Black, white and brown

In both pieces, “War” and Coffee Poems the color of the coffee is significant. The Coffee Poems talk about coffee’s blackness, with the color of ink. It is contrasted with milk by color, but not in meaning – the authors imply that milk and coffee share the same “purity” – in fact, the color is the seal of its purity. In War, there is an extensive discussion about the use of milk to turn coffee brown – the exact color of a monk’s robe. The exact color is known only to a select few who must know in their mind the brownness of the robe, and match the color by balancing the amount of milk against the strength of the brew. We might expect the authors of coffee poems to find the kapuziner impure. In War, Allen tells the reader that Turks believed milk added to coffee caused leprosy.

What is interesting here is not the presence of milk, but rather the appeal to coffee’s color. The coffee poems appeal to the blackness of the coffee as evidence of its purity – and by implication, its holiness. The writers of coffee poems imply the purity of the coffee imparts God’s favor or blessing – the drinker also experiences enlightment, by the pursuit of wisdom. The addition of the milk to make the coffee brown in the kapuziner would therefore be an adulteration of the beverage. And yet, being able to make the kapuziner is evidence of one’s depth of knowledge of Vienna’s coffee culture – you have to know the exact color of the monk’s robe. So in the case of the kapuziner, the knowledge was required to change the coffee’s color. The enlightenment (or state of enlightment) of the coffee drinker/brewer is significant.


Nor is this (though more than enough!) All the ground of our Complaint: For besides, we have reason to apprehend and grow Jealous, That Men by frequenting these Stygian Tap-houses will usurp on our Prerogative of tattling, and soon learn to exceed us in Talkativeness: a Quality wherein our Sex has ever Claimed preheminence: For here like so many Frogs in a puddle, they sup muddy water, and murmur insignificant notes till half a dozen of them out-babble an equal number of us at a Gossipping, talking all at once in Confusion, and running f rom point to point as insensibly, and swiftly, as ever the Ingenous Pole-wheel could run divisions on the Base-viol; yet in all their prattle every one abounds in his own sense, as stiffly as a Quaker at the late Barbican Dispute, and submits to the Reasons of no othre mortal: so that there being neither Moderator nor Rules observ’d, you mas as soon fill a Quart pot with Syllogismes, as profit by their Discourses. ~Women’s Petition on Coffee, 1674

In Petition, this passage above seems particularly significant. Mostly because the author(s) foreground it as such. They have just finished complaining about the lack of sexual performance from their husbands, “meager useless corpse(s)” that are a “sapless as a Kixe”. But this passage begins with “nor is this all the ground of our complaint”. By percentage – the piece spends a lot of time on sexual performance and manhood – attacking both viciously. But this section is talking about the women’s’ “prerogative” – which is speaking or talking, as indicated by words like “talkativeness”, “gossipping”, “babble”, “prattle” and of this “prerogative” they have grown “jealous”. The women claim preeminence in the area of talking. The talking engaged in by the men is characterized as the “murmur of insignificant notes” – literally, the barely heard hum of what really isn’t important. This insignificant murmuring is a “babble” or “prattle” – both words for insignificant speech – like that of a child (“babble”) and speech without intellectual substance (“prattle”). Each man also “abounds in his own sense” and does not submit to the “reason” of another – such that there is nothing to be gained from this discourse. In contrast, the women cast themselves as accomplished at talking (“claimed preheminence”), and “equal number” of them while “gossipping” certainly do not “talk all at once in confusion”. The characterization of the masculine discourse here is abundant but confused and lacking substance such that no one learns anything from it.

We’ve seen in Standage that intellectual conversation was the standard of coffeehouses, which distinguished them from ale houses or tap rooms that served beer. It seems incongruous that the masculine discourse happening in these coffeehouses should be characterized as “insensible” and lacking in substance. Unless, the women were not there to observe the nature of the Discourse. They were not party to it, because they weren’t there. That much is clear – they are sitting at home waiting for their husbands…all alone. And perhaps herein lies the issue – the women are excluded from the coffeehouse activity and conversation, left at home to be wives. Perhaps this is why the piece makes exaggerated claims about traditional gender roles in marriage and claims upon traditional manhood that are a bit shocking for 2017, let alone 1674. Perhaps the point is that the women are home, alone. They are not participating in what is happening in coffeehouses, so they attack “manhood” the very thing that allows their husband (since they are men) the privilege of being in a coffeehouse at all.

Balzac and “Eight Cups a Day”

Certainly Balzac (The Pleasure and Pains of Coffee) would have been delighted to read “Eight Cups a Day” (Johnson, NYTimes, 2008). Balzac was a writer made legendary for the sheer quantity of writing he produced in his lifetime; productivity fueled perhaps by his obsession with coffee.

