including the materiality and the contextual, experiential nature of food and food systems.

I really wanted to push that towards the PhD level because I wanted to formalize this question: what happens when we interact intersubjectively with our area of study.

The other motivation was to set up a precedent for other Masters students with the same inclinations, who also wanted to do a PhD in the same kind of cross-disciplinary and embodied way. This was burning in my head as a question—How can I do this for myself, but also, how can I do this for other students? I was really trying to set and create a path.

I was living in Montreal, working for the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG) in Italy. I contacted some scholars in Food Studies at Concordia, but I wasn’t exactly sure what a PhD in gastronomy would mean, and so they directed me towards the certificate program in design. It helped me think about how design could be a way to examine food, and my head just exploded: I knew what my PhD was going to be.

I enrolled in what is now called the INDI program, which offered the opportunity for a committee to cross faculties and be truly experimental, so including advisors who worked in food studies, social sciences, science communications, etc.

Q: An interdisciplinary committee was important to you, then. Did you get a lot of mentorship from them?

Though I have a great deal of respect for my committee and I enjoyed collaborating with them, I would not call any of my advisors or supervisor mentors. By the time I started the PhD, I was 43. I’ve always had a strongly developed sense of self-direction, and by that point I was teaching at Concordia and UQÀM and in Italy, and had myself been a type of mentor to a great number of students. I was probably arrogant enough to think that I didn’t need or want a mentor. I tried to be a bit of an activist within academia, so if anything, I might have called my advisors a bit of a foil for my pushing back against the establishment.

One of my committee members also left Concordia a couple years into my PhD, without telling me—I found out through a request to change their email address. I stopped having wholly open-hearted trust for supervisor relationships after that experience; it might have contributed to my potential resistance to the idea of mentorship. There’s also a kind of patriarchal power there, and that mode of mentorship is something I’ve resisted, even though I’m part of that system; some of my Masters students have gone on to work on PhDs of their own.

Q: What about a feeling of community during your program?

INDI is not the most community-oriented program, since members of a given cohort don’t generally see each other during coursework. I was very focused on building a little bit of community. I organized monthly lunches and things like a graduate student food studies group. This was partly to be welcoming to new people coming in, partly because I wanted food studies to change, and partly because I wanted to have some community around myself—the inspiration and stimulus of the people doing the same kind of work, to bounce ideas off of, to learn about different sets of theory and practice.

Q: You’ve mentioned teaching already: did you teach much during your PhD?

I taught for four years at UQÀM, and then four years at Concordia, teaching an introductory food studies course handed to me by my supervisor. And then at the same time, I was teaching gastronomic sciences in Italy, where I would go for a couple of weeks at a time to teach intensive seminars. I also made that location one of my research sites. I gave up on teaching at UQÀM at a certain point because I was doing too much.

At UQÀM, I got a strong sense of the breadth of interests that students bring to food studies; the group was extremely diverse. Then, at Concordia, I got to design the course, worked with a TA, with university administration, and it was an incredible experience in terms of learning about what it means to be a professor in an academic institution. The courses I taught at UNISG also helped me figure out my research, thesis, theory, methods. Teaching and research became integrated, an amazing feedback loop of learning, teaching, research, performance, and context. And I did it ethically, with the students understanding that they were part of this process—and they enjoyed it.

Q: How did your funding play into your experience?

I got an incoming scholarship, and a bit of money from my advisors, but the teaching gig was a substantial amount of money for me. That funding supplemented what I was earning from the university in Italy.

I got the FRQSC in my first year, and the next year received the SSHRC and the Vanier, so I turned down the SSHRC and canceled the FRQSC. I consider myself extremely lucky and privileged and grateful for all that funding. The Michael Smith Travel Supplement also helped me spend some time doing research in Italy.

The funding ended exactly at the same time that I finished the program, and it encouraged me to be a little bit more prompt in finishing the degree.

Q: How long did it take you to finish?

It took me four and half years. I spent 13 months writing the dissertation, because I wanted that process to be very much a performative, transformational experience of what I was thinking and doing. I wanted it to be gradual.

