14 July 2008

Teaching and Eating

This summer has been anything but lazy. I'm currently revamping a syllabus I have worked with a number of times after being assigned to teach introductory college writing in the fall for the first time in a few years. In previous courses I have used food as both a theme and a metaphor for the writing process. When we prepare a meal, we learn the basics of cooking first and we gather the ingredients needed to prepare a specific dish, and we stock our pantries full of staples that will be conducive to nourishment for later meals. When we eat a meal, we develop a taste for ingredients that we actively seek out in later meals, noting texture and depth and complexity of each particle that touches our tongues. This process of eating is not much different than the acquisition of a writing voice or style, and just as food nourishes the body, writing nourishes the soul through the fulfillment of our need to communicate with one another. Learning to write is much like learning to cook, complete with kitchen disasters that resonate with the painstaking process of writing an effective essay. Getting a D on an essay is much like burning the roast, and I find that students identify with this equation not only because all humans eat, but because thematic courses based on metaphor reveal to them (however subconsciously) that ever-so-important skill they will need to succeed in college: critical thinking.

Thinking critically is a difficult skill for students to learn, and food is a great example of how thinking about texts and ideas can open up a more complex understanding of a system beyond just one grain of salt. As Mark Kurlansky's great history of salt suggests, salt is not just the substance we look for when the meatloaf is dry and tasteless, but rather has been the building blocks of civilization (and to an extent, life) for thousands of years. The rise of Venice, the fall of the French monarchy, and the mobility of nomadic civilizations have all been linked to salt, and it is through a process of eye-opening "ohhhs" and "ahhhs" that students begin to see a simple relationship (French fries and salt) turn into one of complexity and serious grey areas. It is with a heavy heart that I watch my students discover time and again the salty root of Native American massacres (many battles were instigated by the substance) but I'm always amazed and proud of their willingness to discover and answer questions.

As I assemble my syllabus and choose readings for the course, I am drawn to those texts which investigate the simple elements of food and their more complex cultural construction--kind of like one ingredient in a very tasty stew.

Currently probing:


Jessica@Foodmayhem said...

Hmmm...never thought of cooking and writing as so closely related. thanks!

Dr. Food said...

I honestly believe that cooking is responsible for my obsession with food in literature.

JM said...

FYI, I _love_ the book _Salt_.