“Black as Night: Sweet as Sin”. Coffee and Academia

“A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” Alfréd Rényi

I, too, like to think of academia as a machine fueled by coffee, with cogs that are lubricated with wine. With this in mind I’ve been thinking about the role of coffee in university life. I’m on the recovery from a bout of common cold and in the course of my infection my body demanded a rest. It rejected my attempts to nourish it with the usual mixture of espresso, hot water and milk, and instead demanded green tea and smoothies. As usually happens in this situation, after three days of vitamin-fueled recovery, I declared to myself: “right! No more coffee”. I felt so energised by cutting out coffee … so much more relaxed and not a little virtuous. But, as usual, it did not take long to be back in the nice place in King’s Cross Station, asking for my Monmouth Coffee. I find that I cannot cut it out, and do not really want to.

It was academia that brought coffee into my life. I think it was when I was a second-year undergraduate. My housemates would waft instant coffee under my nostrils and I admit I was converted. Lunchtime breaks on the sofa, watching Neighbours, did not feel complete without a mug of coffee with a spoon sticking out of it cradled in my hands. Coffee brought comfort in the inevitable dramas of undergraduate life. Coffee soothed our heads after a party. My housemate was known to put a tot of baileys into my coffee as a treat – sometimes at breakfast time. We may have graduated from a cup of instant on a saggy old couch to an Americano on a Starbucks sofa but nine years later, my former housemates and I still meet occasionally over a coffee or two to share updates about the inevitable year or so that has passed since we last saw each other!

DSCF0539

“Coffee is a way of stealing time that should by rights belong to your older self.” Terry Pratchett, Thud

Four years after my teenage “saggy-sofa-cup-of-Nescafe” days, I found myself sipping decaf. lattes with the bunch of people I’d met as an Oxford University master’s student. Why decaf? Good question – why decaf?! As a stubborn 21 year old, I decided that I was going to be healthy and mindful, and that I could hobble through without the need for caffiene in my system. Poor misguided soul. But I did it. For a couple of months. Then, later, I spent many a day with a good friend of mine who doubles up a tea and a coffee when she gets up, directly before heading to a coffee shop to have another coffee. You know who you are, and you got me through many a hard day writing the dissertation.  My master’s coursemates and I discussed palaeography over a coffee. We talked about Ancrene Wisse over a coffee. We bemoaned every single deadline over a coffee. We were late for seminars because… we’d gone to get coffee. During those months writing my dissertation, I certainly used coffee to steal a few hours that should by rights have belonged to my older self. My apologies, older self!

Passing through my postgraduate years and into my first research positions, it has become even more clear what role coffee plays in academia. As a Ph.D student, I would have breaks with friends in a coffee shop. When you might feel like subjecting yourself to a punishing schedule, especially when nearing the submission deadline, coffee is a justifiable even to the hardest self-taskmaster – it’s stimulation, right? After I finished my Ph.D. I took on an internship at the Ashmolean museum, and the research and curatorial staff took a break every day at 11am for a coffee meeting. It was genius. That dark liquid brought people out of their offices and into a communal space in which they could shared ideas, frustrations, and even just a laugh. Returning to my office after coffee meeting, I felt a lifting of my soul that was not just induced by caffeine. Going to conferences, I have found that the coffee break is often the most interesting part. I have occasionally been to conferences where no coffee was provided, or where coffee breaks were skipped in order to make up time … the less said about those the better. It cannot happen. Coffee has to happen.

I’ll leave you with some poetic reflections on the lure of the coffee pot, where coffee is compared to Castalia, the spring on Mount Parnassus that was a fount of poetic inspiration in Greek mythology. Not even the rattle of cart wheels on the cobblestones, nor the raucous noises of drunk men fighting, can distract this man from his brew!

Coffee and Crumpets
By Launcelot Littledo of Pump Court, Temple, Barrister-at-law (1837)

“I love, upon a rainy night, as this is,
When rarely and more rare the coaches rattle
From street to street, to sip thy fragrant kisses;
While from the Strand remote some drunken battle
Far-faintly echoes, and the kettle hisses
Upon the glowing hob. No tittle-tattle
To make a single thought of mine an alien
From thee, my coffee-pot, my fount Castalian.”

In turn, this black as night, sweet as sin, pot of liquid brings forth great thoughts, like the spring on Parnassus! So, may my morning Americano bring forth more and more inspiration.

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One comment

  1. 🙂 “Coffee has to happen.” Totally agree. Except if it’s that awful tepid stuff that is stored all day in drum-like urns on trestle tables all over Western Michigan University… I would rather press on through a session than drink Kalamazoo coffee (except perhaps at Mug Shots café!), although to be fair maybe the most significant problem with it is those little containers of horrible sweet UHT milk… Perhaps – just perhaps – it is better black.
    Lord help me, but I’m a coffee snob!

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