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Welcome to class. So, what's for lunch?

My students are coming. I can smell them even before they arrive. The aromas are nothing short of enticing: hot, steaming cups of coffee and cocoa; bagel and egg sandwiches; oven-fresh croissants; strudel pastries; warm blueberry muffins. The list goes on.

Are they trying to give me a message? That my biology course is less than palatable and they need to take up the slack – or snack – with what amounts to a picnic?

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My students range in age from 18 to 50 and beyond. They come from different times in history and from different experiences and points of view, but what unites them is their affinity for bringing food to my class, spreading it out on their desktops, and munching away as I teach: Darwin à la Big Mac. Photosynthesis trimmed with Kentucky Fried Chicken. Genetics marinated in Coolattas.

I strain my memory to grasp images from my own undergraduate years in the 1970s. To be sure, by that time all student formality of dress and attitude had long since gone out the window. We came to class in jeans and long hair, or in shorts and sandals, weather permitting. We stared at the professors with expectant weariness.

But we still harbored some clarity when it came to separating the classroom from the dining hall. I seem to recall the occasional cup of coffee or tea brought to class, and the bottle of soda sticking furtively out of a backpack. But I don't think my history prof, Dr. Rudy, would have stood for a gourmet-to-go approach to the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. And I certainly would not have allowed myself to take such liberties.

Now, I stand at the board, outlining a population curve dealing with lynx predation on jack rabbits. Behind my back, paper and cellophane crackle, plastic lids pop, and salad dressings plop from squeeze packages. I smile despite myself, wondering what exactly I will see when I turn around.

A moment later, I am facing the class, and there she is: Jenna, hauling food from a tote bag with the practiced care of a caterer. First a Caesar salad plate, then the croutons, followed by a yogurt cup and a large container of liquid bearing the words "Supersize Me!"

Jenna smacks her lips, rubs her hands together, and digs in.

Others are chowing down as well. And there is ample sharing going on. As I elucidate details on the board, a bagel schusses across one desk and onto another. A young man in the front row opens a box containing two enormous pieces of pizza, hoists one out, and hands it to his friend, saying, "They didn't have onions, so I got green peppers. Be careful, it's hot."

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What should I do, if anything? I mean, despite – or perhaps because of – the food, they seem to be listening. When I emphasize a point, they push the hot wings aside and scribble. When I make a text reference, they hold the book over their pasta salad and fly to the appointed page. And when I pass out a quiz, they create space on their desks by consolidating the kung pao chicken and egg rolls.

The truth is, these movable feasts in my classes have been going on for so long that I'm not sure exactly when or how it all started. It's as if I woke up one day and – poof! – the desktops were covered with manna.

I guess I could prohibit it if I chose to, but it's become such a part of my classroom culture that I don't know how things would run without the haute cuisine. And I'm not sure I want to take the risk of finding out.

So, for lack of ambition to beat them, one day I decided to join them. When their next test rolled around, I brought in a big pan of "magic cookie bars," a deliciously rich treat of rolled oats, pecans, chocolate chips, and apricot jam.

As I handed out the crumbly squares, my students looked on as if they had never seen food before.

"What's all this about?" inquired one delighted fellow.

"To help the test go down a little easier," I told him.

And it did. Everybody passed.

Maybe my students have it right after all: The way to a student's heart – and mind – is through the stomach.