“In a large community of course, a single roshi cannot monitor the daily behavior of all his monks. the community of monks thus monitors itself. This self-disciplining action is called sessa takuma, another Confucian phrase, which means, literally, ‘cutting, chipping, filing, polishing’ but which I translate here as ‘mutual polishing.’ The image is of a pile of rough stones all placed into a stone mortar and constantly stirred. The rough edges of the stones cut and chip each other away, rubbing against each other in constant friction until they become round, smoothly polished gems. No one stone is superior to any other but through mutual friction all become gems together revealing the unique individual nature of each. Through the constant abrasive action of their critcism upon each other, all monks learn though no single teacher teachers. Through mutual polishing each attains an individual uniqueness.”
Teaching and Leraning in the Rinzai Zen Monastery
-G Victor Sogen Hori
– from Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp 5-35
The learning environment I chose was the job system within my cooperative house. In many ways a cooperative house on Stanford Campus is much like a monastery. Most residents have rejected the living situation of a typical student and are seeking some sort of ideological fulfillment with their choice of living in a coop. What you could say each wants to learn, or rather needs to learn, is the ability to live with other people in a large scale community. Each person within the house is expected to do a weekly house job to help with day to day operation, a quarterly deep kitchen clean, a quarterly deep house clean, three bathroom cleans, and helping with our weekly Wednesday gatherings. Each residents receives three types of formal instruction upon entering the house. Residents attend a house meeting where philosophical rationale behind the job system and practical concerns are explained and discussed. Residents perform a bathroom clean with a member of staff along with the people that share that bathroom. Finally, residents receive a kitchen tour by staff who point out special considerations in the kitchen. Following this tour residents are expected to sign up for their “first week jobs” and begin filling out preferences for their quarterly jobs. In addition to the instruction, we also try to have informative signs around the places where you would need them, thinking that people will look to these if they need to.
The jobs break down as such: 5 four-person cook crews (Sun-Thurs), 5 four-person groups of after dinner cleaners (Sun-Thurs), 6 single pre-dinner cleaners (/after lunch) (Mon-Fri), 1 set of two pre-dinner/post lunch cleaners (Sat), and a smattering of single cooks like bread bake and granola bake to make weekly staples. Most of these jobs happen in the kitchen and most of the skills that are learned in the house are used primarily in the kitchens.
The kitchen is a commercially certified kitchen (subject to quarterly health inspections). California state standards and community standards (which are discussed at house meetings) are the expectation for cleanliness in the kitchen. It should be noted that all users of this environment, then, have been told to have standards of cleanliness, but this does not mean they automatically have them. The kitchen is also the site of cook crew, an assigned crew of four people who on the same day each week cook a meal together. There are no standards about how this should be done but in the past “head cook” systems have dictated someone to plan the meal ahead of time. As it is now, “anarchy cook” is the chosen system, the cooks enter the kitchen and decide what to cook from they can find.
Meals are expected to be cooked for 54 people of varying dietary concerns (e.g. veganism, allergies, preference for meat) and should at least include one vegetable dish and a protein (two if one is meat). Feedback on performance is only informal (ie discussions during the meal or house meetings, though no one is directly addressed in this situation). Also cooks are always clapped for following the completion of the meal, a ritual that makes many scratch their heads the first time they attend a coop dinner. It should be noted, none of the other jobs have this type of expectation.
At the beginning of the year, the kitchen was stocked with checklists for each type of cleaning job. I asked that residents check off each task as they do it, likening it to the procedure done by pilots before take off. At this point, the checklists have disappeared and cleans have become a sort of “anarchy clean”.
For my observation of the kitchen as a learning environment I observed two of our weekly jobs: pre-dinner clean and one cook crew. Pre-dinner clean also known as (PDC) is done by one person to prepare . I spoke to H, who was responsible for PDC, J, a veteran member of cook crew, and D, a new resident to the house who happened to be making bacon when I was in the kitchen.
Here is a breakdown of their experiences with their jobs:
H -> has performed at least 22 kitchen cleans, but this was her second without a group
J -> has cooked for herself before, lived in another coop last year and cooked, over 20 cook crews in our house with “anarchy cook”
D -> Lived last quarter in his own apartment and had to cook for himself but no experience with a coop kitchen system
How do they learn?
H reported that she used the checklist for her first four cleans and afterwards got an idea of the “status” in the kitchen that should be maintained. She told me that when approaching her PDC, she began by looking around the kitchen and that this act “reminds you of what you are doing”.
I also asked H if she could recall any times where someone had taught her anything in the kitchen. She mentioned our kitchen clean at the beginning of the quarter, an interaction with a staff member (who taught her to clean the grill filter), but most often responded using the verb “do” or “did”. She summarized her new experience on PDC as “trying to do what the 4 people on ADC do” and characterized all-house deep cleans as the time we “did things we didn’t usually do”. One variation of this language was a report about the general attitude towards ADC, saying most people are just trying to “get through it”, which for the sake of analysis I might render as people are just trying to do it.
