There’s More to Eating (and Learning) Than Filling Up and Getting Full

cookingOne of the few things my wife and I always agree on is the necessity of feeding our guests well. While it may seem a bit old school, when we have company we plan meals, buy special ingredients, and put in the time to make supper an occasion to remember. Instead of spending our time sightseeing, shopping, or going out, we tend to spend our time visiting while we chop, grill, and, unfortunately, clean up our mess. Of course, we do some of the other things, but we don’t allow these visits to pass outside the house. In so many ways, the work involved is pleasantly exhausting.

My wife’s parents are visiting this weekend.  Last night for instance, we had fried shrimp po-boys (with homemade remoulade sauce, rice, black beans, beer, and some leftover German Chocolate Cake from earlier in the week). Tonight, we are grilling up some steaks, cheesy jalapeno sausage, mashing some potatoes, tossing a salad, and eating some There’s No Such Thing As Too Much Chocolate Pie. We’ll have french bread (rising as I type) and wine as an added bonus. No one ever goes home hungry.

During the week, our meals are a bit less elaborate and more practical. With two teenage boys, our kitchen is rarely closed. In either case, we rarely eat out. During the week, even when we are tired from working all day and the prospect of cleaning the kitchen is about as appealing as cleaning the kitchen after frying chicken, we still cook. It’s not just because taking two teenagers out to eat is cost prohibitive: there’s also something important about putting a meal on the table and having home cooked food. In many ways, that effort demonstrates our willingness to do the necessary work to fulfill the elemental needs of our children. Simply put–food matters to us.

Cooking when we have company is, in many ways, just as important as cooking for our family. Food and the dinner experience is, as so many others have noted, one of those communal events that bring us together. When my wife’s parents are here, they always offer to take us out to eat and we always refuse. Cooking might look hard and we might look busy, but it’s pleasant work. To a certain extent, we imagine that the meals we offer our guests are, in the parlance of our day, a value-added experience.

Interestingly enough, as I read yesterday that ACE (the American Council of Education) approved 4 Coursera courses for college credit and that the University of Texas announced 4 MOOCs in the works, I thought about our meals and having company. The reality is that my university will never be involved in the MOOC movement. Certainly, we might have to decide if we are going to accept credit from Coursera or UT, but when UT added (in small print) that producing a quality MOOC costs around $20,000 per course, I think I can say with some certainty that we don’t have that kind of money hidden in the couch cushions.

More importantly, though, I hope my school resists the MOOC movement and, instead, trumpets the value added elements of human contact. I have no doubt that a MOOC, with the advanced analytics that measure student competence, can walk (march?) students through the mechanics of just about any subject. I’m currently teaching an online sophomore American Literature course. The class is designed to introduce students to trends in American literature since 1860. Specifically, we focus on defining specific terms related to genres and American literature, analyzing individual works of literature for meaning, and understanding the diverse intellectual and cultural tradition of American mythology. My students, those who do all the work, will be able to do each of these things by the end of the semester. Some, those who earn A’s, will do these things much more effectively than those who earn F’s. There is something positive about those skills. Each, in its own way, is an important part of learning to think critically. Each is, in the immortal words of Pink Floyd, another brick in the wall. (Yes. I’m aware of the irony of my comparison.)

No matter how many instructor videos, blogs, emails, skype video conferences, tweets, or student video blogs we have in the class, though, what I can’t offer my students in the online environment is passion and a sense of the humanity involved in the learning experience. Certainly, my instructor videos can show me as excited, funny, and engaged. I can, easily enough, show my students that I am interested in the subject and they can show me a mastery of definition and an ability to analyze. Much of their work can be graded mechanically by the computer.

But learning isn’t just about mastery of a skill and the mission of higher education (and education in general) shouldn’t be focused solely on acquisition of skills. One of our stated missions at my university is to help students develop the necessary critical thinking skills to be productive citizens. While an online class with the advanced analytics possible in this day and age can measure a student’s knowledge of the Constitution, memorizing the Bill of Rights doesn’t make one a good citizen any more than quoting the 10 commandments makes someone a good christian.

A steak from my backyard might, objectively, taste just as good as one from Outback or even The Palm, but our fondest memories of food rarely center on just the seasonings sprinkled over the meat. When we look back to those favorite moments, we see smiling faces, hear familiar voices, and recall the setting and experience. These are the value added elements that create memories. Educationally, we need to recognize the importance of those human elements. We can all learn the basics of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” quantum theory, and Advanced Plant Biotechnology and we might even be able to develop an online format for helping us apply some techniques. That’s certainly one kind of learning.

But, there’s something important in seeing, hearing, and feeling how others react and understand ideas. Education, like eating, is about more than just filling up and getting full. Learning involves the nuances of human interaction that add value to the knowledge and we can’t measure such things with analytics or in massively available classes anymore than we can judge the value of a meal based on how full we get. I’m sure MOOCs have value, but like a family dinner, it also seems pretty obvious there’s greater value when everyone can fit around one table on occasion.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to There’s More to Eating (and Learning) Than Filling Up and Getting Full

  1. John Wegner says:

    Thanks for the comment. I don’t necessarily disagree with the potential that MOOCs offer for access to education. I’m not convinced, though, that MOOCs really are a cheaper alternative. Someone has to pay that professor to create the course, to update it, and to adjust to new technologies. Creating the classes are pretty expensive and someone has to pay the bills. I also have serious doubts about whether MOOCs are providing access. Much of the data I’ve seen on “enrollment” in a MOOC shows already educated white males dominate the courses. Having said that, I do agree that we all benefit from a smarter population that has access to information. Amazingly, 91% of Americans support public libraries. That’s a great sign. Perhaps I’m simply approaching the prospect a little cynically because you are correct–the more we can encourage a live well lived (and reflected upon) the better off we are. Thanks again for giving me something to think about.

  2. mjthecreator says:

    I’ll have to politely disagree with you about MOOCs. True, they do exist in limited form as substitutes for bricks and mortar classes, and the learning experiences are certainly apples and oranges- though one might suppose that as more of our lives migrate to the virtual world, the awkwardness of the online dimension may decrease.The real potential of MOOCs is increasing ACCESS to education, and causing students, parents, policy, faculty, and administrators to reexamine what higher education means. For the brilliant young girl in Afghanistan who has an internet connection but can’t readily attend an American community college, the courses that you insinuate are a cheap substitute for the real thing could change a life profoundly. Considering the ridiculous rise in the cost of higher education in the United States and the widespread notion everyone “should” go to college right after high school, virtually anything that puts downward pressure on costs and causes people to reevaluate the role of higher education in their lives is a good thing.
    How might our country be enriched by young people doing gap years while taking those basic freshman year courses? How can it hurt the educational experience if the individual is empowered to choose from an array of courses to take at their leisure without being deterred by cost or worries about “return on investment?”
    I believe that the purpose of education is to enable people to lead richer lives not only by increasing their economic prospects and ability to contribute to society as critical thinkers, but by encouraging the development the reflective faculties- to make life, well examined, worth living.
    I went to a great top 50 small liberal arts college (thank you merit based scholarship!) and had an amazing experience. I don’t doubt the power of inspiring faculty or a small seminar style course. But I can’t ignore the millions of power in my hometown, in my country, and in the world who don’t have the same opportunity. I would in no way be embittered if one of them earns the same degree for free or a nominal fee with nominal contact on a college campus. My life would only be the richer for living in a world where more people could learn freely and liberally.

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