Linda Richman: Welcome to Coffee Talk I’m your host Linda Richman. On this show we talk about coffee, dawters, dawgs, you know no big whoop just Coffee Talk.” 1993)

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I’m taking on this line of inquiry as part of PBL07’s investigation related to the Topic #2 Open Learning.

The card I chose from our kanban is titled:

‘Intentional coffee breaks can foster very open discussions since there is no agenda.’ fabritis (link)

This is an open annotation of a recommended reading blog post by Kiruthika Ragupathi, an academic developer at the National University of Singapore: Being Open: Drawing parallels from the Coffee House model

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The Coffee House Model is a synchronous learning approach that foregrounds discursive social interaction. The Coffee House Model is, primarily a metaphor rather than an historical example that we should follow (albeit that it is also an historical example). That means we need to consider how well The Coffee House Model stands up as a form of concept engineering. I will get onto this soon … [sips from cup].

Before considering The Coffee House Model from an open educational perspective, I want to quickly outline its logistics. It involves – simply – creating intentional space/time for agenda-free discussion/making. There are different modalities that can be combined in different ways (not/talking; on/offline).

As such, it makes more sense to pluralise (models). Coffee houses are forms of openness that can manifest on or offline equally (or both simultaneously).

To quickly illustrate, I will split coffee houses into not/talking:


Conversation Café A structured round-table approach for 5–7 participants. Mainly Offline but could be online. See: and

Stitch ‘n’ Bitch – knitting based chat. On and Offline.

Jukebox/Wired for Sound – each participant adds one track to a music playlist; it plays in the background. Bit like ByOB – Bring your own Beamer – to project a short video. On and Offline.

Agora – an agora with stalls set up temporarily – e.g. Critical Practice at Chelsea College of Art & Design, UAL, London. Offline.

Market/Fair – more or less the same as the agora e.g. Medieval Fair during the Annual Interntional Medieval Studies Conference, Leeds University, England. Offline (unless in Minecraft, which has happened!)

Walkie Talkie – going for a walk while talking (either together or via VoIP / phone call). Different to sitting across from each other to talk. Also healthier. Offline but possibly augmented.

Lego Serious Play – working with an accredited Lego Facilitator to develop ideas. Offline.

Down the Pub – Scots version of the Coffee House model, but with alcohol instead of coffee. Offline although became online only in lockdown. (link)

Pickpocket Almanac – a list of live events (on and offline) that a group attend. They will see each other at the events. The can also arrange to meet up additionally to discuss what they saw (somewhat like a book club). Online and offline.


#studywithme was a phenomenon during lockdown. Learners found study buddies and sat, quietly, working at their computers in sync while on VoIP. Creates the atmosphere of the library (rather than of the Coffee Shop). It can happen offline of course. Simply by creating a structured time in the day/week for this to happen is simple enough. Drop-in approach.

Writing Retreats; often for staff and PhD students. Blocks of time set aside to meet in one place and silently spend time writing. Mainly offline.

Silent Crits; not really 100% silent. The person presenting their work/poster is not allowed to speak; everyone else can and does speak, giving feedback on what the silent presenter has done. Mainly offline but can be online too.

Advantages, or in what ways might coffee houses be ‘open’?

Well… open maybe in the sense that they are, nominally, improvisational: a conversation takes place and there’s a ‘natural’ ebb and flow. Or, in the case of the silent Coffee Houses, people simply reside with each other and quietly enjoy the company of others. In either sense, we have something resembling an ‘open system’ (rather than a closed system). Network theories that emerged out of cybernetics (including educational theories such as Connectivism and PBL) tend to favour open systems over closed systems – so this makes conversation = ‘good’ (open). But it’s never that simple, is it?

Many of the advantages are what Anecdotal Theory attempts to develop; I won’t go into this here.

The advantages are also what Performative Pedagogy would tend to focus on; again I won’t go into this here, it will take too long.

Disadvantages, or in what ways might coffee houses be ‘closed’?

This is a Kinship model of learning; the emphasis on kinship can make structural inequalities greater. e.g. it leads to favouritism, (patriarchial) ancestralism, generates gift-debt bond obligations, etc.

Lack of ‘reporting system’ can actually generate opacity rather than an open approach. i.e. such conversations happen without trackable (minuted) accountability. This is the gossipy nature of ‘cawfee tawk’ of course – it is private. It can’t (shouldn’t) be minuted or recorded. But, since it’s not, its voices are not (democratically) accountable. If we equate openness with democratic accountability, then “cawfee tawk” is, potentially, closed?

There’s an underlying assumption in the model that learning is foremost dialogual – this isn’t true.

