This article originally appeared in the March 1997 issue of The Teaching Professor.
While it is, admittedly, a bit of an unorthodox concept, we would like to propose that our understanding of colleges and universities would be enhanced if we thought of them as cooking schools. The faculty are master chefs with expertise in particular styles of cuisine, and the students are apprentice chefs who benefit from the masters’ instruction on the basic principles and methodologies of cooking.
Our textbooks and required readings offer examples of excellence by other noted chefs that our students may critique or strive to emulate. We arrange assignments and research projects so that they may demonstrate their knowledge of basic principles and practice applying these in an interesting and original manner.
Apprentice chefs understand that, at a cooking school, they are paying thousands of dollars in tuition to learn a valued trade. On the other side of the relationship, the cooking school requires that the apprentice entre the institution with basic culinary skills. It also expects the apprentice to be an active learner who actually wants to be a chef.
Unlike many other university students, apprentice chefs are not under the illusion that they are paying to come to a “restaurant” in which they are invited to sit back passively and consumer their choice of the menu offerings. They take responsibility for their education and know that, to be successful, they must be able to think through challenging problems and to provide creative and palatable solutions.
There is a right way and a wrong way to run a cooking school. If the experienced instructor retires and is not replaced, then the abilities of the graduates will be limited. If the school’s library or food store is poorly stocked, with dated produce or less-than-current products, students will be limited in what they can accomplish.
No cooking school can consistently produce dynamic, creative problem-solvers if the classes are so big that the students can hardly see the professor at the front of the room. Anyone committed to a tradition of excellence in education knows that teaching in a fast food environment cannot provide gourmet results.
The role of the master chef is to teach the apprentice how to be a professional cook. The master does so by showing the apprentice how to select the best ingredients, by poring over recipes with the apprentice, and by offering direct supervision and feedback as the student produces delectable dishes. The master chef also evaluates the originality and creativity of the apprentice chefs’ creations.
In the cooking school, the master chef faces his or own challenges. The master chef must research the newest innovations on the “gourmet scene” and be a proficient instructor who clearly elucidates the creative process. S/he must go beyond simply providing a functional cookbook to matching the enthusiasm and finesse of any top chef while demonstrating subtleties of technique, whether that takes place in a group teaching setting or on a one-to-one basis.
Ultimately, we hope this metaphor serves to prompt among readers and their colleagues debate and discussion of the important issues currently confronting our colleges and universities.
No doubt, such an exercise could result in quite stimulating, animated, and passionate dinner conversation.
Erin Steuter, PhD, is a professor of sociology at Mount Allison University, where Geoff Martin, PhD, is a part-time assistant professor of politics and international relations. Susan Machum, PhD, is the dean of social sciences at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick.