Brunsman was about to give a lecture at the Dupont Circle bar on the time in 1814 when the British burned Washington. There were, I noticed, no English beers on tap.
Profs and Pints is just what it sounds like: a college lecture in a bar, the groves of academia irrigated with a nice Pilsener, lager or nitro stout.
It’s the brainchild of Peter Schmidt, a D.C. journalist who worked for 21 years as a reporter and editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education. In August he was let go in a wave of layoffs. By October he had launched Profs and Pints, addressing two things that had increasingly bothered him during his years covering higher education.
As Schmidt explained before he introduced Brunsman: “One was that college has become so expensive that it’s inaccessible to a lot of people. Many people are studying not the subjects that they’re passionate about, but the subjects that will pay off their student loans.
“The other thing I’ve encountered is that not a lot of this money is going to the faculty members.”
The life of an untenured adjunct professor is especially grim.
“At the Chronicle we routinely wrote about adjuncts who were getting food stamps or public assistance or living out of their cars,” Schmidt told me. “This is no way for society to treat its scholars.”
The academics that Schmidt corrals for Profs and Pints deliver a fun lecture on a fun topic in a fun setting — and, like an indie band, get to keep a portion of the $10 admission fee ($12 at the door).
Schmidt told the crowd that the subjects of upcoming Profs and Pints lectures would include Prohibition (“Boo!” a few audience members shouted), the history of marijuana laws (“Yeah!”), and religion and existentialism (a smattering of polite applause).
“This is really the one-room schoolhouse of the 21st century,” Brunsman said when he took his place behind the microphone and fired up his PowerPoint.
Earlier, Schmidt had told me: “I tell my presenters that their talks need to be accessible to the general public and self-contained. Please don’t get up and assume that everybody has passed calculus.”
Schmidt said he counsels the profs to imagine they’re at a dinner party or sharing a beach house with friends and somebody has asked them what they’re passionate about.
“My presenters are teaching — I want the audience to learn from them — but they’re speaking to a crowd that is not worried about earning a grade,” Schmidt said.
And unlike in college, none of them are hung over — yet.
Brunsman is a student favorite at GWU. The crowd seemed to be full of people who had taken his classes there, along with attendees into their 60s. One guy sported a gray T-shirt that read, “History Buff: I’d find you more interesting if you were dead.”
Brunsman said that the War of 1812 is one of our forgotten wars. It’s arguable, he said, whether it was a war of necessity or a war of choice.
A discussion of how the Brits burned the Capitol and White House but spared the Patent Office — then housed in an old hotel — led to a slide of the later, purpose-built Patent Office. The crowd murmured in recognition when they learned that it today houses the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“The things you learn in bars on Sunday nights,” Brunsman said.
Schmidt says Profs and Pints events have been drawing from 50 to 150 attendees.
“My presenters are earning $300 to $1,100 to give a 90-minute talk,” Schmidt said. “Considering that some adjuncts might get $3,000 or $4,000 to teach a class two or three times a week — and grade papers — that’s a lot of money.”
Schmidt says he’s hoping he can spread the Profs and Pints model across the country.
As the lecture drew to a close, Brunsman said that if there’s any takeaway about the War of 1812, it’s that the United States and the United Kingdom tied. Canada won. And Native Americans lost.
And then Schmidt passed out the lyrics to the first verse of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” the English drinking song that provided the melody for our national anthem.
We were all a bit warbly at first, but we got it together for the last few lines.
“That was way better than I expected,” Brunsman said.