At a long dining table in Shanghai Restaurant, a second floor restaurant with a view of the busy shopping street below, the eighteen of us volleyed observations about the division of labor, ambiance and decor, and the presentation of “Chinese-ness” in this restaurant. We were midway through the semester in a class I was teaching called “Ethnic Eats,” an interdisciplinary undergraduate seminar at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The course covered how and why people in the United States became so enthusiastic about eating cross-culturally. However, I was not teaching the history of ethnic food for its own sake, but was using it to explain major themes and events in U.S. history. I guided my students through analyzing ethnic food to teach them about race and ethnicity, immigration, labor, and consumption in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries.
That spring afternoon at Shanghai Restaurant, I had baited my students with a light lunch to demonstrate their ability to critically analyze food culture. This was an important test, because the following week they would start their own historical research on local ethnic restaurants. Far more than a glorified restaurant review, this project asked them to critically analyze a space they had never thought much about before my class. None of my students had worked in a restaurant, and, quite naturally, none of them had ever thought about restaurants as sites of labor, chain migration, or capital accumulation. In “Ethnic Eats,” I strove to change the way they interact with food and move through a restaurant experience. I wanted them to learn from this research project about the histories of people serving them in local ethnic restaurants, which I hoped would reveal to them that behind the exotic décor lay histories of war, natural disaster, and migration that compelled people around the world to come to America’s shores. I hoped that they would seek to inquire why people from some parts of the world serve ethnic foods, while people with roots in other parts tend to be the consumers of ethnic food.
In “Ethnic Eats” and the five other courses I have designed and taught, my goal as a teacher is to develop my student’s capacity for critical observation. To accomplish this goal, the course assignments ask students to closely study parts of their environment that they probably never reflected upon. By interrogating the things they take for granted, like dining at ethnic restaurants, my students grasped how abstract concepts relate to their everyday lives. For instance, several students in the course “Ethnic Eats” were struck by how the politics of race and ethnic identity played out in the restaurant setting. One student, who studied an Indian Restaurant for her final research paper, noted the economic and cultural necessities of the Nepalese staff and Indian owners banning together in a small city like Providence; people from this corner of the world improved their job prospects by working together. Another student, however, witnessed the cleavages among immigrants in Providence in her interview with a Chinese restaurant owner, who distinguished his restaurant from a competitor’s restaurant for not hiring Latino kitchen staff. As he proclaimed it, “[Cooking is] not science, it is an art… it doesn’t translate.” These two students, then, started to understand how histories of immigration, race, and identity shaped the labor workforce they encountered as diners in ethnic restaurants.
A second teaching objective of mine is helping them conceptualize their lives through the course readings and to see connections between their own experiences and the arguments of scholars they read. In another assignment for “Ethnic Eats,” my students analyzed a dish that reminded them of home. The students interviewed their relatives to learn the histories of beloved family dishes, which they then made sense of by understanding the historical contexts in which these foods were produced. One student, who grew by leaps in this class, concluded that the food his Italian grandmother cooked for the family represented the “American Dream.” He recognized that his grandmother’s cooking was worlds apart from the everyday food of Italy, a difference he explained by looking at the class mobility of Italian immigrants in the Unites States. He concluded that his grandmother displayed the family’s affluence through the foods she cooked—her family had made it in America and she wanted people to taste the fruits of their struggle. Through this course, he came to understand that mass consumption, class mobility, and urbanization helped “Americanize” his family’s cuisine.
To support such intellectual growth, I craft a digital environment for them to explore critical connections outside our class meetings. In my past classes, I have used online discussion boards for students to carry on conversations with one another. For students who were quiet in class, these online forums provided alternative and safe spaces for them to express themselves. I weaved their online posts into class discussion, giving reticent students an entryway into conversations that they normally felt excluded from. This technique has been particularly effective for teaching international classrooms, like the ones I led in Berlin and Freiburg, Germany, where students walked through my door with diverse cultural reference frames. Through a digital interface, students from China, Korea, Germany, Poland, and Romania felt more comfortable piecing through the class readings. They shared how the authors’ arguments translated into their culture, which provided a comparative and cross-cultural framework for interrogating the claims of scholars we read.
Moreover, some subjects are best taught using digital technologies. In the fall of 2009, I was a teaching assistant to Professor Susan Smulyan for her course on the history of American advertising. Students naturally related our readings to the advertisements they saw around them, and they posted links to television commercials, YouTube clips, and still advertisements on our discussion board. There, students drew upon a diversity of resources that were not available to them in class sessions. It is my impression that having a discussion board improved the quality of their first papers, which asked them to dissect a single advertisement of their choice. The ideas they shared with one another online about depictions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in American advertisements refracted through their individual analyses. For a course on American advertising, the digital classroom was vital to lively classroom conversations and their intellectual development as critical thinkers.
Because I continue to experiment with teaching methodologies, I look to my students to help me grow as an instructor. I invite my students to contact me through email or during office hours to discuss the course for them. Understanding that perhaps these discussions are too sensitive to have directly with me, I distribute mid-semester, anonymous evaluations that help me gauge the speed and depth at which I should move through the course content. In these forms, my students tell me what worked, what failed, and how I could improve the course. In my first semester teaching, the mid-semester feedback caused me to rethinking my role at the front of the classroom. I was teaching a class on Asians in U.S. popular culture at Free University in Berlin, Germany. I learned from the class feedback that I needed to establish a common vocabulary for how to conceptualize and discuss race in the United States for my students, who had encountered American culture through the media or short visits. They indicated to me that the mini-presentations at the beginning of each class, which I had done irregularly, helped them understand phrases like “yellow peril,” “white slavery,” and “model minority.” From this midpoint onward, I approached our weekly themes by first defining the key terms and designing in-class, group exercises that illustrated the core concepts. Their feedback enabled me to see that I had naturalized ideas that were foreign to my students, which compelled me to see the materials through the eyes of someone raised outside the United States.
Guided by this practice of reflective teaching, I prepare my students for life after college by teaching them the communication and analytical skills that would aid them in multiple situations throughout their lifetimes. While I teach my students concrete bodies of information about the world they inhabit, I ultimately aim to develop their capacities for creative and flexible thinking. Students choose small-liberal arts colleges for the spirit of free inquiry embraced by their peers, faculty, and staff. I hold that courses in the humanities and social sciences are best suited to train students to critically apply the broad base of knowledge they gain through a liberal arts education. I believe that the truths we hold of the world are interpretations and are hence open to questioning. As a teacher and mentor at a liberal arts college, my purpose is to train students to critically analyze the assumptions they hold, so that they may be confident in their decisions to accept or reject the various narratives of the world available to them. In this way, I prepare my students to handle the scenarios in which their analytical capacities, and not a specific set of facts, are most appropriate to draw upon.