Ph.Dining: the art of social eating in grad school

It’s probably not a secret to anyone who has ever been in grad school (or who reads PHD Comics) that departmental and college social events can be an important way to stave off starvation. My own graduate studies in anthropology at McGill were characterized, in my dim recollection, by half-full plates of cheese and bread stuffed not-so-surreptitiously into backpacks and carted away by those fortunate souls whose hard-earned anthropological knowledge of generalized reciprocity or optimal foraging theory translated into practice. Oh, right, and the wine. So much department wine. Less of that here at Wayne State, alas. Chalk that up to American social mores, I guess.

So yes, if you are a grad student or are thinking about becoming one, you may be in crippling poverty for years, but the good news is that, at least once a month or maybe more, there will be some opportunity to avail yourself of some cornucopia of donuts or pizza or (dare you dream?) smoked salmon skewers.  To enumerate just a few:

‘Brownbags’ – Contrary to the name, many of these have plentiful free food provided, often of the donuts-and-coffee variety, but sometimes ranging up to a full-on lunch.  Find out which of these have complimentary snacks on hand and take full advantage.

Lounge Scrounging – Departmental lounges and common areas are an excellent source of leftovers from events you couldn’t make it to, classes with generous professors, or any of the other items on this list.  This is a qualitative leap forward from dumpster diving – bon appetit!

Dissertation Defenses – These are often a good place to chow down on some cake, sip champagne, and enjoy other celebratory goodies.  At least, we hope they’re celebratory …

Bait – There are all sorts of events where food is essentially the cheese in the mousetrap of work. Writing workshops, assessment workshops, anything where mid-level administrators want to bribe faculty to do something they might not otherwise do.   Many or most of these are also open to grad students, so even if you think you know all about learning outcomes, bear in mind that a full belly is also a great outcome.

All Saints’ Bonanza – If you thought that Hallowe’en parties were fun, just wait until Nov. 1 when faculty bring their leftovers to campus.  Also of some benefit on The Feast of Romantic Rejection (Feb. 15) and Really, Really Fat Monday (which is a statutory holiday among my people).

Pot Luck – Dirty little secret: someone may notice or care if I (a tenured faculty member) bring a tray of crackers poured out of a box in exchange for a bounty of delicious meats, but nobody cares if budget-constrained grad students do the same.   Buy low, eat hearty, I say.

Eating ‘Up’ – As it turns out, the higher you go in the pecking order, the better the food gets.   And sometimes events for or by bigwig administrators are free to the public, because deanlets and assistants-to-the-executive-vice-president-for-hyphenation like to see people come to things, and demonstrate, potlatch-style, their magnanimous ability to fill people with hors d’oeuvres.   So the next time a new building is opening or a provost is being welcomed to campus, take note.

But beyond gorging yourself at the trough of academia, it’s worth thinking about why you should want to be there, beyond the food. Eating, after all, is a social activity. And although we’re not taking attendance, faculty definitely do notice who’s around at events, who takes the opportunity to stop by even for half an hour, to (appear to) pay attention at a talk that just happens to have a side-table feast.  As it turns out, we (faculty) also like free food, and some of us (OK, not all of us) actually like hanging out with one another from time to time.  And we also pay attention to students who (appear to) share our predilections.  I’m not saying that you forget about the opportunities to sate yourself on someone else’s dime, but also remember the social capital that will attach to your foodiness.

I promise we won’t care if you take home a ‘graddie bag’.

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