Call for stories about academic drinking culture!

Do you know a prof who can’t hold his/her liquor and gets sloppy at departmental functions? Have you ever been pressured to drink, or drink more, by your colleagues? What role does alcohol play in your scholarly life (at conferences, for example)? Are you a rare non-drinker in a booze-soaked sea of questionable behavior — and are you ostracized for your choices? If you have drinking stories, about yourself or a colleague or an ex-colleague or just someone you met at a conference once, I want to know them and I want to know them NOW. Comment here, email, Tweet or professional-Facebook-page Facebook me.

Season’s Greetings, you drunk fucks!

(Oh, also, aside from this call for anecdotal “color” I am also doing some real research about alcohol (ab)use in academia; have found some good resources already, but would also appreciate moar links to papers, studies, stats, etc.)

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43 thoughts on “Call for stories about academic drinking culture!

  1. Champagne, white wine, red wine, port, brandy, liqueurs, and whisky– a terrifying binge that leaves some hapless undergrad in hospital? No, just what you were expected to imbibe as an undergrad at Oxford at a formal dinner with your professors while wearing a fucking tuxedo. Fortunately, I don’t seem to possess the alcoholic gene, but that was not the case for everyone in my year, some of whom really did not sober up at any stage for the next three years of their degree. Rest assured– when it comes to academic drunkenness Britannia still waives all the rules.

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    1. This is still the case at Cambridge–and I was doing it in high heels. I remember reading Louis McNeice’s autobiography for my PhD to find his stories of Oxford in the 1920s were terrifyingly similar.

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    2. The single most obnoxious prof I had in grad school taught every single seminar drunk. He brought a flask and partially filled coffee cup with him and kept topping off, becoming progressively more intoxicated as the seminar went on. One day he showed up his cup, but not his flask. He say down and looked really disoriented. After a moment, he stood up and said, “booze. We need booze” and left to get his flask. One time, during a Blake lecture, he was really sloshed. He was talking about Blake and sex and said, “Blake couldn’t fuck his wife.” Somehow this turned into him saying, quite a few times and at high volume, “I can’t fuck my wife.” During a paper conference (in which I was instructed to write a paper about how The Prelude looks like a dialectic but is a false representation of a dialectic), he made a pass at me (I’m not a Bond girl. I was merely there). In the process, he broke a coffee table and spilled the so-called coffee.

      Another prof would frequently take the class for drinks (read: to get drunk) after seminar. At various times, I saw him stand on a chair and sing with the music, perform Lacanian analysis of Bugs Bunny in an Elmer Fudd voice, and explain why it is actually ethical for vegetarians to have sex with animals. I cannot reconstruct that last one, I’m afraid.

      Another time I walked into the office of the DGS and found the man (another prof, not to be confused with the prof she was living with) she was secretly seeing (except, of course, everyone knew) sleeping off a hangover on her couch.

      After a particularly bad semester in which it was obvious that everyone in the class was going to give her horrible evaluations, on the last day the prof brought in pizza and beer before she left us to write them. We were all insulted by the patent bribery and the low quality beer. Therefore, we all ended our evals by noting that she didn’t even give us good beer.

      That’s just the profs, of course. As for the students, the above should explain why we drank (I still remember what time last call was at all relevant bars).

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    1. Just remember folks, don’t drink and derive.. Any drinking was either out of hours or you don’t go back to the lab (because there is no way the boss will let you drive a £500k mass spec when you are a bit squiffy). There isn’t so much a heavy drinking culture here (except at meetings) but the ‘brew your own’ is going strong.

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  2. At the same conference, different years and different profs:
    -after an after-the-gala-party, and after the subsequent bar, a professor tried to follow me and my roommates (3 women) back to our room. This after complaining about his family/hitting on us all evening (and having other professors gently steer him back to the conversation)
    -I attended a suite party where the host took off his pants and held court in his boxers. I don’t think he was all that drunk, either.

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  3. I enjoy drinking with friends and did my fair share in grad school and had plenty of good times to boot. What alarmed me wasn’t what grads were doing, which wasn’t all that different than other young people our age, but faculty members I knew in grad school and future colleagues who had drinking problems that everyone talked about but didn’t intervene in. I knew one prof who the students openly talked about to me in class, claiming she showed up to teach three sheets to the wind on a regular basis. It was an open secret, but absolutely nothing happened. Saw similar examples at two other institutions. There seems to be a culture in academia of not intervening when it comes to alcoholism. I think this is linked to the lack of action when professors have romantic/sexual entanglements with their students. There’s an expectation that professors are somehow above the petty concerns that others in society have to contend with.

