Mary Neuberger

Dr. Brian Cowan presented his paper titled "Transnational and Comparative Hisotries of Coffee and Sociability" at a workshop Monday afternoon. Cowan is a professor of Early Modern British Hisotry at McGill University in Montreal.

Photo Credit: Ty Hardin | Daily Texan Staff

Whether people sip coffee, chug energy drinks, or smoke cigarettes, caffeine and nicotine influence their states of mind and culture.

On Monday, scholars Brian Cowan, a faculty member of McGill University, and Mary Neuberger, director of the department of Slavic and Eurasian studies, gave a talk regarding the cultural importance of coffee houses.

Cowan presented his working paper titled “Transnational and Comparative Histories and Sociability.” Neuberger responded to the paper, drawing on her expertise in the culture of smoking in Eastern Europe.

Cowan and Neuberger referred to themselves as “commodity historians” who study society’s relation to consumer goods. The history of commodities is a booming area for research, Cowan said.

“Many historians are getting into it,” Cowan said. “It’s a flourishing field.”

Neuberger said commodities deserve more attention because they are a useful way to approach cultural history.

“Historians have looked at the past through wars and politics,” she said.

“But in a consumer society like ours, the production and consumption of commodities can totally transform a region.”

Change also occurs in the opposite direction, Cowan said. The way coffee is consumed is affected by the larger culture, he said. For instance, Austin’s coffee houses reflect the city’s laid-back culture, he said.

“I’ve only been in Austin for a few weeks and my experience is limited to Quacks and Caffe Medici,” Cowan said. “But I’ve noticed that people hang out in coffee houses here all the time. A lot of people are doing work ­— studying, writing a novel or coding software — but there’s definitely a slacker culture.”

Coffee houses in Austin cater to the same needs that coffee houses historically served, Cowan said.

“For a lot of students and entrepreneurs, the coffee house is their office, and that’s exactly what was going on in the 17th and 18th centuries” he said. “That’s an aspect of coffee house culture that still exists. People still need a place to go outside of the house, to be in public but also get their business done. Coffee houses are what’s called a third space — somewhere between the workplace and home.”

Cowan likened Austin’s coffee house culture to what he observed in Portland.

“I lived in Portland during the 90’s, when I was earning my B.A., and I saw all this stuff,” he said. “Austin is just like a spicy Portland.”

Coffee is here to stay, but the culture of smoking is now under siege, although tobacco use was not always demonized, Neuberger said.

“The proposed UT smoking ban does not make a huge difference because tobacco has already been so thoroughly demonized,” she said.

“However, it was only a few decades ago when professors smoked in class.”

Cigarettes and the world wars changed the way tobacco was used and perceived, Neuberger said.

“Tobacco was not demonized until the introduction cigarettes because there was no widespread cancer before cigarettes,” she said. “Cigarrette consumption spiked after the world wars because soldiers were issued cigarettes, and cigarettes became associated with feminine liberation for women at home. Cigarettes sped up consumption because tobacco could be smoked faster and in more places.”

Despite its demonization, smoking tobacco might never go away, said Neuberger.

“Though it’s been culturally pushed out in the United States and in the European Union, it persists and has become associated with an edgy counterculture,” she said.

Seven new department chairs have been appointed in the College of Liberal Arts, UT’s largest college. Four are women, making one-third of the department chairs in the University female.

Kristen Brustad, Dan Dixon, Mary Neuberger, Jill Robbins, Christine Williams, James Pennebaker and Cory Juhl were appointed as the new chairs.

Department of Middle Eastern Studies Chair Kristen Brustad said there is still work to be done to achieve racial and gender equality.

“One-third of the chairs at the University are women,” Brustad said. “I think that it is excellent so many incredible women are being promoted. But we still have a long way to go with other minorities. We have made a lot of progress.”

Brustad said big changes are on the horizon in Middle Eastern studies. The department is consolidating its majors to offer one major in Middle Eastern languages and cultures, instead of several in Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Turkish.

She said she feels honored that her colleagues are confident in her abilities.

“The support of the department means a lot to me, and I’m excited to be working with a really dynamic and excellent group of faculty,” Brustad said. “That’s what encouraged me to accept this position.”

Jill Robbins was named chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. All chairs receive a pay raise and two months of summer salary, but Robbins said pay was not a deciding factor in taking the position.

“I was driven by my belief in the mission of this department, in the strength of our faculty, students and staff, and in our future as the top department of Spanish and Portuguese in the country,” she said.

Robbins said she is already taking steps to improve the department by setting aside endowment funds for graduate student research, revising and updating the curriculum and expanding the faculty.

The department chair job requires more multitasking and availability to other members of the department, she said.

“Being chair is a heavy responsibility and takes a great deal of time. In addition to more paperwork, I will be spending more time with my colleagues, administrators, staff and students but in a different role,” said Pennebaker, the new chair of the Department of Psychology.

He said he feels honored to be chosen as the chair and is excited for the challenge.

The Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies chair Mary Neuberger said that this new position will require less teaching and more decision making.

“There is a lot of diplomacy involved between faculty, students and administration,” Neuberger said. “It’s more stressful.”

However, her experiences have taught her a lot about how the University is run.

Neuberger’s department is in danger of being cut, but she said she is optimistic in saying “leadership is necessary in a time of crisis.”

“It’s challenging, but I think in a good way,” she said. “We can step up and shine and make things work.”