If you know me decently well, you know that I like to watch a lot of TV shows about food. I spend a good deal of time watching a range of Food Network shows of varying quality and value.
Thus, the news this morning about Anthony Bourdain hit me pretty hard. While it wasn’t on the Food Network, I watched many, many episodes of Parts Unknown. My mind, this morning, is wandering between images of him just sitting with a woman in a restaurant in Sicily chatting about the culture, history, economy and politics of Sicily to a more recent episode where he was throwing axes in Newfoundland. The show was endlessly fascinating and Bourdain was our guide to fascination.
There will be lots of mourning over the loss of Anthony Bourdain, but this morning, I am choosing to think of how we might celebrate his work through education.
Many colleges and universities are trying to figure out new ways to tackle general education requirements. My own employer, VCU, has been undergoing an effort “to re-imagine our general education curriculum.” The proposed framework that my VCU colleagues came up with isn’t bad, but it still feels like picking courses out of individual boxes and checking boxes to complete a checklist. It feels like what happens when universities try to be innovative and break out of boxes, but turf wars ensue and departments dig in their heels. The result is an overwrought compromise that doesn’t serve anyone particularly well.
Here is something I wrote on Twitter back in 2015.
— Jon Becker (@jonbecker) November 27, 2015
Imagine this learning experience: 1 faculty member with 20-25 students just reading and discussing the Longreads Weekly Top 5. They’d meet once a week, in a meeting room or a coffee shop or outside on a lawn or in the forest; it doesn’t matter. And they’d just talk about what they learned. And maybe they’d blog about it so they could expand their discussion beyond the designated class time and space and could get others outside the class to weigh in. That’s it; that’s the whole instructional design. No predetermined curriculum; very little by way of planning. Learning outcomes? How about curiosity, wonder, critical thinking? Those are your “learning outcomes.” I’d bet students would learn more by reading and deeply discussing those 5 articles each week than they would in most other tightly-designed, pre-packaged curriculum-driven course.
I would also love to involve students in a learning experience built around food shows like Alton Brown’s Good Eats. Seriously. Watch just the first few minutes of this episode. In just the first 3+ minutes, we get history (information about the Ottoman Empire), science (cooking and surface area), and math (computing surface area). In a show about kabobs.
What if general education was more like this? What if students read Longreads and watched episodes of Good Eats as part of an effort around interdisciplinary studies?
And then there’s Anthony Bourdain. To me, Parts Unknown was, at its heart, educational media.
I’m not from West Virginia like Craig Calcaterra (see below) is. But, I spent a lot of time in that state doing field research at the end of the 20th century. When I watched the episode of Parts Unknown that Calcaterra shares, I felt like Bourdain had really captured what I had come to know about the state and then some. Watch the episode and tell me that you didn’t learn a ton. The way Bourdain juxtaposes New York City and his fellow New Yorkers with the “existential enemy” in West Virginia is classic Bourdain.
Anthony Bourdain went to West Virginia last year. In one hour he did way better capturing my home state than 1,000 poverty porn tourist journalists with pre-written stories parachuting in from coastal publications have ever done. https://t.co/sYWpcLLokN
— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) June 8, 2018
Parts Unknown is an interdisciplinary curriculum. It is about culture, food, history, politics, economics, etc. It’s about people.
Anthony Bourdain had one of the only shows on tv that tried with all its might to teach Americans not to be scared of other people.
— Allison F.🦉 (@ablington) June 8, 2018
And isn’t that what general education is?
Replace the word “travel” with the word “learning” in the following quote from Anthony Bourdain.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you… You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” — Anthony Bourdain #RIP pic.twitter.com/1X5IoWzLbC
— Tribeca (@Tribeca) June 8, 2018
Maybe we’re overthinking general education in higher education. Probably, in fact.