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!”


“Warning: This is not college.”

10 05 2013

Among the many things I’ve been doing since my semester ended is start another MOOC: Nutrition, Health and Lifestyle out of Vanderbilt. Why? Not only does it remind me of my dear, departed sabbatical, I teach food history. In that class we end up spending more time in the present than in any other course that I’ve ever taught and this MOOC is all about the food present.

I’ve almost completed the first week of six or seven so far and it has been very enjoyable. The production values are terrific. The superprofessor, Jamie Pope, is a good lecturer. There’s even a fair bit of history in it. If there’s a structural change between this course and the others I’ve taken, it’s the fact that the multiple choice questions come in the middle of the lecture rather than the end.

What hasn’t changed is the work level. As with the history MOOCs that I’ve taken or observed, there is no required reading in this class whatsoever. I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about nutrition as a discipline (which is one of the reasons I wanted to try this MOOC), but I have a hard time believing that there is a face-to-face nutrition course anywhere in the country that doesn’t have some kind of required reading. After all, reading is an important part of education of all kinds because the act of reading reinforces the learning process. I guess you could argue that the MOOC is nothing but a jazzed-up textbook, but how many other textbooks can you get a certificate for reading?

As I anticipated, Coursera/Vanderbilt is doing practically everything possible not to scare anybody off. Indeed, that’s why some of the lines from the syllabus border on pathetic. For example, after noting that the textbook is not required, the syllabus states that the video lectures provide the “core content for this course.” From what I can tell, the weekly assignments do not require writing (which seems understandable for nutrition), but you can still earn a “Statement of Accomplishment” without submitting any of them.

In one sense, this situation isn’t hurting anybody. 70,000 people are learning about nutrition, gaining knowledge that can improve every person’s life. This is certainly a good thing. In another sense though it may harm a lot a people. This class is on the Coursera Signature Track. While Coursera is clear that completing a class like this earns no college credit, they’re also clear that handing over $30-$100 per course to get your identity and performance verified does have value. Introducing this option, the company wrote on its blog:

We hope that offering verified certification for our courses will open up many new and valuable opportunities for students…

What are those opportunities? Perhaps they just mean professional development, but if you doubt that somebody somewhere is going to try to get college credit out of that certificate then you must have been born yesterday. The same thing goes if you doubt that some college somewhere will be delighted to award credit for that certificate – at a price. [Measured “competencies” anyone?] If enough people take MOOCs on the Signature Track, there may even be a movement to demand it.

If MOOCs could be limited to nerdy edu-tainment, I wouldn’t be writing this. If we could slap a label on every MOOC that says, “Warning: This is not college,” perhaps I would have no problem with them. I know superprofessors believe that they are doing a great public good by putting their lectures online and in a limited sense they are, but MOOCs do not exist in a vacuum. One person’s outreach is another person’s college substitute. That means that one superprofessor’s public service can also be an ill-informed administrator’s deadly weapon against the rest of us and against rigor in higher education in general. To think otherwise is the height of both naïveté and short-sightedness.

The functional equivalent of eating through a tube.

15 08 2011

A new option has arisen, called online learning portals, that might make college superfluous. For example, a company like Learning Counts allows students to create portfolios that document their knowledge and skills. College professors examine the portfolios and certify what the students know and what they can do. This can, of course, lead to college credits. But it can also lead to a classic “cutting out the middle man” phenomenon: students bypassing college and taking the certifications directly to prospective employers. After all, in a real sense a college education is merely a means to an end, and if a better means turns up … well, you get the picture.

– Bob Roper, “Online learning tests campuses,” Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune, July 31, 2011.

Wow. When I wrote about education as a means to an end I never expected to read someone taking that so literally! Where’s the joy in an online learning portal? Now remember this quote, while I continue this post by discussing a completely different subject…

While I haven’t noted it lately, I may be the only vegetarian in the world who’s an Anthony Bourdain fanatic. No Reservations is pretty much the only thing I watch regularly on TV these days (at least until Fringe comes back) because I desperately want to travel more and because I can treat all the meat-eating on the show as a cultural/historical learning experience.

This is a clip from a recent show where Tony visited the legendary Spanish restaurant El Bulli before it closed:

If you watch to about four minutes in, you’ll see the part where Bourdain notes that the chef, Ferran Adria, really enjoys himself while eating. “I love that you’re having so much fun at your own restaurant,” Tony notes. Apparently, Adria used to eat the ever-changing, 52-course menu each week in order to make sure that the diners enjoyed it as much as he did. This seems like a no-brainer to me since customers were undoubtedly paying big bucks to eat there, but apparently it’s rather novel in the restaurant world.

Like an expensive dining experience, higher education ought to be infused with a lot of customer service and at least a little bit of joy. Learning is not just something we do to get a job. It’s supposed to be fun. You might not like all of the 52 courses you get served during your expensive college banquet, but ideally both the chef and the diner should enjoy the experience.

