Friday, May 06, 2016

Conviviality and Conferencing, Alcohol and Academia

by J J Cohen

[Read Karl! Peruse the Kzoo BABEL events!]

Yesterday I took part in a conversation on Twitter about alcohol and academia, with a special emphasis on ensuring access to community at conferences without making the price of entry spaces where all socializing is structured around alcohol consumption. You can read the Storify of the conversation here.

I want to emphasize from the start that I am not against alcohol at conferences or anywhere else -- those of you who are my friends know that I enjoy good beer, wine, cocktails. I sometimes even feature my favorites on social media. As a medievalist I know what gebeorscipe is. But just as Caedmon could not stay at the poetry party when the harp approached, it's worth thinking about who is excluded when we found our conviviality on drink. One of the reasons some of us started the Medieval Donut event at an annual conference in Kalamazoo last year was to ensure that not every moment of community was structured around drinking. If you are attending #Kzoo2016, I hope that you will join us around 8 PM in the Radisson Lobby for this year's version. I will bring many dozens from Sweetwater's Donut Mill (their donuts are superb, take my word for it). We encourage you to contribute your own favorites for comparison and community purposes -- and if you are vegan, abide by a gluten free diet, are kosher, diabetic or have any other dietary preferences or requirements, know that there are likely others in attendance who share the same restrictions and please feel free to bring along something to share.

I began thinking seriously about conferences, alcohol consumption and unintentional exclusion a few years ago, when I organized a GW MEMSI sponsored "Rogue Session" at a brewery (information on the session here; a reflection on what this para-conference happening might have achieved here). The session was wonderful -- so moving that I thought about never organizing anything again, because how could that be topped? Yet I also found myself haunted by an email I received after I announced the Rogue Session's location. The note pointed out that by setting the session in a brewery some people who would like to attend would not have access to its community (in this case, someone trying to maintain sobriety and unwilling to put themselves in jeopardy by entering a space structured around drinking). If you read through the Storify above, you will see how many potential members a community of drinkers quietly excludes: people who might abstain for religious reasons (Muslims and Mormons, to name just two groups); those with allergies and medical conditions; people who are pregnant; those who have successfully overcome a struggle with substance abuse and do not want to be placed where things have in the past gone wrong; those who know that spaces formed around drinking can be dangerous, especially to women (increasing the chances of assault and unwanted attention); those in a precarious academic position who know that unprofessional activities, questions, and remarks can sometimes be spurred by alcohol; those who simply do not want to drink. I am not saying that receptions and events should not include alcohol (though they should always include good alternatives to alcohol). But I do want to urge those who arrange such events to ensure that they are not the sole access provided to conference conviviality. And during such events, we all need to watch out for each other.

A second issue discussed in the Twitter conversation was the relative ease with which academics can become alcoholics: because of the immense pressures faced in degree attainment, getting a job if possible, keeping a job if possible (who does not work long hours? when was the last time you took a whole weekend off, including email?); because of the way alcohol consumption has been not only normalized but glamorized within the profession; and because of the relative isolation and lack of consistent oversight or accountability. It's easy to vanish and tempting to self-medicate. We all have experience with the friend, colleague, mentor, or professor who might be charismatic after a few drinks but toxic at five; the young academic or would-be academic who self-destructs as a result of substance dependency; or the academic who at some point turns to drinking and stops being an affirmative force within the field (from what I have seen, alcohol abuse leads to resentment and rage, not a desire to foster and sustain community, a disregard of shared futures). We also all have friends, colleagues, mentors who are now sober after struggling with the seemingly omnipresent lure of alcohol in academic life. Respect them by making access to community manifold. The problem of academic alcohol dependency is similar in many ways to an intimately related issue, the problem of sexual harassment in the field. If we convince ourselves that it is an issue mainly for an older generation within the profession, we fail to see how close to home it is actually unfolding, its present and ongoing destructiveness to career and community.

So I am headed to a conference in Kalamazoo next week. If you attend the conference and drop by Bell's Brewery, you may well see me there, because I love that place. But I will also arrive at the Radisson with at least four dozen donuts in the trunk of my rental car, because we all need to proliferate options for access. Some conviviality centered around devouring rings of cake seems to me at least a small start.


Bardiac said...

Oh, how I wish people in my department would think about this!

Tom Goodmann said...

