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Dry Campus, My Ass: An Autoethnography of U.S. Academic Drinking Culture

In this Food-Stuff essay, Gretchen Sneegas employs the tools of authoethnography to explore the various ways that alcohol is embedded within academic professionalization, producing both cultural norms and barriers to entry.

Published onNov 11, 2017
Dry Campus, My Ass: An Autoethnography of U.S. Academic Drinking Culture

I grow up watching my parents drink alcohol regularly but responsibly. A beer or glass of wine with dinner is normal. Sometimes they let me try a sip. I decide that beer is gross.

– – – – – –

As a college student, I virtuously abstain from alcohol for my first two years at Indiana University. Other students wear T-shirts that say “Dry Campus” on the front, “My Ass” on the back. My roommates use guitar cases to sneak beer into the dorms. Indiana University is declared “The Nation’s Top Party School” by whoever decides those kinds of things.[1]

My first time drinking away from my parents happens during an archaeology field school in Wyoming. The graduate students frequently buy beer to share with us. I recall how, during my Intro to Archaeology class the previous semester, the professor made us laugh when she said that a requirement for being an archaeologist is liking beer. After a long day in the sun mapping teepee rings, I discover that I enjoy Fat Tire. I am 19 years old.[2]

My junior year, I study abroad in Germany for a semester at Universität Freiburg. At age 20, I can legally drink in Europe. There are multiple outings during Orientation Week that take us to local Biergartens and bars.[3] I learn that drinking helps mask my anxiety by relaxing me and reducing what I had been told were my overly cautious, even prudish, inhibitions. I make up for lost time, and make many questionable decisions. Luckily, none have serious or lasting consequences.

I decide to take time off before going to grad school. I spend two years doing national service with the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps. It is at this point that I first read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and become an evangelist for local food.[4]

I spend two years working on organic farms in Virginia and Maryland. The farm in Virginia makes farm wine from their fruits, specializing in elderberry and elderflower wines. I learn about winemaking from the farmer. Over the year, I become fascinated by the history of wine, and the amount of expertise and knowledge involved in producing even a single bottle.[5] On my day off each week, I hike a new trail in the Shenandoah National Park, then find a different winery to sample.

– – – – – –

Iam thrilled to be accepted into the Food Studies Program at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. I begin to learn about alcohol—and food more broadly—as a rich and multifaceted artifact, a site where identities and cultures are (re)produced, embedded within complex systems of economic and social negotiation, knowledge, and power.

I present my first academic paper at a food studies conference. Several students in my cohort go out the night before, but I stay in the hotel to practice. The presentation goes extremely well, and I am introduced afterwards to the woman who will eventually become my PhD adviser.[6] That night I go out drinking with several students from the Boston Gastronomy program, many of whom will become my friends and colleagues.

We have many potlucks and other social events in the Food Studies program. Alcohol is nearly always on hand. On at least one occasion I say some very inebriated and embarrassing things in front of some program faculty and other students. I don’t remember the incident until someone reminds me about it weeks later. I continue to cringe when I recall it.

I go through a horrendous breakup. I drink quite a lot. Luckily most of our cohort’s social gatherings revolve around alcohol so this is easy to accomplish.[7]

I attend a food studies conference with other students from my program. Our cohort visits multiple breweries, and drinks are served at conference events. I count how many beers I have with a nifty phone app.[8] I drink thirteen beers over three and a half days. This is well over the amount recommended for adult women by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health.[9]

– – – – – –

Prior to starting my PhD, multiple faculty members and mentors give me advice, most of which boils down to: “Find a constructive way to deal with stress and anxiety.” However, few of them explain how to successfully accomplish this.

I begin a PhD in Geography at the University of Georgia. Our department has a weekly happy hour at a local bar, and my first semester I attend nearly every week. I notice that almost none of the international students come to happy hour, although they attend other department events like bowling or group hikes.

I go out almost every night with friends from the program, imbibing between one and three drinks each time. My gynecologist tells me it is not healthy to drink every day. I ignore him.[10]

I decide to jump down the online dating rabbit hole. Most of my first dates take place at bars. I have several singularly bad experiences, most of which probably would not have happened if we’d met over coffee instead.[11]

I go to my first conference as a PhD student. I deeply enjoy the subject matter and the small size of the conference—I feel like I am part of a tight-knit academic community that is doing creative and progressive research on important issues. The social side of the conference revolves around alcohol, with an after-party at a bar and then an after-after-party at someone’s house. I spend much of the night talking to someone with a beard and a flannel shirt about participatory mapping.[12] However, I don’t remember his name or even very much detail about what we discussed.

When a professor asks me later about the conference, I observe that most of the networking seemed to happen over drinks. He chuckles and says, “Yeah, sounds about right. You basically have to go to the bars—no one wants to talk at a panel.” I exit the conversation feeling vaguely as though I were told to play golf if I want to be successful in business.