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  4. Gosh, that’s a whole boozy realm of academia I never saw–because as pariah adjunct I never got invited to anything, social or administrative and rarely had contact with ladder faculty!! I had two full postdocs–one at a broke ass university where I only saw hummus and cookies at functions (evidently I wasn’t invited to the right occasions); during my second postdoc I also had minimal interaction with faculty but when I attended guest dinners I was always a little shocked by the lavish restaurant spending accounts (including wine).

    Anyhow, I’m fascinated by the topic….eager to read this in-the-works article!

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  5. Ugh, lunchtime drinks in the pub. I’d go once a fortnight ish and would have half a pint because I am a short lady, IF I wasn’t planning to do anything important or lab based that afternoon. My colleagues would have a pint or two usually but some days the mathematicians would stay out drinking, ahem, “working”, all afternoon. There was a bit of joshing “come on, have a pint! It won’t hurt!” but nothing serious that would actually push past my limits. Unpleasant to be put in the situation of having to vocally stick to my guns though.

    Nights out drinking were another matter entirely. There was one incident where the senior lab manager (a recovered? alcoholic) and several postdocs turned up to the second day of meetings at an end of grant symposium with drunk-overs, having had 2-3hrs sleep tops. There was faculty fallout from that and the PI (tenured prof) was running damage control for the next few weeks. Lunchtime pub sessions were banned and the new rule was, if you went for a lunchtime pint, you didn’t come back that day. It kind of worked? I left not long after (PhD write up in the UK) so I don’t know how permanent the changes were.

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  6. The worst alcoholism I’ve seen has been among grad students and junior faculty. It’s possible that many tenured faculty also over-drink, but are better at keeping this out of sight. It also matters less, in the latter case.

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      1. I just worry that since stories about alcoholic tenured chairs have more cache, this is the sort of thing RS’s eventual article will emphasize. Which would be a shame. Because I think the actual social problem is that grads, post-docs, adjuncts and in some cases junior faculty have a transient and isolated social existence in the town or city where the school is located. This is a recipe for real alcoholism. The tenured profs who use a colloquium dinner or job-talk dinner as an opportunity to down three bottles of bourbon is a funny social oddity, but not the sort of thing which destroys lives.

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      2. You are basically demanding that I write a different article than the one I’m writing. I’m writing one about alcohol culture in departments, which comes from the top down. I think that academic drinking culture is a big problem and that it is enabled and encouraged by those in power, and I’d like to concentrate on calling those in power out. Someday I may write the article you are suggesting here, but it’s a different subject matter altogether.

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  7. Second-hand story, but I think still indicative of the most pernicious aspect of academic drinking culture.

    Top professor in top program, at a department symposium gets into a intoxicated screaming match with the Dept chair over the dept credit card. He wanted to take a grad student (from a different Uni) out for further drinks after the already pretty boozy symposium cocktail hour to “discuss her project.” Due to his status as the departmental demi-god, several profs & grad students rallied around him and his desire to sexually harass a grad student (I know not everyone agrees with me that this was sexual harassment, since the student could have said no, but dammit, the power imbalance inherent in this set-up is just gross). When he was – essentially – cockblocked by department rules about said credit card, he flipped out, sulked & went home.

    Worst part? The story was told to me by an eye-witness as “ha ha, look at the crazy hijinks of academic life!”

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  8. A few decades ago, I went reluctantly to Friday happy-hour gatherings with a large clique in my department, in an ultimately failed attempt to be collegial. They drank a lot. I don’t drink and was on a tight budget because of not just student loans but other loans related to surgery during graduate school that wasn’t covered by my insurance. I nursed a single club soda. They had multiple drinks. A few months in, one of them came to have a talk with me basically about how much they all hated me. The first thing she brought up was how annoying it was that I wanted to just pay for my club soda and not split the bar tab equally. I was eventually forced out of my job. 25 years later, I’m a full professor who’s published 12 books. The woman who scolded me left academia some years ago and is now a “life coach” with an excruciating website.
    Another story. My major professor in graduate school told me about a beloved scholar in her social and professional circle had a horrible alcohol problem and often got really drunk at professional/social events. Because of this and similar problems with others, she switched to serving only box wine at the many events at her home, figuring correctly that it would keep drinking to a minimum.

