Composition and Coffee beans: How owning a coffeeshop made me a better professor

PaperFew here in East Texas are aware that when I held an assistant professor position at a sister university I owned a small coffeeshop in downtown Plainview, TX. My wife and I had a grand idea to purchase and remodel a mid-century diner to take on new life as a gourmet coffee shop and local hang-out. Just as she was finishing her bachelor’s degree at Texas Tech we purchased the building, completed renovations, and opened in time for a new school year. I would maintain my full-time teaching job while she ran the family business.

Two months later a small hiccup left me running a new business fulltime, teaching a full load, and my wife at home with severe morning sickness that left her bed-ridden. Her aversion to strong smells—coffee being her least favorite—forced me to actually strip down and jump in the shower before I was allowed to greet her from a long day at both jobs.  So, I became the sole proprietor while my wife took on the equally challenging task of a mother to one, and then a year later, two children. Even though those six years number among the most challenging years of my life, I learned a number of important things that have made me a better equipped college professor.

Now, there are a few obvious elements of owning a coffeeshop that may well serve an English professor. The endless supply of fresh and delicious coffee left me with all the energy I needed for late night grading and early morning classes. The proximity to the lives of students who frequented my shop and were employed as baristas allowed me a unique role in educating and training them in and out of the classroom. And, my position as a small-business owner allowed me a unique perspective by which to teach my freshmen students the ins-and-outs of professional writing.

Yet, the most valuable thing I learned from owning a coffeeshop is something that is more profound, but less obvious.  It is a lesson that plays a critical role in my approach to teaching at a small, faith-based university.

When my wife and I first opened our shop, we, like most independent coffeeshop owners at that time, found our inspiration from Starbucks, the world famous coffee purveyor that introduced the American public to Italian-styled coffee drinks like the espresso and the cappuccino. We set our menu options and our prices to reflect our similarity with the chain. We were proud when customers compared us in a positive way to the coffee giant. And, even while we strived to create products that were superior in quality, we knew that we owed a great debt of gratitude to the big guys for every dollar put in our cash register.

However, over the course of our six years in the business things changed drastically, not just in our coffeeshop, but in independent coffeeshops around the nation.  These coffeeshops adopted what has become known as the “third wave.”

latte artThe “third wave” approach to artisanal coffee is characterized by promoting sustainable growing practices, purchasing beans directly from farmers—a practice that pays fair prices and cuts out the middle-man—and pursuing careful roasting methods that enhance flavor without burning the coffee (Most third wave coffee is lightly roasted).  It is also associated with alternative brewing methods, like the pour-over, that celebrate the inherent uniqueness of each coffee variety. Baristas began pouring latte art and talking about the specific flavor qualities of single-origin beans—beans from a specific lot of an individual estate rather than beans from a given nation, like Columbia.

Small coffeeshops took on practices that not only produced the best product but were healthy for the local and global community. And, those small, independent shops are really the only places capable of providing that level of quality and that amount of positive community interaction.

Small, independent shops that embraced the “third wave” approach have become so numerous and popular that the large corporations are now trying to emulate them. Starbucks now has pour over coffee and serves a “blonde” roast. Chick-Fil-A now serves coffee that is advertised as purchased directly from small, family farms. And, latte art now makes regular appearances in Hollywood blockbusters and on the packaging of grocery store creamers.

So, as a professor at a small, faith-based university, this observation is the most important thing I have learned from the coffee business. It is the observation that a group of purposeful, highly-trained and creative individuals that dedicate themselves to their craft can operate a successful venture and provide a valuable and satisfactory service to its proprietors in ways that challenge the establishment. What if the small, faith-based university could approach education in the same way that independent coffeeshops approach coffee?

As a professor at ETBU I know that if we embrace the best practices of education we can provide the highest standard of education to our students. But we must also ask ourselves what we can do better. How can we best utilize our role as a small school that has a high teacher/student ratio to provide better small-group instruction? How can we push the educational envelope in fresh and meaningful ways to provide students with a quality of education that they can’t get at one of the big guys? In what ways can we use our model to train our students and give them hands-on experience for service to both the local and global community? How can we make the small university education cool again?

DS

Life Hacks for … Life?

Photo Credit: TheeErin via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: TheeErin via Compfight cc

Do you have a big project that you’re trying to finish before the end of the semester, the year, or the decade?

Maybe it’s a big paper at the end of the semester, or to graduate from college. Maybe you signed up for the Bible in a Year program and, like me, have fallen off the wagon a bit. Maybe you have big plans for your career or grad school or writing a book. Maybe you’re working up to sharing Christ with a friend.

I recently read an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about working on a writing project: Scholarly Writing Hacks

The idea is that you have to set aside a time every day to write, and that you need encouragement from other writers to keep you going. Then you will achieve success and come out with at least a solid draft of your paper/book.

