Alcohol and the Academy

A Salutary Article in the Graduate Journal of Food Studies

The other day I came across via Twitter an academic journal called Graduate Journal of Food Studies (GJFS), published digitally by the Graduate Association for Food Studies.

The latter’s website states:

The Graduate Association for Food Studies (GAFS) is the official graduate student caucus of the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS). GAFS is an interdisciplinary academic community founded in the spring of 2014 with the goals of connecting graduate students interested in food and promoting their exceptional work. The Association publishes the digital Graduate Journal of Food Studies and hosts the Future of Food Studies conference for graduate students to present, discuss, and network. Our first Conference took place in 2015 at Harvard University.

The most recent issue of the Journal, its sixth, includes an article by Gretchen Sneegas, a doctoral candidate at University of Georgia. You can read it here, entitled: “Dry Campus, My Ass: An Autoethnography of U.S. Academic Drinking Culture”.

(I perused a number of the other articles as well, you can find them here. The range covered is impressive, and while all articles are referenced and peer-reviewed they have interest for a broader audience than the professional-academic).

Sneegas’ article is very good, combining an academic approach with a compelling personal story, her testimony of U.S. grad school’s pervasive alcohol culture. Her style reminded me of the lapidary yet impactful tone of Mass Observation, the social research project that operated for about 30 years in Britain from the late 1930s.

In brief, she explains how social events tied to conferences and other off-campus professional activity often involve drinking in some way. Whether at a meet-and-greet, after-party of a conference dinner (or after after-party), or post-field trip gathering, alcohol of some kind makes an appearance.

The implied pressure to participate is omnipresent. She notes that women, often smaller than the average male, may handle the same amount of alcohol differently, with different implications therefore for them.

In effect she queries, and very properly, why this culture exists, one that seems to appear whack-a-mole style, even at campuses that advertise a dry culture that is.

She explains how stratagems are necessary such as brandishing drinks that look like alcohol but aren’t, or simply by declining to attend some parties and functions. She states at the end of her article:

We are all pressured in ways both subtle and flagrant into accepting, and reproducing, an occupational culture of alcohol use (and abuse) that is indirect, elusive, nearly invisible. Invisible, that is, to those who partake. We drinkers are the ruling class, imposing our values and expectations and worldviews so that they become the cultural norm. Our careers and campuses are steeped within an ideology of alcohol.

To non-drinkers, those for whom the spaces of departmental happy hours and conference after parties are not designed, these unwritten rules and guidelines are far from invisible. They spring sharply into focus. They are explicit. They say, incredulously: You’re not getting a drink?

Earlier in a footnote she writes amusingly of a culture-studies semester spent in Freiburg, stating:

I am hard pressed to describe precisely what kind of culture one experiences as an American student dancing to the sound of a Mexican mariachi band while pounding Irish Car Bombs at an English-style pub in a 900-year-old German city.

Sneegas writes that today’s alcohol customs at university seem to descend generationally: students see professors and administrators at mixers and other events where alcohol is used; they in turn adopt similar practices for their own socializing; they continue them when they accede to such positions later. And on it goes.

(Speaking of Germany, it may be noted German students were infamous for a fantastical attachment to beer and its customs. An American journalistic testimony from 1895, relatively mild in the context of the known literature, can be read here. Sample phrase: “studying is the last thing he does”).

Her point is not so much that such use causes disfunction and particular social problems (although it surely does in some cases, as drug abuse does), but why alcohol pervades this space at all. And it’s true: looked at ab initio, why is drinking, or very much of it, a factor at all on or around campus?

Alcohol is a known stress alleviator, that of course is one reason, and she refers to this aspect. But also, booze has old academic associations, it goes back not just to strange German student customs of the 1800s but to English colleges* and their special ales or wine dinners. Indeed the ancient symposia in Greece underlined a (perceived) link between wine and wisdom.

One of the best consumer books on alcohol is George Saintsbury’s Notes on a Cellar-book (1920). He was a noted literary critic and scholar who taught at Edinburgh, and took an in-depth interest in wine and other alcohol, both lore and palate. Indeed he is better remembered for that book than his conventional oeuvre.

Of course too, the university is a sub-set of society in general. What Sneegas describes about a segment of university life can easily be said of business life. And no doubt too of socializing at conferences and other events held by governmental, sports, and political organizations.

The impact of alcohol is a societal datum, of which university life is one illustration, highlighted in her article.

The world-historical impact of alcohol is probably millennia-old, and where necessary was sub rosa or substituted by equivalent practices, drug use in particular.

Sneegas is right to draw attention to alcohol-and-the-university as it is not something to be viewed as inevitable, to be taken for granted, just as in the broader society.

To be sure alcohol has had more or less impact on academe over time, depending on the period, region, and prevalent mores.

When I first attended university, in the late-1960s in Montreal, alcohol was peripheral to student life, at least from my vantage point. There was no student bar on campus with one exception noted below. The drinking age was 18 by about 1970 and alcohol could be purchased in grocery stores or at taverns, but I don’t recall it being present at undergrad club or other social activities.

There was a bit of it at the Greek organizations, yes, I had friends in some of these and recall some drinking, but nothing ostentatious. There was some beer or flasks at football games, but again not fetishistic at least by my recollection.

By the time I got to law school in the early 1970s, I noticed that sherry appeared at some student-faculty events. But not everyone took it, and there was always Coke or juice to carry in one’s hand.

On a summer studies program at the University of Manitoba in 1974 I recalled seeing a bar at the Student Union, with considerable surprise. I used the bar too (why not!) but I used the swimming pool more. The rest of the time was mostly in the library, or sampling strawberry pie at a diner on Pembina Highway.

I remember re-visiting the lower part of the McGill campus in the later 1970s and noticing a bar had sprouted at the Student Union. I remember my surprise on seeing that and it brought back the bar in Winnipeg, that we were finally doing the same in Montreal.

In the early 1970s at least, the McGill Post-Graduate Students Society had a bar for its use at its McTavish Street headquarters (pictured above from the McGill Archives), a handsome 1930s limestone building on a slope of Mount Royal.

We sometimes went there since law and med students were ex-officio members. But it was considered something apart from normal school socializing, it was just a once-in-a-while thing – although I know I went more often in my last school year.

The PGSS bar was in tune with the academic inclination to wine as both stimulant and relaxer and subject worthy of study unto itself. After all, the scientific, cultural, social, toxicological and other history of drink can be absorbing, as this blog attests, I hope!

The Canadian Anne Dowsett Johnston, in her excellent book from 2013, Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, points out how alcohol’s footprint in the university widened in subsequent decades. She notes it as part of a greater visibility for alcohol in modern society (especially in advertising), something that surely ramps up addiction and other drink-related illness.

At any rate the party atmosphere in undergrad seems fairly intense today, and Sneegas describes well how an alcohol culture operates in the further sub-culture of the “department”.

Her article is salutary as she points out the need to think about this, not accept it unthinkingly, and where necessary take appropriate counter-measures. It’s not just a question of avoiding undue dependence, it’s a question of not being co-opted into a culture at best peripheral to what the university is for: at least that’s my conclusion from her article.

These lessons apply equally to all spheres of human life.


*See e.g., this article on the history of the Oxbridge audit ale by John A.R. Compton-Davey, from issue #128 of the U.K.-based journal Brewery History.



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