“It’s like a college class,” the website for the group Discourse BHAM says about its new and unusual lecture series. “But there’s drinking.”
Run by three Birmingham residents—two college professors and a publishing agency executive—the goal is to provide a forum where, as co-founder Lawrence Cappello puts it, “smart people talk about smart things.” Only in this case the forum is in a decidedly non-academic setting: a bar.
After attendees grab a brew, they listen as university professors and other experts cover a topic, say an anthropologist exploring the power of tattoo culture. That leads to a discussion session with the audience.
“Then everyone stays to talk and has a beer,” says Victoria Cappello, another co-founder of Discourse BHAM.
The series’ main home is Monday Night Brewing Co. in Birmingham’s Parkside District. The group also is eyeing other venues, starting with a March 30 event at Dave’s Pub in Five Points South. All tickets are $15.
The next session, on February 2, kicks off a series of discussions for Black History Month. Dr. Joyce-Zoe Farley, visiting assistant professor of public history and African American studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, will examine the 1967 riots in Detroit and the pivotal role the urban insurrection played in the national discussion about racism.
On February 16, Jonathan Wiesen, chair of the history department at UAB, will talk about how the Nazis in Germany used racial violence in the American South as a propaganda tool.
In the final Black History Month session, on February 28, artist Tony Bingham will explore the relationship among art, culture, history, and how they shape understanding of African-American heritage.
Future scheduled topics cover terrorism, queer culture in the South, and limits to First Amendment free-speech rights.
“It’s everything across the spectrum,” says Lawrence Cappello. “Just interesting speakers talking about interesting stuff.”
The Cappellos and Janek Wasserman hatched the concept during the pandemic. Over beers at Monday Night Brewing, they talked about how they could get people out from behind their computer and smartphone screens, and engage instead in face-to-face discourse.
“It’s so different when people are in a room and looking each other in the eye, as opposed to texting or posting,” says Lawrence Cappello. “We think too many conversations are happening behind screens.”
He and Wasserman, who both teach at the University of Alabama, say another appeal is that the series is an enticingly approachable and relatable way to educate.
The Discourse BHAM trio put a couple of programs together and were ready to approach potential host bars or breweries. Monday Night Brewing, where the idea was born, was immediately open to the idea.
The first event featured Margaret Peacock, an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies at Alabama whose expertise includes Russia and the history of propaganda.
“She came in and blew the doors off the place,” Cappello says. “The room was packed. Everyone was riveted. Afterwards everyone talked about how cool it was. So, we decided to keep it rolling.”
Despite relying mostly on word-of-mouth, Discourse BHAM’s events average 45-50 attendees.
Future topics could include Birmingham architecture, the history of the city’s neighborhoods, even a simple breakdown of the string theory in physics. As long as it’s interesting and stimulates discussion, the folks behind Discourse Birmingham want to find an expert to get the conversation started.
“Whatever brings a vital and energetic audience,” Wasserman says, “that’s what I want.”
February 16: Racial Violence in the American South (Monday Night Brewing)
March 16: What you should have learned about sex (Monday Night Brewing)
March 30: A Crash Course on the First Amendment (Dave’s Pub)
April 21: Terrorism: A Centuries-Long History (Monday Night Brewing)