A short post today, and one with a simple thesis: It is time to remove the phrase “bulimic learning” from the lexicon of higher education. The term, which as far as I can tell dates back to the early ’90s, is often used to discuss the common strategy of students cramming for an exam and then spilling as much knowledge as possible during test time. The popularity of the phrase is evidenced by the fact that it is the subject of a recent book on teaching and learning, a peer-reviewed article from 2010, in educational workshops, and even on websites affiliated with university Centers for Teaching and Learning. You’ll have to trust me when I tell you that there are many more examples in rather prominent places, which is exceedingly unfortunate.
The frequency with which “bulimic learning” is used is alarming, particularly in a field that strives for inclusivity and empathy. Referring to any learning strategy in such an offhanded way, of course, minimizes the struggles and the suffering of those who are living with eating disorders. In this country alone, “20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life.” The fact that more women than men are diagnosed with eating disorders means that there is a gendered component to the phrase “bulimic learning, ” as well, which only adds to our list of reasons to find a different way to talk about the educational phenomenon of cramming for tests. For example, we could simply say “cramming for tests.” If we really need a metaphor here, what about the image of a toaster? Bread goes in, and bread goes out. The bread is of no actual value to the appliance. For those who simply must have a biological analogy for studying (though I’m not sure why!), even “regurgitation” would not include as many traumatic connotations. I still think it’s kind of gross, to be honest, but at least the word is not as stigmatizing as “bulimic.”
In short, let’s show respect and compassion to our students and our colleagues, some of whom may either have an eating disorder, had one in the past, or know someone who has/had one of these diseases. Let’s find other ways to talk about student learning.