University of Michigan professors and fragrance experts are leading interactive virtual workshops during the pandemic

ANN ARBOR – Michelle Krell Kydd has taught Smell & Tell courses at the Ann Arbor District Library and the University of Michigan for years, teaching attendees about the fascinating world of smell.

Kydd’s classes have been trained in scent and taste evaluation and have developed a cult following. Regulars and curious new participants pack their classes to the brim.

Then, in March 2020, the pandemic hit a virus that, ironically, causes many of its carriers to suffer from anosmia, the loss of their sense of smell.

One of her regulars at Smell & Tell was Yasmin Moll, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. During the semester before the COVID hit, Kydd, together with Moll and the assistant professor of Jewish studies, Rebecca Wollenberg, led Smell & Tell courses at UM to investigate the role of fragrances in the three Abrahamic religions.

Based on their experience of studying how Judaism, Islam and Christianity intersect through smells and what aromatic materials each religion uses, the trio decided to create a virtual Smell & Tell for students studying remotely.


Create a virtual olfactory experience

“We didn’t have a model of how it would work, so Michelle, I and Rebecca spent a lot of time brainstorming,” Moll said. “The thing about Zoom that really bothers me as a professor is how disembodied it is. We’re all boxes on someone else’s screen. They feel removed from each other and from the material. “

After several experiments, Kydd found a way to fill essential oils into sealed tubes and send them to the workshop participants.

“They look almost like Vicks inhalers,” said Moll.

A fragrance kit of essential oils inhalers for the Sacred Scents Smell & Tell at the University of Michigan. (Meredith Bruckner)

Kydd conducted the session like a Smell & Tell, introducing the history of each fragrance. The participants smelled the inhalers together and shared the memories that each scent evoked in the chat. Participants were also encouraged to share words describing what they felt when smelling each scent, which ended up being displayed in a word cloud.

“My # 1 goal is to create an un-zoom-zoom,” said Kydd. “I’ve taken a couple of classes and it was horrible for all the reasons we needed to know. The worst thing in the world is paying for an educational experience and someone will put a digital pillow over your face and choke on the joy of you. No other medium has that. “


Read: A Conversation With ‘The Nose of Ann Arbor’

Moll, who grew up in Cairo, said perfumes and fragrances were a core element of Middle Eastern culture. Your classes will be immersed in the history of fragrances in sacred texts. In particular, a class on Biblical masculinity examines the smell of people in the Bible and the Torah, and how the Prophet Muhammad smelled.

“(The students) said it brought the material to life,” she said. “It was just a really very nice opportunity to liven up these texts, which seem distant or metaphorical, and to talk not only about similarities, but also about differences.”

Watch: Michelle Krell Kydd Appears on Live in the D.

Kydd praised the professors’ approach to providing a tangible learning experience for their students who spent days viewing a computer screen.


“Teaching distance learning is hard work and professors now wear producer hats for which they deserve more credit,” said Kydd.

After a successful Scenting Abrahamic Masculinities workshop for students on March 24th, the women decided to open some spaces for their Scriptural Scents event on April 9th ​​for some of Kydd’s former regulars who yearn for the fragrance workshops.

Courtesy Michelle Krell Kydd

“The past 13 months have been an introspective time for everyone, and when I stopped sending out newsletters to Smell & Tell fans, I got emails from them,” said Kydd. “The thread of the community has never been broken.”

The Smell & Tell workshops at UM are made possible by grants.

“Michelle’s Smell & Tell workshops triggered a complete rethink on our part as a faculty about the role of the senses in our teaching,” said Moll. “Your workshops inspired the establishment of the Abrahamic Sensorium project at the university.”


What happens next

Kydd has long advocated that the sense of smell be incorporated into K-12 and college classes across the country.

“What I wanted most was to be able to teach teachers why odor needs to be included in the curriculum – it supports all types of learning, especially project-based learning,” she said. “Smell & Tell creates community in classrooms, workshops and outdoors. It also supports interdisciplinary pedagogy. “

On June 25th, Kydd will be closer to her goal. She will lead a Smell & Tell for teachers in the state of Michigan funded by the Michigan Department of Education.

“I believe it will be the first program of its kind to receive this type of funding,” said Kydd. “It has an ecumenical spiritual element in that it is related to plants used in frankincense and perfumery from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa. The program is called Rite Smells. “


Looking ahead, Kydd hopes to resume her workshops at the Ann Arbor District Library once it is safely reopened. As a longtime fan of Kydd’s classes, Moll hopes the library will be based on Smell & Tell’s virtual format.

“I don’t know when library programming will resume, but I really think this is one thing the library could do,” Moll said. “There may be budget problems, but the library has so many things online.

“This is a great way to combat zoom fatigue among learners while promoting community and integration in a virtual environment.”

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