Tasty Teaching

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A weekly dinner lab in Babcock Hall provides a spark for discussions about how food relates to society, from sustainability to the Americanization of ethnic foods, in the First-Year Interest Group course. Photo: Jeff Miller

A popular option for first-year students brings classes down to size.

Scott Barton, a New York-based chef, is no stranger to the role of kitchen commander. He bounces around the room, correcting techniques, dispensing trivia about palm oil and tapioca, and finding jobs for anyone who’s been idle a bit too long for his taste.

But his sous-chefs tonight are twenty UW freshmen who are eagerly following his instructions to prepare an authentic Brazilian meal. By the end of the night, at least one finger sports a bandage from a run-in with a knife, a stack of plates has shattered on the floor, and a fair amount of time has been spent picking shards of eggshell out of what will become a fried dessert. But within two hours, a daunting pile of leafy greens and exotic ingredients has been transformed, and the feasting begins.

These students, participants in the university’s First-Year Interest Group (FIG) program, meet in the basement of Babcock Hall weekly, with or without a visiting chef, to prepare and eat a meal together. While they dine on Greek salad or soul food, the class discusses how food relates to society, taking on topics ranging from the Americanization of ethnic foods to sustainability.

The FIG program is a popular option among freshmen that integrates coursework with a social experience. Typically, a FIG consists of about twenty students who enroll in the same three classes, forming a core group that meets several times each week and becomes a support network throughout the crucial first year of college.

The program, which began in 2001 with four pilot groups, has grown steadily. Freshmen could choose among fifty-eight FIG offerings for fall 2011, and eight more choices became available this spring. During the past academic year, about one in five first-year students participated in FIGs, which offered widely appealing topics ranging from [Bruce] Springsteen’s America to Contemplative Neuroscience: The Psychology of Well-Being.

Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, the FIG that includes the weekly dinner lab, also involves classes in nutritional science and sociology. These courses provide the background knowledge to fuel spirited discussions, but according to Jack Kloppenburg, the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology professor who teaches the dinner lab, the experiential core of his class is what really sets it apart.

“We learn through a variety of different channels, but for a lot of our time at the university, we use only the aural channel,” he says. “There’s this whole other kinesthetic dimension — feel, touch, taste, all the senses. … It’s great to get a chance to use that.”

Aside from its sheer novelty, the program does, indeed, work. Over the last ten years, data have shown that students who participate in FIGs have a higher GPA at the end of their first semester than those who don’t. Program director Greg Smith attributes this to a variety of factors, such as interacting one-on-one with a professor early in one’s college career, and the feeling of having a “FIG family” to rely on.

That sense of community is felt throughout the evening meal, as dishes are passed with familial ease, and conversation shifts from goading laughter to thoughtful debate. Kiernan McCoy x’15 says she originally chose this FIG because registering for three classes at once made choosing courses easier. But, she says, she realized during the semester that the class also provided a “base of people if we need help studying or just want to get together.”

While stirring the evening’s caruru, a dish similar to jambalaya, Javier Barbosa-Mireles x’15 adds okra, ground shrimp, peanuts, and cashews. “Cooking together feels great,” he says. “When everyone’s sitting down, sharing the meal you just prepared together, it’s a really powerful experience.”

That’s exactly what Kloppenburg wants to hear.

Published in the Summer 2012 issue

Tags: Food, Students, Teaching and learning

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