About a year and a half ago I finished my biggest writing undertaking: the Dissertation. Dun dun duuuuuuuuuuuuuuun.

Photo Credit: chnrdu via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: chnrdu via Compfight cc

I can’t say that I purposefully did any of these tricks, but looking back on it I can see that I did try to write a little most days and I did have others to talk to about it with. So maybe it does work. Maybe I’ll try it out on my next paper!

The point that really struck me about this though is that these tricks would work for anything – not just writing.

If you’re trying to read the Bible in a year, setting aside time to read every day is important. Otherwise, you’ll never make it. And if you’re trying to finish a big paper, putting if off until the last days WILL NOT WORK!

In either of these situations, you need people around you to encourage you, keep you going, and give you guidance.

It works for scholarly writing, and it works for being a Christian.

You can easily see in the Bible that there are many references to the need for community and accountability partners. Like in Hebrews 10:24-25 -

And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely have days that I would like to just relax and be lazy… not calling that friend to check on her, or not keeping up with my Bible reading.

by Jimmie @ Flickr commons

by Jimmie @ Flickr commons

I also have times when I struggle to make the right decision, or need some help deciding what to do. And that is where community comes in!

I hope that everyone here at ETBU has found a sense of community and that we can lean on each other in times of need. But it’s hard to be vulnerable!

Sometimes all we can do is open up to that one special person, make sure we listen for God’s guidance, and surround ourselves with community. If we work on it every day and talk with others walking the walk we just may have a chance at finishing the biggest project of all - following God’s plan for our lives. 

AL

And the walls came tumbling down…

Something extraordinary happened yesterday in my Biblical Interpretation class. Yes, this is the same class I went all she-hulk on last month (see self worth image psalmWhen Empathy Backfires…).

We had recently returned from a chapel service focused on transparency and confession. Several of my Religion students had given short testimonies during the service and had laid bare their souls, recounting their sordid stories and sins, their insecurities and their struggles. They then challenged the chapel attenders to do the same thing, writing their sins and insecurities on themselves with markers as a physical act of confession and honesty.

It was inspiring and thought-provoking and I wanted to make sure that the moment for openness and learning did not pass us by.

self worth image orange guySo instead of lecturing on the grammatical-structural relationships in biblical prose, I asked the students in my class to share the words they had written on their arms. And I went first.

After I explained my struggle with the sinful attitude of selfishness, I confessed that my biggest recurring insecurity is that I feel “other” as a woman called to and gifted for pastoral ministry in a culture that only affirms the pastoral position for men, a fact that continues to ignite resentment and bitterness in my heart toward the church.

And then they shared. In front of their peers, they talked about their feelings of inadequacy, they revealed dark parts of their pasts, and they confessed sins and weaknesses that usually remain  hidden in the locked parts of our souls. They praised God for the healing and deliverance they had experienced in some areas while also recognizing the work that still had to be done. They were raw and real and honest and vulnerable and so incredibly brave that it took my breath away.

It made me think of Jericho.

In Joshua 6, we read the story of the fledgling Israelites who, after having crossed into the land God had promised Abraham generations before, came upon the strong-walled city of Jericho, the first major barrier between them and God’s promise. God gave Joshua and the people detailed instructions that included marching around the walls, blowing trumpets, and shouting in success over the Lord’s promised victory.

We tend to emphasize the great faith that Joshua and the priests and soldiers showed and we celebrate their obedience to God in the face of impossible odds. But we sometimes forget that in order to obey, these Israelites had to be shockingly brave and illogically vulnerable.self worth image

For seven days they marched outside the heavily fortified city, aware that at any moment arrows could fly over the walls to pierce through their bodies and tear away their hopes of entering the promised land. Yet they continued to put themselves in that vulnerable position, with no rocks or walls to hide behind, in order to breach the walls that God told them they would destroy.

Yesterday, my students were as brave and as vulnerable as those Israelites outside Jericho. They put their hearts in the line of fire, exposing parts of themselves to potential arrows of judgment and ridicule and rejection. They did this because they knew they could only experience victory over their sins and their insecurities if they exposed them.

And in the wake of their vulnerability and brave shouts of confession, the walls came tumbling down.

The walls of pain, protection, and pride that guarded their hearts from the world. The walls of denial, competition, and fear that prevent true community among peers. The walls of decorum, distance, and doubt that serve to separate teacher from student. These all started to fall and I realized that I had much to learn from these millenials, these students who both exasperate and inspire me.

Yesterday, my students taught me that true community cannot exist without healing, that healing cannot begin without trust, and that trust can only be earned through vulnerability. They taught me that the toughest battles are not fought with weapons and strategy but with trust and transparency. They taught me that as a community of faith we have many more walls to tear down before we enter the promised land, that kingdom that God has promised us of love and healing, of unity and rest.

jgb