Insights From a Food Critic

The barbs of fictitious food critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille are unfortunately similar to those of the many professors who are too critical of their students.

May 3, 2016

Fictitious food critic Anton Ego’s final restaurant review in Disney-Pixar’s movie Ratatouille provides what may be a surprising insight into teaching. In the film, Ego, who relishes that his reviews can make or break a restaurateur, was openly critical of Chef Gusteau for his popularization of gourmet cuisine. After Gusteau dies, Ego is almost gleeful at his absence, in part because a new chef will now try to take on the attention that Gusteau had commanded, and Ego will have a new target for his criticism.

But Ego learns a huge lesson in humility in the movie, and his final review, which he directs at the new chef, seems to me to apply as well to the work of professors -- in particular, those who teach writing. Indeed, in the following passage from the movie, one need only substitute “professor” for “critic” and “writer” for “artist.”

“In many ways, the work of a critic [professor] is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves [our students] to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics [professors] must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic [professor] truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends …. In the past I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto ‘Anyone can cook.’ But I realize only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist [writer], but a great artist [writer] can come from anywhere.”

This epiphany of a fictional character makes me think about the comments I write on student essays and the effects of those comments beyond my rationalization for the grade I assign it. Far too many of us professors enjoy the superiority we feel in being absolutely correct about the failings of our students. We match verbal swords with them in mental exercises that we have spent years adjusting to our advantage, and then we berate and deride them for not being able to stand up to the eloquence of our practiced delivery of death by a thousand cutting remarks. We ask only questions to which we already have the answer and pass ourselves off as intellectual in the discussion.

But however clever and witty I think my comments are as I inform yet another student of the shortcomings of his or her writing, my particular turn of phrase will break off and leave the sentiment behind it as a barb in the skin -- lodged in the muscle underneath to fester and infect. The old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is half true. The sticks and stones do hurt, and physical injuries heal and get better within a few months. But words also hurt; they pierce deeper than muscle and bone to the very spirit and soul, where they can work harm for a lifetime.

It is easy to complain about how apparently little value college students seem to have for their assignments and academic progress -- how they are only concerned with the letter grade and not really with the learning. But when we professors are so ready to pounce and criticize the inexperience of those without experience, we have no right to expect our students to look forward to our instruction. Why should they choose to endure and value being told, “Yet again, you don’t measure up. You don’t meet the standard”? Is it really a wonder that they seem to be concerned only about their GPA?

Some professors defend their criticism because it is our job to evaluate and criticize for the noble sake of learning from mistakes and improving. And I very much agree with learning from mistakes. It is the spirit in which that criticism is delivered that troubles me. We can and need to provide criticism in a way that encourages our students to want to try harder.

Since I teach writing, I see firsthand the often therapeutic value of writing for my beginning students. The act of taking those ideas and feelings out of their heads and giving them a form on paper or the computer screen is transforming. Many realize for the first time, “I can do this! Words are not only for those who get published; they’re for me, too.” The catharsis involved with this apparently simple act of writing what I think the way I would say it to someone is a wonder to observe. But taking those thoughts, feelings and ideas out of one’s head means a huge risk. Someone else can see them now, and that leaves a person open to rejection. Acceptance is harder to come by.

No, it’s not great writing as far as I’m concerned as a professor (the critic), but for that beginning writer, it is often a corner turned, a dam broken, a key turned in a door that unlocks the next phase of life. With practice it can become good, and eventually even great, writing. And the important words are “with practice.” If I don’t think I’m very good at some activity and don’t want to risk rejection, I don’t bother practicing it. I don’t see a need to waste my time on an activity I don’t do very well. But if I see a value to that activity, I am motivated to invest the time in the practice that leads to improvement and acceptance.

In my capacity as a professor, I see students for a couple semesters at most. Yet my words will live on in their heads for years to come. I have to remember that. A former co-worker comes to mind. I had a colleague in my public school teaching career who was the butt of jokes, both in student circles and among faculty members. He seemed oblivious to it. I felt bad for him at first, but the longer I worked with and around him, I realized that he brought it on himself. The way he talked down to students and faculty, his unreasonable expectations for students and negative comments when they did not meet the standard, his demeanor with parents, his comments in faculty meetings -- all led me to decide that he saw himself as one impervious to criticism, one who was always right.

Yet both students and faculty members could see the obvious wrongs in most of his work. I decided from watching him that I wanted my former students to have different kinds of lasting memories of me. And I realized that it was up to me to make that happen. I had to be sure in the time I had with students that the criticism I provided was both constructive and delivered with encouragement to lead them to want to keep working at it.

I thought up a proverb that seems to me to express the attitude of most of our students: “If I want to learn something, there is nothing in this world you can do to keep me from learning it. Until I want to learn something, there is nothing in this world you can do to make me learn it.” Many of our students really do believe that a college education will get them good pay, a good career (however they define “good”) and at least a comfortable life. They expect that as a result of their work to earn the degree.

Yet we see in them the lack of desire to really want the information. It is easy to assume that they seem to be passing time and completing busywork until they acquire enough credits to have the degree conferred. But the fact is that the care (or lack of it) with which we deliver our comments to them contributes to their desire or lack thereof.

The true test for us professors to pass every semester with every group of students is whether we have challenged their thinking without chasing them off, corrected their errors without shutting off their drive to keep trying. And we should always remember, as Ratatouille’s Ego learned, eating a dish of humility in private on occasion can keep one from having to eat it in public at other times.


Wayne Stauffer is an English professor at Houston Community College. He teaches zombie essay hunting skills to his composition students.


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