Ableist assumptions underwrite the coffee houses regarding interpersonal interaction. This doesn’t stop to take account of neurological disabilities, specifically deafness, ASD and ADHD, that make it really difficult to talk to more than one person and/or cope with coffee house ‘noise’.

We also (obviously) need to consider who can and can’t take part in something that is, essentially, synchronous (automatically excluded if we can’t make the time set).

Linguistic assumptions underwrite the coffee houses; the dominant language used will enable those that speak that dominant language and disadvantage those who do not.

“Talk amongst yourselves”

Linda Richman

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Putting the closed/disadvantages to one side, Coffee House metaphors are underwritten by an unfulfilled desire to create unstructured temporary autonomous zones or TAZ (Bey 1991) within what otherwise might be a heavily timetabled curriculum. Timetabling an ‘unstructured’ TAZ (!!!) might never need to happen if curricula were even a wee bit more porous and less constrained by the all-powerful logic of the timetable. This is a chronopolitical issue – one that arises from the need to synchronise learning for industrial purposes. If we remove this assumption that we must synchronise learning, do we remove the unsatiated desire for such TAZs?

Coffee House models perhaps assume that the curriculum is always constrained by the tyranny of industrialised ‘railway time’ (in standardised blocks of 600 hours in the EHEA!). However, many curricula are forms of anti-curriculum – they are inherently unstructured (e.g. art, many PhDs). In such cases, the formal learning programme is a Coffee House model (verbatim). The need for an alternate, more obviously structured or scaffolded approach to learning becomes apparent in such cases (too much Coffee House model = too open-ended)?

So the desire, in each case, is for more of what we think we don’t have. We need to be careful what we wish for.

Coffee House models are presented as being akin to Ragged Schools or Workers Ed; the ‘Coffee House’ as marginal (para-academic) site for learning (Ellis 2008). It offers a ‘Third Place’ (Oldenburg 1999) for informal learning to those excluded from whatever the dominant modality of learning might be at a given time. This makes it a form of open access (perhaps), or at least in comparsion to otherwise enclosed learning environments (the ‘walled gardens’ of lecture theatres and firewalled LMS.) But does the Coffee House-as-Third Place hold up beyond the narrow confines of Enlightenment-era Europe?

Instead of adopting Oldenburg’s Third Place theory, Khairudin Aljunied has proposed ‘that coffee-shops in colonial Southeast Asia [during the age of decolonization from the 1940s to the 1960s] should be regarded as ‘domains of contentious publics’. I use the word ‘domain’ here because it captures the physical boundaries, private proprietorship and discursive activities that defined the coffee-shops. A domain connotes an area that is owned by a particular person or group of persons. And yet, colonial-era coffee-shops were liberal spaces where outsiders could congregate and which they could identify with, though not claim as their own.’ (Aljunied, 2014: 68)

While the ‘Coffee Houses’ of early seventeenth century Europe might also have been ‘domains of contentious publics’, 21st Century European coffee shops are increasingly exclusive domains of elites (like me). [ … pauses to sip espresso] Upselling a product that has one of the highest mark-ups of all commodities, coffee shops are, of course, the sine qua non of gentrification. So, as a metaphor for open educational practice, the ‘Coffee House‘ is perhaps a bit past its sell-by date?

However, as a metaphor, ‘having a coffee’, is not necessarily dated (whether or not you drink coffee is a moot point). The coffee is really just a cipher for a date – a time to meet up to have the all-important cawfee tawk:

Video: Mike Myres as Linda Richman in Coffee Talk, Saturday Night Live (SNL), October 12, 1991, until October 15, 1994; 26mins.

Notwithstanding, let’s not forget that the coffee that we meet to consume (or consume to meet) is as important a factor in the Coffee House metaphor as the café. Coffee (unfettered) is rich in the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world: caffeine. (See: ‘A Brief History of Caffeine’ in Braun 1996: 109-114). Research on the psychoactive properties of caffeine and caffeine’s histories suggest that it is very closely allied to forms of ideation characteristic of European industrial modernity. I’m thinking here of Michael Pollan’s book This Is Your Mind On Plants: Opium―Caffeine―Mescaline, Penguin Books, London (2021); for a quick summary, listen to Pollan’s audiobook, Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World. We can’t discount the importance of caffenism in stimulating excessive forms of intoxicated conversation and, thus, of aiding and abbeting a (colonial) ‘geography of consciousness’.

