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An Arizona State University online history class has been encouraging students to unplug from their computers and go out and see the ways history has affected modern society. Rather than going into archives or museums though, this class wants students to observe and analyze drinking taverns.
“Taverns were, and are, more than just places people went to drink something,” said Stephen Lazer, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies history lecturer. “Examining this through the concepts of multiple coexisting categories of spaces makes it easier to comprehend the various ways early modern Europeans used the same literal space, and thus better understand the true significance of taverns to their lives.”
The online course is titled "Drinking Cultures of Early Modern Europe," and it studies the relationships between people, their cultures and their drinks as a crucial part of understanding people's day-to-day lives then and now.
“We rarely if ever question why we seek out alcoholic drinks for certain events and caffeinated ones for others because those connections are so ingrained in our broader culture,” Lazer said. “Humans have integrated deeply their use of drinks into their daily and life cycle rituals for millenia.”
At the end of the course, Lazer has his students go to what he calls “modern drinking establishments” such as coffee houses or bars to apply the lessons they have learned throughout the course. They have been taught the significance of coffee, tea and chocolate as well as how taverns were often an environment for revolutionary discussions among communities. The students go to explore the history of what they’ve been researching, just with an updated twist.
“The thing I liked most about the project was the way it connected the past and the present in a more immediate way than just reading books or journal articles do,” said Morgan Lunsford, an online senior who is pursuing dual bachelor’s degrees in history and philosophy. “This assignment and others in Dr. Lazer’s course have been interesting for showing alternate ways of engaging with history that aren’t all analyzing what other historians have written secondhand.”
Some students, like history major Nick Young, decided to do their research at their local tavern and bar to do their observations. He noticed how the tavern both promoted and dissuaded sociability due to the inclusion of televisions in the space.
“A lot of people frequent this place on Sundays to watch football; it just depends on the day and how people want to use the tavern,” Young said. “People will utilize spaces in establishments like these, from my observation, to whatever extent they feel the space can serve.”
Then there were other students who decided to use their local coffee shop to observe. Chesner Mallory, a senior majoring in history, is currently interning for a congressional office in Washington, D.C., and began to notice how these shops were used as networking sites for other professionals.
“I live and work in a fast-paced environment, where people love their high-end specialty coffees, and they require easy access to it,” Mallory said. “I thought that I understood the coffee culture well, but once I sat down in my favorite shop and observed from a new and purposeful perspective, I realized that there was a lot I had not noticed before. It is a solid mixture of both business and pleasure at any given time.”
After the students visited their modern drinking establishment, they wrote their observations down and submitted it to the rest of the class. They then used one another’s assignments to write their final paper.
“Essentially, they participate in the academic process in real time, relying on and benefiting from the scholarship of their peers,” Lazer said. “I think this is particularly useful for an online course where we may be thousands of miles from each other; the assignment, discussion and paper bring the class together in ways other assignments do not.”
Many of the students enjoyed interacting with their peers through the online course and getting to experience a similar culture despite being miles apart.
“It was really engaging to read about places I've never visited, but could get a really great feel for from the descriptions of my classmates,” said Jennifer Burke, a psychology major who is minoring in criminology and criminal justice. “Everyone seemed really into the discussion and to be able to use my peer's words and thoughts to create my own project was a novel way to write a paper, and one I enjoyed a lot.”
The class was full of students from different majors and from different backgrounds and with an assignment like this one, they were able to engage with the world around them and with one another.
“I would most definitely recommend this class to other students,” history major Kristyl Burkey said. “You will learn material that will stick with you and employ historical analysis and writing skills that will be useful in any field of study. Plus, think of all the fun conversation starters you will have to impress your friends with over your next coffee or beer.”
The course will be offered again in the fall as an online course.