BY PAT BOWNE
David Brooks apparently hit a nerve with his sandwich column. My friends’ reactions on social media ranged from stories about their own discomfort in fancy restaurants to comments about food snobbery to accusing me of wanting the right-wing PC police to stop us all from eating kale.
Perhaps the commonest remark I saw, though, was that when you don’t know what a menu item means you should ‘just ask.’ And the more I read it, the more simplistic it seemed to me. If only Brooks had used a teaching example instead of a food example! Any teacher knows that telling students to ‘just ask’ is less than effective. Asking has to be built into a class, supported, and made safe.
In about a month, I’ll be facing my classes – Anatomy & Physiology and Pathophysiology, two tough subjects. I’m known as a tough teacher of these tough subjects, but students can’t avoid them; they’re requirements in the nursing program. So there they will be, looking at me as if I were a menu with incomprehensible items on it. Atrial Natriuretic Peptide. Baroreceptor Reflex. Compartment Syndrome.
Some of those students spent the summer working in health care facilities, and already know these words. Some took Latin in high-school, and some took the GED. Some worked in a local store all summer. Some traveled across the country or overseas, and some stayed in their own neighborhoods. I can’t tell from looking at them, and it’s really none of my business anyway. What is my business is to make sure every one of those students feels an equal right to participate in my classroom.
They all have to feel that it’s safe to ask a question, that mistakes are part of the process, that nobody knows it all – even me – and that thinking things through is a bigger skill than memorizing the material. They have to see that I can find the germ of insight in whatever they say or ask, that I never talk down to them or shame them, that I respect their perspectives, that I’m open to questioning and correction and expect them to be too, and that looking stupid isn’t a horrible thing to be avoided at all costs.
I have lots of tricks and quirks for doing this, as all teachers do. I rely a lot on group work, when I can come around to the tables and discuss people’s ideas without making them ‘go public’ with work in process. That also lets me note who’s doing really well and call on them, with praise, for the round-up. I use online drag-and-drop activities that they can do as a class, and let them help each other with suggestions. I joke about how we’ll all throw things at them if they’re wrong, and tell them to speak up so their peers can criticize them. I play-act a grumpy, clueless patient who can ask challenging questions without intimidating. And sometimes I screw up completely, and make an incautious remark that pushes a shy student into silence for a whole semester.
All of us teachers know that the glib ‘If you don’t understand you should just ask!’ covers a multitude of things you need before you feel free to ‘just ask.’ And that’s what I read Brooks’s column to be about. Not that we should never encounter things that we need to ask about, but about whether we feel it’s safe to ‘just ask.’ If I were at a football game, I would have to ‘just ask’ a lot. I’d hope the people around me were patient and welcoming of my questions, and refrained from making judgments about me based on my ignorance. Depending on the messages I picked up from them, I would either ask and make friends or sit through the game clueless, resentful, and alienated.
It’s way too easy for us to make our stylistic choices into moral ones, and bristle when we’re reminded that they are also class markers. Are you saying we should never try any new foods? Are you saying there aren’t any educated people who like football? What I’m saying is that all of us belong to subcultures with their own attributes, and all of us should realize that and that to invite others in, we need to be welcoming. And that applies most of all to those of us who teach, or aspire to influence others.
The real problem in David Brooks’s story wasn’t that someone didn’t know what the menu items meant, or that he should have assumed (How? Through stereotyping?) a potential cultural divide. It was that his guest didn’t feel comfortable enough – welcomed enough – to just ask.