• September 1, 2015

Doughnuts and Candy for the Kids

Teaching Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

In my first year on the tenure track, I have a distinct memory of walking across the campus one day and falling in step with a senior professor who was heading to his class with a couple of grocery bags. I asked him what he was carrying, and he said snacks for his students that day.

"What for?" I asked.

"Oh," he said with a shrug, "no particular reason."

I thought that was a strange response, even a little suspicious. It was near the end of the semester, and I wondered whether he was bringing treats in an effort to bribe students into giving him more-positive evaluations on the last day of class.

In the years that followed, I would occasionally notice other faculty members bringing doughnuts to early morning classes, or leftover candy after Halloween. And I continued to look askance at such practices, suspecting that they were a form of pandering. Why should students need doughnuts or candy in order to learn? The only treats they needed from us were intellectual ones.

Snack-bearing faculty members also seemed to put those of us who did not bring in treats at a disadvantage. All things being equal, if a student had to choose between a course taught by a faculty member who supplied munchies and one who did not, why not choose the one with snacks? I would have.

In that first year on the tenure track, I also cringed a bit whenever I saw faculty members leading an outdoor class with students sitting in a circle on the grass. I never felt comfortable teaching without a blackboard nearby, and those faculty members were the ones responsible for my students always asking, whenever the weather was nice, could we hold class outside today?

I always said no. Classes held outside, in my experience, accomplish half or less of what a class inside can accomplish—too much time spent moving outside, too many distractions, and too few of the normal features of a classroom.

This past fall, however, both of the courses I taught were part of special programs that provided me with a budget for outside events and community-building activities. My English-composition course was part of a new program on the campus that groups freshmen into connected courses to help them form intellectual and social communities; my course is linked to a Spanish III course. My other course, "Life Stories," was a first-year seminar for our honors students, taught in conjunction with another section of the same course.

I am quickly learning, as a new part-time administrator, that you should spend the money you are given, so for both courses I did my best to take advantage of the budget. That meant, in part, doing all of those things that I had once dismissed as pandering, or detracting from the pure learning experiences in my classroom.

The students in our linked English and Spanish courses were treated to a full-course meal of Mexican takeout on the evening we watched Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Students in "Life Stories" enjoyed a fajita bar the next week, before their special evening class to watch Like Water for Chocolate. (As it happens, both of my co-instructors teach Spanish and Latin and American literature and culture).

But the treats were not always quite so elaborate, or even tied to special evening events. The "Life Stories" course met at 10 a.m., so on the day that my students were showing their podcast presentations (an assignment to be described in more detail in my next column), I unapologetically brought in doughnuts, muffins, and orange juice. The English course met at 1 p.m., so we had pizza and appetizers on the day we did peer-review workshops for their midterm papers.

We did not hold class outside, but both courses met in a room connected to a lounge. Students in the afternoon course asked if we could have our final session in the lounge, and we did. We moved the couches and chairs into a circle, and students took turns describing which of the books we had read that semester had the most profound impact on them.

"Life Stories" ended in December, but the freshmen in the linked-courses program are continuing with me this semester in an "Introduction to Literature" course that will include a bus trip to New York City. We also have made plans for a trip to a local art museum and are bringing in a local blues musician and historian to give a lecture/performance to complement the poetry we will be reading.

I also expect to bring in the occasional treat along the way. When the weather warms up, you might even find me sitting with my students outside on the grass some morning. I'm not sure what kind of cuisine to coincide with our screening of the New Zealand film Whale Rider at the end of the semester, but I'll do a little research and come up with something.

Assuming, that is, we have money left in our course budget by then. Although I'm tenured and feel financially stable right now, I'm not quite so committed to these extra treats and activities that I would finance them from the Lang family budget. This semester I'm also teaching the second half of a British-literature survey course, with a full house of 30 students—and no budget—so I won't be springing for high tea while we're racing through the Victorian era.

But the larger question still looms for me. Do these extracurricular treats and activities have a place in my courses? Do they serve a worthwhile purpose? Or are they just a gimmicky way to curry favor from students?

