Liberal Arts for Lunch

A philosophy professor continues to learn at the lunch table

by James K.A. Smith, Department of Philosophy
Summer 2013

One of the reasons I’m a professor is because it meant I never had to stop being a student.

Talk about lifelong learning! My job is to be constantly curious: to keep studying, exploring and learning—because God’s broken-but-blessed world has all sorts of complexities that we have yet to understand, but also because I will be a better teacher if I am a perpetual student. A big part of contagious teaching is modeling exploration and discovery for students—sharing with them your excitement as you learn new things, inviting them to experience that unique joy of seeing the world anew. And the hope is that this implants a desire in them to be lifelong learners themselves, no matter what their vocation might be.

You would think that the 10 years of higher education that many professors endure might be enough to exhaust this desire. But I don’t think that’s the case. Perpetual curiosity is a vocational hazard for scholars. In fact, I remember one time, shortly after I finished my doctorate and was in my first teaching job, I offhandedly remarked to my wife, Deanna: “For my next PhD, I’d really like to … .”

She stopped me right there: “Don’t even think about it, or any conversation about your next PhD will be with your next wife.” I got the message.

So I settle for the staff dining room.

Continuing ed classroom

That lunch table in the staff dining room, upstairs in the Commons Annex, is an embodiment of all there is to love about Calvin College. And it has been a continuing ed classroom for me over the past decade.

It begins with a little something that thrills my frugal Scottish soul: I can score a bowl of soup, a roll, and ice water with lemon for $1.81. And the lovely folks at the register always offer us a little candy as a bonus. What’s not to love?

Large, circular tables sit alongside a panel of windows that offer a marvelous vista of the Commons Lawn, where we watch students crisscrossing the campus. At the first table you’ll find a crew of “regulars.” We make our way there from different parts of the college, which means that the staff dining room becomes an intersection—a place where we step out of the silos of our departmental tasks and specializations and gather around what we have in common. That includes the biological need for some lunch, to be sure, but we also share a lot more than that in common. We are engaged in a common task, as teachers and Christian scholars, invested in the life of this institution and the lives of those students we see traipsing across the lawn.

Common curiosity

And we all come with a common curiosity. So lunchtime conversations can become mini-colloquia; the lunchroom becomes a place to feast on food for thought.

For example, if earlier in the day I read headlines about the nation’s economy or new tax policies, I know when I get to the lunchroom I can ask some experts like Scott Vander Linde or Steve McMullen from the economics department—or even John Tiemstra who, in his retirement, continues to join us at the table. But I will also sit with rapt attention as Scott shares from his knowledge of sailing or John introduces us to the history of pipe organs. It’s like NPR, without the constant funding drives.

The engineers are a steady presence at the table. (Really, how many places are there in the world where engineers regularly sit down with philosophers and English professors?) While Wayne Wentzheimer and Ned Nielsen share from their expertise as engineers, their vast experience in industry gives us insight into the complexities of management and organizations. So when conversations turn to matters of administration and leadership, I always listen closely to their stories—and I always learn a lot.

We all share in common the vocation of teaching, and most of our day is taken up thinking about our students: preparing to teach them, gathering with them in labs and lecture halls, meeting to advise them, spending nights grading their work. It’s not surprising, then, that our lunch conversation should often turn to the joys and challenges of teaching. Some might be surprised to realize how lonely teaching can be. So it is always refreshing to break out of our bubbles and hear a master teacher like Karen Saupe, from the English department, share some of her strategies and perspectives. And it’s also weirdly encouraging to hear a master teacher talk about her frustrations and challenges, too: It makes me realize I’m not alone in that.

Granted, sometimes we just talk about the mundane challenges of being parents or elders or homeowners. (Steve Platt, the director of the physics labs, has regularly schooled me on all matters electrical.) And sure, every once in a while we might lapse into grumbling and complaining just a little bit. But on the best days, the staff dining room is the place where I remember what a liberal arts college is all about. This is one of the reasons I tell new faculty they should commit themselves to two things: going to chapel and eating lunch in the staff dining room.

It’s funny how the same experience can be both humbling and invigorating. I often come away from these rich lunchtime conversations with a deep sense of how much I don’t know. But I also come away grateful for colleagues who do—and for the chance to be a part of Calvin College, where we eat the liberal arts for lunch.