Coffee Houses (cafés) are akin to Opium Dens and Public Houses (‘pubs), they supply a recreational drug and provide the right kind of environment in which to enjoy it. As a recreational drug, stimulants such as caffeine specifically enable speedy conversations, whereas alcohol is a depressive, and smoking opium tends to render the user deliriously mute. Caffeine, then, is conducive to particular types of learning. It might keep us alert enough to have ‘reasoned’ conversations, but it can just as easily make us jittery and distractible. The celebration of coffee as the most ‘productive’ of psychoactive plants is an apt expression of how much Enlightenment values were entangled with the ‘Protestant Ethic’ (Braun 1996: 124). Their offspring was ‘productivity’:

‘Idleness (lurking), gabbling, irrationality, and for that matter gossips and chit-chats are not encouraged.’ (Ragupathi)

Why fetishise the indefatigable? Do we not all have a right (and pressing need) to be idle? Why Workerism? Lurking is still learning; good listeners don’t have to contribute to learn. Of course – caffeinated psychoactivity fuels productivity forms of thinking – neurosomatic programming (be the best version of yourself), shortened reaction times (Lorist, Jan Snel, Kok.1994) – but sidelines other kinds thoughts (zen, daydreaming, evesdropping). Alcohol, THC, opium, LSD, etc. all play a vital part in enriching culture; but their effects were deemed less savoury to Enlightenment reformers and Industrialist prohibitionists worried about what an ‘underproductive’ labouring class might do if given enough rope.

Interestingly then, if we take Pollan at his word, caffeine as the prefered fuel of the Enlightenment it is partly responsible for foregrouding and amplifying the most forthright voices. That makes ‘coffee’ way less ‘open’ than the metaphor would inititally suggest. It all sounds like a lot of work and no play. Not my ideal way to learn anything.

In her blogpost, Ragupathi stresses that ‘Conversational commonplaces, and irrelevant or inconsequential topics, are not tolerated’ in the Coffee House. Of course, this raises the question who decides what’s ir/relevant or topical ‘debates’? This intolerant Coffee House seems peculiarly illiberal, allowing only what might be commonly accepted as ‘research’ within the academy rather than the playful, witty, goal-less world-building of ‘cawfee tawk’ (King and Myres 1991-94). What’s wrong with gossip? If a Coffee House really was ‘open’, would it not welcome gossip as a kindred spirit. Gossip has long been recognised by cultural scholars to be vital part of human interaction:

Historically limited to those already possessing economic, political, race, and gender status, literacy can be a way of keeping ideas cordoned off only for those who are sufficiently equipped. Gossip, by contrast, is accessible to anyone; its requirements for participation are low. It is informal, usually oral, and private. Thus it is particularly useful to people in marginalized positions, because the intimacy and shared context of its participants means that participants can speak more freely than in more formal settings. (Adkins 2017: 52).

To be able to sustain the metaphor of the Coffee House as open, it would be a place that includes gossip, the ‘irrational’, the esoteric and other miscellany.

So, in all, for now at least, I’m not enamoured by The Coffee House metaphor as presented by Ragupathiy. It seems too closed to too many forms of conversation. The indellibly gentrified coffee shop just can’t wash for me these days as a domain of ‘contentious publics’; any more than a ‘Queen’s Counting House Model’ metaphor would. Equally coffee (or rather caffeine) can’t really be separated from its particular psychoactive properties, all of which I associate with mindless celebrations of overproductivity (productivity porn) I could do without. Yes, caffeine has enabled humans to achieve great things, but it’s also enabled us to achieve many terrible things. Other drugs are available.

I think that, if we want a metaphor for openness, we should focus one one that’s more related to simply making some time out to talk. We really just need more, cawfee tawk: small talk in long form. No big whoop.

Adkins, Karen. Gossip, Epistemology, and Power Knowledge Underground / by Karen Adkins. 1st ed. 2017. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2017.

Aljunied, Syed Muhd. Khairudin. “Coffee-Shops in Colonial Singapore: Domains of Contentious Publics.” History workshop journal 77.77 (2014): 65–85.

Bey, Hakim. Temporary Autonomous Zones, Autonomedia, 1991.

Braun S. Buzz : The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated; 1996.

Ellis, M. (2008). An introduction to the coffee-house: A discursive model. Language & Communication, 28(2), 156–164.

Lorist, Monicque M, Jan Snel, and Albert Kok. “Influence of Caffeine on Information Processing Stages in Well Rested and Fatigued Subjects.” Psychopharmacology 113.3-4 (1994): 411–421. Web.

‘Coffee Talk’, Saturday Night Live, 1993, USA.

Oldenburg, R. (1999). The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and other Hangouts At The Heart of a Community. New York, Da Capo Press.

Pollan, Michael. This Is Your Mind On Plants: Opium―Caffeine―Mescaline, Penguin Books, London (2021).

Wardrop, A. W., Deborah (eds). (2014). The Para-Academic Handbook: A Toolkit For Making-Learning-Creating-Acting. Bristol, England, HammerOn Press.