An Interview with Donald Dunbar, English Instructor in the Management Program

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

English Instructor Donald Dunbar

Where are you from?
I grew up mostly around Ann Arbor, Michigan, and did my undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin. I then escaped the Midwest, which is awful, for Tucson, Arizona, where I got my MFA in Poetry from the U of A. As for my family, I have a younger brother who lives in San Diego and a younger sister in Austin, Texas. My parents live in Michigan but they’re going to try out living in France in 2012.

I was a pretty typical nerd growing up. I loved reading and computers, and got grounded a few times from each (my parents packed up my books at least once). The food scene was pretty great. My mom cooked pretty fantastic dinners every night, and my sister–who’s a culinary school grad–and my brother were both quick learners. I didn’t really start cooking until three years ago when I moved to Portland and started learning from my housemates. I haven’t cooked meat since I spent four hours uselessly torturing shish kabobs in Montana, but I’m an eating-out omnivore.

Nowadays I spend most of my time writing poetry. I’ve published a bunch of poems in magazines, and two little chapbooks online, and co-run a reading series called If Not For Kidnap. When I was a kid I wouldn’t have imagined I’d be into poetry. I thought poetry was stupid and boring. I thought I was going to be a programmer, which I did not think was boring. But I accidentally got into a poetry class and have been doing it ever since.

What was your path to working at OCI?
I had been travelling for about a year after graduate school. I lived alone in a cabin in the Upper Peninsula (Michigan) for three months in the fall. The only time I saw people was when I went to town to get groceries. It was pretty wild. Then I spent the first part of the winter in Florida with my grandfather before going to Europe for three months. I spent most of my time in Germany (where my brother was living) and Portugal, but also visited London and Amsterdam. I mostly travelled by myself. When I got back to the states, I made my way out to Portland.

I had difficulty finding paying work when I first moved here and then again for a summer after the restaurant I had been working at in Northwest Portland closed. After an unemployed summer that was great for my writing but terrible to my bank account, I started looking for work. I was in a cafe with a friend and we opened up the weekly with the Free Will Astrology and both our signs had been circled by someone. Mine read something like “If you spent half as much as much energy on your professional life as you do on your personal life you’ll be a great success.” So for the fiftieth time that summer I opened up Craigslist, but this time found an ad for an adjunct English teacher at Pioneer Pacific in Clackamas.

I worked at the Clackamas campus for ten months or so, and came to OCI to teach one class on loan. As the term ended Chef Wilke pulled me aside and said, “Hey why don’t you come teach for us full time?” The next term I started teaching and sitting in on management classes to better understand the program. From the first class I was really interested, and learned a lot. It was very interesting to learn all these solutions and approaches to the problems I had noticed working at restaurants throughout college, and I got to understand the principles that the management curriculum is designed around. The ethical and sustainable approach to leading a restaurant, the direct involvement with the students that every instructor and administrator has. I was already glad to be here but that’s how I came to feel really proud.

Which classes do you teach?
I teach three English courses and a communications course ( Diversity Issues in Communication ). I’ve developed each of my classes from the ground up, getting them to really complement the business side of the management program and the students’ pursuit of culinary knowledge. But I’ve also got total control over how I teach, which is very important to me. School was very boring to me when I was growing up.

English 115 is a blast. We basically do a bunch of writing, and rather than try to re-learn formulas we’ve all forgotten, we focus on improving writing skill and learning how to be more active readers. Many of the assignments are focused directly on developing skills necessary for restaurant writing–correspondence, menus, business plans, marketing–but we do a lot of weird stuff in the class. Surrealist writing exercises, collaborative writing, and the final exam… English 121 is called English Composition, and we interpret that through a term-long blog project. Each student formulates a blog project that they design, update, and learn to utilize for professional networking. They’re pretty awesome, the blogs we’ve had so far. Right now there’s a student blogging reviews of Portland food carts, one developing a blog exploring the many aspects of cake creation and sugar artistry, and another one written by a mother of five reporting on the chaos that is her kitchen at home. I could go on. English 221 is a research paper class. Students choose topics related to food, farming, restaurants, etc. and learn skills for structuring a long argument. Topics range from microbrew beer to vertical farms to the raw food movement to traditional food preservation methods. I learn so much about food, all about food, it’s always an education for me too. In Com 150 we discuss food as a major aspect of culture, and develop different ways to understand what make up our cultures and how we and others are affected by that. This knowledge is particularly useful for someone running a kitchen, and I think anyone taking their position of authority seriously should seek to expand their understanding of it.

Why did you structure your curriculum the way you did?
Everyone has got their own skill at communication, and their own goals. This structure makes it so I can help the student identify what those are in English 115, develop them for an audience in 121, and apply them to furthering their own and other people’s knowledge in 221. I’m hearing or reading at least one piece of writing from each student every day in both 115 and 121, and reading various drafts of their research paper in 221. Com 150 then examines how what we value affects how we communicate and how we interpret other people’s communications.

Management students performing a group sketch.

For the most part, the people taking the management program came to OCI to learn to cook or bake. What is their reaction to taking English classes?
Chefs are creative people, so usually most everyone is on board pretty quick. There are a lot of different skill levels, from people who could pretty easily publish stories or articles to people who’ve failed every writing class they’ve ever taken. But there’s so much to discover. Everybody can improve their skill at communication, simply because there’s so many different ways to do it, with so many different effects. Some students get comfortable with the basics and learn to have confidence in their ability to write, and some students further hone the finer points of it. It’s like the term one culinary student who hasn’t mastered knife skills and the term one culinary student who has worked in a profession kitchen for a decade–there’s always more to learn. And I think everybody realizes the importance of good communication skills. The ability to communicate ideas and emotions to other human beings, and to persuade and entertain people, is what separates us from cows.

Do students ever tell you whether or not your classes have helped them?
Oh yeah. It’s a rewarding job.

Do you notice differences between culinary and baking students, or how they get along in class?
No, not really. All classes are built so much on group interaction that by the third day it doesn’t matter what program the student is in. They’re all just management students in my classes.

What do you do when you’re not at work?
Listen to a lot of music.

Where can your poetry be found?
Poetry journals like Action, Yes!, Slope, Poor Claudia, and absent.

Any final thoughts?
Writing is fun when it’s not stressful. Even if you don’t take one of my classes, I totally encourage you to take ten minutes and write something just for yourself. A mysterious package arrives on your doorstep. What’s inside it? What happens then?