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Fast Food Pedagogy: Slowing Down and Taking Stock

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I don’t think I need to do much to convince you that fast food (and its impact on everything from the economy to Americans’ waistlines and heart attack rates) is frequently demonized in both media and casual conversation. Regardless of the widespread disdain for the Golden Arches’ ubiquity, it’s clear that most of us are still drawn to consume, even as we criticize. I’m not up on any high horse. I stopped by Sonic on my way home from a park today after contemplating how much work and time it would take to pick a meal, find a recipe, create a grocery list, go to a grocery store, prepare and cook the food. Pulling up to a little box and saying “a number five with tots and a lemonade, please” won out.

The convenience of fast food is, of course, what keeps it around. I know very few people who are just blown away by the culinary quality of their fast food purchases, but we aren’t always in a position to privilege taste over other factors like cost, time, and (perhaps most attractive to me as a fast food consumer) preservation of mental resources. Creating food from scratch at home requires a massive use of executive functioning and planning skills. Think about how many components go into keeping a well-stocked pantry and actually turning it into meals. You have to figure out how to buy the food, store the food, use the food before it goes bad. You also have to have a collection of recipes, a place to store those (digital or physical) and the knowledge to adjust them on the fly to meet the needs of a missing ingredient or a demanding family member’s palate (hello daughter who decided within the last twelve hours that she “hates” anything green, red, or yellow). Then there’s the clean-up. Dishes have to be washed. Leftovers have to be stored.

If you just read that paragraph and scoffed, congratulations. Chances are that you have been steeped in a rich and dynamic culture of food that makes those tasks seem (even if they are sometimes inconvenient) manageable, perhaps even enjoyable. Preparing food is more than sustenance; it is communal. We pass down recipes, preparation methods, and eating habits through generations. We use food as a centerpiece for the events and circumstances that touch on our shared humanity: celebrations of birth and marriage, mournings of death, holiday feasts.
The rise of fast food coincided with the rise of women in the workplace. Women, on average, spend significantly less time cooking today than they did in the past and men aren’t necessarily stepping in to pick up the difference (though men do report enjoying cooking at higher rates than they did in the past), and the fast food industry is filling a need. Time is a luxury. Speed is a virtue. Eating is a necessity.

In 2015, for the first time ever, Americans spent more at restaurants and bars than they did grocery stores.

Michael Pollen, food guru, bemoans the loss of food culture and is trying to restore it through his books like In Defense of Food and his very interesting television series Cooked. Pollan says of his overarching project to get people cooking again:

“It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. If people add one meal a week to the food they cook at home, there are strategies that can help you navigate that. But you’re only going to do that if you find it pleasurable, so what I’m proposing is that this process we’re being told is pure drudgery is actually interesting and gratifying and satisfying. I’m just trying to propose an alternative narrative to the one that says, ‘This isn’t fun, you don’t have time, you don’t know what you’re doing’ and that’s all I can hope to do.”

And the longer we go without cooking, the harder it’s going to be to get cooking again. It’s a cultural skill that we learn through hands-on experience. Cooking is traditionally learned through apprenticeship. Baking cookies with grandma isn’t just a path to dessert; it’s also a path to cultural competency. But even the more direct teaching efforts for cooking (through, say, cooking class in high schools) have been disappearing.

Wait a minute, you may be saying to yourself as you scroll up to check what blog you’re on. Isn’t this a site about teaching writing. Give me a second. I’m getting there.

The rise of fast food and convenience meals in all of their iterations is instructive for this particular moment in pedagogy. We too are walking along the edge of a trap of convenience that threatens the acquisition and promotion of cultural knowledge and shared customs. Teaching is a communal practice as well. My best teaching ideas have come from swapping ideas with teacher friends, hearing what works for them, seeing a great teacher in action. But teachers in the classroom are facing many of the same pressures that people are facing in their homes. We’re asked to do more in less time, teach more classes with more students. Many classes are taught by adjunct faculty members who may be facing demands from multiple institutions with different requirements, commuting between campuses and navigating more than one college email and online learning system. The act of storing course materials, coming up with new lesson plans, meeting the demands of institutional requirements and student preferences, and keeping it all together parallels nicely with the executive functioning and time management requirements of cooking.

Just like the fast food industry rose to meet the needs of a busy, on-the-move consumer base, the textbook industry is seeing our plight as a marketing strategy. Online course management systems are all the rage. And in the realm of writing pedagogy, major textbook providers like Pearson (with systems like MyCompLab and MyWritingLab) and Macgraw Hill (with Connect) are entering into this trend by working to provide all-inclusive course content systems. These platforms contain grammar exercises, clickable writing advice, auto-grading features, pre-designed course assignments, and PowerPoint presentations designed around the textbook. They aim to be a one-stop shop for teachers, and they are excited to show off these flashy features in demos and promotional meetings because there is a lot of money to be made in this market.

There is a lot to be said for these systems. They offer convenience for students and teachers. They also make it (at least ostensibly) more likely that students will interact with writing handbook content when it is contextualized to particular assignments instead of floating on its own as a separate resource. I’ve used these systems, and I currently use Blackboard pretty extensively, which has similar goals rooted in convenience and management. I understand the draw of these systems.

But I also understand the draw of the drive-thru, and just because it is attractive does not mean that it is not doing damage to the cultural heritage surrounding teaching. The more that we hand over the day-to-day work of teaching (the prepping of lessons, the designing of presentations, etc.) to outside sources, the more that we lose touch with what it is to teach.

The economic impacts are also cause for concern. As textbook costs continue to rise and public funding for college is harder to find, students often see these online course management systems and the pricey access codes that come with them as a source of frustration or (worse) a block to education. Many of my students arrive to the first day of class without their financial aid in order, and purchasing the textbook can be a negotiation of time and resources. Some have to share with classmates for a few weeks. Some order used editions online. When homework must be submitted through a paywalled resource, there are many students (especially in developmental education) who are going to be at a disadvantage, a disadvantage that they may not be able to overcome even if they do eventually get the funding to purchase the code.

This is not a call to reject technology. I think that these online tools can be immensely useful without removing teacher involvement from course design, and I think there are many we can access without putting undue financial burden on students. We can put our assignments up on Blackboard and record audio comments for students without losing touch with the tasks and habits of teaching, but if we tip the balance of privileging convenience over building those skills and (most importantly) maintaining a community with other teachers, I think that we’ll find ourselves losing touch with the complexities and art of teaching and feeling limited in our abilities to reclaim them.

Melody and Michelle (the founders of DevelopingWriters.net) will be presenting on this topic at the TYCA Midwest Conference in October. 
Image: Kim Davies

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