Bring Back Meals Together NOW.

How can students and faculty improve their interaction?

by Gwendolyn Toth (Montclair State)

When I attended college in the 1970s, it was clear that we were there to learn from our brilliant professors. However, as I look back with 35 years hindsight, I realize that learning occurred not only in the classroom, the laboratory, the rehearsal hall, the dorm rooms, the rec rooms, and late-night bars (we could drink in those days).

We also learned in the dining hall.

Over food we met new friends with new points of view. Discussions started in late-morning classes continued at lunch with both students and teachers.

We all ate together every day.

Fast forward to 2012.

My daughters attending college rarely eat in a dining hall.

Why, I ask?

“The food is bad.”

Huh? The dinner costs $20 and they serve everything you can imagine.

“It’s too far away.”

“I can’t find my friends there.”

“I need to study in my room while I eat.”

“I have a class.”

What? You have a class scheduled during lunch or dinner? How can that be? Doesn’t the school think it’s important for kids to eat, for heaven’s sake?

Some time ago it seems that most elite schools changed their schedules. No longer are three hours per week scheduled as a single class Mon, Wed, Fri or two 1.5 hour classes Tues and Thursday. For reasons of (so I’ve been told) the all-mighty budget, it was more efficient to have 1.25 hour classes two days a week. And they’re mostly on Mon and Wednesday, or Tuesday and Thursday.

In 2002 I was a sabbatical replacement for a music professor at Barnard College, and ran her choir rehearsals on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6-8 pm. After a few weeks, I started asking the kids a few questions:

Why are a quarter of you late?

“Oh, we have class ’til 6 pm.”

Class until 6 pm? When I was in college, it was mandated that classes were to end by 5:30 so that everyone could get to the dining hall before the evening activities, which were never scheduled earlier than 7 pm. And we did not have evening classes at all.

But today, if you have class until 6, then choir for two hours from 6-8 pm, when do you eat dinner?

“Oh, we grab a sandwich or something afterwards.”

(Can I pause here to make a comment about lack of mental alertness and tiredness, not to mention stomach growling? There were lots of times I thought that I simply couldn’t get them because they literally couldn’t pay attention very well. They were hungry.)

Why did you miss rehearsal tonight?

“Oh, we had a movie/extra lecture/test scheduled this evening.”

Really? Isn’t that what class time is for? Oh wait, over a 14-week semester we now have 7 hours LESS CLASS TIME. So: we’ll schedule academic extras in the evening! And make them mandatory! Forget studying, joining a club, or dinner. Mandatory! This means that if it’s a required class for your major then everything else drops by the wayside. Even when choir is taken “for credit,” the students assume that the professor is supposed to understand that Real Classes Requirements come first before mere gut courses like music. Never mind that when five out of six tenors are missing, it’s hard to rehearse any piece. And pity the poor tenor #6 who bothers to show up. He might reconsider coming next week.

Why do so many kids miss rehearsal on Thursdays?

“Oh, that’s because it’s the beginning of the weekend.”

WHAT???? Am I crazy? I always thought the weekend began on Friday evenings. But no, the students patiently explain that “no one has class on Fridays.”

I think about this response. If you fit your classes into 4 days then THE PROFESSOR GETS FRIDAY OFF TOO! Hey! That sounds good to me. And the school wins too; they don’t have to use electricity in all those classrooms. Or something. Because apparently this new class schedule is “more efficient for colleges,” i.e. saves money. (I’ll skip the discussion of why colleges cost so much given all the cost-squeezing measures.)

But what do we lose?

We lose meals together, just like the modern family doesn’t eat together because kids are doing so many extra activities “to get into college” and Mom & Dad are staying late at work to pay to send them.

Everyone is just too busy to spend an hour around the table together.

It’s the same for our college “families.” Friends text each other, eat quickly, use their “Flex Points” in the snack bar, and then rush off to something or other. I’m sure there are still many meaningful late night conversations in dorm rooms, but the professors are never going to show up there. (Not if they want to keep their job, that is.)

Where is the cross-generational discussion? It is only in the classroom. But wait; now there is less time for a discussion to ramble off-topic. College today is in some fundamental way a very different experience from the one I had, and a less good one.

What can colleges do today to encourage faculty and students to eat together?

They can implement the policy my college had decades ago:

Let faculty eat in the dining hall for free if they are the guest of a student.

The average liberal arts student:faculty ratio is approximately 15:1, and the average cost of lunch is approximately 1/3rd of the total. This means that if every faculty member ate lunch for free every single day (including weekends) the meal plan would only have to cost 2.2% more to cover it. Nobody would notice the difference.

But we would all notice the difference in our students because there is no better place for young people to receive wisdom from their elders than around a table with food on it.

Please start doing this today; for my children’s sake; for all our children’s sake.

Do we owe them any less?

If we don’t, I insist you tell me now, and if we do, then let’s act as if we care.

Gwendolyn Toth performs on the harpsichord, organ, and fortepiano, performing regularly on historical instruments in Europe. Her distinguished career ranges from conducting at Sadler’s Wells Theater in London with the Mark Morris Dance Group to appearances at European and American festivals with her own early music ensemble, ARTEK. Her discography includes both solo organ and harpsichord CDs as well as recordings with ARTEK, including the first American recording of Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo. She teaches at Montclair State University, Manhattan College, Mount Saint Vincent College, and Hunter College CUNY.

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Author: Brooke Allen

A social entrepreneur and retired Wall Street executive.

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