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What the Food Network Can Teach Us about Feedback
January 13, 2013 - 9:05pm

I'm not a big television watcher, especially when baseball is in the off-season, but I am a Food Network junkie. This semester, my rethinking feedback (how to give it, what it should focus on, how it contributes to the conversation of a course) while also watching "Chopped" and "Next Iron Chef: Redemption" got me noticing how the programming on the channel is actually focused a lot on giving feedback. We think of cooking channels as providing opportunities for teaching -- most of what fills out the daytime schedule, with attractive people in even more attractive kitchens preparing meals that even YOU can make at home with a $5 budget and a $5,000 set of appliances -- but the Food Network has shows -- especially in prime-time, where the competitive edge comes out -- that actually take grading as their emphasis.

My conclusion after much Food Network watching is this:  There are two types of feedback available to chefs, and possibly also ordinary people like students and faculty:  failure-based, with an eye towards exposing weakness and asserting authority; and facilitative, with an eye towards building skills and creating opportunities for growth.  

The first  category, failure-based, might be seen in shows like "Chopped" and "Iron Chef."  Here the work takes place in a cutthroat and competitive environment:  "Iron Chef" is even set in a place called "Kitchen Stadium."  Chefs who do not complete their timed tasks with weird ingredients (example:  make an entree out of gummy worms, venison, savoy cabbage, and instant grits) will be "chopped," finding their pathetic attempts at originality, even edibility, rejected by judges who consider with a cold eye "whether they have what it takes."  The public critique on these shows features fault-finding with the ultimate goal being elimination.  

The second category, facilitative, might be seen in shows like "Worst Cooks in America" and "Next Food Network Star."  Here, chefs work with contenders in a teacher-student mentoring relationship, often in a one-on-one setting targeting individual strengths and weaknesses. Contenders are given challenges, again involving timed tasks and weird ingredients, and are given feedback as part of the same kind of  public critique.  Along with this, however, are extensive conversations with chefs as teachers/mentors suggesting ways to improve and highlighting potential.  

It is interesting to note that  "Next Food Network Star" did not used to follow this teaching model.  In its original incarnations, it operated more in the failure-based category; but last season, the format was changed wherein a "star" currently working on the network was paired with a contender as his/her "producer," and was responsible for mentoring said contender into a finalist position.  Not only is the growth and improvement of the contender at stake; the producer/mentor celebrity chef is held accountable for the extent to which her contender succeeds.  It's not just the wannabe chef who gets judged:  the celebrity chef is judged equally on whether or not she is a good teacher.  Even "Worst Cooks in America," which sounds judgmental on the face of it, takes as its starting point the belief that everyone is teachable with the right teacher:  you might have accidentally given your family food poisoning with your tuna noodle casserole, but with the right feedback, guidance, and practice you can do better, possibly even well.

In both cases the standards and expectations are high, but facilitating learning and constructive work means giving the feedback that might enable someone to meet them.  I'm struck by the tension between these two impulses, because it strikes me as not unlike my own work.  Is our job in giving feedback to reward the excellent and punish the weak?  Do I approach the giving of feedback from a failure-based standpoint, or from a commitment to be facilitative?  In higher ed teaching in general, and in the work we might do as faculty and administrators, what seems to be the dominant mode of thinking about student and faculty work?  

At the conclusion of this semester, I made a commitment to be more facilitative up until the very end, sort of like the adjustment described in this ProfHacker post:  not just judging the final product of a course but thinking about where that student might be in a few weeks at the start of the spring semester and beyond.  The "mind hack" described by Lincoln Mullen is about keeping that process-oriented approach up to the end of the semester and beyond; facilitation doesn't end with a paper deadline.  At the end of it all, students might not be celebrity chef quality, but hopefully, I taught them how to create a few new and exciting dishes that won't poison anyone.

Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

Janine Utell is Chair and Associate Professor of English at Widener University and a regular contributor at University of Venus. She can be reached by email at janine.utell@gmail.com; follow her on Twitter @janineutell.

 

 

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