Here I reveal what’s most remarkable about Rice University

How do 8 AM classes mesh with cabinet meetings that don’t begin until 10 PM because of evening exams? How do we achieve the best security for campus parties? When should lunch be interrupted by announcements? Do lunch trays increase food wastage? How can faculty know the answers to these things if they never talk to students?

OK, here it is, what’s most special: at Rice many faculty lunch with undergraduates in the colleges. No high table, no alcohol, no different food, or different line. Right there with the undergraduates. And yes, they talk with us, even approach us, sometimes with hugs if we haven’t seen them in awhile. These are our students, and we know them.

Remember, the dorms are called colleges, and they are not just places to sleep and eat. They have courses associated with them, intramural athletics, including beer-bike, theater, and society at its best. And we faculty are a part of it. It is a lot easier to understand what it means to be an undergraduate today if the person you are talking to does not want a different grade from what they received (and earned, we professors always say). How many professors know students outside the power relationship?

We hear what the issues are, what concerns individual students, how the student mentoring program is going, what they think about classes in various departments, what innovations they like, and which they think are a waste of time. And we connect individually with students. One of the students currently working in my laboratory mentioned at lunch last spring that she wanted to work in a lab but had no idea how to go about it. I took her on the spot and she is great!

My most famous (to me) example of this was a day about 15 years ago when a freshman asked at lunch if anyone ever hired freshmen. She had just been turned down for a dish-washing job. I hired her that same day in a research position, and she is now a well-known disease ecologist (previously mentioned, the wonderful Vanessa Ezenwa).

Lunch at Wiess also allows us to get to know faculty in other departments, what their issues are, how they relate to students, what innovations they are bringing to class. And more often than not a mix of faculty and students get in vigorous discussions about all kinds of issues, politics, the environment, what are appropriate tricks for one college to play on another, why do research, how to choose a major, what to do over the summer, and much, much more.

This connection carries over into the classroom. We can get more enthusiasm and effort from students we know. The trust levels are higher. We eat the same food. There are deep human bonds forged over meals, much studied by anthropologists. Rice has figured out how to bring that energy to the teacher student bond, and it is powerful.


Wiess College serves up a great lunch!


Biology Professor Dave Queller chatting with philosophy students.


Physics Professor Stan Dodds lunches, helps with theater, photographs, and is always ready with a skeptical opinion.


David Medina from Public Relations enjoying chatting with students.


Religion Professor, Elias Bongmba finishing lunch with undergraduates.IMG_0667

A thoughtful moment from someone who makes lunch possible.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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3 Responses to Here I reveal what’s most remarkable about Rice University

  1. Richard Yuill says:

    This reminds me of Austin College and Rice. I was lucky to have both experiences as a student. As a graduate student, I did not “do lunch” with faculty as much as “have coffee.”

    It was a great experience.


  2. Rice '14 says:

    I agree, Rice has great faculty-undergraduate interaction. I’m glad you pointed that out, but I wonder why you had to call attention to the “African American freshman’s” race. Had she been white, I wonder if you would have said, “A white freshman at lunch asked at lunch if anyone ever hired freshmen.” As a Rice student, I’m keenly aware that Rice boasts an image of diversity, but I think this comment demonstrates that we still see white as the norm, even among faculty members.

    • True. My point was only that if we want a diverse set of faculty in the future, which everyone says they want, we should not be turning down minority students in particular for lab jobs. But you are right that in this particular context it looked like being a white male is what is normal, so not good. I changed it.

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