Babette Audant on Roger Federer and Bombing an Art History Exam

Noodle Expert Babette Audant discusses what it might be like to take tennis lessons from Roger Federer, what she's learned from her community college students, and why she doesn't eat meals standing up.

Noodle Expert Babette Audant discusses what it might be like to take tennis lessons from Roger Federer, what she's learned from her community college students, and why she doesn't eat meals standing up.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I had a hard time answering this question, thinking about how best to use a year of my life, thinking about what I could take away from such a luxurious break from my routines and responsibilities. I decided that in addition to learning something, I wanted to learn about the teaching and learning processes.

To back up for a moment, I have long been interested in the role of spatial reasoning, in tactile and visual experiences. Literacy and numeracy are emphasized in the classroom, yet many people learn best through hands on, physical exploration (or, at very least, through representations that include graphics, maps, and other images. My Ph.D. is in geography, and this interest in spatial relations has informed the types of research questions that drive me. I teach culinary arts, which requires a multi-disciplinary understanding of food, as well as multi-sensory explanation and engagement.

Having said all that, I would also like to learn how to play tennis. I would pick Roger Federer to be my teacher (though his coach, Stefan Edberg, might be a better choice). I can't play the sport, and don't have the best hand-eye coordination, but I love to watch the game and observe the creativity of top players. I especially like seeing the way a rally builds in intensity until someone wins the point. Being taught to play tennis would involve not only intense physical conditioning, but the development of specific skills. It would also require mental coaching, with a focus on sustaining motivation and interest. My tennis lessons would include demonstration, repetition, and review, as well as oral instructions. No doubt, video of both my novice attempts and those of more experienced players would help illustrate what my teacher said or showed. The physics of ball spin, of pace, of swing, are all parts of learning how to play. I would learn how best to maximize the effort of a backhand, how to place a ball delicately over the net, and how to predict an opponent's next move. Tennis, then, would provide an opportunity to learn one set of skills while also learning how to teach something that requires the full engagement of both mind and body; it would be multi-media and multi-disciplinary. Tennis also has the advantage of being a life-long opportunity to continue learning: unlike soccer, another sport I love as a spectator, tennis can be played at many levels and speeds, so I could continue finessing my game as I grow older.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

Don't eat standing up, chastened the French chef. I had been an intern in his kitchen for one week, and was trying to down a meal while preparing for the dinner shift. I made a career in restaurant kitchens for nearly a decade, and ate on the run too often. I still eat meals standing up from time to time, but have generally made a priority of taking the time to eat mindfully, and to enjoy those few minutes (or few hours) of not working, of not multi-tasking. It's important to unplug and allow myself to focus on the now, and to relish that break.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

Many of the students at Kingsborough Community College, where I teach, were born outside the United States, yet never leave Brooklyn. They are worldly in many ways and are sheltered in others. While it is clichéd, I would send them on a trip across the US, using planes, trains, automobiles, and buses, and encourage them to talk to strangers, listen to music, and avoid chain restaurants. The itinerary would include cities and towns, and visits to several national parks where the landscapes must be experienced in order to understand the American myths of space and place. It's important to travel the world, but a first step is developing a better understanding of where you are leaving from.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

In the spring of my first year at college, I was exhausted. A year of demanding coursework, much of it in fields that were new, had exhilarated me, but I was running out of steam. One final exam to go, and I was trying to make up for my already poor average in a course on the history of Asian art. After studying in the library for a few hours, I realized nothing made sense anymore. I took a long walk. The next morning, I took the exam completely unprepared, and earned a C- for the first time in my life. The professor gave me partial credit for answers that, as he explained, were accurate historically, but had no relation — in most cases — to the slides he'd shown us.

Lessons learned? It was okay to (nearly) fail. In fact, it felt fine. I had — and have — no talent for art history, though I appreciate art of many kinds. For a perfectionist who'd always worked hard and done very well academically, it was freeing to get such a lousy grade: the world did not come to an end, the sun did not stop shining, and I was still me.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

Working at a community college was not even on my radar when I was first offered an opportunity to teach at KCC. My experiences with education up to that point had been in privileged circumstances — first, a public school system in a town with a very high median income, and then an elite liberal arts college. I was an unquestioned proponent of having four years of college with no specific career goals. Then, after graduating, rather than studying comparative literature at the graduate level (as my professors all assumed I would do), I took a detour to Prague, and then to culinary school. One decade later, I was ready get out of the restaurant business and go back to school. A fellow student, several years ahead of me, offered me a teaching gig at Kingsborough Community College. I came aboard as an adjunct, expecting this to be temporary, and stayed; I joined the faculty and became the director of our workforce initiatives.

When I was in college, I wanted to be a college professor. I imagined a life of research and writing, teaching seminars and guiding graduate students, and living in an idyllic community near a beautiful campus. Kingsborough slapped me in the face. In many cases, my students were not prepared to do college-level work. They were strapped for time, and many did not do the readings assigned as homework. Most were working long hours, and many had family obligations. And yet, they were in college. I have to admit that I didn't see their motivation and drive and capacity at first. Now, I see it clearly. I also see their impatience when they sense that someone is wasting their time. But, importantly, I sense that palpable excitement in any student when she makes connections among history, politics, science, hard skills, and their lives. I have become an advocate for the importance of technical skills and work readiness in addition to the liberal arts foundation that makes us all informed citizens. I have become an advocate for multiple paths to college and career. Through all this, I've remained committed to the idea that a college education should teach you to think and to learn, regardless of your field of study.

The biggest difference from my expectation is that, in the end, I am not a researcher. While I enjoy inquiry, I am more interested in collaborative work that results in policy reform and program innovation. I am excited by projects that result in action, in something tangible that improves a student's outcomes, whether it be measurable gains on a test, sustained employment, or confidence in their ability to succeed.

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