Booze and the Young Academic
We are approaching the season when departments in all disciplines and all across the country will, in a spirit of camaraderie, gather to celebrate the conclusion of the fall semester and the upcoming holidays. I’ve written in the past about the importance of certain boundaries between students and faculty members, but the end of semester department party, common to so many departmental cultures, strikes me as an important mixing event, where grad students and faculty can socialize freely. Such events are often the only opportunity that professors and grad students have to convene en masse and aside from the formalities of campus.
While the days of tweed-clad faculty with crystal decanters of brandy in their offices may be a thing of the past (or always were only a Hollywood myth), after working hours, where there are academics, there too will be booze. Whether it is an end-of-semester party, an on-campus interview, or an academic conference, the situations wherein alcohol and academics are turned loose together are fraught with the potential for disaster. Everyone has a story about sloshed faculty members embarrassing themselves and the department, the job candidate whose extra drink at dinner led him to speak too freely and tanked his chances of landing the job, or of a band of grad students cavorting in the fountain outside the conference hotel. Drinking around colleagues, if one does not police oneself, can lead to all sorts of trouble. But it obviously doesn’t have to. Moderation, it should go without saying but bears saying anyway, is the key to imbibing the special cocktail that’s shaken up when departments and alcohol mix.
Of course, there's another pressure in these semi-professional, semi-social situations where alcohol is present. What if you're not a drinker, or simply not comfortable drinking in that moment, around colleagues, or just not in the mood for a drink? The pressure to drink in social gatherings with fellow academics can be intense. If you don’t wish to drink, offer a polite refusal, but stick to your position. You may not want to be fully forthright in your excuse. For example, a pregnancy is, I’m told, a pretty good reason not to drink, but you may not want to announce your pregnancy to the department at the holiday party by refusing the flaming Sambuca shot offered to you by the department’s well-known old wino. In such cases a gracious and polite excuse, any reasonable excuse, should do.
Fast approaching also is the season, in many disciplines, of the on-campus interview. On-campus interviews are an especially vexed moment when it comes to drinking with professionals who are not-just-yet your colleagues. Consider the entirety of the situation: you mail out stacks of letters and CVs to dozens of schools, after which a hiring committee winnows down its own stack. And you are one of the lucky few to get an interview. The interview comes and goes. After enduring violent heart palpitations every time that the phone rings for a week after that interview, you receive a call, the call informing you that you are indeed one of the finalists who will be invited to campus. You're thrilled. You schedule the visit, polish up your job talk and perhaps your teaching demonstration, and finally you jet off on someone else's nickel to a campus that you have probably never visited before. You navigate all the typical airport bullshit with unusual aplomb.
And you arrive. A faculty member you've never met before picks you up at the airport. Because faculty in all disciplines are generally socially awkward folk (author included), and because you are anxious beyond proportion, this intimate car ride, without distractions, is a perplexingly intense and uncomfortable little affair, even though your host is perfectly pleasant and amiable. Your day has only begun. For eight or ten hours you're led around campus, and introduced to a bewildering number of administrators and professors and students. If you're lucky, your job talk isn't scheduled until the next day, so that you have a chance to get the nerves out and to adjust to your surroundings. The end of the first day of the visit arrives, and two or three faculty members take you out to dinner. The waiter glides up to your table, pen and pad in hand, and asks for your drink order. And who wouldn't want, nay need, a drink, perhaps as badly as they've ever wanted one, in that particular moment, so very near to the end of the hiring process and all of its trials, and after such an exhausting day?
So, what do you do? While you may never have ordered a boilermaker in your life, the temptation in this situation to order a shot and a beer and chug them together may suddenly be a strange and yet very real yearning. Something, anything, to take the edge off of the anxiety culminating in this final round of a competitive and intense application process. But of course you don't really order a boilermaker, nor even a lone beer or modest glass of red.
Instead, you wait. You avert your eyes from the waiter's and feign intense interest in the menu. You're scrutinizing those entrees, your eyes and ears dead to the world for a few important moments. Yours will not be the first drink order taken. Even if, out of politeness, one of your hosts invites you to order first, you stall, "Oh, thank you, but I'm not sure what I'm in the mood for just yet. Please, go ahead."
Scenario 1: Your host faculty order their drinks first -- a Diet Coke, and two unsweetened iced teas. Guess what? You're not getting that glass of tempranillo. Every moment of an on-campus visit is an interview. You can let your guard down later, back in the hotel room watching SportsCenter in your underwear, or whatever it is that other people do to unwind in strange, character-less hotel rooms. But don't be the only person at the table to order a drink. Of all times, this is not the time to express your confidence and individuality by ordering that local microbrew that you've heard so much about. Perhaps the faculty even invite you to order a beer if you'd like one. But do as they do, not as they say. If none of your host faculty order alcohol, you don't either. It's that simple.
Scenario 2: It's the end of that same long day, and your host faculty order their drinks first -- a local IPA, a glass of the house red, and an iced tea. This is a particularly happy situation. You can order a drink too if you like, but can also decline an alcoholic beverage quite easily if you prefer. If you do decide to drink, still foregoing the boilermaker, a good rule of thumb is to stay one drink behind your hosts, and to limit yourself to a max of two total drinks for the evening.
Conferences are without a doubt the most debauched of academic events. When I ask people in other disciplines about their fields' conferences, it is as if a sudden reversion takes places, and in fraternity-like manner they (virtually inevitably) tell me how hard-drinking and swell their discipline is. It makes a ton of sense, though, why so much drinking does take place at academic conferences. For most of us, conferences are our only opportunity to see old friends who have dispersed across the country. Conferences are arguably as much social events as they are intellectual ones. And in our country, socializing and drinking are virtually inseparable.
At conferences, whether you are a faculty member or a grad student, we also tend to meet our future colleagues. But of course we meet them without knowing that the boozehound draining glasses of free wine at the big textbook publisher’s reception will someday be our boss. The best advice I ever received about conferences was to assume that everyone I met might one day be a colleague in my department. Our disciplinary worlds tend to be pretty small, after all. And if you need and want to reconnect with your grad school cohort over many pitchers of beer, just as you did in grad school (or, if your grad cohort needs to escape from the professors for a while), the prudent thing to do is remove the group and its drinking to a bar away from the hotel, where privacy will be more likely and scrutiny less intense.
When I told a friend that I was writing a column on the topic of drinking among grad students and faculty he said, “Damn, I wouldn’t touch that one.” Then, after a moment, he said, "Just don’t escalate." I think that, in all of these situations, his is the safe and prudent and universal advice. Don’t escalate. Don’t drink more than those around you, and probably aim to drink a little less. And if I can be permitted the limp but sage advice of many undergraduate drinking awareness campaigns, know your limits. Among many other things, alcohol allows us to feel as if we are no longer being scrutinized. But in our world, for better or worse, your actions are always being observed and noted. Regardless of where and how you mix drink and work, know that stories of wild nights are both told and remembered.
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Assistant Professor, English (Pre-1900 American Literature, with specialization in African American literature)