Not progressing in a logical fashion.

29 Jun

First of all, I found this:

This is pure genius, especially from the point of view of studying coffee waste. I am not concentrating specifically on packaging, but even so, the idea of this fits in so nicely. Not only is it ‘green’ in that it’s infinitely reusable, you don’t look too odd carrying it about town (as I would if, for instance, I wandered round carrying my huge purple “I love Shoes” ceramic mug.) It is also very tempting to wander into Starbucks/Nero/Costa with that, casually ordering the baristas to ‘just fill it up’ and enjoying your coffee brand-free; you wouldn’t provide them the service of free advertising. Even better!

Another nice thing which deserves a mention on here: yesterday morning a small box was delivered to my door through the post, all the way from Texas. This turned out to be 1lb of hand-roasted Rwandan coffee beans, from Vincent at Addison Coffee Roasters. I ‘met ‘ him online on Barista Exchange, talked a lot about the merits of African coffee vs Latino (I’m a latino fan, should you not have guessed) and he jokingly, I assumed, offered to send me some he’d roasted himself, to try and convert me. He was not joking, and a posh looking bag of beans and very friendly note addressed to “Lady Townsend” appeared exactly as he said. The coffee is exceptionally good, quite ‘earthy’, fragrant and light-bodied. I think the coffee-term for that is ‘clean’. Grinding it up this morning filled my kitchen with heavenly scents of fresh coffee, and this cheered me up no end.

And I am in need of cheering up…

University is suddenly feeling like Hard Work, or rather, like actual work rather than my pet obsession. Last week I had the dreaded interview for my upgrade, like a mini viva. My upgrade document is basically a research proposal:exactly what I intend to do, why I want to do it, how I’m going to get the information I need, what I am going to do with that information, and then the even more irritatingly bureaucratic bits like timescale, costings, and even risk assessment forms. This took me a frustratingly long time to write and by the time I handed it in, I never wanted to see the bloody thing again. However, this was not the end of it. My upgrade panel then had a week to read it, and then ‘interview’ me about it, getting me to defend what I’d written. I can appreciate that given the time/money/resources at stake at university, they need to be sure that not only can the project be done, but also that it is worth doing. As it is, I now have to do corrections and resubmit the damn thing.

The interview was extremely intimidating; not because the three panel members were particularly scary, but because there was very little I could do to prepare for this, not knowing what I was going to be asked. They asked me a great deal about my methodology, which was fair enough. In hindsight, even I can see that my methodology was just not good enough, and far too vague. They wanted to know exactly how many interviews I intend to do, and who with etc. I had avoided being this specific simply because I don’t know who is going to be available to interview, and won’t do until I actually get to my field work sites and see who is there…. but that overly pragmatic point aside, this ‘correction’ is not unmanageable.

The other big issue was far more ego bruising, and right now, seems impossible to ‘correct’. They want me to spell out the ‘original academic contribution’ of this project, what does it add to knowledge about coffee/waste/quality, in other words, what is the point of studying this?

Good question.

I actually don’t know. I was completely unable to answer that in the interview. I waffled a little about wastage being a topical issue especially at the moment with so many environmental concerns and rising global food prices and speciality coffee being an industry which didn’t exist twenty years ago… but even at the time, I knew what I was saying was utter rubbish (if you’ll excuse the pun).

In truth, I don’t think this project actually has much in the way of practical applications. Even my mother complains about not being able to explain what her darling daughter actually does at uni, and her telling me that feels so supportive, ahem. Sure, it would be wonderful to discover a way of eradicating waste in the coffee industry entirely, sharing this new-found knowledge throughout the industry and making the whole global coffee trade more efficient as well as entirely ethical. But that is not going to happen as a result of my one little project. As for academic contributions, the only real ‘contribution’ is just that it adds to the already existing body of knowledge about waste and quality; and for that matter, about commodity chains and globalisation, and agro-food businesses or networks, and about coffee itself. This project has not been done before; there are academic works about all the different areas I’ve just mentioned, but to my knowledge, nothing has yet brought them all together.
So far, so convincing, perhaps, but that doesn’t actually answer the question of why that knowledge needs to be contributed in the first place. My only real justification is just that I personally find it extremely interesting. I would love that to be enough.

I don’t think I am alone in finding this interesting, however. Unfortunately the people who share my passions do not tend to be academics. Last week, Stephen Morrisey from Ireland won the World Barista Championships in Copenhagen. When interviewed afterwards, he said he only had one message for the ‘coffee community’:

Let’s just keep staying in touch… let’s talk and keep the community going,…establishing the connections between the coffee farmers, roasters and baristas, and let’s keep making better coffee…

Obviously this bloke has read this blog minutes before competing… ahem. It is these connections that hold the industry together, and also that I find most interesting. I really really hope that this idea is enough to satisfy the panel that the project is worth doing!

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Posted by on June 29, 2008 in Uncategorized


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