In reading the two pieces, written over 100 years apart, I was first intrigued by the number of references to human anatomy. For example, in “Eight cups a day” we read of cardiovascular difficulties, lowering of the risk for atherosclerosis and the cerebral infarction – all medical terms associated with the heart and the brain. Balzac too mentions the diaphragm, and the plexus of the stomach, and also the brain(x2)/cerebral. He addresses the stomach (x2) filled with suckers and papillae and its digestive juices. Between all these anatomical references, the brain/cerebral is repeated most often.

Interestingly, the physical and anatomical would seem opposed to the spiritual. Something spiritual is intangible, while a brain or a stomach is certainly not. In “Eight Cups a Day”, we find a reference to my demon and Satanic worship – both written in reference to coffee’s effect on the author and other drinkers. In Balzac, “few writers are actually becoming more spiritual” (P1), while coffee effects on the stomach are as a “pythoness appeals to her god”. A pythoness is a female priestess or practioner of divination.  Finally, at the end – the coffee drinker is referred to as a “man of spirit” – implying that the presence of spirit is evidence of coffee drinking.  In these reference, it would seem that the evidence of the spirit/spiritual/possession is a result of the coffee drinking – something so physical, the act of drinking, producing measurable biological effects that are simultaneously spiritual/non-physical.

Perhaps the reference to the spiritual or the intangible is implying the intangibility of the ideas themselves. The ideas are a product of the coffee drinking, after the pythoness appeals to her god Balzac does find sparks shooting up to his brain. But this is not consistent with “Eight Cups a Day” where the author abstains from coffee and is able to function “just about normally again” – apparently recovering from his “sluggish brain.” Was the author able to generate ideas without the coffee? It would seem so…

And yet the author of “Eight Cups a Day” refers to the coffee as my demon”, while Balzac’s pythoness appeals to her god. Who is her god? If the pythoness is conjuring spirits from her god, then “she” is conjuring spirit from Balzac himself. Balzac and Johnson (“Eight Cups a Day”) are both the gods and coffee is doing their bidding. And perhaps in the mystery inherently associated with these kinds of intangible words – demon, spirit, god – these authors are pointing to the invisible science that turns stomach acid, blood, nerves and brain matter into words, sentences and ideas.

But first…Coffee.

This Fall 2017 semester will be the first time that Coffee class goes online. FYS 282 has been around for a while, and it’s always been about writing. Writing all the time about what you are thinking or studying is critical for learning.

So why blog?

We spend more and more of our lives online these days…and in many ways, online communication is terse, cryptic even vapid. But does it have to be? Can we write for the web as our thinking selves? Not just our social selves? I think so.

Let’s think in the open

Is it summer yet?

It’s 65 degrees and raining here in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It doesn’t feel much like summer…yet. But my research students get here next week, and then it won’t matter what the weather is like. It will be SUMMERTIME in the lab.

Why is summer so awesome?

No grading.

No faculty meetings.

No 8am organic chemistry labs.

Just plenty of time to think about our research and actually DO the experiments we want to do. My NSF-RUI proposal was just (finally) funded. I’m ecstatic. I’m thrilled that we will finally have the instrumentation we need to move our work forward, and that someone thought it was worthwhile to fund us. Nailing the undergraduate research niche is hard…harder than I thought. Doing high impact work that is accessible to undergrads and that you can publish at a rate that won’t get you scooped…well, I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Part of the NSF funding allows me to refresh my teaching lab, BCM 341 to bring in new original projects – so, this summer I’ll be working on rebooting that course.


DoOO@M: Teaching on the Open Web

Democracy in the classroom

A theme that I see among all these readings is democratization of education. Taking the power structures out of higher ed and working with students to create learning.  And yet there is a implicit hierarchy to any course – no matter how much Tweeting you do. The course is as open as I say it is.  So…are the power structures really gone? In the end – I still give the grade. Perhaps it is rather a change in my – the instructor’s – exercise of the hierarchy.  Coming down the steps of the ivory tower and working with and alongside students is more effort, it takes longer and it is arguably messier…but I think it might also be more fun…and maybe even more effective.

 I want to encourage deep, sustained thinking the kind that culminates in measurable growth or innovation.

Effective at what?

I want to come alongside students as they construct their understanding of complex issues, but I don’t want to hear what they think – just because they thought it. There is enough of the unfiltered, spontaneous and personal already on the web.  I want to encourage deep, sustained thinking the kind that culminates in measurable growth or innovation. I really don’t want to re-think my pedagogy for a lesser goal.

In looking at the ds106 assignment bank, I kept thinking the same thing over-and-over-again for every assignment that I looked at. What is the goal? What are these assignments supposed to teach the student to do, exactly? The one about Tweeting what emotions you have when listening to a song…really? This is an assignment? Maybe I’m missing something, and that assignment is really about learning how to use Twitter – but shouldn’t it say so?

