January 8th, 2017 – What do you find most annoying as a teacher? What student behavior makes you the most frustrated? If you could change one thing about student/teacher interactions what would it be?
In my early years teaching in higher education classrooms I was often bothered by one thing; food in the classroom. I took offense when a student brought a sandwich, for instance, to class and started eating during a break. This seemed so rude and inappropriate (even though I recognized that students get hungry and need to eat). To address my displeasure of food in the classroom I began articulating, during the first class session, my feelings on eating in class. This tactic stopped or at least slowed the consumption of food in my classroom, but something still felt incomplete. And when an instructional move feels inadequate to me I take this as an invitation to keep exploring the deeper why behind my discomfort. Over the next several years I tested my gut-sense against a number of tweaks to my no food policy. I considered the power differential between my students and me. I tried talking to individual students before or after class about my annoyance with eating in class. I experimented with varying degrees of permissiveness and acceptance. I wondered if my discomfort was equally distributed across all types of food and drink.
I can no longer remember when the breakthrough happened but I eventually sorted through my annoyance to get the core of my concern and once there I was able to formulate a response that felt right. At the heart of my issue with food in the classroom was a deep and abiding sense of the classroom as sacred space. I had never fully articulated this point before in my teaching; just acted on it without making my belief plain to my students or even myself. And because it remained “hidden” I constantly felt bothered when students brought food to class. As soon as I named my belief in classrooms as sacred space I began to see a way to bring together, in meaningful ways, my need for respecting the integrity of the classroom with the need of students to eat. I realized the obvious, that food is a central element of many spiritual practices and community gatherings. Once in possession of this truth I wondered how I might make food an essential part of honoring the sacred nature of higher education classrooms.
Out of this exploration I initiated a ritual that I enact now during the first class session of every course I teach. In fact, this ritual is so ingrained in my teaching that if I wait too long into the first class session to introduce it a student will often raise and hand and ask: “Are we doing snacks in this class?” There it is, my secret sauce; snack time. I begin the ritual by telling the story of my initial annoyance with students bringing food to class. Then transition to my epiphany that my dislike was rooted in a deep commitment to classrooms as sacred space. Which lead me to the realization that food is compatible with an educational community engaged in a shared exploration of something greater than self, a core quality of any educational setting or community with sacred rituals and practices. At this point I state that we will be taking a 15 minute break during class for a time to gather together, share stories, talk about the text, and enjoy a snack together. The final step is passing around a signup sheet for students to bring a “little-something” to class to share with classmates.
My experience is that “snack time” becomes a central moment of community and learning. A student who brought a culturally unique dish will share the story of how it is made and why it is important. Students gather around the chips and salsa and continue the conversation we had as a class right before break. Other students check in with each other around courses to take next quarter or how their final paper is going. Food is fostering a sacred space by serving to feed both physical and relational hunger. I’m deeply appreciative of the patience of my students as I worked out the core of my frustration with food in the classroom. Without that gift I would likely not have re-conceptualized my instruction to see food as essential to the creation of classrooms as sacred space.