009: Brian Cowan, 36

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor of History, (2004 – present)
Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Early Modern British History, McGill University.
Area of Research: British early modernity with a special interest in the social history of ideas.
Education: Ph.D., Princeton University, 2000
Major Publications: The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse; , (Yale University Press, 2005).
Cowan is currently working on a book on the media politics surrounding the 1710 trial of Brian Cowan JPG Doctor Henry Sacheverell and he is collaborating with Prof. David A. Boruchoff on a study of the long term history of the commonplace notion that the ‘three greatest inventions of modern times’ were the compass, gunpowder and the printing press.
Awards:Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Early Modern British History (2005-2010 and renewable).
Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) infrastructure support supplemental grant (2005); Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Standard Research Grant, (2005-2008).
Post-doctoral research fellowship from the UK Leverhulme Foundation (1999-2000) and a Jacob K. Javits graduate studies fellowship from the United States Department of Education (1993-1997).
Additional Info: Previously taught at Yale University, USA (2001-2004) and the University of Sussex, UK (2000-2001).

Personal Anecdote

Academics, especially those with positions at research intensive institutions, often complain or (much less often) brag about their teaching ‘load’. The goal, if one is to believe this talk, is to be burdened with as little teaching as possible so as to maximize the time one needs to keep up with research and publications. While one could always use a little more time to devote to reading, thinking and writing, I haven’t found that my teaching responsibilities at any of the three universities at which I have worked have impeded my research. To the contrary, teaching has broadened my research horizons, it has forced me to explain my arguments, my hypotheses and my knowledge to a number of intelligent but non-specialized minds on a regular basis, and it has even shaped new research agendas.

My first university post was at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. Teaching at many English universities remains wedded to a time-honoured tutorial or seminar model and most of my responsibilities at Sussex were along these lines. I taught an interdisciplinary seminar on ‘literature and politics’ and conducted M.A. tutorials in seventeenth-century British history. Teaching this interdisciplinary seminar helped me expand my thinking beyond the manuscripts, books, and newspapers I was familiar with and forced me to take plays and poems seriously as sources for understanding the early modern past. In my M.A. tutorials, I plowed through scores of important works in seventeenth-century British history with my students. Talking about these works with my students helped me come to terms with the conflicting perspectives on the period by various historians and this in turn prompted me to write a long historiographical review essay on the topic for the Sussex-based journal History of European Ideas.

I left Brighton, and the nice Georgian flat on Marine Parade overlooking the English Channel that I was living in there, in the summer of 2001 to take up an appointment as an Assistant Professor at Yale University. While Yale uses the lecture format rather more intensively than English universities, it remains committed to offering small seminars as well and it was in courses such as these that I was able to study early modern ideas of art connoisseurship and the political uses of early modern media along with immensely talented undergraduate and graduate students. Some of the ideas prompted by these seminar discussions found their way into articles I later published in journals such as Modern Intellectual History, the Historical Journal and Eighteenth-Century Studies. Although I didn’t teach tutorials per se at Yale, I had plenty of opportunities for individual interactions with my students. In the summer of 2003 I supervised a talented undergraduate who had won a Yale College Dean’s Fund research fellowship. His work that summer convinced me of the historical interest and value of a manuscript held at the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Our work together on making sense of this manuscript source posed so many interesting questions that I came to realize that an entirely new research project could evolve from it. And I was right. The book I am currently researching on the political uses of early eighteenth-century media forms such as print, manuscript, rumour, clothing, and riot was the direct product of many a summertime coffeehouse conversation with my supervisee.

I moved from New Haven, and the nice set of college rooms overlooking Sterling Memorial Library and Maya Lin’s Women’s Table, to Montreal in the summer of 2004 to teach at McGill University. My students at McGill continue to help me refine my thinking about my research. I have worked with student research assistants, both graduate and undergraduate, on projects such as copy-editing and indexing my manuscripts as they are prepared for publication or source searching in the electronic databases that are increasingly offering a whole new world of easy access to primary source material. McGill’s History Department is honourably committed to offering year-long intensive honours research seminars which introduce students to the nuts and bolts of original historical research and courses such as this offer me an opportunity to watch new historical knowledge being produced on the spot.

The Canadian university research funding system has also afforded new opportunities for blending research and teaching. Grants from national funding agencies such as Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) allow for student research assistants to accompany their professor on research trips to archives and to present their work at scholarly conferences. Support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) allows for the development of ‘laboratories’ for humanities research in which professors and students may collaborate. I am already watching how fruitful this can be for both professors and their students in my participation in the working groups affiliated with the current McGill-based ‘Major Collaborative Research Initiative’ (MCRI) on ‘ Making Publics: Media, Markets and Association in Early Modern Europe‘. I am currently working with David A. Boruchoff, a faculty colleague in Hispanic Studies, and graduate students from the departments of English and History in search of references to the ‘three greatest inventions of modern times’ – to wit, the printing press, the compass, and gunpowder – in texts and images from the renaissance to the present day. We have recently made our first public presentation on the topic and expect to co-author a related book in the near future.

Teaching for me has never been a ‘load’ or a burden, it has been an opportunity to learn both from and with my students. It has also been a cooperative venture, even (perhaps especially) in my one-on-one tutorials. Discussion and debate are at the heart of humanistic enquiry and I find that one of the most stimulating venues for this to be the classroom – and the coffeehouse, but that’s another story.

Quotes

By Brian Cowan

  • “As colorful as its history may be, the story of the introduction of coffee into the British Isles reveals much about the ways in which early modern economic, social and political relations were constituted. Coffee culture itself did not transform British society – this book has emphatically refused to argue for a ‘caffeine revolution’ that inaugurated a modern work ethic or a more recognizably democratic civil society – but understanding the remarkable ways in which British coffee culture did emerge helps us understand how even a pre-modern society could adopt innovative consumption habits and could invent new social institutions such as the coffeehouse. Hard as it is for us today to imagine a world without coffee, it was even harder for early modern Britons to imagine what a world with coffee would be like. It is a testament to their flexible imaginations that they succeeded in creating a coffee world of their own.” — Brian Cowan, in The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse.
  • About Brian Cowan

  • “Cowan’s work fits the bill in many ways. It is easily the most thorough account of the social history of the British coffeehouse ever written.” — Adrian Johns, University of Chicago
  • “Brian Cowan’s Social Life of Coffee is an engagingly written, lavishly illustrated, and meticulously researched book. It provides the most comprehensive account of the rise and accommodation of coffee and coffeehouse culture that is currently available. Cowan’s book will begin a number of important and intellectually fruitful debates about the rise and extent of virtuoso culture, about the nature and limits of the bourgeois public sphere, and about the gendered nature of social space in Early Modern England.” — Steven Pincus, Yale University
  • “Prof. Cowan is a wonderful addition to McGill’s hist. dept. He clearly puts a lot of prep into his lectures, and succeeds in making them very interesting. His outlines are very helpful. I’m sure that he has perked the interest of many first year students with his clear love of the subject.”… “This teacher was amazing!… B. Cowan is great.”…”This class is really great. Professor Cowan knows his stuff and is a good lecturer.” — Anonymous Students
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