Rather than draw any conclusion yet, let me turn those questions over to you, the readers of The Chronicle. First, though, my 2 cents:

I now think my initial prejudice was misplaced. Bringing in special treats, or organizing an excurricular event outside of class, does build community. I come to that conclusion both philosophically and practically.

Philosophically, I count myself as a constructivist. Truth does not lie waiting for us to discover it; we work together to form it by responding to and studying our environment, sharing our knowledge and building new and better models of the world around us. I believe that understanding of knowledge moves us away from an educational model in which I simply pass along "truth" to my students, and toward a model in which students work together to build their understanding of a subject with the help and guidance of an instructor.

Given that philosophy, it makes sense for students to see their teachers not as talking heads, but as human beings who have a passion and devotion to learning. Sharing meals with students, sitting in a circle under a tree, chatting with them before and after class—all of those things may help students see us, not simply as "experts," but as human beings with whom they can engage to advance their understanding of our disciplines.

More practically, the comments that I heard at some of our extracurricular events, or during the times when we were eating and talking informally, suggested that my students were working and studying together outside of the class. I always encourage students to read one another's drafts, study together, and help each other whenever they can, so I was happy to discover it was actually happening. I have no objective way to measure whether their time together outside of class improved their work in the course in any way, so that's as far as I am willing to go on that point.

But of course, I could be wrong about all of this. That's the No. 1 principle of constructivism, as far as I'm concerned: Always be willing to listen to other possibilities.

So I finish with two questions for you, dear readers. I invite you to comment below and I will follow the discussion.

  • Do extracurricular, community-building activities and features have a place in college and university courses?
  • And, if they do, and you don't have the money to pay for them, are there other ways to build community in the classroom that don't require a budget?

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is http://www.jamesmlang.com. He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com.


1. klblk - January 12, 2010 at 05:50 am

I am an Oxbridge tutor, and give traditional one-on-two undergraduate tutorials with students sitting in comfy armchairs or sofas. I am lucky enough to have an entertainment budget that allows me to occasionally treat them to drinks and snacks, but not weekly. I have held tutorials in Starbucks, outside, and once even in the rail station, places where observing people and organisations was useful to what the students were learning.

The difference between this and bribery or pandering? I am measured by what my undergraduates attain in their examinations, and student evaluations play little role in my success or failure as an undergraduate teacher. (Postgraduate studies, are, alas, increasingly subject to the tyranny of class ratings.)

2. ksledge - January 12, 2010 at 08:16 am

* Do extracurricular, community-building activities and features have a place in college and university courses?

Yes, definitely, for the reasons you mention. It's not just about making the professor into a human, but also the fellow students. I think that students are by default in "individual" mode, but that most do a lot better when they can share ideas with others and tackle learning as a team. So building that community is crucial if your goal is to give them that advantage.

* And, if they do, and you don't have the money to pay for them, are there other ways to build community in the classroom that don't require a budget?

Money or time makes things easier, but the answer is yes. Here are some ideas:
1) Students hate group work largely because they don't want to share a grade, but give them some in-class group assignments that are ungraded. These assignments should be very difficult to solve by one's self but much easier with a group.
2) Hold one of your office hours in a "fun"/neutral location such as a coffee shop (or outdoors!) and encourage students to come even when they have no questions about the course, just to chat. You won't get the whole class to come, but this is more effective than you'd imagine.
3) If your research has an interesting show-and-tell component (e.g. a science lab), have your students voluntarily sign up for lab tours in groups. An excellent professor of mine did this when I was an undergraduate.
4) Build an online community. Usually this is free and it uses no extra of your time. As part of our school's course webpage software, there were both discussion board and chat room options, and I used both. Before each exam, students hung out in the chatroom and had a virtual study group. It wasn't required, but many students still used it.
5) If your course isn't curved (which is sort of anti-community-building), give students some mild incentive to share study materials (e.g. class participation points). In my course, students contributed to an online "wiki" to create a collaborative review guide, and other students contributed their personal review guides to the course website.
6) Repeatedly remind students that you and they are on the same side and working towards a common goal of learning.
7) Try to foster good discussions, even in large classes. I've seen it work in class sizes with up to 80 people regularly attending.

