Alcohol and the Academy

Graduate Journal of Food Studies Examines Booze at University

The Graduate Journal of Food Studies (GJFS) is published digitally by the Graduate Association for Food Studies. Its 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 includes an article by Gretchen Sneegas, a doctoral candidate at University of Georgia. See it here“Dry Campus, My Ass: An Autoethnography of U.S. Academic Drinking Culture”.

Sneegas’ article is very useful, combining an academic approach with her personal testimony of U.S. grad school’s pervasive alcohol culture. Her style reminded me of the telegraphic yet impactful tone of Mass Observation, the social research project in Britain that studied phases of British life for a generation from about 1936.

Sneegas explains how social events at conferences or other off-campus academic or professional gatherings often involve drinking. Whether at meet-and-greet, the after-party of a conference dinner, or post-field trip klatch, alcohol makes an appearance.

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

She queries why this culture exists, it even penetrates campuses advertising a “dry” culture. She explains how stratagems are necessary to avoid alcohol such as brandishing faux hard drinks, or declining to attend some functions. She states:

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?

In a footnote she writes tartly of a culture studies semester in Freiburg, Germany:

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 alcohol customs seem to descend generationally: students see professors and administrators drinking at mixers and other events; they adopt similar practices for their own socializing; they continue them when joining the faculty, and on it goes.

Her point is not so much that alcohol causes dysfunction and social problems (although sometimes it does, similarly drug abuse), but to query why alcohol pervades this space at all. And it’s true: considered from first principles, why is drinking a factor at all on or around the student campus?

The Auld Alliance: Alcohol and Academy

Alcohol is a known stress alleviator of course, and Sneegas refers to this aspect. All those reading will remember the nervous tension brought on by school tests or exams. But in any case booze has old academic associations, going back not just to abstruse German student drinking customs of the 1800s (see our essay on this) but to English colleges* and their special ales or wine dinners. And ancient symposia in Greece underlined a perceived link between wine and wisdom. This ties into the larger role of alcohol in literature and among writers, a subject much studied in the last 30 years.

An early and one of the best consumer books on alcohol is George Saintsbury’s Notes on a Cellar-book (1920). Saintsbury was a noted critic and literary scholar who taught at Edinburgh. He made (albeit late in his career) an in-depth study of wine and other alcohol, its lore and palate. He is perhaps better remembered for that book than his conventional work, in fact. So the history of drink in and around campus has a lineage stretching continuously from ancient times.

Of course, too, the schools are just part of the larger society. What Sneegas describes about university life can easily be said of business and corporate life. And of much socializing at conferences and other events sponsored by governmental, sports, and political organizations. It’s an old factor in society, of which the academy is an example without a special mark of Cain, in other words.

Sneegas is still right to draw attention to the issue as impressionable youth are involved.

My own Experience With Alcohol at School

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 at McGill University with one exception, noted below. The drinking age in Quebec was 18 by 1970 and alcohol could be purchased in grocery stores or at taverns, but I don’t recall it being present at undergraduate social activities.

There was a bit of it at the fraternities, yes, I had friends there and recall some drinking, but nothing ostentatious. There was also beer or liquor flasks at football games, but it was not a student obsession as I recall it. We did some investigation of local taverns, for beer certainly but also to dine. These were occasional activities, often after exams or at term’s end.  I can’t recall any beer advertising on campus; quite frankly beer was known anyway as a student interest, for some, sometimes, it didn’t need the push of the local brewers!

By the time I got to law school in the early 1970s I noticed sherry appearing at some student-faculty gatherings. But not everyone took it, and there was always Coke or juices offered.

On a summer studies program at the University of Manitoba in 1974 I recalled seeing a bar at its Student Union, with some surprise. I used it too (why not!) but the swimming pool more. The rest of the time was in the library, or maybe 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 noticed a new bar at the Student Union. I recall my surprise and it brought back that bar in Winnipeg, so the idea had come to Montreal.

The Post-Graduate Student Society bar

In the early 1970s the Post-Graduate Students Society of McGill University had a bar at its McTavish Street headquarters. The building is pictured above from the McGill Archives: a handsome but compact 1930s limestone on a slope of Mount Royal.

We sometimes went there since law and medical students were ex-officio PGSS members. It was a once in a while thing for me, although I know I went more often in my last school year. One could invite guests as well, I recall my friend Charles, who attended another university nearby, sometimes came with me.

The PGSS bar seemed to fit the old academic association with wine, with a quiet and “refined” atmosphere, as I remember it. We used to meet other students there, from across Canada, in fact, with Ontario well-represented. The snooker table in the basement was an attraction as well, reputedly sent from England during the Second World War and never returned.

A Recent Canadian Study on Booze and the University

Canadian Anne Dowsett Johnston, in her excellent 2013 book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, shows how alcohol’s campus footprint widened in recent decades. She treats it as part of a higher profile for alcohol in general in modern, post-Prohibition society. She cites advertising as a prime example and argues, not unconvincingly, that the benign current image ramps up addiction and other drink-related illness.

Certainly the party atmosphere in undergraduate life today seems fairly intense by her description, and Sneegas’ focus on alcohol in the “department” is a useful counterpart.

Both studies are salutary and make us recognize the siren dangers of drinking and the need to take counter-steps where necessary. It’s not just a question of avoiding undue dependence, but rather not being co-opted into a culture peripheral to what the university really stands for.


*See 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.