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News & Stories: 2009-10

Come on over: hospitality as pedagogy
November 18, 2009

Communication arts and sciences professor Brian Fuller regularly welcomes his students into his home. He recently wrote this essay about how that kind of hospitality can be a vital part of the learning—and teaching—experience.

Students eating dinner
Brian Fuller's students enjoy meals at his house on a regular basis.

Let's presume Calvin faculty wish to interact more with their students but fear being “creepy.” And let’s further define “creepy” as “invasive,” as stepping, uninvited and unwelcome into spaces where our students don’t expect or want us to be. I’ll risk a whiff of Arminianism to read Revelation 3:30 as a sign the Great Teacher himself knocks, then waits for us to "open the door" (Yes, yes, good Calvinists will remind us it's an irresistible knocking.) Similarly, the Rabbi's call to "follow me" felt to the disciples like invitation rather than imposition. Thus, going to a student's dorm room may be "creepy" in a way that inviting them to our own homes is not.

When I came here five years ago, I was warned to expect tremulous silence in the classroom but have not experienced it myself. Indeed, from the first day of class, I can hardly get students to shut up (which is just fine with me, thanks). Nevertheless, this Southern expatriate continues to learn a whole new set of skills for navigating Calvin's social landscape. One example: having students over for dinner.

I invite 100-level students over for a Kung Fu movie, asking them each to bring a quart of their favorite Chinese food. I am still surprised to hear how many of them have never tasted lo mein and egg rolls. The first time I hosted such a dinner, students arrived in fits and starts for an hour, dropping in and eating the food they brought, sometimes even before they arrived. I have explained to successive classes that the food is to share and that we will eat together.

I invite 200-level students over for a Tex Mex Potluck. The first year I tried it? Another disaster. They all—every one of them—brought chips and salsa. Now, I make a list of the sorts of foods people might enjoy in the southwest border states. Some of them stop by "The Bell" and bring a dozen tacos. But about half of them make their own burritos or quesadillas.

Students cook in Brian Fuller's kitchenI invite 300-level students to cook breakfast (though we eat it for dinner).They are not merely bringing bacon or eggs, but collaborating to cook them in our kitchen. The effect is similar to an executive ropes course, perhaps, where coming together to perform a task, which is nothing like the ones required of them in class, offers them new avenues of communication. The improved communication, in turn, improves their interaction and work (simple group norm communication theory stuff).

I also host a couple of dinners each semester for all of our majors. I make a big pot of pasta; they bring sauce, salad, bread and dessert. Seniors teach sophomores how to interact socially, but they all engage in project networking across class levels. It’s possible this practice of Acts 2 community might be of greater benefit to collaborative filmmakers than to folks in some other discipline which emphasizes individual achievement. After all, the principles of “rabbinical apprenticeship” have been a pedagogical mainstay of the arts for centuries. But I doubt even the loneliest of scholars does her best work apart from a network of peers.

Students have—to this point in their lives—been objects or observers of many adult social events. Sometimes, they are even told by churches NOT to bring anything to a potluck (surely as a gesture of charity). But they are adults. Kinda. I have had to structure the potluck to require the least involvement from freshman (grab Chinese takeout) and more involvement from seniors (cook with me), but the result has been a level of social involvement and engagement among students that follows them back to the classroom.

CAS professor Brian Fuller
Brian Fuller, associate professor of media production

Other cool things happen at dinner, by the way. Here are two: One: students meet my wife and kids ("How do you stand him?" "How did you two meet?" "Geez, he's human after all.") Two: my kids meet Christian college students. Having the house routinely full of smart role-models who actually pay attention when I speak is no small benefit, parents.

Can eating at my table be creepy? I guess if students thought they were required to come, maybe it could be. But I am still "where I belong," (my house, not theirs), and if they feel uncomfortable, there's no gun to their heads (so no fair giving “extra credit” for attendance).

Colleagues wonder how I can afford to do so much entertaining (If you’ve been counting as you read, you may have tallied about two student meals a month). Please remember those are just my friends. My wife and three kids fill the house with their friends, too. I’m seldom sure who will pass me the green beans. But the butler’s not serving canapés and cocktails. Potlucks—I think of them as small-scale rehearsals of Isaiah 60—add only minimally to the grocery bill. Students are bringing food. Our home is available in hospitality, but I wouldn’t say we were catering to guests. Opening our lives to students doesn’t have to mean dusting the house more often.

Others have worried that my friendship with students compromises fair assessment. But my grades are our department’s second lowest. Is it possible that —as Jesus models in brutally truthful exchange with Peter—that intimacy and honesty go hand-in-glove? It is precisely because my students regularly eat with me that I may speak frankly to them about their class performance. Over time, they frequently invite me to similarly frank talk about their families, their love lives, and the practice of their faith. Their invitation. Not creepy.

As a parting shot, here’s the flip side of hospitality: This summer I met a winsome Chinese scholar who was at Calvin for a month. I was doing some preproduction research for a film I'll be shooting in China, so I connected with her for lunch (took my McGregor Fellow along just to show her networking in action). At the end of lunch, I invited her to dinner later in the week (I'm a Southerner, remember? It's what we do). You can hardly imagine how grateful she was. She had been here for a month— a month— and had been invited to no one's home.This was significant for her because of her house-church background. To be denied "house," she explained, was to be denied "church."

Her story—and those of my students over the years— make me believe we should stop counting the costs of open homes and lives; we should stop defending traditions which have separated teachers from learners. Instead, mightn’t our culture be more radically renewed if we asked “What do we all lose when we turn from hospitality?”

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