We Should Apply the Slow-Food Movement to Higher Education

Why take the time to make a loaf of bread? It is simple enough to toss a shiny cellophane bag of bread into the grocery cart instead of taking a couple of hours to mix the ingredients, knead the dough, let it rise, knead it some more, then shape it into the desired form. The process of cooking from scratch and the growing popularity of the slow-food movement are a fitting analogy for the need to redesign and reshape current forms of higher education.

In a lot of ways the design of higher education mirrors the design of our grocery stores and kitchens. The existing structures often emphasize convenience and familiarity via prepackaged learning practices and standardized degree requirements. By the same token, the movement to reform higher education mirrors the slow-food movement in a shared desire to shift our societal focus to promoting holistic approaches that not only further develop critical-thinking skills, but also lead to new creative productions. In other words, not just analysis of the different breads we buy, but also experimenting hands-on with the creative process of baking a loaf.

The students in Professor Davidson’s graduate course “History and Future of Higher Education,” who are also facilitators in the Coursera MOOC on the same topic, represent a variety of academic departments and comprise Ph.D., master’s, M.F.A., and undergraduate students. I am one of three M.F.A. students in experimental documentary arts in the mixture. The M.F.A. is conventionally the highest terminal degree an artist can obtain and is a required qualification for college arts faculty members. M.F.A. students directly collaborating with doctoral students is uncommon at many universities. Yet combining analytical research methods with the expressive and creative methods specific to doctoral and M.F.A. students creates a very special and important mix that’s desperately needed for higher education: building, making, inventing, and (re)presenting. Like bread made from pure and raw ingredients, from scratch, combining a Ph.D. and an M.F.A. allows different kinds of ingredients to come together in new ways. It is a model that universities should actively develop if we are serious about rethinking higher education for this interactive, do-it-yourself world.

The experimental-documentary-arts program is Duke’s inaugural M.F.A. program. It has existed for only three years. It is run by three Duke entities: the Center for Documentary Studies; the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies; and the Program in the Arts of the Moving Image. Already, in bringing those traditions together, we are crossing boundaries that, in traditional higher education, are rarely crossed, another essential aspect of designing higher education from scratch.

The process of creating a new program already makes us think critically about the “history of higher education.” In many ways the longtime absence of an M.F.A. program at Duke required the M.F.A. in experimental documentary arts also to be designed from scratch. This included space. If we rethink the divide of thinking/making so embedded in traditional colleges, what new ways of conceptualizing and materializing space do we need? The physical renovation of a the 4,000-square-foot Duke University Carpentry Shop into M.F.A. studio space meant making “makerspaces”—M.F.A. studios in proximity to the research libraries and labs and museums and other campus facilities. This created valuable opportunities for physical evolutions and incarnations of critical thinking into new creative productions.

In recent history there are many examples of public and private industries outside of the college realm embracing the need for physical makerspaces as part of their daily operations. An excellent example is the SpaceShop at the NASA AMES Research Center. These are the kitchen spaces where different ingredients can be combined or changed and experimentation can occur, with the result that the final product is better because of all the previously tested iterations.

Designing integrative M.F.A. programs at major research universities that have a deep tradition in the humanities helps create new collaborations among artists, researchers, and scholars. In the case of the “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” seminar, we can share ideas and try out new learning models. The MOOC’s lecture in Week 4, “Welcome to the Future: 10 Ways to Change the Paradigm,” is set in the Nasher Museum of Art, in Durham, N.C., which acts as a symbol for a new model of higher education. During the lecture, Professor Davidson explains, “Art is one of those tactics, methods, and practices that allow us to see brilliance where we didn’t see it before. Artists have a way of taking the mundane and turning it into something magical.”

Before we can really imagine the future of higher education, we need to invest time in thinking, from scratch, about all the ingredients, proportions, what we want to add, and who we can bring to the table, in order to achieve the best result possible. In this way, like the most passionate cook, we can carefully craft a new recipe that brings our collective visions of higher education to life.

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