MC class explores coffeehouses and culture

MC class explores coffeehouses and culture 

March 16, 2020 

On a cold, snowy morning in late February, a group of Maryville College students gathered at Vienna Coffee House in Maryville. Amid the sounds of lively conversations, baristas calling out names for orders, the hissing of milk steamers and the buzzing of coffee grinders, the students discussed a topic that was appropriate for the venue: coffeehouses.

The topic is one that they’ll discuss all semester; the students are enrolled in Dr. Kathryn Julian’s History 149: Coffeehouses and Culture course.

“From the Middle East to the cafés of Vienna to the hipster java generation, coffeehouses have been centers of revolution, conversation and commerce,” the course description reads. “‘Coffeehouses and Culture’ examines the caffeine-fueled cultural, political and intellectual exchanges that occurred from the 18th century to the present. Using the lens of the coffeehouse, this course will address issues of cultural identity, state authority, nationalism and trade, as well as the challenges that coffee consumption presents in the face of climate change. We will explore how one of the world’s most addictive beverages transformed society.”

The history course, which fulfills the College’s historical reasoning core requirement, examines not only what happened in the past, but what the past means to people today, said Julian, visiting lecturer in history at Maryville College.

“We look at coffeehouses as places of community, or a third space where people come together to talk about ideas, create cultural works and start revolutions,” Julian said. “We also look at the limitations and the negative sides of that, too – how the beverage many of us enjoy has a history entangled with colonialism, war and exploitation. We will also talk about coffeehouses in the 21st century, the java craze and pop culture, so looking at coffeehouses allows us to look at history in a really broad way.”

Julian said the idea for the course has long been in the back of her mind, after spending time in coffeehouses in Europe.

“After undergrad, I lived in Hungary, so I went to Budapest and Vienna a lot and spent time in coffeehouses,” said Julian, a self-described coffee enthusiast. “I noticed that there are still these really active groups of different parts of society, especially in Vienna, that meet in these spaces, and I thought, ‘This is really unique that this culture exists here in Vienna in such a vibrant way; it would be really cool to write an article about it someday or do something with it.’ So that’s always been in the back of my mind as I went through grad school and studied Central European history and traveled back and forth between the United States and Germany.”

When she arrived at Maryville College, she was encouraged to develop some of her own courses, so she pitched the idea of the “Coffeehouses and Culture” course.

“I can’t take total credit for it – I have colleagues out there doing similar survey courses like this – but I developed it from scratch and got really excited about how we can use coffeehouses and coffee as a framework to look at all of these global issues that are going on and show students that history isn’t just this litany of dates and names; it’s vibrant communities interacting,” Julian said. “You can look at something as everyday as a coffeeshop or a Starbucks and think about things like ‘what are the origins of this, what did this look like in other cultures and why does this exist in our world today?’ It’s been fun.”

While the class typically meets on campus, Julian decided to hold the class at Vienna Coffee House at least four times during the semester so students could see firsthand how coffeehouses can foster public life and culture. A popular hangout for Maryville College students, Vienna Coffee House is located within walking distance to campus and has served as a longtime community partner for the College.

On the last Friday of every month, the class meets at the coffeehouse, drinks coffee and observes who else is meeting there. On this February day, the class had the opportunity to get a tour, led by owner John Clark, of Vienna Coffee House’s roastery.

“My students have noticed that there’s a really diverse mix of people here (at Vienna Coffee House),” the professor said. “There are activists who meet here, there are Bible study groups who meet here … so it’s kind of confirming a lot of the things we’ve been talking about. It’s been a really great experience for them. And one thing that I think is really important for history classes – and just in general – is community engagement, which I think Maryville College does really well. I’m hoping that I’m showing my students that history, too, can be community engaged learning.”

The class’s final project requires students to visit a coffeehouse, observe who is coming to the coffeehouse, describe the history of it and how it fits into the community, and produce a project that makes historical connections and explores themes that most interested them during the semester.

Ali Lawson ’21 said that in addition to the fact that he enjoys drinking coffee, he became interested in the class because he liked the idea of not only studying coffee but the societal relationship with coffeehouses.

“It’s been really interesting to me to learn how coffeehouses have been places of dissent as well as revolution,” said Lawson, a business analytics major from Maryville, Tenn. “That’s kind of the main theme of the class – how coffeehouses have promoted a lot of societal change and why that is. That was really intriguing to me.”

Lawson added that he was surprised to learn that coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, which he learned during the class’s tour of Vienna Coffee House’s roastery.

“In addition, I think it’s also really cool that so much of the pre-industrial economy of the U.S. and so many other countries, especially South America, was based on coffee,” he said. “So you really can make an argument that coffee was one of the forces that really pulled our economy and society into the 21st century.”

Nikki Whaley ’20, a psychology major from Maryville, Tenn., studied abroad in Costa Rica, where she had the opportunity to visit coffee plantations and roast her own coffee, so she jumped at the chance to take Julian’s course.

“I have a history minor, so it really played into my interest in coffee and culture and history and the past,” Whaley said. “I took Dr. Julian’s ‘History of the Holocaust’ class, and I was able to connect the history of colonization with tea and coffee and how the Holocaust could be tied into that – how Germany really expanded because of colonization. So it was really interesting to make those connections from prior classes and connect them to something so simple as coffee.”

Whaley said she appreciates the class format, which is more conversation-based.

“It’s really student-led with Dr. Julian, so we’ve had student presentations on how culture and coffee has affected them,” she said. “We also get to come to Vienna, which is super cool that we get to see the process in person from a local perspective. It’s really neat to combine different aspects of learning into one class and really be a conversation rather than just someone lecturing at you. I now come here (to Vienna Coffee House) and watch people to see why they’re here, and then look back at history and look at people like Martin Luther King Jr., who used third spheres and public spaces to really gather a following, so it’s interesting to try and observe that.”

Jonathan Meystrik ’23, a mathematics and computer science double major from Knoxville, Tenn., said the class has expanded his appreciation of coffee and coffeehouses.

“You never think about how a product that people consume influenced history in so many ways,” Meystrik said.

While Julian suspects that most students who signed up for “Coffeehouses and Culture” course probably already like coffee, there could be some non-coffee drinkers in the class who change their minds by the end of the semester.

“I am hoping to create some coffee addicts like myself,” she said, laughing.


Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”