Christopher Freeburg spoke to me. Not literally but through his essay, “Teaching Literature and the Bitter Truth about Starbucks.” You see, I spend a lot of my time toiling away at a coffee shop. Perhaps Northern Light Espresso Bar isn’t an evil, mutant mega corporation like Starbucks but the sentiment is there. Freeburg starts his essay “I have spent far too much time in coffee shops…” (25). My eyes light up with the familiarity of understanding my author. You see, as I read that line, as I soured his essay, I was also in a coffee shop. Surrounded by caffeinated luxury and a couple bookshelves, I’ve always thought of “Northern” as a sort of sanctuary. The point Freeburg ultimately makes is one that I intimately understand. Freeburg writes, “As at any good bar, the Baristas at Starbucks, many of them students, get paid to listen to me talk about my research and interests” (25). As I read these words, I realized just how true his statement was. The regulars that come into the café come for friendship. They come to talk to us, they come to talk to each other and many of them are, in one way or another, involved with one of the local colleges. Just last week I had the privilege of making the perfect latte for the dean of my college. As I tamped the espresso, I told her about what I was working on with my thesis paper. The grinder caused me to raise my voice as I proclaimed “The modernist expats were really on to something…” and as I pour her skim milk over the crema of that perfect shot she had enough time to give me her feedback on my paper. These interactions, my causal run-ins with literacy, wouldn’t be possible if Northern Light didn’t exist or if I decided to do something better with my time than sit at a coffee shop.
My point, much like Freeburg’s point, is that these atmosphere’s invite the intellectual conversation that may otherwise not exist. They create the casual environment where a barista can ask Freeburg what good there is in what he teaches or why he even bothers (25). While these questions might come off as rude in a more academic setting, they are perfectly acceptable at the coffee shop. Strangely, I ended Freeburg’s essay with a pit in my stomach. I enjoy my job as a barista and I’ve loved my life as an English major but I couldn’t help to know exactly what Freeburg meant when he said, “The bitter truth about Starbucks is obviously not the taste of black coffee. I do not want my students to continue to work at a coffee place when they graduate unless they want to” (30). In these lines, Freeburg sums up the anxiety of the English major. The fear of uselessness that was coupled with the heckling of unsupportive family members four years before graduation. The stigma that the English major is an unemployable consumer of novels and poetry, doomed to pour lattes for the rest of her life. While Freeburg doesn’t say this is the be all end of the English major, he does put pressure on the professors to make sure the English major understands how to apply all these fancy skills we learn.
Freeburg, Christopher. “Teaching Literature and the Bitter Truth about Starbucks.” Profession. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2012. 25-30. Print.