3. cconnellyweida - January 12, 2010 at 08:59 am

Increasingly, the literature and surveying institutions (NSSE and CCSSE) demonstrate that the more engaged students are in their coursework; the more they can apply what they are learning to their lives, proposed work, and intellectual growth; the more they can relate to their faculty; the more likely they are to persist to goal attainment and graduation. By engaging students in co- and extra-curricular activities germain to their studies, we increase the likelihood of their success. Students are more likely to prepare, attend, and fully participate in class when they feel an obligation to the faculty member and to the class, their teammates. Communinig, "possession in common," has long been held as demonstration of community building ((Agnes, 1996, p. 119). And what better way to build community and break the monotony of the classroom than to take time to celebrate and "change it up?"

For those of us on commuter campuses, we are also painfully aware of the number of students who eat one sparse meal in a 24 hour period. These interludes also serve to stave off hunger and increase their attention span and ability to participate during class time.

For your English class, you might want to see if a "stone soup" approach might work. Who would be willing to bring in what? Find ways to spread the financial burden so no one feels put upon. One student might ask the catering service to donate tea, etc. Another might find a local bakery to donate crumpets. It could be a team project.

4. cconnellyweida - January 12, 2010 at 09:09 am

Agnes, M. (Ed.). (1996). Webster's new world dictionary and thesaurus. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

5. aydub1978 - January 12, 2010 at 10:07 am

As a second-year assistant prof (who likes to bake), I occasionally bring in cookies or other snacks for special occasions: to celebrate our final day of discussion of a particularly long novel (not as a reward for finishing the book, which should be its own reward of course, but as a way of marking our collective progress); to take the edge off a midterm exam; to make the students who bother to show up the day before a break feel taken care of. I take the point that students shouldn't need to be bribed to do the things they're supposed to be doing in courses, but I don't look at it that way, exactly. The semester is long and *especially* for the really diligent students it can be easy to lose touch with the camaraderie, community, and fun that can and should be part of college-level intellectual work. I also pass those cookies around for my own sake: my students usually appreciate the snacks, and they relax and give me some affective cues that help *me* relax and be a better teacher.

If I didn't like baking to begin with, I would likely resent spending money on this kind of thing. But I second others' comments about the benefits of holding office hours in a campus cafe, which is a cheaper alternative way of fostering informal interactions (as long as the cafe proprietors don't frown on students coming in without buying anything - most don't, in my experience!). I've had great experiences of actually sitting down with a couple of students at once at a big cafe table and holding impromptu writing tutorials the week before a big paper is due. I'm at a big university and work in a building that looks like a giant cement block; it's so nice to take the institutional edge off of my interactions with undergrads who are made to feel like cogs in the bureaucratic wheel so much of the time.

Finally, I have a colleague whose students spontaneously started bringing in snacks for the class themselves after she started the ball rolling early on in the semester of a class scheduled for an hour that seemed to be everyone's preferred naptime. No one individual had to bear too much of the cost of the collective mid-afternoon sugar high that got them through the semester.

6. chemteach - January 12, 2010 at 11:18 am

I totally agree with cconnellyweida about bringing treats to build community. I have taught 26 years at community colleges, and have found that buying pizza, KFC, or bringing cookies brightens my students attitudes and creates a sense of comraderie that can be absent on commuter campuses. I don't do it all the time, but on occassion. For example I brought my students treats on Halloween appropriate to science: candy bones and eyebals. I usually try to get a review session in before the final and have found that the students really enjoy the informality of eating, asking questions, and answering each other.

Having taught evening classes forever, I actively encourage my students to bring snacks as a little glucose really helps the brain think in the evening. Most evening students put off eating until they get home at 9 pm or later. I find there are often students who really enjoy baking and sharing their goods too. In my smaller classes we've had potlucks. I usually purchase chicken for the potlucks.

As a chemistry teacher, I can always tie snacks into the daily lesson. In fact, I start my Introductory Chemistry class with a glass of Coca Cola to discuss the chemistry in it. Bringing a stack of the small disposable Dixie (R) cups to share it brings home the relevant points a little better.

