Morning Brew and Bonding: The Unspoken Rituals of Swarthmore Faculty

This semester, I started a routine of studying early at the Science Center, settling in by 7:20 a.m. before my class began. Every morning, as I pored over my notes, a familiar scene would play out nearby: a trio of professors gathering on the couch, coffee mugs in hand. They were Professor of Chemistry Paul Rablen, Professor of Computer Science Rich Wicentowski, and Professor of Art Randal Exon. Occasionally, Professor Emeritus of Political Science Carol Nackenoff from Political Science would join them. As the weeks passed, our interactions grew from subtle nods to warm greetings.

Moved by curiosity and our growing familiarity, I decided to delve deeper and interview this engaging coffee group.

Howard Wang: When did you all meet each other?

Paul Rablen: “Well, it was ready here when I arrived 28 years ago. It was [Professor of Physics] John Boccio, [Professor of Physics] Frank Moscatelli and [Professor of Chemistry] Tom Stephenson, sometimes [Professor of Physics] Carl Grossman – and I was there. Before, it was in the old Kohlberg, [right] near the big lecture hall. There was a tiny [space with a] coffee machine. For $3 a month, you got one cup of coffee a day, or $5 for perhaps unlimited coffee. The machine belonged to the physics department. The administrative assistant kept it stocked. If you were the first in the morning, you made the coffee. When I arrived in the fall of 1995, one of the first things I asked was where to get coffee. Tom Stephenson, then the [chemistry department] chair, told me about the [physics] department’s coffee machine. He said the department had a coffee machine, and I could join their coffee group.”

Carol Nackenoff: “So that was that, [it] tended only to be scientists. Because I was [already a part of it]. I was here before that. Yeah, I didn’t know that there was a separate group that met in the old Parrish, right before Kohlberg, right? It was a faculty lounge.”

Randall Exon: “But that was mostly humanities professors and I think probably some [from political science]. I don’t remember. I just remember English professors kind of sitting around [in] what [that area] was called before this building [and] the space was built. There was no coffee bar here. It was no obvious place to get coffee.”

HW: Over these years, has Swarthmore changed at all? If so, in what ways?

RW: “The question is bigger than the coffee, but … once this building got built, I started seeing the students studying before 8:30 in the morning, I’m pretty impressed. But … when we were in Trotter, we would never see that.”

CN: “I would say that one thing that’s been nice [about this space] is [that] it’s used by more people. So, although there’s a small group of us who are more regular attendees, it’s frequent for faculty and staff from other departments to just see us, stop, and sit for five minutes before they carry on. And … on a day, I would say we [might] sometimes have twelve people. Yeah. And some of those people have retired or moved to other institutions. Oh yeah, that’s right. In the heyday, it was usually at least six to as many as twelve or thirteen [people]. [There was] at least [someone] from the dean’s office that came regularly, but he’s not here anymore. It shifts from year to year because schedules change. Some people go on leave, you know, so it fluctuates, and I’m now retired so I tend to come in once a week.”

RW: “We have a guy (Frank) that lives in New York. He [still] comes down occasionally. We just talked about him yesterday. He [would] sometimes come down just to return to the floor. This summer … we didn’t meet in person. He would join [us on Zoom]. And we had a guy who retired and moved to Atlanta. He’s not [traveling] from Atlanta, but he joined us during COVID.” 

RE: “He was there from the beginning, right?  Yes. I miss seeing him.”

RW: “We [met] him on my driveway, then in my backyard a couple of times. So during COVID, we met in outside places.”

PR: “Like when the airplane [passed] over in your backyard?” 

RW: “Yep.”

HW: What is the usual content of the conversation?

CN: “Seinfeld. Yeah, it can be, but we are talking about changes at the school [and] things.”

RW: “Getting each other’s point of view. I was just about to complain about something that had nothing to do with this. I thought [it] would be of general interest. Or we go on vacation. We tell each other where we went … [There’s] a faculty meeting coming up and we share each other’s thoughts … Yes, there might be [a] crazy email from somebody and you want to share with everybody about this crazy email or complain about students…” 

RE: “It’s good to talk about how the athletic teams are doing. Rich goes to a lot of games.”

CN: “We don’t really complain about students. We [just] make a point [to talk] in general about our classes.”

HW: Do you think this interdisciplinary morning coffee gathering, or the collaborative spirit it fosters, can benefit students, research, or perhaps just the general lifestyle?

RE: “Personally, it uplifts my mood.”

RW: “Absolutely. I believe the main advantage for students is that they get to see us as ordinary people when they encounter us in these sessions. Sometimes students might view faculty as unapproachable or distinct from everyone else. Being a part of this group and just spending time together in the mornings, students observe us and think, ‘Oh, they’re just like us.’ It fosters a sense of community.” 

PR: “Our discussions might not always revolve around teaching methodologies per se, we often discuss administrative strategies, efficient task management, and even tools like Gradescope, which I learned about here. I’ve also received suggestions on technical issues and tools or ways to best accommodate students with documented disabilities. It’s been enlightening.”

The morning’s conversation illuminated the unique bond shared among these faculty members. Through their daily gatherings, they’ve woven a tapestry of camaraderie, support, and shared experiences that extends beyond the walls of Swarthmore. Their tradition, rooted in simple morning coffee chats, stands as a testament to the enduring value of community and connection.

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