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  9. On a similar note, about the same mathematicians, on a night out after a meeting of some sort. We’d finished partying in a club and there was a discussion about where to go next. The two senior maths guys were all for going to the local strip joint and were trying to persuade me and another student to come with. I went home because eeewww and feminism. The other lass went home herself.

    I heard later the gents did go to the strip joint and kept on drinking. One of the guys managed to lose £2,000 off his bank card, with, they said, no idea what he’d spent it on!

    So much awful!

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  10. Prolly you have read the Chronicle’s piece on alcohol on campus? All I could think while reading it was that American university campuses like UGa, UVA, UNC, etc. have police forces that basically revolve around refereeing drunk white students and making sure they don’t drive, (excessively) sexually assault one another, beat one another up, pee on the streets, choke on their own vomit, etc. etc. etc. Imagine a random black 18 – 22 year old man doing anywhere in public any of what hundreds of white college students do any given weekend night in college towns and what would happen to him if he encountered a police officer. I was kind of having a rage stroke reading that article — especially the bit where the UGeorgia parents’ association was insisting that the police were being excessively strict with their little darlings, going so far as arresting them and putting them in jail overnight sometimes!, and then the police force *voluntarily* added body cameras and started showing parents footage.

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  11. Nothing out of the ordinary here: Senior Prof takes his humanities grad students for end-of-semester drinks at his local watering hole (where he has his own booth). At 2 p.m. the pints start, by 4 p.m. most of the lightweights have gone home. Around 6 p.m. his wife stops by, only to be told that he has a “department function” that evening and so won’t be there for dinner. By about 9 p.m. one tenacious grad student’s mark has gone up from a B- to a solid A (the B- would be strange, I know, in a humanities grad class – if it weren’t a language subject with an actual exam). I think she stuck it out until around about 10 p.m. Eight hours of drinking for an A.

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  12. On a campus visit while pregnant I was repeatedly offered alcohol (and of course, trying to hide the pregnancy, had to get more and more creative in turning it down. And frankly their behavior would have been a problem even if I wasn’t pregnant). Alcohol at every dinner, with huh? looks when I declined. After a long day that started at 8 am, including campus tour, job talk, teaching demo, meetings (all the typical stuff, with first term pregnancy exhaustion on top of a day walking around in heels), they planned a casual drinks at the department chair’s house after the dinner. All I wanted to do was go back to the hotel and go to bed. Again I was offered alcohol repeatedly, and after refusing 4 or 5 times was asked point blank (by the chair) if I drank. I laughed it off but what I really wanted to say was none of your fucking business. They spent the rest of the evening comparing and tasting whiskey while I nursed a cup of tea and tried to be awake, friendly, and engaging (because its all about “fit,” right?) I did not get the job (and frankly was not that upset as this was a place I did not want to live) and I always wonder if it was because I didn’t seem to fit the department “culture.”

    (Also I tried to post this before, but wouldn’t work. Apologies if it is a double post.)

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  13. It’s particularly fun for diabetics, since alcohol is a carb that has to be factored into a daily dietary plan. So, the invitation to drink on a campus visit, for me, is pretty treacherous. Do I decide not to drink, explain that I’m (pre)diabetic, and give them that information to consider? Do I not say that I’m diabetic, assume there will be alcohol offered later, plan my meal accordingly (salad, etc), and then frantically eat pretzels if the alcohol doesn’t materialize? (Or do I try to get a job in a field that doesn’t mandate 36-hour, four-meal interviews?)

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    1. It is SERIOUSLY none of their fucking business, amirite? The thing that really upsets me is that all of this alcohol shit is, like you said, present at JOB INTERVIEWS. How is this acceptable?

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  14. Always found the best thing was not whether the profs drank, but when they did, what was said 🙂 One senior criminal justice academic, after moving on to the spirits from the empty wine bottles, proceeded to tell us about his experiments with illicit drugs. Another talked about his former PhD and postdoc fellow who had a penchant for married men (long, leggy blonde, who he ‘looked after’ very well indeed). Three profs giggled about the fact they stole (expensive crystal) wine glasses from exclusive restaurants while on university funded vacations – oops, sorry – conferences (apparently they have cupboards full of the stuff). But in terms of power and setting the culture-scene, it’s the Friday afternoon drinks session, on campus, with almost no public transport, and most of them drinking and driving…. oh, they’re teaching criminal justice too, by the way.

