Everything In Its Place

I recently read a story on NPR’s website about the orderly nature of chefs.  They use a system called mise-en-place:  “The system that makes kitchens go is called mise-en-place, or, literally, put in place. It’s a French phrase that means to gather and arrange the ingredients and tools needed for cooking.”  The story describes how chefs set up their kitchen in the most orderly fashion, that their hands move only inches once they begin the actual cooking.  One instructor says, “Once [students] set up their station I should be able to blindfold them and tell them … and they should know that their tongs are always here, their oil is always right here, their salt and pepper is always right here.”

Now, anyone who knows me knows I’m an orderly person to begin with.  My wife can certainly attest that I am much like these chefs.  Everything I have any control over in our house is always in the same place, whether it’s items in the refrigerator or in my study.  I could easily be blindfolded and find whatever it is I need if I’m in a space where I am the one to choose where things go (she has grudgingly accepted the refrigerator set up).

I was thinking about how this relates to professors, people who are notoriously disorganized.  Certainly, our desks do not resemble these kitchens, as most of us have moments, at least, where we cannot find something that we know is on our desks, and that’s without a blindfold.  There are those exceptions, of course, those who have stacks and stacks of papers that have no seeming order, yet the professor can reach into one of those stacks and pull out exactly what is needed (I think that’s mainly luck more than order, but it works, mostly).

I also have a colleague who forgets to eat lunch.  His wife calls him to remind him, as he becomes so engrossed in the work he is doing for his classes that he would go hungry without that reminder.  This is not a person who has everything in order, clearly.

But I’m thinking more about our classes on a larger scale, especially as it comes to the syllabus.  One area we have almost complete control over is the planning of our classes.  I get to decide if I want to spend two days or four days discussing a novel; a science professor can decide if a concept needs one class period or three.  Planning a class is essentially our mise-en-place, if we want it to be.

I often get comments on my student evaluations, praising me for not changing the syllabus.  This has puzzled me for years, as I didn’t understand why I would need to change the syllabus.  I’m the one who planned it, so I shouldn’t have to change it.  After talking to students, though, I find that many professors end up moving deadlines or assignments, causing students more grief than one would imagine.  When they are trying to manage five or six classes, the best students are planning weeks in advance to finish their work on time.  Moving a deadline, especially a week or so before it is due, can disrupt their plans for all of their classes.

We professors forget that, as we never see it.  Most students wouldn’t complain about it to us.  For our students’ sake, but also for our own, perhaps mise-en-place could work in the classroom.  This semester, I’m promising my students that deadlines won’t move.  I’m not doing this, though, just to make their lives easier; I’m also doing it to avoid those students who will try to negotiate deadlines with me as they approach.  I’m making it clear on the first day that their paper is due the date I have listed, and they have three months to do it.  I am essentially promising not to hamper their ability to plan, and they are agreeing not to ask for more time (I’ll readily admit that emergencies could alter this on either side, but I’m dealing with the realities of how almost every semester goes, not the exceptions).

If I expect my students to be organized and to do their work on time, then I should meet them there.  If I expect them to meet deadlines, then I should meet them myself, keep my classes on track, and not change the schedule as we go.  That way, we’ll all know where to find what we need when we need it.

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