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AU Scholars | Spring 2017 Research Courses

Tropical Vices: Beans, Bars and Brews

Course Time: T 11:20 AM to 2:10 PM 

Description: Religions have formed around them, raised them in ritual, and disparaged them as demons. Monarchs have craved them, fought wars over and with them, and been brought low by them. Gold is heavier, and silver shines more brightly. No jewels ever prized by pirates have been so ruddy or rude in their complexion, and they bear no facets or eyes. Indeed, they are at their best when left to bake in the sun, roasted, pulverized, and ground beneath wheels of commerce and steel. 

Beans. Specifically, the beans of two plants, originating from half a world away from each other, and each of which has invaded the other’s territory. The Cacao and Coffee plants – each producing a fruit at the core of which can be found a bean, or beans, that have captivated the world, sometimes together. The Cacao (or cocoa) originated in the Americas, was prized by the Incas, and formed a portion of the blood sacrifice rituals of the Aztecs. The drink made from its fermented beans was a deep red color – possibly also colored by red chilis – that closely resembled blood. The Coffee plant was, according to legend, discovered by a young shepherd in Ethiopia who was trying to understand some bizarre behavior from his goats after they ate the red berries of an innocuous looking shrub. Those red berries yielded beans that have been dried and roasted for hundreds of years now, and have given rise to cultures, traditions, and revolutions. 

The discovery, cultivation, and development of these two beans into some of the most robust international markets in the world will be the subject matter of this research course. Students will learn more about the history of both coffee and cacao through assigned texts, site visits, and individual research. The semester will culminate in the development of a final, written research project from each member of the class. Each project will be developed in consultation with the professor, and the presentation to the AU Scholars Research Symposium at the end of the term will highlight not only individual student projects, but the interrelations of these products from their growth and harvesting through the international trade system to the brew, bar, or combination, that we enjoy today. Students will be asked to look at concepts of labor, value creation, trade and exchange, as well as philosophies underlying free, fair and direct trade movements in both of these commodities. Any aspect of that trade or cultivation is acceptable as a topic for research, though no two research questions may be the same.