I didn’t find any ideas from ds106, but one of the idea I did have was ignited by Bonnie Stewart’s blog. One of my learning goals for BCM 441 is for students to engage with high-impact primary literature in biochemistry in order to, 1) learn how to tell when science is high-impact, and 2) communicate high-impact science in a succinct way to peer and non-expert audiences. This is harder than it sounds, because there is a barrier for students to engage with the scientific literature. Academics in general, but scientists in particular, are infamous for writing in a detached scientific voice that takes years of enculturation to adopt and speak with fluency. I’m asking them to speak from a place of authority on the science – “remixing” it for their peers in an illuminating way – and yet they really are only just developing the skills to speak “science” at all – which means their work sounds “juvenile” to the larger scientific community.

My Goals and my means…am I getting there?

In the past I’ve had them identify a paper they find interesting and “blog” about it to a peer audience – taking the full paper and analytically summarizing it in about 1 page or so. I give them examples of the sort that are already out there in the science literature, etc – we do a class on creating this kind of writing and so on. Now – what if I brought Twitter into the whole thing. (I’m kind of morbidly fascinated by Twitter – I wan’t to love it…I do). Nature Chemistry and Nature Chemical Biology (two of the highest impact journals in the field) ASBMB (the organization that runs the Journal of Biological Chemistry) all have Twitter accounts, in particular the Nature people are tweeting about articles routinely. What if I had them blog about one of these tweeted articles and then enter the Twitter conversation. Meh. I don’t know…

Oh wait! What if they have to come up with their own hashtag – or at least adopt one that is already out there…based on what they think is exciting about biochemistry and then pull that content into their own website. ~ this idea doesn’t make sense in the flow of this blog right now, but I don’t want to lose it. 

I could definitely have them find and Tweet one article per week – it could be a re-tweet – with the class hashtag (and their own descriptive hashtag?) and then somehow (I’m pretty sure this is possible with what Tim showed us last time) pull it all into our class website. I still want them to blog at greater length about a high-impact paper or two or three. The blog should answer the question – Why is this work really cool?

What are the GOALS of the Blog assignment?
  • Identify high impact work
  • Explain to scientific peers why the work is high-impact – this will require understanding the literature context into which a work was published.
  • Efficiently recount the strategies and outcomes salient to the work in an illuminating way – this requires assessing the paper and choosing to talk about the approaches/results that are most important for making the work high-impact.
  • Look beyond the work to forecast future applications, innovations or areas of inquiry

I also have students build a longer term project on a human disease. They essentially curate a substantial literature review and analysis of the disease state using a biochemical lens. From what I have been learning here, I know I want to open up the design and dissemination of the content to the student. It’s like their website should be a collection of what they find significant in biochemistry (and related fields). I could have them write a blog on “why I built my website this way”, another on – what does it mean to study “biochemistry”? Because looking at a disease with a biochemical lens first requires understanding what that lens is.

The ACS on Biochemistry as a career

About ACS Biochemistry

JBC – mission statement

Nature – Chemical Biology

Nature – Structural and Molecular Biology

What are the goals of the BP? (Big project)

  • Produce a comprehensive, deep literature survey centered on the chemistry, biochemistry and molecular/cell biology of a human disease that you have a particular interest in.
    • Learn how to assemble and navigate the literature on a deep scientific topic – literature that spans decades and a variety of disciplines
    • Assess the biochemical scientific literature on your topic and organize it in a meaningful way by collecting references along (self-chosen) themes and placing them in conversation with one another.
      • There would have to be a point when they articulated what those theme were going to be…
    • Ascertain the major scientific innovations that moved the field forward (from reading the literature) and locate them in a variety of relevant contexts (historical, medical, biochemical etc).
    • Communicate the biochemical, mechanistic underpinnings of the disease and disease state (which are typically quite complex) in a biochemically rigorous way that is illuminating to scientific peers.
    • Assess the body of scientific literature to curate the salient scientific points for a non-expert audience and then communicate those points in a scientifically authentic way that is also useful and understandable to non-experts
  • Interact with peer experts in scholarly conversation over the content you create
  • Interact with non-experts over the content you create in order to educate

The thing I really want to say is….

David and Jill teach us to write this prompt when we need to bring closure to what has been something of a ramble.  I think what I am trying to say here – is that I want to show students the finish line…the star they are shooting for…and then allow them to work out how they are going to get there with a  more freedom. I thought that giving them guidelines of how many words and how many figures would be helpful…but I think it sapped at the creative energy in the assignment, replacing it with “banking” boredom.

SOMEHOW I also need to create effective assignments that I can actually grade and survive. I can’t grade everything they write…heck, I can’t even read everything they write. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

That’s all for now.