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Meal plan
photo of Catherine Schneider and students
a&s program brings students and faculty to the table

Hobbes peered mournfully past his scratch-preventing collar, wondering why his food dish had been placed in the basement, and why dinner for 10 Boston College students was suddenly more important than his own. Little did the sad-eyed cat realize his importance. A pet—along with a teenager studying upstairs and a meal that hadn’t been zapped in a microwave or rolled out on a cafeteria cart—represents something many university students miss from time to time: the warmth of a home. So when economics professor Catherine Schneider invited the students from her “Economics and Catholic Social Teaching” class over for dinner, they all showed up. Some were hungrier than others, for both food and conversation, some more comfortable than others in the uncharted territory of a professor’s home. But all were primed to view a lesser-known specimen of the university: the professor as human.

“Many students come in with sort of unbridled respect for professors, to some extent awe,” says psychology associate professor Michael Moore, who regularly invites his freshman seminar students to his house on Cape Cod. “Between the respect and the awe you get distance—it tends to make professors a little less like people. But when I plod along on the beach with them in my baggy swimsuit and talk about how few fish I catch, it tends to make me more accessible.”

The barbecued chicken served by Moore and the lasagna, turkey, and apple crisp that Schneider placed on her Newton dining room table are considered important enough to be subsidized by the College of Arts and Sciences. Encouraging faculty-student interaction was a priority when Joseph Quinn took over as dean about three years ago. He remembered when his economics professor at Amherst College invited a class to his home. “It was terrific to see the professor in a setting with children and dogs,” he recalls. “It was nice to see the rest of the story.”

When Quinn taught economics at BC, he too invited small classes to dinner, realizing that the benefits often leaned more toward the emotional than the academic. “A lot of students had younger siblings whom they missed,” he says. “To come to a house where a couple of kids were running around was really neat.”

The A&S subsidies, which reimburse professors up to $150 per semester, caught on quickly. In 2000, the program’s first year, 47 faculty dinners attracted 709 students; 1,055 students attended 78 dinners in 2001. And in 2002, some 2,470 students dined with their professors on 134 separate occasions. Even as increasing numbers apply for the subsidies, says Quinn, “there’s a tremendous return on what really is quite little money.”

In some cases, the program planted an idea with faculty who hadn’t thought of entertaining students before. In others, the fund subsidized what professors previously had carried out on their own. Moore, who has been at BC for 26 years, has long invited his students home or on fishing trips. When he first taught the freshman “Courage to Know” seminar, part of the Cornerstone program, he searched for a way to connect with 16 freshmen who would not only be his students, but also his advisees. He invited the class to the Cape and announced one rule: Discussion of the course was not permitted. The students arrived in the morning and spent the day canoeing, kayaking, and playing pool in the rec room. Around 4:00 p.m. came the now traditional cookout: chicken, burgers, hot dogs, baked beans, and homemade potato salad. A couple of students during last fall’s trip couldn’t resist calling friends on their cell phones. “Guess where I am?” Moore overheard more than one asking.

The psychology professor stresses that the day is simply a way to relax—no lofty objectives, no working toward a sea change in the classroom dynamic. “Forget goals,” he says. “It is really a nice day.”

In Professor Schneider’s Newton home, the class sat around the living room coffee table, munching appetizers: tortilla chips with guacamole, cheese and crackers, and quesadillas that Schneider’s husband, Bob, had turned out in the kitchen. Most had traded sweatshirts for nicer sweaters; the lone boy in the class had rustled up a buttoned business shirt for the occasion.

Talk took root tentatively, about Schneider’s son at Carnegie Mellon University, about the interests of the high schooler studying upstairs. Then dead silence, broken by Schneider’s comment about a recent BC football game. Suddenly, chatter broke out in small groups, and one student mustered the gumption to ask another about her decision to become a nun.

Though the conversation needed occasional nudging by Schneider, it moved from dorm life to study abroad to how Schneider met her husband (they attended Middlebury College together). As the students ate their lasagna, Schneider recalled what lasagna dinners were like when her college-age son Christopher, a cross-country runner, was still at home. She, her husband, and their younger son would each have a piece, while Christopher finished off the pan. The students, some of whom had left parents with empty nests, nodded in understanding. “My mom doesn’t even go to the grocery store anymore,” said one.

Most of Schneider’s guests had never been invited to a professor’s home, but for Nina Suryoutomo, a senior economics major from Fremont, California, this was her fourth time dining with faculty. Two meals had been held in homes; one was prepared by students in a dorm kitchen; and one took place at a restaurant in Chinatown. Under the A&S program, menus and location are at the professor’s discretion, though alcohol is not allowed (undergrads may be under age). Schneider has hosted two other dinners with another professor, but this was her first solo effort.

“This is the healthiest I’ve eaten in a long time,” said Tanya Kilabuk, a junior economics major from Jacksonville, Florida, during dinner.

“I’ll tell you what, we’ll pack it up in little doggie bags,” Schneider replied.

During dessert, an emboldened Kilabuk had an announcement: “I’d just like to say that the apple crisp was fabulous. And I’d like first dibs on any leftovers.”

Sure enough, out came the tinfoil and plastic wrap, and Kilabuk and her cohorts dished up doggie bags for late-night snacks and roommates. No one went hungry, not even Hobbes, who had persuaded Mr. Schneider to serve his dinner, as usual, in the kitchen.

Gail Friedman

Gail Friedman is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.

Photo: Professor Catherine Schneider in her kitchen with the students of Economics 234. By Lee Pellegrini

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