I’m not a big fan of the student as customer model, but if technology destroys the authority of professors in the classroom to look out for educational matters, perhaps it is appropriate to ask why students should settle for compromises when getting an education that nobody would ever accept while eating out. If you went to a restaurant that cooked your meal in one gigantic pot a thousand miles away, you’d send it back. If they gave you warmed-over versions of last year’s meals, you’d send it back. If they handed you a clicker and said “Press ‘A’ if you want more pepper,” you’d leave the restaurant immediately.

Perhaps you don’t like black truffles. Suppose McDonald’s is your kind of place. That’s fine if it makes you happy. Food is a means to an end too (that end being not starving), but think of all the wonderful dining experiences you’d be missing! If you don’t care about the taste and texture and smell of your food, you might as well get all your nutrients through a tube.

I bet getting your nutrients through a tube would be much cheaper than actually eating if the packets hooked up to the other end of those tubes from your arm were mass-produced. Think of the time that would save! No more trouble finding a place to park! No more sitting around chatting with your friends while they cook your dinner in the kitchen! [Making someone’s meal to order is so inefficient.] No more need to tip the waitstaff to bring your food around! No more need to cook at home will leave plenty of extra time for watching TV! [I could watch even more Bourdain!]

If we’re really, really lucky, maybe someday they’ll figure out a way for us to get all our nutrients over the Internet. Happy happy, joy joy.

I can live without the New York Times.

17 03 2011

I used to think that I couldn’t live without watching the CBS Evening News every night. I haven’t watched the CBS Evening News since 1996.

I used to think that I couldn’t live without meat. I’ve been a vegetarian since 2007.

I used to think that I couldn’t live without paying $60/month for Internet through a cable modem from the worst company in the world. I’ve been getting great coverage from the mobile hotspot on my wife’s phone since January.

I used to think I couldn’t visit (let alone live) in any country where the primary language wasn’t English. Worst mistake of my life. Didn’t fix it until my late Thirties.

I used to think I couldn’t live without the New York Times. I actually paid for it the last time they put up a paywall. I’m not going to make that mistake again. This paywall is weak enough so that I won’t even have to go cold turkey. Perhaps I’ll go back to reading their paper regularly again when this paywall inevitably fails, or perhaps by then I’ll no longer care.

“Eat your veggies!,” says the professor.

22 02 2011

Have you ever seen that book by Jerry Seinfeld’s wife where she teaches moms how to hide vegetables in junk food? I’ve had a hard time figuring out whether it’s good or evil because I’m for kids eating vegetables, but I think that they ought to do so willingly with their eyes open. I have a six-year old who’ll eat salad for dinner. Still, I don’t want to spend this whole post bragging about Everett. I want to make an analogy.

I do not think my students are six-year olds. I don’t even think they are like six-year olds, but it can still be difficult to get them to eat their veggies in the academic sense.

We all struggle with the question of how to get students to read who don’t want to read. But what happens if they don’t want to enroll in your course in the first place? Thomas H. Benton explains the ramifications of this well in a long review of Academically Adrift:

Students gravitate to lenient professors and to courses that are reputedly easy, particularly in general education. Some students may rise to a challenge; many won’t. They’ll drop, withdraw, or even leave a college that they find too difficult. If you are untenured and your courses do not attract enough students, then you can become low-hanging fruit for nonrenewal. If you are tenured, then it means being “demoted” to teach service courses. In such contexts, the curriculum—populated by electives and required courses competing for the lowest expectations—is driven increasingly by student demand rather than by what a community of scholars believes undergraduates should know.

The logical solution to this problem would be to coordinate minimum standards across your department or across your university. But what if your university (or even your department) is big and faceless? As Benton explains elsewhere:

Formerly, full-time, tenured faculty members with terminal degrees and long-term ties to the institution did most of the teaching. Such faculty members not only were free to grade honestly and teach with conviction but also had a deep understanding of the curriculum, their colleagues, and the institutional mission. Now undergraduate teaching relies primarily on graduate students and transient, part-time instructors on short-term contracts who teach at multiple institutions and whose performance is judged almost entirely by student-satisfaction surveys.

There’s one more reason that you should be able to pick your adjunct faculty members out of a line-up. If they degrade academic standards (and I realize that’s a gigantic if, with plenty of class-related baggage that comes with it), everyone else look bad by comparison.

Worse yet, what if your department chairman or your dean goes over to the dark side and gets addicted to junk food? You can try to slip your students their vegetables disguised in macaroni and cheese, but if they don’t eat it whose side are your administrators going to take?