H also discussed her experience with cleaning the griDle, an infamous task in the house. She said the first time she was asked to do she was told it was a “shit appliance” and people basically “try to get someone else to do it”. Now, however, H would describe herself as having the grill under control. She reports that much of this came simply from doing it over and over, reporting that while she read the checklist for the griDle, she couldn’t have predicted “the vinegar flying into her face” and the effect of rinsing it with water.
H also introduced me to two categories of people during all-house cleans. She reports that she is a person who is “non-squeemish” and is OK with doing a lot of the dirty work. Often, then, she said she was doing many of the non-typical tasks during cleans. She says that those who are squeemish do more typical jobs, like cleaning counters.
*I have also noticed the same effect that people H would call “squeemish” often resort to doing the most visible tasks and “easy” tasks on cook crews. It is interesting, however, how these vary depending on the type of cleans that are being done A common favorite task during after dinner cleans, for example, is pushing racks through the Hobart, our dish sanitizer. The task involves spreading tens of dishes down, sanitizing them, and clearing them out onto a rack. During group cleans, I watch the person doing them fly through each dish. When an individual, however, is faced with a full rack in a day to day situation I have often observed either pulling out a new rack and simply sliding the old one over or simply leaving the plate on the counter given the high cost of unloading a single rack.
J explained her learning to cook as similar to learning to improvise. She said what she knows now is that “sticking to a recipe isn’t too important, tasting as I go, it’s easier, you know when you’re missing something”. She reports watching other people cook and could recall a few times where she was cooking and another person “took over” taking charge of what was being made.
She reported that her cook crew in Fall included a veteran resident of the house and of cook crew. This resident, VR, began by dictating the content of meals and was very open to questions from J. She never gave explicit instructions but sometimes suggestions. J says that she simply stopped asking questions after a while. Eventually she began planning her own parts of dinner. I would like to talk more to her about what her process is for this she said that she first “looks at the vegetables and then takes everything from there.” As to her actual cooking process, she mostly stressed the importance of tasting something as you go along. While a recipe is easy to follow, it doesn’t tell you something will actually taste.
J also reported a similar experience of two different groups whom she termed “competent” and “incompetent”. Though she never explicitly told me what group she belonged to, she said that those who were incompetent on crew often “stood around until asked to make something, asked a lot of questions”. While they lost one member of their cook crew in fall, she reported that the other incompetent member eventually came around.
J also mentioned that sometimes the incompetence of a crew member would cause a “cooking disaster” (for example lacking a vegetable dish) that caused major interruptions to the day to day schedule. She was glad for the understanding of the house and knows that cooking can lead to mistakes and often even these mistakes are what help you learn.
When I spoke to her J was confidently planning today’s meal. Whether she considered herself competent in the Fall , her competency clearly showed as she discussed preparation for the meal and commented on another resident’s learned “intuition” for cooking. She said that he had learned, last quarter, what she had learned in Fall quarter, mentioning that they sometimes collaborate and taste things together. I asked her how their two intuitions might conflict sometimes and she said that often both cooks are asking if what they are about to put in is OK or not. I would like to talk more with J about her interaction with the group she calls incompetent.
In our kitchen, learners are engaged in practical tasks that are absolutely essential for day-to-day operation. From the reports I received, it seems it is rare that the abstract systems (like lists, philosophies, and the structure of the house) act as learning tools but rather other housemates and the actions they perform are remembered by the learners. Also, it seems as if “competent” and “non-squeemish” workers seem to have working models of the ideal “status” of the kitchen or a meal, while incompetent workers are struggling to build a learning model. I ran out of time for D but I will be talking to him over the course of this quarter and tracking his learning in the house. I want to come up with systematic way of evaluating this in an effort to watch the transformation from squeemish to non-squeemish.
In addition to this idea of mastery, I also noticed a concern with simply getting things done quickly, conveniently, and completely. Both J and H reported that their process involved learning how to get something to the status you want it in the most effective manner possible. Time and labor seem to have a real value to people in the house and the results , or the “at-status”-ness could be perceived as the result of paying the price of time and labor. Often, though, this is (quickly, conveniently, and completely) reduced to a simply concern for convenience, especially when working with, to bother H’s term, squeemish workers.
Finally, given the nature of my opening quote I want to point out that very little criticism was reported by any of the learners. They often would rely on the responses of people around them, recollections of the kitchen tour, and occasionally ask a staff member for help. There is no culture, however, like the one found in Zen Monasteries where peer-criticism is the driving force for learning. Perhaps J and H have acted as their own critics, the implication of this combination are not totally apparent to me. I think this will become more clear in talking to D.
Other important spaces for cooking/cleaning