Both my parents are academics, so when I was a kid I wanted to be like them. I wanted to get all three degrees in as little time as possible. You know, if I finished quickly, it would mean I was better than everyone else! And then at a certain point, I realized that’s not the point of education.

So when I went back, the Master’s program was completely transformational in a physical, emotional, and intellectual way. And I saw the same thing happen with my Master’s cohort. Why did that embodied, intellectual, emotional experience with food transform so many people in such a radical way?

As I started doing this work, I recognized myself as an academic, and an activist to the extent of changing food systems, and an artist, as art and design practice have become part of the research-creation approach that I took.

Q: What have you been doing since you graduated?

At UNISG, we had one last idea for an international outreach project, which effectively became an informal postdoc, in which I did research and participated in events in over 18 months in 15 different countries. It was a very good experience, but it also burned me out.

By the beginning of 2017, I quit the university in Italy, didn’t have a job, and I told myself I was taking an unpaid sabbatical. But, within a couple months, I was already reacting to being unemployed, and I started looking for an academic job—because that’s what I figured I should do. The word “should” was ringing very strongly in my head at this time, and after 10 years in academia, it was the world I knew and what I was trained, qualified, and recognized as doing. So this was my world and there wasn’t much to do but be in it.

I started applying for jobs by March 2017, and I applied to jobs everywhere, non-tenure, outside of Montreal, interdisciplinary, and as I got closer to jobs that I should be wanting more and more, I realized that I really, really didn’t want them. A lot of the people who had finished their PhDs around the same time as me had gotten tenure-track positions, and they were miserable.

I applied for postdocs—after all, it’s the “waiting room,” it’s what you do when you don’t get a job—and got close to receiving one, and then when I realized it would pay me less than minimum wage, I just got angry. And I knew the statistics, so I started thinking it was okay to not try for academia. After more interviews for postdocs, I thought “Why am I doing this? Why don’t I open myself up to other kinds of work?”

Just after that, I had dinner with a former student, and I asked her to let me know if she heard of anything in administration or communications. She had a friend in publishing, and three days after I told the universe I was no longer into academia, I got the job I’m in now.

David Szanto describes how the difficulty of being a graduate student was freeing, until he tried to find a job in academia.

The difficulty and discomfort of being a graduate student was sort of the best part of academia for me: it was liberating and freeing, and you’re encouraged to do experimental work across disciplines and whatever you want, as long as you get things done. But the disconnect is that once formed as that kind of “open-to-the-world” academic, institutions have very little space for hiring that kind of person. I was endlessly told that everything I do is too experimental, and I didn’t belong to any discipline, and therefore not in a university. If you want to be an academic? Be normative. A university preserves its own structures rather than welcoming radical change.

Q: What else do you think grad students should know?

There’s a glamour to the elitism and idealism of what it means to be a graduate student, but there are also ways for good researchers and writers to do other kinds of work in the world. Ask yourselves those questions before and during your program. Do you have a giant burning question? Do you want to be interdisciplinary? Where do you want to get a job? Do you want to change the system? These questions need to be raised in a much more honest way. I was very well-funded with a high profile scholarship, and I couldn’t get an academic job—and, ultimately, I learned that I probably didn’t want an academic job. It’s an interesting contradiction about what graduate studies should be doing in the world.

My graduate student experience was transformational, and I don’t have a single regret. It influences everything that I do, and vice versa. I can speak academic with collaborators, and also be my artist self. I can be a performer, and I can collaborate with a roboticist to make an installation that is guided by my food systems theory, but also activates food in interesting ways in an art gallery. Or, right now, I’m working on a marketing strategy for the open publishing company that I work for, and built in to the top-level strategy planning are theories that were part of my graduate work. Even my yoga practice turns out to have been an influence on my doctoral work, as well as vice versa—questions and reflections I have now about yin yoga, or the effects of different asanas (postures) and vayus (breaths) are often answered by the experiences and insights I gained as a PhD student.

So that doctoral period is constantly present. It’s really valuable. It is something that I embody and that I love. And so, despite all my awareness of and resistance to the power structures, my PhD experience is producing value in the world, through the work that I now do in non-academic ways.


Many thanks to David for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find more about him at davidszanto.com or iceboxstudio.com.

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