Crumbs! Munch bunch is coming

December 22, 2006

Why do students treat lectures like a cinema outing, arming themselves with snacks? Susan Bassnett chews it over

Some years ago, when I first visited a US university, I was surprised to see notices telling students not to take food or drink into laboratories, libraries and lecture halls. I reflected that this was a result of the American penchant for consuming food in public, and I confess I made a smug comparison with European institutions, where such a notice would never be needed.

I never thought much about students' eating habits until recently. Now I find notices banning food and drink in many UK universities. The other day, I had to gain permission to bring a glass of water into one august institution. And I've been hearing horror stories from cleaning staff about eating and drinking habits among students. For it isn't just what is consumed, it's the paper cups, crumbs and uneaten sandwiches that cause problems. Attending lectures seems a bit like going to the cinema, where you have popcorn and put the empties on the floor when the show is over.

I confess to being a hypocrite in cinemas. My children and I argue every time we go, because I always say loftily that I don't want popcorn, then eat theirs. There is something compulsive about nibbling while watching a film, so maybe the same applies while listening to a lecture. A brief ad hoc survey on why students equipped themselves with food in class raised interesting responses - "no time for breakfast" was the most common, "needed a coffee" and eating/ drinking helps concentration".

While writing this column, I paused to make a cup of coffee and eat a croissant. On a tough day in the office, I have a mug with two ginseng tea bags and a chocolate biscuit. The only difference between me and my students, therefore, is that I eat and drink while working in private and have a reluctance to eat in public, probably because of a generational taboo.

There may be a correlation between intense intellectual activity and the need to raise blood sugar levels. Certainly, conference delegates are always remarking on how much they eat, following a full breakfast with coffee and biscuits in the morning, before moving on to lunch, tea and biscuits and dinner. I've lost count of how many times someone has paused in the act of biting into a chocolate muffin at 11am to say that they never usually do this.

So perhaps the shift to students carrying food around with them while they learn is not so odd. Nevertheless, it does signal a change in behaviour that has implications. Spilling drinks on one's notes or, worse, on someone else's is a real hazard, and not clearing up your mess is unacceptable.

Universities that plaster the walls with notices banning food and drink in sites of learning are taking a clear position. Those that do not ought to anticipate complaints and provide bins for the disposal of used cartons and leftover food.

I have never actually taught a room full of people eating and drinking, though bottles of water have been around for ages and the occasional bag of something is passed around. Latecomers sometimes stagger in with cardboard cups, but stagger out with their detritus afterwards. It has never occurred to me to protest, as one colleague told me she had done, but perhaps the day I find a room full of people munching I'll be tempted to say something.

For the moment, I can only observe this tendency with curiosity and hope more consideration can be given to the people who have to clean up afterwards.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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