Drinking and Debauchery in the Liberal Arts

Undergraduates aren't the only ones on campus who drink a lot. Shari Wilson explores the reasons.

October 19, 2005

The end-of-the-year departmental party was held at a lovely private club near the ocean just a few miles away from campus. The din was great; colleagues laughed and talked. I finally escaped the noisy room and stumbled outside. There were a group of colleagues -- the grammar queen was there, standing in the grass along with six other professors. A man on the hiring committee, a friend who ran a poetry contest every year, two men who both advised students on majors, a  woman who taught developmental writing so well that students followed her from course to course, and a colleague who was best friends with our department chair.

I said, "Hey" to my poetry contest colleague; he turned. He was holding a joint. After taking a quick hit, he motioned to me. I shook my head and leaned back. The grammar expert grabbed for the uneven cigarette, took a hit and passed it to the next English instructor. As I stood there in a swirl of sweet-smelling smoke, someone shoved a half-empty bottle of Chardonnay in my hand. "Bottoms up, bottoms up, bottoms up!" they chanted in unison. Shamed, I passed it to the next colleague. I stepped back out of the circle, lurched back into the rented hallway and made my way to the women's bathroom. Confused, I locked myself into the stall farthest from the sinks and waited. Ten minutes later, and a bit more composed, I escaped to my car.

As an undergraduate, I had no idea that professors partied. As a grad student, I was too busy shuttling from job to campus to notice some of my professors slinking off to a dark bar six blocks from campus. Now that I work in the business, I've started to notice that there is a distinct difference between the professor who does a little wine tasting on the weekends and the ones who can't seem to control their use of drugs or alcohol -- regardless of the effect on their work, their relationships, even their self-respect.

I sometimes get a shaky feeling in my stomach when I hear the stories: My colleague at lunch who confessed to me that she downs three or four drinks quickly, in succession, each night. My office-mate who told me that a glass of wine makes grading papers easier. My department chair who keeps a bottle of Jim Beam in his desk. A friend in administration who is fighting a charge of driving under the influence. A colleague who holds his office hours in a cafe so he can sip an imported beer. And just when I think I'm overreacting, I remember a departmental secretary who brazenly told me that she locked her three-year-old in the bedroom as she and her husband smoked dope every night. Unable to fire her for incompetence on the job, the community college where I worked chose to rewrite her job description so that she could not be rehired for her own position.

Why the overindulgence? I've had the chance to talk to colleagues at over a dozen campuses -- a lucky side effect of being off the tenure-track -- and several compelling factors crop up again and again:

Camaraderie: Bonding over a pint is big. As a form of relaxation, it's more affordable than golf and more quick than a long hike in the woods. In fact, the drinking tradition in academe is as entrenched as it is in advertising -- it's just the most accepted lubricant to sharing intellectual ideas (and avoiding that big stack of grading). Unfortunately for some it comes with a big price tag. In 1992, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse found that the American economy loses $80.9 billion a year because of drug-related problems; of that, $66.7 billion is directly attributed to alcohol abuse.

Heavy workload: Most professors are overextended. Many perform research and teach; some have to work overloads or summers to make ends meet. The result? A feeling of entitlement -- and a desire to "cut loose." End-of-the-year parties and informal get-togethers can be triggers, as well as post-committee meetings at restaurants that host $1.50 drinks. It's fun, but when fun runs into work, everyone suffers. According to a 1998 study by JSI Research & Training, 60 percent of alcohol-related work performance problems are attributed to employees who occasionally drink too much during a lunch hour or on a work night.

Expectations: Professors are just people. But in the community, they may be looked at as some sort of "intellectual example" that many non-academics don't relate to. Although this kind of elevated status may be welcome at first, over time many professors complain that they feel isolated and set apart. As a copywriter in advertising, I found it easy to strike up conversations with strangers or acquaintances. "You're kidding? Do you do commercials? Hey, you know that Taco Bell commercial with that little dog? I love that commercial." Today when I identify myself as an English composition instructor, the responses are consistently negative, as in "I hated English in school. It was my worst subject. Oh, I'm sure my English is just awful." Conversation over. Like me, some professors will crawl home to the work of Hesse or Joyce; others will go further and avoid contact with non-academics altogether. Yet isolation is not good for those with a propensity for drink or drugs.

Work hours: To the new Ph.D., being able to set your own hours and name your office times sounds delicious. In time, however, many professors find that they have odd blocks of time which are not optimum for grading or seeing students. For adjuncts and full-time contract instructors, many teaching jobs also demand night or weekend teaching -- which may leave an instructor exhausted and resentful. Feeling left out of family events and often unable to see friends with regular nine-to-five jobs, professors may find themselves taking comfort in a married friend, a bottle of schnapps or a joint. In a 1992 study, the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse connected increased rates of alcoholism with jobs that had little supervision and high mobility -- a spot-on description of faculty positions.

Creativity myth: The Liberal Arts is awash with writers and artists. And everyone knows that drinking goes as well with the old Remington (or new iMAC) as it does with the pottery wheel. A colleague of mine lost a contract due to drinking and had to have his chapbook of poetry self-published. Although it contained some striking examples of his work, colleagues wondered what he could have accomplished if he hadn't been relying on bourbon and fighting with his (now) ex-wife. About a year ago, a colleague of mine, a recognized literary scholar and drinker, killed himself. When the person he loved would not return his affection, he drank some hard liquor, wrote a note, went into his basement, and shot himself. Stunned, students and colleagues attended an on-campus memorial and read his works aloud. Awed by the beauty, we cried, knowing that he would not be greeting us in the hallways, teaching rows of students, or attending poetry slams.

Simpletons will, of course, simply say that the solution is to "just say no" to drinking or using illicit drugs. I believe that the answer is far more complex than that. There are no campus police to gently take the pint and paper cup from our hands. There are no 20-question cards that will guarantee someone in trouble will seek  
diagnosis and treatment. There are no handbooks that will compel a professor to "do the right thing" when to do so would leave him or her completely alone without companionship.

There are, however, some interesting stories cropping up in media that suggests that those in power are concerned. In Britain, reports of grade school teachers overindulging lead many to also conclude that higher education is affected as well. In the United States, we have enough high school and college instructors drinking to excess to encourage a move to make employee assistance programs available to every educator. In fact, in 2004, the University of Michigan developed a self-screening instrument to assist not only students, but also staff and faculty members, in diagnosing drinking problems.

And some believe that assistance by mental health experts will help. Studies have found that efforts by employers to sponsor help for employees result in fewer sick days, more productive days on the job, and fewer accidents. In a 2004 membership survey, Alcoholics Anonymous reported that 3 percent of its members are educators. Through intervention, official reprimands from higher-ups, or self-diagnosis, some have received help for their out-of-control drinking or drug use.

In general, attitudes may be changing. I went to a barbeque with colleagues on Sunday. No beer or wine was served -- just soft drinks and mineral water. When I asked about the hostess about her "no bar" bar, the Humanities instructor simply said, "Well, the kids are around." Her boyfriend, an Instructional Tech-head, nodded in agreement. Two adjunct instructors tossed a foam football around and someone turned on a television to watch a game. I could hear a  neighbor's lawnmower buzzing in the distance and realized that I  
didn't miss the nonsense one bit. There was something simple about  enjoying a grilled burger with three kinds of potato chips, knowing that I would remember it the next day.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track. 


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