Thanks for sharing these reflections, Jeffrey; I've often thought too about the prevalence of alcohol in academe, something I associated especially with an older generation, yet still a primary component in many forms of professional and amicable association. I can recall how shocked I was over the drunkenness in the dorms at ICMS/Kalamazoo when I first went--and those were years of an open bar at the Saturday night dance. Less of that now, I hope, and all that it enabled; moderato e legato, no? Here's to inclusiveness and conviviality--and to donuts.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate this. The school at which I teach has a very strict faculty alcohol policy. So long as it is any kind of event associated with School, then drinking by faculty is not allowed. This has ruffled feathers, and there are those who suggest the policy should be modified to take into consideration those Study Abroad leaders going to places where one should not drink anything but the beer. However, though it seems a remote possibility, it is not impossible to think that the appearance of pictures of a School faculty member enjoying a drink (or being around several who are) on social media could cause a problem.

Kristin said...

As a non-drinker who always feels out of place at these receptions, thank you. I'm getting into Kalamazoo late Wednesday - if I am in time for the donut reception I will definitely stop by!

Mary K. Ramsey said...

Thank you for this, Jeffrey. I have long been 'the one who doesn't drink' (or doesn't drink much), which has been fine with me because too much alcohol messes with my stomach, and I don't mind being the designated driver making sure friends get back to their homes/rooms safely.

Another part of the inclusion equation that we rarely discuss is how many of our underemployed colleagues and students can't afford to drink--and sometimes even to eat at a moderately upscale restaurant. I was reading an article earlier this evening about millennial poverty in India exacerbated by professional expectations; it awakened unpleasant memories of going to conference dinners, carefully ordering only what I could afford, then having some well meaning but obtuse soul at the table suggest splitting the check evenly around the table and me too embarrassed to say that I couldn't really afford to chip in for the appetizers and wine I hadn't ordered and therefore didn't share. That's not to say that many senior colleagues weren't kind and sensitive to such things, but too often we don't realize that even a TT job may not completely offset a lingering student loan or other financial encumbrance. Since moving into a better paying gig, I've tried to pay forward the kindnesses of those senior colleagues and quietly pick up a check here and there, especially for grad students, but I'd like to see us think more carefully about inclusivity in terms of costs. BABEL does wonders supporting students and untenured folks with travel funding and reduced registration at its own conference, but there are so many other places where finances exclude and for some there is a good bit of shame involved in laying bare one's poverty.

Sad to say I won't be in Kalamazoo in time for Medieval Donuts, but thank you for organizing alternative conviviality.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Mary you make a VERY important point. Many who attend conferences can barely afford to be there. Some of your colleagues and friends have been or are in a position where something as seemingly innocent as suggesting that a table should split a dinner and drinks bill evenly is going to place a regrettable financial burden on some seated there. I have even seen an at the table declaration that people with jobs are going to pay for all the graduate students badly backfire, because not everyone with a job has an adequate salary, conference support, and freedom from debt. Having been in a situation of not being able to pay a group-incurred bill, I can attest that it is really hard to speak up and saying something like "I might already be at my credit card limit" (when my card was rejected it seemed like a public declaration that I couldn't afford to eat).

I hesitated before publishing this whole blog post about alcohol and academia because it offers a counter-narrative to the celebratory ethos of the conference circuit ... but it also ended up being timely. THANK YOU to everyone who has taken part in the conversation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, and the Twitter and facebook conversations! I really appreciated the articulation with financial issues, as someone with a job but terrible funding etc., who feels like she's missing out on the social connections by declining dinner/drinks invitations. I'm posting anonymously because it's a little too close to home, but I just wanted to add another intersection: mental illness. Much of my discomfort with conference receptions has to do with a poor ability to navigate unstructured social gatherings (exacerbated by alcohol for sure). At almost every conference I attend, I find myself wishing that more people actually went to panels and engaged with each other there, rather than blowing off the sessions and promising to "catch up at the reception." My impression is that a lot of the work that should be done in sessions and in the Q&As is being done at happy hours, impromptu dinners, and so on. This tends to reinforce already-existing friendships and exclude newcomers, early-career people, the socially anxious, etc. As for the secondary conversation, also really important, about chronic alcohol abuse in academia: most of the behaviors mentioned, especially the disappearing and the failure to meet deadlines, can also be explained by depression, anxiety, Aspergers, etc. Not to say that these don't sometimes coexist with addiction. (Late-night angry e-mails are another story I think).

Thank you for this and the many other important conversations sustained here.

Sylvia (of course!) said...

When I first arrived at Indiana in 1992 for my MA/PhD program orientation, the meet and greet was called "the Sir Keg Party." Masculinist creepy farces ensued. Thank you for raising this issue.

Sylvia (of course!) said...
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