Bread, Rubik’s Cube, and Intellectual Humility

I started baking bread about 3 years ago. I have always loved bread but baking it myself was something that proved to be elusive. Then life gave me a serious set of twists and turns, and I decided that, to focus my mind and my spirit, I would give it a solid try. My birthday falls near Mother’s Day, so in that spirit I enrolled my mother and I in a bread baking class at a cookery store near her home. From that moment forward, I have been on a self-taught bread journey that has been equal parts frustrating, rewarding, humbling and delicious.

What made me think about my bread baking was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about a learning experiment teaching professors how to solve a Rubik’s Cube. The article details the work of two professors, Lew Ludwig and Ben Haywood and their faculty development workshop between the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters to teach professors how to solve this 3 x 3 cuboid puzzle. The pair of faculty-developers set-up an online course complete with video lectures, written guides, a discussion board, and much more – just like an online, asynchronous course we could design for our students.

To learn to solve the Rubik’s Cube was, however, only the obvious reward for completing the course (of which only two-thirds of the registrants accomplished). The real point of the class was to reveal the phenomenon known as the expert’s blind spot. When we know a subject deeply, and devote your life to its study, we tend to forget just how difficult it was when we first sat as undergraduate students and struggled with the same content. This is exactly what happened with the faculty who participated in this challenge – similar patterns of frustration as our students often experience when learning new, often difficult material. For the professors, the real lesson is that of intellectual humility.

my bread box, the keeper of the loaves

Bread and the Rubik’s Cube are seemingly different media, but they are both puzzles, they require study, a focused mind, patience, and perseverance. As I am learning bread, I take to the task as any academic would: books, articles, videos, and many empirical observations (and at last count 7 notebooks filled with notes). I had started with baking traditional breads using packaged yeast, but once I thought I had the hang of it (which I did not, and still do not) I made the leap to sourdough (natural yeast). This phase has been an incredible journey in humility because the success of every loaf of sourdough is the result of time, temperature, temperament, how you knead the dough (by hand or mixer?), how you let it rest, and then rise, and knowing (guessing) when it is ready to bake!

There is also an entire lexicon in bread baking including words like hydration, fermentation, and autolyse. There are formulas for the desired dough temperature and the baker’s percentage, there is a glut of specialized gadgets for working with dough, and countless techniques, tips, tricks, and failures to learn from online and on social media.

I teach statistics to students who want to be social workers and police officers, so I am continually confronting a gap between my enthusiasm for the standard error and sampling distributions with students who go out of their way on the first day of class to let me know that they hate math. It is my job to help them on their statistics journey while trying to preserve the integrity of the discipline. But I am also a sociologist, not a professional baker; while I may have a different level of enthusiasm for baking bread than my students do for learning statistics, I can image the professional baker’s confusion over my lack of fervor for using the stretch-and-fold technique in dough development.

Every loaf I bake is a reminder that I am just getting started – and I need to be patient with myself…and my students. Every loaf is an opportunity to fail – and that is the point – learning how to learn and confront my expert blind spot – reminds me what it is like being (and to embrace being) a frustrated, confused, anxious novice.

Just last weekend I pulled a loaf of bread out of my oven that was as flat as a pancake – mimicking the topography of Kansas rather than an airy loaf. Clearly, not a good result in terms of bread, but a perfect lesson in this on-going journey of intellectual humility.

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