• Kat Gupta’s research blog

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Better learning through cake

Let us travel back in time, around 13 or 14 years ago or so, and revisit my experience of compulsory education. More specifically, a subject for which I reserved particular loathing and hatred: Food Tech.

My friend Maria and I shared a counter and sink. We weren’t just bad – we were inspired. We ruined pasta. We earned the rage and ire of our Food Tech teacher by swapping bits of our scone dough (mine – sultana, hers – coconut) to create mutant scones. And finally, there was The Fruitcake. The Fruitcake was the nadir of my brief foray into cooking and sufficiently traumatised me to Never Ever try baking again because I would unleash untold horrors. Again. We had technology for the double period – two hours – in the afternoon, and I remember sitting in the classroom after the bell had rung and my friends had gone home, waiting for the teacher to allow me to take it out of the oven. I thought it was done; she was convinced it wasn’t. The result was so dry it sucked all moisture out of your mouth and made saliva a distant and fond memory. In the end I crumbled it up for the birds because my family, long suffering as they were, quite understandably refused to take it to extremes.

At the age of thirteen, I decided that I distrusted this baking malarky and would have nothing to do with it. In fact, Maria and I were genuinely worried we’d starve or die of scurvy if we had to fend for ourselves.

Years later, and I find myself reasonably competent in the kitchen. Soup, risotto, curries, roasted vegetables, lentilly-couscousy-salady things – yep. But despite my love of cake, I haven’t dared bake anything. I’ve watched people bake, I’ve enthusiastically tested their baking, I’ve regularly attended my LGBT Network’s Queer Cafe and I’ve even decorated cakes (sadly, this seems to be the best photo of the Spiderman cake but it was pretty awesome). I’ve just never quite worked up the confidence to combine flour, eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl. Logically, I know I’ve cooked far more complicated stuff than this but it was no good: I had The Fear.

My friend Hannah at Stress Baker told me that baking is an excellent way to escape from PhD stress and bakes delicious things so often she’s started a blog. My housemate made carrot cake last evening and it smelt wonderful plus, as she argued, the amount of carrot and dried fruit in it meant it was at least one of your 5-a-day and therefore good for you. You can even buy butch cupcakes if your fragile masculinity is threatened by baked goods or you’re amused by manifestations of socially constructed and validated performances of gender. Also, and let this point not go unnoticed, you end up with cake.

So I found a recipe that seemed to offer maximum return/chocolate for minimum effort/skill and an hour or so later, had this:
Chocolate cake on a plate
Perhaps not the most beautiful of cakes, but who cares, it tastes fine. And, more importantly, can’t be used as a substitute for floral foam.

It made me think a lot about experiences of learning. As PhD researchers and academics, we tend to be good in our fields. It might not always be easy and we’re not going to be amazing at every single area within our field, but usually it doesn’t compare to the head-banging frustration of studying something you have absolutely no talent at and are scared of. Those we teach sometimes have no previous experience of whatever we’re trying to teach them, but they often have some – and had bad experiences rather than good ones.

In my experience, it’s often grammar; they’ve found it boring or confusing or pitched at the wrong level – too easy, too hard, or suddenly lurching from “easy” to “scarily difficult”. Sometimes they had a bad teacher. Sometimes the exercises were boring and tedious. Sometimes it’s been taught in isolation and no one’s shown how it can be used to analyse texts. The experience of being told you’re rubbish at something has many effects, not least lack of confidence, resentment and aversion.

Sometimes, when you’re good at something, it’s unfathomable how anyone could possibly find it difficult. It’s useful to make ourselves uncomfortable to remind us how that feels in order to be better teachers.

For that reason, I have purchased white chocolate chips and dried cranberries. Exactly that reason.

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  1. Yay! Cake!

    Grammar teaching is one of the things I resent the educational system for. My schools still went in for grammar learning via osmosis. Yes, I read obsessively and widely, and always did, but I was never reading for the grammar. So I didn’t absorb it as people wanted me to. I think learning French taught me more about grammar than anything else, and it was a strange backwards experience.

    • Mine forced us to copy out sentences and put the full stop/comma/speechmarks in the right place (so tedious I wanted to chew my fingers off) then mysteriously stopped. We were then flung into the world of French irregular verbs with only the vaguest of ideas of what any sort of verb was. I can understand your resentment!

      • I remember international students at uni getting very annoyed with people when they asked why word order was wrong in a sentence, and no one could give them a proper answer. Just lots of “well, it doesn’t *sound* right.” None of us knew the rules well enough to be able to explain our instinctive knowledge that it was Just Wrong Somehow.

        (Also, thanks to this post I am trying to work out a recipe for sultana and coconut scones that would retain enough moisture to be yummy.)

  2. One of my friends uses me as a mobile dictionary because I can sometimes explain why the word order (syntax in linguistic terms) isn’t alright, or distinctions between words, or why you’d use one word in one context but a different one is another. It’s also something I really like about corpus linguistics – you can use corpora to investigate the subtle associations speakers have with a word that don’t get recognised in traditional grammars. Michael Hoey offers two examples of grammatical sentences:

    “In winter Hammerfest is a thirty-hour ride by bus from Oslo, though why anyone would want to go there in winter is a question worth asking”

    “Through winter, rides between Oslo and Hammerfest use thirty hours up in a bus, though why travellers would select to ride there then might be pondered”

    Both are grammatical and have the same meaning, but the second looks very awkward indeed and we wouldn’t expect a native speaker to actually produce it. Hoey argues that there’s something more than grammar at work here – the accumulated knowledge we have about where and how a word should be used. You can read more about it at http://lexicalpriming.org because this comment has got a bit long and I really should do more work!

    We ended up with a kind of marble cake effect because mixing them completely would have been boring. A marble cake of different flavours. I think it was this that so annoyed our teacher because it was a surprise in every bite. I think if I was doing it now I’d swirl some harissa/black pepper flavoured dough through it just to add to the uncertainty :P

    • I shall have to investigate lexicalpriming, it looks fascinating.

      I love black pepper dough! I occasionally put a swirl of it through cheese scones, because it adds to the deliciousness. Alas, my mother doesn’t like it.

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