How many academics does it take to buy a coffee maker?
I usually get very cross about this silly myth. In fact, I have a US bumper sticker on my office window which says (words to the effect of): “The trouble is that the people who ought to be running the country are too busy teaching school”. If nothing else it amuses the passing tourists.
But just occasionally, we (or, lets be honest, I) do seem to live up to the myth.
Take, for example, the idea that the hard-working Fellows of Newnham might have a coffee machine that would make good coffee 24 hours a day in their Senior Combination Room (that’s what we call our “Common Room”) -- replacing the thermos jugs that are now put out three times a day, and quickly lose their freshness, taste and heat.
This subversive idea was first mooted about three years ago. Specifically, some super-brain came up with the idea that we might have one of those Flavia machines, which makes you a very nice cup of coffee from a little foil sachet (as you see in the picture).
But there were closely-argued objections from two sides.
First there was the eco-lobby. Some of the fellows were far from happy with the environmental wastage caused by all those sachets. Then there were the taste police, who thought that this bulky modern machine was an inappropriate intrusion into our lovely, Victorian Combination Room.
I had some sympathy with both of these. I cannot imagine who could possibly have invented a coffee system that left such a large quantity of foil and plastic behind. Nor do I think that the machine matched our Combination Room very well, which is by far the prettiest in Cambridge. (I’m biased, but most of the others are in men’s club style, whereas ours is “ladylike” and is kitted out with lots of delicate “ladylike chairs – not made for bulky blokes, who tend to look a bit silly in them.)
But neither of these objections seemed to me to outweigh the need for 24 hour coffee on-line.
These arguments rumbled on for a couple of years (sic). But when I became the President of the SCR in March (an entirely honorific post, aimed exclusively at making the fellows’ lives better, sending them flowers when ill and improving books to their new-borns ), I decided to get some action, with the valiant help of the Catering Manager and the Domestic Bursar. The good news was that most people agreed that we could put the machine in an interconnecting room next to the SCR, which didn’t have the same aesthetic qualities. Even better, we had found a slightly different machine that did Fair Trade coffee.
A perfect compromise. And the new machine was duly installed in the cupboard in the interconnecting room, our consciences safe in the knowledge that we were helping the producers in the Third World.
Problem solved, until we tasted it,
It was indeed Fair Trade, but it was also instant coffee. At which point a different wing of the taste police came out of the woodwork: their perfectly reasonable point was that when they said they wanted “good” coffee, they didn’t mean instant.
So what do you do with a newly installed (expensive) coffee machine that makes coffee that no one wants to drink? Well the first answer was to find another group in the college who did and go back to the first idea of the environmentally unsound Flavia machine (the eco-warriors having admitted defeat).
The only trouble is that it is that the Flavia machine about an inch too big too fit into the space, which means that either we have to have the maintenance department alter the cupboard, or we have to swap our new machine with the Bursar’s older, and slightly narrower one. For he of course – one of those bulky blokes who look faintly silly in the little chairs – has had an environmentally unsound Flavia machine in his office for years.
An everyday story of academic folk.
(Before everyone writes in to complain about what a waste of public money we are, etc etc … let me assure you that this is only what we do in our “spare time”.)