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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Over lunch, students and professors learn the truth about each other

Published: April 18, 2008
Section: Features

During the last conversation with her advisor, David Cunningham, SOC, Kimberlee Bachman ’08 discussed chocolate and baseball because “they are two topics that I enjoy speaking with him about.” Not your typical office hour type of conversation, right? That’s because this conversation occurred as a part of Take Your Professor to Lunch Week, Bachman’s initiative.

Bachman became acquainted with Professor Cunningham through their shared work on a Schiff fellowship last year. Her recent lunch with him was “an opportunity to hang out with David and we made a deal that we wouldn’t talk about my thesis so we didn’t, and instead we talked about our families, baseball, dessert and sociology. It was nice to relax and hang out without worrying about the next chapter (of my thesis) if you will.”

You probably received one of the campus-wide emails advertising the program, but were you one of the almost 150 participants of the Take Your Professor to Lunch program? Though Bachman came up with the idea to reinstate the program last year, the plans started this year during her role as Director of Academic Affairs. As part of the program, students were invited to take a current or past professor, an advisor, or a professor they really wanted to get to know better, to lunch. And even better, the lunch was free.

“One of my big goals going into the year was to better student and faculty relationships. And there’s something about having lunch or a meal, or hanging out with someone outside of the classroom, but also outside of the office, that you get to know them differently than you would in the classroom or in the office. And my hope was to kind of give people the opportunity to do that,” Bachman said.

When Cindy Kaplan ’08 came to visit Brandeis as a prospective student, she saw a student eating with a professor. After witnessing this, she was determined to take part once she was part of the community. Unfortunately, when she got to Brandeis, the program had been dissolved, and professor-student lunches were not institutionalized the way that they used to be.

Kaplan had been meaning to meet with her advisor, Stephen Whitfield, AMST, for lunch for weeks, but a busy schedule on both ends, with her writing a thesis and him teaching classes, prevented them from doing so. Butwhen she received the email announcing the program, Kaplan decided it was about time to do just that. “I was so excited to finally get to experience that because it was one of my goals at Brandeis.”

“Talking to a professor over lunch is so different than office hours because it’s much more relaxed. You don’t have to talk about academics at all, and you just get to know your professor as a person, and that’s really cool,” Kaplan said. She added “getting to know your professors as humans is so important. They’re so smart and interesting.”

Professor Whitfield, whom several students took to lunch, agreed to the value of the program. In an email he wrote “getting to know students in this fashion is valuable and interesting, and the chance to converse casually and extracurricularly is for me both pleasant and educational.”

These lunches are of course, not a substitute for office hours, but rather a supplement, as Whitfield said. “ I don’t discount the value of meetings in the office, and to conduct formal business is easier in that

setting than over a pile of nachos.”

But Professor Whitfield wasn’t the only professor who was in demand for lunch, as there were over many professors who took part in the program.

We all know that rock stars have an entourage of loving fans, but did you ever think that professors might too? Surely Professor Harry Michael Coiner, ECON, didn’t. But he was just one of the many professors in demand.

Having participated in the former program 3 or 4 times before, Professor Coiner feels the program is a good one as it “gives students a chance to see the faculty as human beings, and it gives me a better sense of who the students are, what students care about, what they worry about. It makes Brandeis feel like more of a community. Sometimes it is hard to work out a convenient time for everyone, but I feel like this is something that should happen each semester, if possible.”

For Caleb Smith ’10 who was homeschooled earlier in life, meeting with professor Coiner or any other professor for lunch “ just seemed like a natural thing to do” and meeting with professors and getting to know them “makes the whole experience much more personal.”

In fact, Smith and a group of friends have taken Coiner to lunch once a semester over the past four semesters. Already planning on meeting anyway, the newly-reinstated program only encouraged Smith to participate more.

Some of Smith’s friends viewed the lunch as intimidating because they “didn’t want to look like they were sucking up to their professors, [but] I don’t think the professors take it that way at all.”And meeting for lunch proved Smith’s friends’ misconceptions wrong. They also benefitted from some wise advice about real-life economics and career questions. During their lunch, Smith and his friends chatted with Coiner about the 2008 Presidential election, the ways governmental policy can assist the poor, and the debate of efficiency vs. equality, among other subjects.

Smith feels there is less pressure at a meal with a professor than during office hours. “When you go to office hours you can’t really let the conversation come to a halt. You have to keep talking and you generally need specific [class-related] questions…but a meal is casual. It’s kind of a casual time where you go into each other’s stories [and] we can ask the professor about his kids and his college experience.”

For Smith, witnessing the differences between the role a professor plays in class and the persona they have in person is also interesting; with a lecture professor like Coiner, keeping the class’s attention focused is a priority, and he’s much quieter in person than in class.

Holly Sarkissian ’08 and her roommate decided to take Professor Harleen Singh (WMGS) to lunch because she saw Singh as “very intelligent [and] wanted to hear more about her life outside of academia.”

“It was nice to talk to her in a less formal setting,” Sarkissian said, adding, “I think it’s good to forge better relationships with your professors and either talk to them more in depth about their subject matter or just like learn more about each other.”

Professor Singh also enjoyed her experience and said in an e-mail to the Hoot, “there is so much more to students and professors than the classroom experience allows one to express, and it is always nice to get the chance to see that.”

Prof Singh also suggested a more extended period for the program in the future rather than the one week they held this semester. “I do wish they would hold the program for longer than a week since my students and I couldn’t schedule a lunch during that week, and we ended up taking ourselves to lunch the week after!’

Bachman believes the program was “another way for students and faculty to kind of communicate and get to know one another.” “The cool thing about this program…is that it was a real collaboration and I hope that it’s a model for future programs and future events because it was a really positive collaboration,” Bachman said, referencing the office of Students and Enrollment who funded the program and the Dean’s and Provost’s offices who assisted. “It was a true pleasure to work with the different offices in planning the program,” she added.

“I really hope that it becomes institutionalized because I think that [the] positive feedback and utilization of the program has been overwhelming,” Bachman said.