That’s why tenure is more important than ever in these troubled times. Tenure gives faculty the protection they need to see this as low as we’ll go, and no lower. Like Jessica Seinfeld, you should be willing to do what it takes to get your students to eat their veggies, but eat their veggies they must! The real evil would be to turn your university into a giant educational McDonald’s full of empty calories and cheap labor.

Culinary context and the history of taste.

10 10 2010

This weekend, both Randall and Ralph have linked to Mark Smith’s essay in the Psychologist on the history of the senses. While it’s certainly worth a read, the piece has almost nothing on my favorite sense (at least in historical terms): taste. Luckily, my friends Gerard Fitzgerald and Gabriella Petrick covered that ground very well in a JAH Forum on the history of the senses (subs. req.) two years ago. Reading that piece again after reading Smith and having taught food history for a couple of semesters now, I see it’s both a good review of the literature and an interesting discussion of the obstacles in recreating how food used to taste. I also realized that I’ve become something of a taste history nihilist.

Here’s Fitzgerald and Petrick towards the end of their essay:

“Just as M. F. K. Fisher could invite readers to taste the perfect spring pea through her writing, historians can also convey a sense of past flavors. As historians, we can adopt some of the stylistic elements food writers employ as well as learn to read and interpret a variety of documents with our sense of taste. Cooking and eating these foods and then writing about their flavors can enhance our understanding of previous generations.”

It’s not as if I object to that advice. I’m just not sure it’s really going to work. First, there’s the problem of breeds. Assuming you can get an heirloom vegetable, there’s no guarantee that it will taste the same as did in its heyday. Then there’s the problem of terroir. Nothing is going to taste exactly alike unless its grown under the same conditions. Of course, everyone who’s bothered to think about the history of food knows this.

Smith assumes that every food historians knows this too:

[S]ensory histories, written by a variety of historians in multiple subfields, tend (quite rightly) to stress the preeminent importance of context for fathoming the role a particular sense played in shaping the meaning of the world for contemporaries. Most sensory historians do not assume that what smelled foul to a medieval English nose is the same thing as what modern English noses would deem stinky. Sensory historians correctly understand that the definition and meaning of what was sound and what was noise, what was stench-ridden and what was perfumed, what functioned as permissible forms of touch and what didn’t, and what certain foods tasted ‘like’ is and was highly contingent on who was doing the sniffing, tasting, touching and listening, the various technologies underwriting the meaning attached to sensory evaluations, and the particular political, economic and social contexts that shaped what the senses meant.

Certainly, unless we have a job at the Food Network, historians of food aren’t just interested in food for food’s sake. This subject should be interesting to historians of all stripes as a vehicle for getting at larger social and cultural questions. I can’t remember who said this first but it’s something of a truism now to see that human beings spend so much time acquiring, preparing and eating food that it’s really strange that historians haven’t spent more time on the subject until now.

But what about the effect of culinary context on the history of taste? Obviously, your second beer will not be as yummy as your first beer because you will be partially impaired. I think that applies to chicken too. I had already given up beef when I became a vegetarian. It was a family decision that came at the end of a vacation in Maine. We had all had chicken at nearly every lunch or dinner for a span of two weeks and it suddenly dawned on me that it had become tasteless and bland. What’s worse, I realized that it was probably tasteless and bland already! On the other hand, the proverbial immediate beneficiary of Herbert Hoover’s “chicken in every pot” policies would have had a totally different reaction to the same chicken. I don’t think I can ever unring that bell and ever go back to a time when chicken would be new to me again (but the fake chicken for vegetarians is definitely the best of all the faux meats currently on the American market).

The funniest thing about teaching the history of food is listening to students try to explain why they like some things and not others. They always try to rationalize it some way or another, but it increasingly strikes me that we like what we eat because we eat it regularly and we don’t like what we don’t like because we don’t. It didn’t take much training for me to like mushrooms after I became a vegetarian, even though I used to claim I hated them before. It’s the mozzarella and basil on those Italian sandwiches that got me over the hump. My daughter couldn’t stand shrimp until we started cooking it in batter for her. Now she’ll eat them plain gladly, and not just because we make her. On the other hand, I have a colleague from Maine who hates seafood. The explanation for that has to be too much of the stuff while growing up.

Context really is key for understanding the history of so many things. I’m simply afraid that when considering the history of taste, that context can’t really be reconstructed.

Not all that bizarre, really.

23 09 2010

I know this isn’t exactly way up there on the scale of achievements, but yesterday I left a question for Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods on the Diner’s Journal blog at the NYT. Today, he answered them and picked mine. If you click here, mine is the last one.

Did I mention that I’m a vegetarian?

11 09 2010

But the history of meat still fascinates me:

Cuts of beef.

5 09 2010

Another film clip for my history of food class:

To see all of “Beef Rings the Bell, Part II,” click here.

Korean food that moves.

23 08 2010

I’ve started recording No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain and this one is by far the best segment that I’ve seen:

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