    But I’m just wondering, for most grads this seems to be a phase they go through before moving on from university. So, is it a sustained trajectory for academics who really just never grow up and out of this phase?

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  15. Drinking was always a huge part of the culture where I attended graduate school. Wine and cheese after talks, wine during seminar (depending on the faculty member), wine after seminar, wine when we got home from the bar after seminar….Looking back, it’s actually amazing any work was accomplished at all. If you didn’t imbibe, you were a bit of a misfit (to say the least) at holiday or end-of-the-semester parties. We drank with our advisors and didn’t think much of it but of course what we didn’t realize is this could be potentially professionally and personally disastrous. On the other had, what if refusing is also? I have heard more than one woman on the job market say she was afraid to turn down alcohol lest the search committee assume her to be pregnant. Why are we drinking while interviewing?! In what other context do we conduct an interview and then take the candidate to dinner and pressure him or her to drink? I think that says a lot about the culture of academia….

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  16. I don’t understand the conflation of graduate student boozing anecdotes with faculty ones. The former are basically drinking legally for the first time in their lives (they were mostly underage in college). Grad students drink because 20somethings drink.

    If faculty booze on their on time, who cares. That’s between them, their families, and their livers. If they’re showing up to work drunk that’s an issue. If there really is cultural pressure from faculty (not one asshole on the faculty, but generally) for job candidates or grad students to drink, that’s a problem. I don’t think the ordering of a bottle of wine at the job interview dinner is really a problem. Social drinking is currently acceptable behavior. I’ve probably been to 35 job interview dinners in my life. I never saw anyone have more than 2 glasses of wine, and only that much if the dinner lasted a long time. No post-dinner debauchery, just delivering the candidate back to their hotel early.

    None of this is a defense of actual alcohol-related bad behavior, which of course can and does exist, but honestly in my experience at several institutions, faculty are pretty much relative teetotalers, at least in professional and semi-professional outings. Who knows what they do otherwise. I don’t remember anyone trying to get a job candidate drunk, and if anything, rightly or wrongly, getting drunk would have been held against a job candidate.

    Haven’t seen a lot of liquid lunches, because believe it or not people have to get some work done.

    Alcoholism and alcoholics exist, but that’s a genuine mental health disease and while at some point people need to take responsibility and fix their lives, alcoholics aren’t simply people who drink too much. They have a real problem.

    Some people grab late night cocktails at conferences because free conference travel is one of the dwindling perks of the profession. But that’s like one conference per year? People don’t have big research/travel budgets. So, yah, they have a bit of fun at their trade show. so what?

    Anyway, I know you’ll dismiss this as invalidating experiences, as you did on twitter, as if your dataless anecdotes trump everybody else’s dataless anecdotes, but the idea that alcohol fuels the academy is just hilariously wrong. Are there bad actors, including bad drunks? Of course. Does booze dominate academic culture? Of course not. Asserting so really makes you look kind of ridiculous. It isn’t as if most institutions even have a faculty club, let alone any bar anywhere near campus where they feel comfortable imbibing. Because that’s where students go. Generally people run out of that holiday party as fast as they can.

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    1. I didn’t say alcohol “fueled” the academy and I am not dismissing your experience. My point on Twitter was that everyone who has reacted angrily to me is someone who drinks, and so when they assume the non-drinkers in their midst don’t have a problem with them, they often do so because those non-drinkers have not been comfortable enough to be forthcoming about their feelings because they feel cowed by the culture (I know that has been the case for me). The point of my article was not that academics drink more than other professionals (I have no idea about this, since there was nary a statistic to be found), nor that all academics drink too much or are alcoholics–my point was that there is a faculty drinking culture, too, and nobody ever talks about it.

      Oh, and grad students are often (if not usually) in their late 20s and early 30s. The worst actors where I went to grad school, including my ex-boyfriend, whose disease made him abusive, were in their 30s.

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      1. I also think it worth noting that this person is commenting under a male name. I sometimes feel afraid around drunk people (legit drunk, not just happily tipsy) in a way that I suspect most men do not.

