Saturday, September 02, 2006

Eating in Class

I promise I will eventually get to a blog about my semi-reunion, for those who are interested. But what I want to talk about now is this issue of students and eating in class, which came up during the reunion as several of us are teachers.

One of my friends was shocked - shocked, I say - at the audacity of students who would dare eat in her classroom. And she is not alone - many, if not most, of my colleagues tell me that they find it rude and disrespectful when their students eat in class.

What I can't for the life of me figure out is why.

bell hooks has written eloquently about the disconnect between education as a practice of the mind and education as an endeavor that involves the body (see, in particular, her brilliant discussion of pedagogy, Teaching to Transgress).* As she points out, both our bodies and our minds are present in the classroom, and we need to recognize both.

In my view, if a body in the classroom is hungry, uncomfortable, or needs to pee, the mind attached to it won't be paying attention to whatever else is going on in the classroom.

"But what about crunchy, bag-rustly potato chips?!" someone reading this now is thinking. "How can you say noisy food isn't distracting?! And how can students who are eating possibly be paying attention?!"

Well - first, I hate to say it, but if you're distracted by potato chips, it can't be a very interesting class. Not that I haven't had classes like that myself, but seriously, if the chip bag is distracting, then it's welcome distraction. You should be grateful. It means that your students may still be awake.

And second, not only does eating during class mean that students are not distracted by their hunger, it also means that students are giving their bodies the necessary fuel to stay awake.

Trust me. I used to be one of those students who would routinely have to struggle mightily not to fall asleep in class, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the topic. Unless it was a lively discussion class in which I had to contribute, I would face the risk of falling asleep. It got so bad that I would have to get up once or twice during class and leave the room just to walk around. I brought Altoids to suck on in the hopes that they'd keep me awake. I drank coffee and diet Coke. I brought chocolate. Only eating and drinking helped. (To this day, I have great difficulty sitting still and listening. You do not want me in your lecture class.)

But finally, when it comes right down to it, I don't want my classroom to be a sterile, formal environment. I want it to be a little bit messy, so that smells and tastes and traces of the real world drift into our conversations. I would rather have a student bring her lunch and eat it in class than have to skip lunch because she's got two classes back-to-back. Sometimes that lunch become the focus of our discussion. My comp class this fall will be reading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.* There's a whole chapter in there about school lunches. At some point, I'll probably ask them to write a page about school lunches. If on that day someone has brought lunch to eat in class, I can predict that the lunch will aid classroom discussion of the disgusting mayonnaise on the sandwiches that one girl in fifth grade used to bring. Or maybe a student's lunch becomes part of the discussion because she is talking about how she is working so hard just to pay for college that between her two jobs and classes, she never has time to eat.

A professor of mine once likened the classroom to an intellectual feast and urged the class to nourish our bodies as well as our minds by not only bringing in food if we were hungry, but by bringing in extra food to offer to others. That is the kind of environment to which I aspire for my own classroom. But for now, I'm satisfied with students eating crunchy potato chips - and rustling the bags - in class.

* You might notice that I didn't provide links to Amazon dot com for these books. I've been thinking that I'd prefer to send you all to the *real* Amazon bookstore (independent and woman-owned), but I'm having trouble getting direct links on the site. However, you can search the site very easily, and both of these books are available through Amazon Bookstore.


Drek said...

I'm on more or less the same page with you here. In terms of disruption, I generally figure it's my job to out-compete the guy eating a sandwich in the next row. Besides, I want my students to learn the material, not just sit and look attentive. If eating helps with that, why should I object?

Sally Pepper said...

I agree with you. Eat, eat! I actually had someone bring a plate of biscuits and gravy to class one morning. I've seen hamburgers, Pop Tarts, chips, everything. Only once was it a bit annoying, but only because the person had terrible manners and made awful smacking noises while he ate. It caused a wave of giggling throughout the class.

Green said...

This is interesting. I went to two high schools - public and private. In public school, my mother arranged my classes so that I had no lunch period. So in one class I'd bring a snack, which was against school rules, but they allowed it anyway. In private school, you could bring any drink you wanted (water, coffee, hot chocolate, iced tea..) but no food, unless we were having a pizza party or something.

In college I don't recall ever bringing any food to class, just bottles of water.

Kelsey said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kelsey said...

Upon further reflection on the accessability of the blogosphere, I decided to remove my post:)