Tell me how you teach and I will tell you who you are.

7 05 2014

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”

– Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, 1825.

The great problem I have maintaining my Twitter account is to keep the edtech people happy when I share too much history, and the history people happy when I share too much edtech. This feels like a particularly acute problem when I’m on a food history kick, as the number of refrigeration nerds amongst my tweeps is really pretty low. Luckily, I think I found away to kill two birds with one stone here. All it requires is a metaphor that’s been at the back of mind for a long time, but I’m going to use it now because it doesn’t really seem all that forced to me anymore.

There’s an article in this week’s New Yorker (not behind the subscription curtain even!) that I find absolutely disgusting, in both the conventional and abstract sense of that word. Apparently, there’s a new startup called Soylent (Yes, like the movie*) that purports to offer you all the vitamins and minerals that you need to survive. Of course the idea started in Silicon Valley, and of course the stuff tastes absolutely repulsive:

People tend to find the taste of Soylent to be familiar: the predominant sensation is one of doughiness. The liquid is smooth but grainy in your mouth, and it has a yeasty, comforting blandness about it. I’ve heard tasters compare it to Cream of Wheat, and “my grandpa’s Metamucil.”

So why buy it? Allegedly, people are spending far too much time growing and eating food:

We pulled up at Caltech in early evening and were met by Rachel Galimidi, a Ph.D. candidate in biology, who is the resident adviser for Ricketts dorm. Galimidi said that the dorm is home to “a lot of very busy engineering and physics students” who “don’t have time to do anything”—including eat.

If this counts as lifehacking, then count me out. Eating is supposed to be one of the most pleasurable things in life. It’s freighted with both cultural value and priceless human experiences. Whatever benefits you might get from reducing it to a doughy liquid simply aren’t worth the costs.

While you may not see the parallel between this and the famous scene from “Modern Times” I posted above, I do think there is a similarity. Both Soylent and the eating machine there are designed so that people can get done with their meals and back to work faster. The difference, of course, is that the eating machine in “Modern Times” is being imposed on workers by management. Those Caltech students, like every other Soylent customer, are imposing this bizarre form of hurry-up upon themselves.

It may take somebody as obsessed with edtech as myself to draw an analogy between this and that, but I’m going there nonetheless. In the same way that Soylent breaks down eating into its component parts – missing the bigger, human picture – way too many edtech companies try to do the same with education. You want content? Watch our lectures. You want to know how to write? Our computer will grade it for you. Want to interact with other students? Post on the discussion board. They simply assume that the whole is the same as the sum of its parts. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But I can tell you this, though, the whole is certainly a lot more fun for teachers and students alike.

Where this analogy breaks down though is with respect to the difference between eaters and students. Anybody who actually thinks eating Soylent is a good idea is an anti-social asshole in my book. It’s the functional equivalent of not getting up to go the bathroom because you’re having too much fun playing your favorite first-person shooter game. If you’ve eaten at even a decent restaurant before, you should certainly know better. And don’t even start me on those people being too lazy to cook.

I’m willing to cut students more slack. Unfortunately, too many of them may never know what they’re missing. It’s the professors who serve them up their cold, doughy glasses of higher education who really ought to know better, and shame on them all for ignoring the deficiencies that are all too obvious to the rest of us.

* Amazingly, I’ve actually made a “Soylent Green” joke on this blog already, “It’s faculty! Soylent Green is faculty!”



11 responses

7 05 2014
Jonathan Dresner

My reaction when I read the Solyent article was “In five years, someone will propose paying welfare benefits in synthetic foods. In ten, it will be Republican dogma.” Similarly with MOOCs: the divide between humane methods and industrial products is going to be along class lines, and it’s not entirely clear that we have the rhetorical tools to stop it.

7 05 2014

The drip who invented Soylent also refuses to wash his clothing, preferring instead to deodorize his clothes in the freezer instead, and then to “donate” them when they’re too smelly to freezeodorize. So let’s just say that he has uses for modern kitchen appliances–just not the expected ones.

I really had to wonder about the prevalence of ASD in the Valley when I read that article. Soylent is a food-like beverage that would appeal to people who are put off by the normal smells, textures, and flavors of real food, so perhaps it works well for people on the spectrum.

That so many, as you say, are imposing this “bizarre form of hurry-up on themselves” is precisely the difference–they, anyway, still have a choice. As you and Jonathan Dresner suggest, that may not be the case for all eaters and students in the near future. (Although I don’t think that Soylent will end up being more than a short-lived fad or a kind of vitamin water/muscle milk niche market product.)

Thanks for this post. That Soylent article really creeped me out, and now I understand better why it did.

7 05 2014

Last week at #rhizo14 someone posted “#rhizo14 is people,” so I made a Soylent Green joke and suggested some in ds106 make a Charlton Heston/rhizome gif

Soylent sounds like a kind of prison food that’s been around for a while. 

I rather like the history/food/mooc bebop


8 05 2014
Pat Lockley

I wonder if this is the AdamSmithification of the self. Tasks are optimised within people now too. Soylent is just the extension of red bull as a work faster tool. Pleasure as wasted time or something sociopathically removed from productive periods

To tie it into refrigeration – how long till they put caffiene in the aircon

8 05 2014

The drink catches my interest. I’m generally not too social, whether I’m eating or otherwise, but even I feel that the idea of an all-Soylent-all-the-time diet drops a key function of meal periods. I make sure I have time during my work or study schedules to prepare a meal. Fixing some sort of food (as well as perhaps communicating with someone else) can provide a nice break for my mind to rest.
Those breaks are crucial, as without them my work would become completely awful. I get new ideas and refine my old ones. I also happen to enjoy eating. It gives me something to look forward to in my breaks, rather than a cup of tasteless mush. My position would be that eating Soylent is better than skipping meals to get something done. However, if one has to eat it for every meal, methinks it would be better to loosen up the schedule.
At the same time your broader point is also intriguing. I haven’t spent enough time examining this whole MOOC issue, but I know that reducing a course down to be heavily automated can prevent the communication of crucial concepts (especially in the humanities). History and indeed the world are both complex. How are students going to be able to learn about either without direct instruction or experience? It seems like an MOOC offers neither of these. Am I wrong?

8 05 2014

The analogy seems perfect to me.

8 05 2014
Jonathan Rees

Thank you, Ruth Anne. On May 8, 2014 6:52 AM, “More or Less Bunk” wrote:


8 05 2014
Lisa M Lane

I’m in on the parallels (as history prof, ed tech user, historian of tech, and Soylent Green film buff). But I don’t see a whole lotta difference between this stuff and other products that sell because they’re convenient but have no substance (tastes horrid! less filling!).

8 05 2014

The analogy works for me. To a certain kind of xMOOCish mindset:

— college = transfer of information

just as

— meal = transfer of nutrients

Why not also these?

— travel = getting from Point A to Point B

— sex = recombination of DNA

Now that this stuff has been cleared up, we can all let technology helps us get our education, meals, road trips, and sex out of the way as efficiently as possible, so we have more time for all the good stuff in life.

8 05 2014

Reblogged this on Learning and Labor and commented:
New technology is not the answer to everything–and especially not to food!

9 05 2014
Tell me how you teach and I will tell you who you are. | More or Less … | Know What You Eat

[…] More here:  Tell me how you teach and I will tell you who you are. | More or Less … […]

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