You do need to be culturally sensitive to your students. For example if you order pizza, make sure that you order at least one vegetarian or cheese pizza. For potlucks, you can encourage students to bring ethnic dishes or vegetarian dishes. This can be a real eye opener for students if you have a lot of diversity in your classes. I had one Arabic student bring an eggplant dish. Most of my students had never had eggplant.

7. jffoster - January 12, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Well, in general I probably disagree with the philosophical "constructivist" past of this. And Im not big on "community building" either. But for years I had a graduate proseminar at 0800 Friday mornings. On the first meeting, I would bring in a supply of a Cincinnati cinamon doughnut delicacy known nowdays as "Persians". And I would tell them I wouldn't make a habit of it but that I didnt mind if they brough in coffee or the like. It was early and there is some research to the effect that teens and young adults operate on a 25 hour clock -- further evidence that they may come from somewhere out of this world. For me to get up and be thinking early was easy -- basic metabolism plus a military and naval background.

It seemed to help morale and I could then use it as a springboard to illustrate pejoration, euphemism, and folk etymologies in semantic change and word replacement. (they were originally called "Bismarcks", then got changed to "Pershings" in WW I, and were Pershings up into the 1990s. But we now have had some cohorts of young people and bakery workers who don't know much and never heard of Black Jack (General of the Armies John J) Pershing. So it's gotten folk etymologized to "Persians". And if the Political Correctnes Polizei do their usual thing, they will probably become "Iranians". But it's a poor professor who can't get a lecture out of a doughnut.

As to going outside, Nope. Im with you there. The exception was that I would always on one day take my Stars, Time, and Culture (Archaeo- and Ethnoastronomy, calendrics, ...) class out to the armillary in the quadrangle where there is a sundial and a plate with the analema, the graph of the Equation of Time (mean versus real Sun). That was of course directly relavent to the course.

BTW -- I wasn't doing it to promote favorable evaluations because I didnt allow formal student teaching evaluations to be done in my classes. But they are human beings, graduate students are apprentice professionals, and I think morale is of some at least minor importance.

8. drnancylbush - January 12, 2010 at 01:57 pm

Absolutgely yes they are worthwhile, espcially if you can link them to the material. I teach market research, what better learning experience than doing the Pepsi challenge so the students get a treat of soda. I am teaching a course on buiness lit including reading Ben and Jerry's Double Dip, so why not individual cups of yummy B&J ice cream. And where better to discuss environmental influences on consumer behavior than in the environment outside of class even if that is a mall or at a park. How do I fund them? School budgets won't stretch this far especially today, but they're not that expensive now and again, and there is always beg for freebies and coupons from Pepsi or other corporations if they see the link.

9. changinggears - January 12, 2010 at 03:26 pm

Once of my most memorable undergrad courses was an Honors course on C.S. Lewis. It was a three-hour long evening class and the prof would give us a tea break half-way through, complete with china cups and our choice of traditional English teas. His wife would make us pastries or cookies to eat. Aside from the interesting discussions, the tea made the course that much more enjoyable and I have always wished that I could let him know how much this added to the class. I don't serve my students treats (due to the fact that I'm an adjunct and, therefore, can hardly afford such extras), but if I were to have the right class and the right group of students, I would certainly consider it. As a student, I didn't view it as pandering, just as a nice touch to an already engaging class.

10. nbscovill - January 12, 2010 at 04:34 pm

Spring semester in the midwest always brought up the request from students that "we have class outside".......I typically resisted it until one semester I realized that my students would remain distracted by the desire to go outside so much that little if any learning would take place. Since it was a scheduled discussion day, I told them that my biggest concern was that the discussion would be poorer and they wouldn't learn as much. They dutifully promised that they wouldn't let the change in atmosphere distract them. I skeptically agreed. The next class, students acknowledged that it hadn't worked as well as outside and I had no more requests to go outside.
For the next five years, I continued to use this technique as a means to get us on track.
Imagine my surprise one semester, when the discussion went better outside--previously quiet students spoke up, students asked far better questions in followup, the discussion were more focused. . . . that semester we had three more classes outside--all far better than the inside classes. I was so disappointed when the midwest spring turned cold and the grounds were blanketed with a late snowfall....