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      2. Yep. Yep yep yep yep. Simply because of the heteronormativity of much of the established academy, most of these dudes have never — and will never — be on the wrong side of someone’s “fun.” What also struck me as fascinating is that NO sober academics disagreed with me (that I know of) about the culture. It’s all people who drink, resenting the fact that I’ve called them out on behavior that might not be appropriate. Rather than take the opportunity to look in the mirror I’ve placed in front of them, they continue to blame me for holding up that mirror at all.

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    2. …and it’s not “fun” when a colleague gets handsy with you, or can’t drive and you’re stranded, or says a bunch of offensive stuff they’ll forget about. I am 100% OK with being thought of as a wet blanket because I’m out of academia, I’m about to have a baby (who will create wet blankets of a totally different sort), and I have a great book deal for a project that has nothing to do with any of this shit (but does contain a lot of my own drinking stories from my youth, when I drank a LOT).

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  17. The successful businesses in my college town consist primarily of places where students drink and places where faculty drink. One of the few places where the twain meet: our creative writing program.

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  18. I’m a full-time faculty (male) with several years (7 full time, 3 part-time) experience at both Canadian and American universities. I’m not a heavy drinker at all but have been learned to be careful (voluntarily) in the presence of students. (It was was forced upon me at one US college I worked at for 5 years that didn’t even allow students to drink at all, even off campus, and forbade faculty to drink when students were present, including off campus — that’s another story).

    At the top Canadian university where I was an undergrad (& grad student for my Master’s) and where I later taught as a Visiting Professor one year, drinking was definitely part of the culture, including in student-faculty interactions. The campus itself had several pubs and a main club where the department would host once-a-semester “smokers” (yes, they still called them this even 9 years ago where this incident I’m about to describe took place).

    As a visiting instructor (during my ABD years), my students all encouraged me to attend the fall smoker. It was quickly evident that a) the male professors would be mingling a little too closely with the female students and b) some female students were definitely taking advantage of this situation for themselves.

    One of my top female students (in a 4th year undergraduate course), who later went to a top UK school then completed a law degree and is now a lawyer with a major NYC firm, hit on me after drinking (not sure how much she’d been drinking but it was only 1-2 hours into the evening). The students would congregate around the tables (the bar was barely lit inside) with a prof or two at each table. We were engaged in a heavy conversation about global politics (my speciality) when I felt my leg being repeatedly brushed under the table. After a while, I excused myself to go to the washroom. When I came out, said student was there and told me she lived a few blocks away, would I be interested? I told her it would be inappropriate and headed back to the table. After more conversation, the same female repeated her advances under the table. I could tell I was compromising myself (I was enjoying the attention and not doing enough to turn myself — and her — off) so decided to leave. As I leaving the exit door, she ran after me and repeated her offer. I told her I was flattered but repeated again that it would be a big mistake. (For many reasons I didn’t need to tell her, including the fact that I was married, albeit unhappily at that point — again another story but also because I knew it would be an enormous violation that could cost my career dearly).

    The incident ended there. Except that 2 weeks later, at the end of the term, I held an off-campus end-of-term drinks-on-me celebration (this was common for profs to do for their small upper-year classes). Somehow I ended up giving her a ride to this event and during it she profoundly apologizing, strongly inferring the alcohol “made her do it.” (Ironically, and proudly for me, we ended up in a good relationship position, becoming FaceBook friends and maintaining contact as her legal career is now taking off).

    I suspect the power imbalance had as much to do with this incident as the alcohol. At the end of the next term teaching, I saw this again (no alcohol involved this time) when another female student hit on me in my office. I’ll spare you the details but it confirmed to me that a) power is a dangerous thing on campus, and b) when combined with alcohol, can lead to both students and faculty getting into great difficulties.

    Notwithstanding all the above, I do enjoy interacting socially with students, but not as much as I did when I was a younger grad student and a young(er) faculty member. Partly it’s an age thing (I’m now 20-25 years older than most of my students). But partly it’s a recognition of the dangerous waters that alcohol provides for both faculty and students. At my present institution, there are several stories of inappropriate faculty-student interactions at local pubs but the vast majority of newer faculty (I just started at my new position, at Associate Professor level) are clearly much more conscious of both the power dynamics and the nature of alcohol to push things in a negative way.

    My sense is that while there are still stories of alcohol and abuse of power still happening, the former may not be playing as much a role as it might have only a decade ago.

    I have other thoughts (& experiences) to share but will leave it for now.

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