- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2005

DANVILLE, Ky. — For years, sociology professor Beau Weston has held informal office hours off campus in a local coffee shop, sipping his mocha latte while advising students.

As he did, he formed relationships with other coffee shop regulars who otherwise might have remained strangers. That caused a sort of academic epiphany, and now he is one of a few teachers across the nation who have developed courses that study coffee and its effects on society.

Don’t drop your morning cup of joe. Mr. Weston’s class, offered during a recent intensive three-week term at Centre College, was hardly “Starbucks 101,” although the 15 students who enrolled in “The Cafe and Public Life” could be forgiven if that was their original impression.

Audrey Rogers, a freshman from Dallas, said she initially wondered about the academic strength of the class: “I didn’t know how it was going to last a week.”

Mr. Weston understood such skepticism and designed his course to focus not only on coffee as a drink, but on how its consumption has changed society through the centuries.

A class on coffee might seem strange at a college like Centre, an elite private school known for producing two Supreme Court justices and hosting the 2000 vice-presidential debate.

Then again, unique classes are becoming commonplace at the school of about 1,100 students. Last year, a Centre professor taught a class called “Basketball as Religion,” playing off the passion for hoops in the Bluegrass State.

John Ward, Centre’s vice president for academic affairs, said all of the college’s courses are approved by a curriculum committee that consists of faculty from across the campus who examine the “intellectual contexts” of any proposed course.

Mr. Ward said offering classes like the ones on basketball and coffee “is as if you hold a microscope up on something really interesting. We apply the same academic and intellectual rigor in courses like this as we do in advanced literature, language or science courses. It’s the same tools at work.”

The feedback from parents has always been positive. “What they say is, ‘Wow, my kid was really motivated.’ They don’t say, ‘I want my money back,’ ” he said.

Mr. Weston’s regular trips to coffeehouses led to “an interest in cafes as a place in which strangers can talk to one another” and discuss the issues of the day. In Europe, coffee shops and cafes have served that purpose since the 17th century, he said.

Over the centuries, “cafes became places where informed men, some educated and some not, would come together and talk about stuff,” including literature, plays, poems, economics and politics, Mr. Weston said.

In recent years, the emergence of the Seattle-based Starbucks chain has brought the coffeehouse back into vogue in the United States.

“Having a place to do that enriches a culture,” Mr. Weston said. “It takes us out of the cocoon of private life and into the public world. Cafes are important for creating a public life, particularly in a democracy. It becomes a place where the town or, in the big city, where the neighborhood develops.”

At Atlanta’s Emory University, the University of Washington and the University of California at Irvine, similar courses are taught by professors with academic backgrounds ranging from anthropology to chemistry to history.

“It really combines so many disciplines,” said Mark Pendergrast, of Colchester, Vt., the author of “Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World,” which was used as a textbook in Mr. Weston’s class at Centre.

“Everywhere you look in our culture, coffee has a fairly profound effect,” Mr. Pendergrast said. “I think it’s a wonderful way to teach history and culture and economics.”

Irvine history professor Steven Topik began teaching his “History of Coffee” writing course in 1996.

Coffee “is just not something we think about,” Mr. Topik said. “History is usually taught as the history of great men and wars and great events. We don’t think about the history of everyday things. But historians have been increasingly thinking about these things.”

Studying coffee “is a palpable, liquid way of understanding globalization,” Mr. Topik said.

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