11. wilkenslibrary - January 12, 2010 at 08:12 pm

My intermediate ESL class meets in a computer room, so food is not an option, but our last session is a potluck/video night at my house. It happens after evaluations are due, so I don't feel as if it's a bribe. The students have to carpool since I live in the woods and don't have adequate parking. Coming in groups also keeps them from getting lost since there is a driver, a reader of directions, and someone to look at the street signs. They all bring food from their countries, and we watch the movie version of the book that we've been reading all semester. We discuss the similarities and differences between the two media, and they know that the essay question on the final exam will give them a chance to think more deeply about those issues. For many of them, who have never been invited into a local's house, it is a wonderful experience. Some semesters, a student has invited everyone to repeat the evening at his/her house after the course is over. There is nothing like shared food to bring a group together.

12. blarkin - January 13, 2010 at 09:58 am

Ditto Wilkenslibrary on bringing food from students' different countries.

I believe partaking of a meal together is, as in other traditions, an offering of friendship. Another way to circumvent the cost is to bring recipes for scones, muffins, and finger sandwiches for high tea and distribute to volunteers in class. The more they contribute personally (time and effort, not the money) the more they will be invested in the content, other students and the professor.

13. allens - January 13, 2010 at 09:00 pm

The main course my advisor taught (200-300 students a term), General Biochemistry I and II, sometimes had an early-morning final exam (with the normal hour for the course being in the afternoon, IIRC - at the minimum, not at 8 AM). Whenever this happened, he brings in snacks for the students, out of sympathy for their having to get up so early that his contract actually provides that he'll never have to teach a course before 9 AM... (He also holds tea in his office at 4:30 each day, with all students invited.)

14. breckin - January 14, 2010 at 07:51 am

Gee, I never thought this takes much thought. From the time I was a beginning assistant professor I would occasionally bring in a treat -- always, for example, donuts the morning that most students had already left for Thanksgiving instead of sticking around for class -- or just because. A classroom is a community of people working and learning together. "Breaking bread" together is a deeply human way of building those community bonds. Using subject-relevant treats is a way of deepening and widening the modes of learning. And using light-hearted treats is a way of remembering not to take oneself seriously in such a solemn way! Can't work be fun?

15. lotsoquestions - January 14, 2010 at 08:48 am

Is anybody else just a LITTLE uncomfortable with that comment above? " the prof would give us a tea break half-way through, complete with china cups and our choice of traditional English teas. His wife would make us pastries or cookies to eat. "
I'm uncomfortable with the professor's wife being asked to provide unpaid baking services for the students.

I'm kind of uncomfortable with setting up any kind of expectations on the part of the students that 'good teachers provide food' -- for two reasons: Studies show that women faculty are already evaluated by students differently than male faculty -- they're expected to be more nurturing, emotionally available, et. I wonder if they're also expected to provide cookies more often (which has got to be difficult, seeing as they probably don't have a 'wife to provide cookies and treats.').
Also, I find the community college professor who feeds the students extremely troubling -- largely because so many community college faculty are adjuncts. Let's pay people subminimum wage that doesn't even cover their commuting or childcare costs, have them pay for their own xeroxing and then set up the expectation that they should feed the students out of the remaining funds. Are you kidding?

16. gcwaters - January 14, 2010 at 09:32 am

My freshman comp prof brought everyone home-baked pecan pies on the day of the final....they were wonderful!

17. stuhealth1 - January 14, 2010 at 02:02 pm

The good - building community is great - with or without food. The bad - building an expectation of reward or special treatment for doing what you are supposed to be doing. Think generation "me" and the never ending question about the external reward, as opposed to the intrinsic benefit.

It is a delicate balance in my opinion.

18. hoopoebird - January 16, 2010 at 08:27 am

I think I have to side with most of the above comments: Yes to food (as long as it's not bribery), no to class outside.

