Eat to learn

A long time ago, the College had a tradition in which each first-year entry would have an annual “special” dinner. Students could invite faculty members and have the opportunity to get together over a fancy meal. Alumni often recall these dinners as wildly successful and are shocked they have not continued. This spring, the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) – on whose behalf I am writing this op-ed – is bringing them back, hopefully better than ever. We are calling them “CUL Annual Guest Dinners.” 

These are not Lyceum dinners and in fact have quite a different (though still pleasant) vibe. Each CUL Annual Guest Dinner is for an entry and its sister entry. The idea is for each student or group of students to invite a faculty or staff member that they want to get to know better. Of course, to attend, a student does not have to invite someone. As for dress code, the CUL has decided that the official phrase is “dress up a bit.”

Each CUL Annual Guest Dinner is in the Dennett Room in Mission Park. Dining services and the folks in Mission Park have done a wonderful job making the Dennett Room look warm and charming. The evenings start with a cheese and fruit plate. Usually there is soft music in the background. There is table service; guests are served their meals family style rather than having to go through the food line. All of this is intended to make the evening seem special and to induce good conversation.

A number of these dinners have already been held. So far the feedback from students, faculty and staff who have attended has been positive: People think these dinners are great and are definitely having a good time. But the CUL is not setting up these dinners just to provide folks with a nice meal. We have a much more serious intent. Our goal is to foster more interactions, both social and intellectual, between students, faculty and staff. Today most students, faculty and staff appear to be, and usually are, busy, with almost every moment of our time scheduled. While this over-scheduling does add a certain energy to campus life, it can at times preclude those delightful moments of serendipitous insights that can occur by merely talking to others. Much of one’s learning can occur outside the classroom. Many faculty members will say that a great deal of what they learned in college came from talking with their peers. At a school filled with ambitious and intellectually curious people, such as there are at the College, many of these conversations stem from what is being learned in class and what is being read outside of class. Courses and conversations should bolster each other. This is in part why most of us have chosen to be at a small school in a small town in New England. The very smallness of the College should allow us to get to know each other and to learn from each other.

Often this outside learning is best done informally over food and conversation. The CUL is hoping that these dinners become part of the fabric of the College, and possibly in the future be extended to upperclassmen as well. Every year we want each student at the College to have a chance to attend one of these dinners. But this is for future CULs to implement.

So for those of you who are in your first year at the College and whose CUL Annual Guest dinner is still to come, check with your Junior Advisors about your reserved date and then ask a faculty or staff member to be your guest. If a bunch of you are taking the same course, collectively ask your professor. It doesn’t even have to be someone who is teaching or coaching you, just someone you want to get to know better. If they say no, just ask someone else.

Wouldn’t it be great if students, faculty and staff could occasionally take a break during the semester and learn from each other over a meal? We hope that the CUL Annual Guest Dinners will allow all of us such a chance.

Tom Garrity is a professor of mathematics.