University of Michigan professors, scent expert lead interactive virtual workshops during pandemic

Trained nose mailed students scent kits to ‘smell along’ in virtual workshops

Incense. (Pixabay)

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

Trained in the evaluation of fragrance and taste, Kydd’s classes have developed a cult following, with regulars and curious new attendees packing her classes to the brim.

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

One of her Smell & Tell regulars was Yasmin Moll, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. During the semester before COVID hit, Kydd had led Smell & Tell classes at U-M alongside Moll and assistant professor of Judaic Studies, Rebecca Wollenberg, to explore the role scents played in the three Abrahamic religions.

Based on their experience examining how Judaism, Islam and Christianity intersect through scent and revealing which aromatic materials each religion used, the trio decided to pull off a virtual Smell & Tell for students learning remotely.

Creating a virtual olfactory experience

“We didn’t have a model for how it would work, so me, Michelle and Rebecca spent a lot of time brainstorming,” said Moll. “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. You feel distant from each other and from the material.”

After conducting several experiments, Kydd found a way to place essential oils in sealed tubes and mail them to the workshop’s attendees.

“They almost look like Vick’s inhalers,” said Moll.

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

Kydd ran the session like a Smell & Tell, introducing the history of each scent, had participants smell the inhalers together and share in the chat the memories that each scent brought up. The participants were also encouraged to share words describing what they felt when smelling each scent, which were displayed in a word cloud at the end.

“My No. 1 goal is to create an un-Zoom Zoom,” said Kydd. “I participated in some classes and it was horrible for all the reasons we needed to know. The worst thing in the world is to pay for an educational experience and someone is putting a digital pillow over your face and suffocating the joy out of you. No other medium has this.”

Read: A conversation with ‘The Nose of Ann Arbor’

Moll, who grew up in Cairo, said perfumes and scents are a core element of Middle Eastern culture. Her classes dive into the history of scents in sacred texts. In particular, one class on Biblical masculinity explores the scent of men in the Bible and in the Torah, and what the prophet Muhammad smelled like.

“(The students) said it brought the material to life,” she said. “It was just a really very nice way to enliven these texts that seem distant or metaphorical and to talk about not just similarities but differences, too.”

Watch: Michelle Krell Kydd appears on Live in the D

Kydd praised the professors’ approach in bringing a tangible learning experience to their students who spent days on end watching a computer screen.

“Doing remote classes is hard work and professors are wearing producer hats now, which is something they deserve more credit for,” said Kydd.

After a successful Scenting Abrahamic Masculinities workshop for students on March 24, the women decided to open up a few spots to their Scriptural Scents event on April 9 to some of Kydd’s former regulars longing for the scent workshops.

Courtesy: Michelle Krell Kydd

“The past 13 months have been an introspective time for everyone and when I wasn’t sending newsletters to Smell & Tell fans I was receiving emails from them,” said Kydd. “The thread of community has never broken.”

The Smell & Tell workshops at U-M are made possible by grant funding.

“Michelle’s Smell & Tell workshops were the catalyst for an entire rethinking on our part as faculty on the role of the senses in our teaching,” said Moll. “Her workshops inspired the creation of The Abrahamic Sensorium project at the university.”

What happens next

Kydd has long called for the sense of smell to be incorporated in K-12 and higher education classrooms across the country.

“The thing I wished for most was to be able to teach teachers why smell needs to be included in curriculum -- it supports all kinds of learning, especially project-based learning,” she said. “Smell & Tell builds community in classrooms, workshops and outdoor settings. It also supports interdisciplinary pedagogy.”

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

“I believe it’s the first program of its kind to receive this type of funding,” said Kydd. “It has an ecumenical spiritual element as it is related to plants used in incense and perfumery from the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa. The name of the program is Rite Smells.”

Looking ahead, Kydd said she hopes to resume her workshops at the Ann Arbor District Library once it safely reopens. A longtime fan of Kydd’s classes, Moll said she hopes that library will take a cue from Smell & Tell’s virtual format.

“I don’t know when the library programming is going to resume, but I really feel like this is one thing that the library could do,” said Moll. “There may be budgetary concerns, but the library has so many things online.

“This is such an excellent way to both combat Zoom fatigue among learners while cultivating community and inclusion within a virtual environment.”

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.