Should any prof be required or expected to bring in food? No. I bring in doughnuts one morning a semester because I like doughnuts, I know other people like doughnuts, and I have a coupon. If my school gave me some kind of stipend for snacks, like yours does, I'd gladly bring them in a lot more often. I've never seen snacks detract from learning, though I have seen snacks keep a few more students awake.

Profs who deliberately bring in snacks only on the day of evaluations are probably guilty of bribery. Then again, if an assessment of my entire semester of teaching can be swayed by a Reece's Peanut Butter Cup, that tells you how much stock we should place in student evaluations. So maybe the bribe is gaming a broken system, which is a little less heinous.

I have no objection to holding class outdoors--from a philosophical standpoint. The students and I spend too much of our lives indoors, and especially in the spring semester, that quad looks mighty inviting. From a practical standpoint, however, I'm opposed. I've tried it a few times, and it's never worked. The distractions are too great, and the acoustics are terrible. Students stop paying attention almost instantly. A student can eat doughnuts and listen, but I've never seen a class succeed sitting on the quad. Pity.

19. konibono - January 16, 2010 at 09:30 am

I think an occasional small treat that manages to have some, even minor connection to pedagogy can be quite helpful. I sometimes also bring in leftover Halloween candy, mostly so I won't eat it myself. I've had issues with meeting outdoors, but I do like to "give in" and hold small courses at a cafe now and then.

But I have noted an increasing sense of entitlement among students in this regard, too. This past semester, a major in my program exclaimed on the day of the final exam, completely seriously, "Where are the donuts?" While at a restaurant dinner paid for as part of a program I administered at the time, I had to again explain to the students that, while they were allowed to pay for their own alcohol, I was required to follow college policy that forbids college funds paying for student alcohol. One student sitting near me--an asst. prof. just then going through mid-tenure review--complained that on a recent trip abroad, her professor got around the rule by buying everyone's drinks himself. This is a very senior full professor who drives a very fancy sportscar and has a very lucrative supplemental gig. And I ended up both times feeling like a jerk. Ugh.

20. pricejennifer - January 16, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Of course they do. Take food for example--As every anthropologist knows, eating is a communal act full of symbolism. It binds the group together, is an expression of one's position in the group, and is an expression of care. You set the tone with the activities you choose. If you don't want students having a sense of entitlement and you want to foster a cooperative learning experience, have the class share in providing food for class. Tie it to the class--chemistry, biology, anthropology, English, psychology, etc all can easily use food to enhance concepts. And all classes benefit when the students and professor feel a bond with and commitment to each other. Sharing food has nothing to do with bribery or pandering unless that is your intention.

21. kielpins - January 17, 2010 at 05:20 am

The idea of bringing in food to class is totally deranged. I can't believe serious faculty are commenting in support of this. I managed to get through community college exchange as a high-schooler, undergrad, then grad school, without ever seeing this happen. And I'm not some crusty old fossil - I'm only 35.

The only sensible point that's been advanced in favor of this idea is "community building." I don't believe it's the job of faculty to "build community" in the classroom. There are more important things to do, like conveying the class material! There are plenty of opportunities for faculty to participate in student life by e.g. acting as a faculty advisor to a student organization.

22. dantina - January 20, 2010 at 07:21 am

Teaching a foreign language (Italian), I find bringing in certain types of "standard" Italian foods (such as "pane e nutella" ... bread and Nutella chcolate cream), really adds a touch of authenticity to otherwise sometimes stale "explanations" of habits and cultures. Sometimes I "use" the food in a grammatical context (such as having students ask for what they want using the conditional), sometimes it is just for fun.
The same thing goes for outside class discussions. I have held lessons everywhere ... even at the beach! In a foreign language setting, the distinct advantage is that students have to SPEAK UP to be heard with all the noises (even if it is just crashing waves). During particularly nice weather spells, I have invented activities such as giving a campus tour (in Italian) to the other students etc. etc.- things that allowed us to remove the language from theartificial enviornment of a classrom to a more "authentic" enviornment in which one speaks.
Of course, I don't know what my policies would be as a science or math professor ... !

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