Reflecting on Alcohol and Academic Events (with some modest suggestions)

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Emma Pettit tackles a true “minefield”: the central role played by alcohol in socialization and professional networking at major academic conferences such as Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association. Her conclusion is that our current practices are unintentionally problematic. Organizing professional events around drinking can be uncomfortable or exclusionary for several groups, including the devout, those who can’t partake because of medical conditions that they don’t wish to disclose, and people in recovery from addiction. In spaces where drinking is the norm, they face a dilemma: either they hide the fact that they don’t drink or single themselves out—and the latter invites speculation. Are they an alcoholic? Pregnant? Conservative? For someone in graduate school or on the job market, these situations can be particularly difficult to negotiate. For a person in recovery (especially in early recovery), they are sometimes perilous.  

Pettit’s article builds on an important essay by Jeffrey Cohen. Among other issues, Cohen raises the little discussed question of the prevalence of alcoholism among academics. Later this year, Natalie Koch is organizing a ground breaking panel on alcohol and the academy. I won’t try to summarize her call for papers—it’s a manifesto and it’s brilliant. Please read it. She observes that “alcohol intersects with many of the pressing discussions currently unfolding in the United States surrounding diversity and inclusiveness, mental health, [and] sexual misconduct.” 

Taken together, these interventions suggest that we need a broader discussion about the place of alcohol in our professional life. I should head off a potential objection. Nobody is arguing that alcohol should be eliminated from academic spaces. These voices are simply asking us to reflect on alcohol-centred events as a default. If there was greater awareness that a significant population within the university is struggling with substance issues, then we might rethink framing socialization in terms of alcohol as well as the way it is often presented at academic gatherings.

From the perspective of my own recovery, I want to add a few things. First, the Chronicle articles, and particularly the online responses to them, discuss the question largely in terms of how individuals navigate spaces. This framing personalizes the question in a powerful manner. But it is important to emphasize that this is not simply a matter of accommodating a few people, but concerns the inclusion and/or well-being of groups within the university. In other words, it’s a matter of institutional access and equity. 1 in 12 Americans (that is, 21.5 million people) currently struggle with substance use disorder. While we obviously cannot extrapolate from these numbers to the prevalence of addiction in our profession, we also should not assume that we are immune.   

Two, I find spaces such as conference receptions particularly risky and difficult to negotiate—and I know that I am not alone. Social anxiety is common, although not universal, among alcoholics and the combined stress of interacting with strangers, professional scrutiny, and the presence of booze can be treacherous. 

Three, to understand what is potentially at stake for someone in recovery, it’s worth emphasizing just how dangerous a relapse can be. Some comments on Pettit’s article equate the matter of alcohol to sensitivity regarding dietary preferences. That’s a start. Food sends a powerful message about who we think should be participating in our community. But for someone in recovery, their (and possibly other people’s) safety is actually in question. A “slip” can relaunch the entire cycle of use, denial, and destruction. I will make this point more concrete since I know that some readers will dismiss the above as hyperbole. I have two friends who are in recovery from opioid addiction who abstain from drinking not because they are alcoholics, but because alcohol lowers their inhibitions regarding other drugs. For them, a relapse is immediately a life-or-death issue.      

After reading Pettit’s article, my partner—with great empathy and gentleness—asked me what my experience was like attending events where liquor takes centre stage. Of course, different alcoholics have different thresholds and our ability to cope with pressures changes as sobriety develops. For myself, I am often comfortable in settings where people are drinking: dinner parties, department events, and even (for a relatively short length of time) bars. I find watching movies where people drink or do drugs more triggering. But my ability to tolerate these settings changes day-to-day depending on who is there, how I am doing emotionally, and the level of stress involved in the situation. The key is that I arrive prepared. I am conscious of temptation. I carry a bottle of water to dissuade people from handing me a drink. If I am not doing well that day, I sometimes ask someone who knows that I am sober to come with me. Somedays, I still have to skip these contexts altogether. If I am aware that the presence of alcohol is making me uncomfortable, I am still in the safe zone. I can move to a different part of the room, call someone for support, or leave. I worry far more about situations where I am not on guard. I can’t count the number of times when I swore in advance that I wouldn’t drink, let my guard down, and found myself downing glasses of mediocre hock at a dinner or reception before I had to escape to avoid utter embarrassment.      

Here is an incomplete list of suggestions for departments, student groups, and individuals. 

1. Don’t advertise events as alcohol centred and consider using language that indicates that events will be friendly for drinkers and non-drinkers. 

2. Don’t place alcohol in the centre of the room, but locate it in such a way that non-drinkers can avoid physical proximity if they feel that it is necessary.

3. Locate alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks in separate places. If serving drinks from a bar, consider having alcoholic and non-alcoholic bars. 

4. Don’t drink alcohol at dinners following job talks and interviews—it places the candidate on the spot and forces them to identify whether they are drinking or not. 

5. Reconsider ordering bottles of wine for the table at work-related dinners. 

6. Don’t offer to get other people drinks. 

7. If you are not sure of some one’s drinking preferences, invite them for coffee. 

8. Don’t hold events at campus bars—including “informal” socialization after talks or seminars. The location forces non-drinkers and others uncomfortable around alcohol to either exclude themselves or place themselves in a potentially vulnerable situation. 

9. Think some about the weekly event where you gather with a group of colleagues for sundowners. If it’s truly a social event among friends, obviously no one minds. But if it’s meant to be a space of community-building for members of your department, cohort, or subfield, you might be sending the wrong message.    

10. Finally, it’s worth reminding students and faculty before major department events that they are inclusive of people who don’t drink, so they should be mindful in their behaviour. 

Organizing and attending events, I broke each one of these recommendations during my career as an active alcoholic. In doing so, I created or participated in situations that were uncomfortable and potentially unsafe for some of my colleagues and students.

The above suggestions will seem too constrictive for some, and they won’t go far enough for others (although I suspect that the first group is larger). Here’s the rub. The need is not just to accommodate non-drinkers, but to shift norms so that consuming alcohol is not considered the default. Non-drinkers should not have to single themselves out and/or face exclusion.

One thought on “Reflecting on Alcohol and Academic Events (with some modest suggestions)

  1. I agree with so much of this! Being in recovery myself, so much of this is so true. Alcohol is the father of so many other addictions because it socially acceptable and legal. It helped me with my fears and shyness. I see that happening with so many young people.


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