September looms and it’s time to start planning for that important first class with with my new batch of students. That means it’s time to add Timbits and coffee to my to-do list. Not because I plan to eat them (palm oil!), but I need them for class. It started like this…
When I first began teaching, I knew I wanted to start a class with something active and engaging, but I felt the need to spend time going over the syllabus too. As students came into the lecture hall, they’d see a slide on screen that told them they were in Anthropology 100 and asked them to make a mind-map around anthropology. After a few minutes, I’d ask them what they’d come up with and a few brave souls would call out things like “forensics,” “language,” and “culture.” We’d add to the mind-maps together and after about 10 minutes, I’d introduce myself, the TAs, and start working through the syllabus. It wasn’t very exciting, but it started us with something resembling a conversation and it gave me the chance to highlight the diverse nature of anthropology. That said, I wanted something that students wouldn’t forget. So, I hunted around for ideas.
I ran across Richard Robbins’ “Visiting the Happy Meal” activity. It was brilliant! Something that would be familiar to most of my students, regardless of where they came from, and something that can easily be made “strange.” Each semester for about four years, I picked up a Happy Meal before class. I’d unpack the meal piece by piece under the document camera at the front of the lecture hall. We’d talk through themes suggested by each item (such as globalization, domestication, gender norms, and even evolution), with students contributing ideas. And then, I’d hand the item off to a student somewhere in the lecture hall. One of my most memorable (and sad) moments came when a student thanked me at the end of class for picking her for the hamburger. She said her student loans hadn’t come through yet and that was likely the only thing she’d eat that day. The following semester, I made sure to add social inequality to the topics we discussed.
After a few years of slowly accumulating the toys from the Happy Meals and having the same basic conversation five times in a year, I knew I needed change again. Plus, the Happy Meal was awkward for me anyway. I teach two sections of Anth100, one hour apart. The first section starts 30 minutes after the closest McDonalds starts selling Happy Meals. When you start to do things like this, it helps to think through the logistics! That’s when I hit on the idea of Tim Hortons.
I had just switched to Through the Lens of Anthropology, my first textbook with substantial Canadian content. What could be more Canadian than a pack of Timbits and a double double? Last January, at the beginning of the semester, I picked up Timbits and coffee and all the fixings. I played the holiday Tim Hortons ad; it was full of iconic images of Canada. And we talked about globalization (chocolate, coffee, sugar, even packaging), sustainability, lactose tolerance (cream), domestication (wheat, dairy), nationalism, identity, and even language (double double!). And in the end, when there weren’t enough Timbits to go around (10 in a room of 200), we even talked about social inequality. After class, a student mentioned one more thing that I hadn’t noticed: that pack of Timbits went down about 10 rows before someone finally took the last one. She commented that it was terribly Canadian—that desire not to take the last Timbit from the box.
The Tim Hortons activity will go as long as I let it and as long as the students stay involved in the conversation. It’s gone anywhere from 15 minutes to 40 minutes, and so far, I’ve only done it three times. It’s not ground-breaking, but it is engaging and it’s memorable. It gives my domestic students a chance to see something they take for granted in a different light, while also giving my international students a wee taste of Canada. And it’s that chance for students to connect to me and to anthropology in a way that talking about their syllabus can never achieve. So what happens to the syllabus now? It’s circulated to students through our virtual learning environment (Moodle at UVic) and they do an online quiz about the syllabus in order to earn a virtual badge. My quiz questions direct students to the most commonly asked questions that arise later in the course.
I have two worries that haunt me with my Tim Hortons activity though… Firstly, will I give in to temptation and eat the Timbits before class? And secondly, will the janitors bust me for bringing food into the lecture halls? These are chances I just have to take.
Robbins, R. (2007) “Visiting the Happy Meal” in Strategies in Teaching Anthropology (5th ed), edited by P.C. Rice and D.W. McCurdy. Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, N.J.