Alcohol and the Academy

The Graduate Journal of Food Studies Examines Booze in College

The Graduate Journal of Food Studies (GJFS) is published digitally by the Graduate Association for Food Studies. The 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.

A recent issue of the Journal includes an article by Gretchen Sneegas, a doctoral candidate at University of Georgia. See 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 American grad school’s pervasive alcohol culture. Her telegraphic yet impactful style reminded me of Mass Observation, the social research project that studied phases of British life for 30 years from 1936.

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

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

She queries why this exists, which can even affect campuses advertising a “dry” culture. She explains that stratagems are sometimes necessary to avoid alcohol such as brandishing a faux hard drink, 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 wryly 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; and continue them when joining the faculty. So on it goes.

Her point is not so much that alcohol causes dysfunction and social problems, although sometimes it does, as with drug abuse, but to query why alcohol pervades the university at all.

It’s true, taken from first principles, why is drinking a factor at all in college life?

The Auld Alliance: Alcohol and Academy

Alcohol is a known stress alleviator of course, and Sneegas refers to this aspect. Surely most reading will remember the nervous tension brought on by tests or exams. But in any case, booze has old academic associations, going back not just to intricate German student drinking customs of the 1800s (see our notes on this) but to English colleges and their special ales or wine dinners.

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

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, the lore and palate. He is perhaps better remembered for that book than his conventional work.

So the history of drink in and around campus has a lineage stretching continuously back to ancient times.

Of course, too, colleges are just part of 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 my view. At the same time, Sneegas is right to draw attention to the issue for college 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 what I saw. There was no student bar at McGill with one exception, noted below. The drinking age in Quebec was 18 by 1970. Alcohol could be purchased in grocery stores or at taverns, but I don’t recall its presence at 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 a student obsession, no.

We did some investigation of local taverns, for beer certainly but also to eat. These were occasional sorties, often after exams or at term end.  I can’t recall beer advertising on campus; quite frankly beer was known anyway as a student interest for some. I don’t think it needed the push of the local brewers!

By the time I got to law school in the early 1970s I saw sherry offered at some student-faculty gatherings. But not everyone took it, and Cokes or juice was also offered.

On a summer studies program at the University of Manitoba in 1974 I recall a bar at the Student Union. This caused some surprise, initially. 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 that diner on Pembina Highway. (Oh to taste it again).

I remember re-visiting the lower part of the McGill campus in the later 1970s. It was then I first noticed a bar in the Student Union. I recall some surprise but remembered that bar in Winnipeg, and realized McGill adopted the idea finally.

The Post-Graduate Student Society

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

We sometimes went there since ex-officio membership was offered to law or med students. It was a once in a while thing, although I know I went more often during my last school year. One could invite guests as well, which I often did.

The PGSS bar seemed to reflect the old academic association with wine, with a quiet and “refined” atmosphere, as I recall it. We would 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 for safety from England during the Second World War but never returned.

A Recent Canadian Study on Booze and the University

The Canadian Anne Dowsett Johnston, in her excellent 2013 memoir Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, shows how the footprint of alcohol at university widened in the decades after my years at McGill.

Certainly the party atmosphere she paints as characteristic of undergrad life today seems fairly intense. Sneegas’ depiction of alcohol today in the “department” is a useful counterpart.

Johnston views the college alcohol issue quite properly as a facet of the larger preoccupation with alcohol in society. She focuses, too, on how booze advertising became more ubiquitous and sophisticated in recent decades, including viz. the academy.

Both studies are salutary. They help 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 of not being co-opted into a culture peripheral to what the university really stands for.