The power of coffee … a comfy sofa and a bit of a chinwag

When I was an undergraduate I walked into the coffee area of our zoology building and was informed that “some of the most important papers on animal behavior were written here”.  It was a somewhat ugly coffee area in an ugly concrete building, with vinyl covered plywood tables and bright orange upholstered bucket chairs that looked like they had escaped from Austin Power’s 1960s love pad. The coffee wasn’t even good, in fact the zoologists were highly envious of the botany department who had a tea trolley with excellent tea and chocolate covered cookies, but I digress… The coffee area was the place to be as that was where everyone in the department congregated, talked about what they were reading or working on, and most importantly, brain-stormed ideas.  Sure there was a certain amount of procrastination going on, with faculty avoiding having to go back to grading, hiding from sheets of data that had to be entered onto excel spread sheets, or balking at yet another hundred samples to analyze back in the labs. But the collegiality that there was in that coffee area: with undergrads chatting to the “silverbacks” of the zoology faculty, sharing their innovative ideas, and getting mentoring advice in return; or scientists from different disciplines advising on different or new techniques to colleagues that had encountered a brick wall in their research progress; was quite frankly more valuable than many lectures, and worth the price of a disgusting cup of instant coffee. Our department was not alone. At the famous big science facility CERN, home of the large hadron collider, there are whiteboards in the lunchrooms because when the scientists there get together they can’t but help brainstorm ideas, and this is encouraged as some of these lunch time collaborations have yielded important scientific fruit.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that conferences are a necessity for the growth of an academic. They give you a chance to share your ideas with other academics to receive support, or possibly criticism, so that you can strengthen and refine your analysis and your interpretation of your data. They are important events to find out the methods and results of peers in your field, information that could be incorporated into your own studies. Informal places where you can get advice, share ideas and develop research and writing partnerships. Rare is the conference where I don’t come home with a note book full of contacts to email, studies to cite and methods to try out. You can travel around the world to find a venue to discuss and debate with your peers. But isn’t it ironic that there are often few of such places within a university?

My university department is one that is supposed to be interdisciplinary, where science meets social science and policy analysis, with practitioners in multiple fields being brought together. This department is nested in a university whose motto is “where innovation is tradition”. But most researchers at the university work in isolation, locked away in their offices or labs. Despite its supposedly inter-disciplinary nature, the members of the department really aren’t great at getting together. At our recent Christmas party, less than half of the faculty turned up. There are some faculty in the same department that we see maybe once a month at a faculty meeting, some I never see for semesters at a time. This is just within our department, let alone with faculty in other departments, or the university as a whole. The fact that our university has multiple campuses, makes meeting and communicating with colleagues especially difficult.

There was recently an idea to have joint lunches in departmental conference room (where students typically take their comprehensive exams or do their thesis defenses), so faculty (and possibly graduate students) could get together and chat/share. This was a great idea, but it was also pretty much a disaster with only one or two faculty at best turning up. Which is fair enough, who wants to relax or hang out in what is ostensibly a classroom and/or a place of examinations. Talking to colleagues, this seems to be a common problem within academia.

My dream is that we have some sort of communal lounge in every university- a place where faculty, staff and ideally graduate students, can get together and chat, sip coffee and hang out in a relaxed and informal atmosphere, where academic news can be shared and ideas exchanged. Somewhere with a comfy chair where you can read the latest issue of science or nature in comfort and then chat and debate about the articles with colleagues. Such a place would greatly aid the spread of ideas, mentoring and collegiality. Ideally in my dream lounge, there is wood paneling, a roaring fireplace and a fine selection of cheeses and port, but quite frankly just a coffee maker and a few arm chairs would be nice.  It’s not unheard of for universities and institutions to have some sort of faculty and/or graduate student lounge or club. But many administrators view such places as a waste of space that could be better  spent on, for example, a larger suite of offices for administrators. Sadly, the absence of communal spaces is to the universities’ detriment in terms of promoting productivity, intellectual development, innovation and also for general morale. All universities should have some sort of communal relaxation and brainstorming lounge for faculty and graduate students.

Nobel and Pulitzer prize winner Saul Bellow once said “Goodness is achieved not in a vacuum, but in the company of other men”. The same could be said about ideas and innovation. Meeting in a relax atmosphere leads to the forming of academic relationships and exchanges of ideas … that is the power of coffee, a comfy sofa and a bit of a chinwag.


(A version of this article was published in Greenovation – the George Mason University Environmental Science and Policy Departmental Newsletter)