I start seeing a therapist after experiencing two anxiety attacks over three days, resulting in over 72 hours of no sleep. She encourages me to cut back on alcohol. I am reluctant to give up an activity that helps me relax quickly and overcome my ever-present social anxiety. Plus, it is the linchpin of most of my social life.

At my first American Association of Geographers (AAG) meeting, I am overwhelmed by the sheer size of the conference, which that year has nearly 10,000 attendees. Events with free drink tickets abound, and different schools appear to be in an unacknowledged contest to have the most raucous and well-attended after party. I go to one and leave after five minutes, but not before seeing a scholar whose presentation I attended that morning spill his drink on the floor while dancing. It is too loud to have a conversation.

While teaching one morning, I experience an extremely intense anxiety episode, and lose consciousness in front of my students. I spend the day in the ER but rush to make it to my evening seminar, where it is my week to lead discussion.

At the next year’s AAG conference, I set up several meetings with various researchers whose work interests me. One of them has a late night and sleeps through our scheduled 8:30 a.m. time slot.

At that same conference, I am invited to an editorial board meeting for a small regional journal one evening. I order coffee. A professor sitting to my left asks incredulously, “You’re not getting a drink?”[13] I send a silent apology to everyone whose drinking habits I have similarly policed in the past.

The first night of a small specialty conference, there is a meet-and-greet with dinner and drinks open to all conference attendees. Towards the end of the evening, several students and professors decide to continue chatting at a nearby bar. I am asked if I want to join, but politely decline. I am tired and feel like I’m at my limit for drinking. As I watch the group walk out the door without me, I feel like I am somehow making a mistake, but it is hard to put my finger on the how or why.

The next night, I find myself attending the conference “after-after-party” at a student’s house, although I don’t really feel like going.[14] A renowned scholar in the field is in attendance. I overhear him say that he plans to party until his 6 a.m. flight back home. He is surrounded by a knot of graduate students who appear engaged in their own discussions, but are clearly waiting for an opening to talk to him. I leave after having half a beer and without talking to the Famous Academic, feeling like a networking failure.

I ask a visiting lecturer for her recommendations on networking at the upcoming AAG conference. To my surprise, she does not advocate asking scholars to meet for lunch or coffee. “Those conferences are a chance to catch up with your grad school friends,” she says. “It’s a big reunion.”[15] I wonder how many academics share her perspective.

By virtue of trial and error, I discover that more than one alcoholic drink tends to make it difficult for me to remember the details of conversations—such are the delights of being a petite woman. After having one drink to help me relax a bit, I start ordering tonic and lime, which outwardly appears to be a boozy beverage. My circumvention allows me to reap the benefits of the bar-based conference networking circuit while sidestepping its disadvantages. I reflect that the system, as it currently exists, privileges many men who can have more than one drink without feeling like they are losing the thread of the conversation, or worrying that they will say something embarrassing in front of a professional contact.

I wonder how many career academics who do not drink have developed similar work-arounds to facilitate their participation in a pervasive drinking culture which does not make room for their lifestyles, tastes, and backgrounds. I consider how my tonic and lime is itself an artifact of how I have been disciplined into a certain kind of academic citizen-subject: one who goes to bars and after parties to network while trying to remain “professional.” Whatever that means.[16]

– – – – – –

Iread about craft breweries and artisanal distilleries and alternative food and academic conferences as white cultural spaces.[17] I consider the academics who have come of age within an American undergraduate drinking culture, who have been socialized at tailgates and tasting rooms and now are comfortable moving in and through such landscapes. I contemplate my privilege as a white, upper middle-class scholar who, while not always completely at ease, is comfortable enough in these situations more often than not. I wonder how much more difficult this life would be for someone who feels awkward or uneasy trying to make small talk over a reclaimed barn wood bar, whether due to barriers of language, race, religion, a history of alcoholism, or something else entirely.

I recall a recent story from an independent Athens newspaper about dress codes and other seemingly arbitrary rules that effectively keep black students out of the many downtown bars and establishments catering to the undergraduate crowd.[18] My husband and I bring a visiting friend to Broad Street, the road dividing downtown Athens from the UGA campus, late one Friday night. There is a line out the door of a nearby “southern heritage” bar, which serves “Dixie Sweet Tea,” a southern send-up of the Long Island. A Confederate flag hangs prominently in the window.[19] Two black girls walking near us look around, then say under their breath, “It’s snowing.”

The three of us visit a donut shop and sit by the window to eat. We watch a line of undergraduates snake by on their way to an alcoholic slushy bar two doors down. The girls teeter in their heels, kept upright by the frat boys next to them. We see a girl fall. She cannot stand up on her own. A boy picks her up off the ground, laughing. They continue towards the bar.

– – – – – –

The persistence of alcohol consumption in U.S. scholarly institutions seems, from my perspective, to be an extension of our country’s pervasive undergraduate drinking culture. How does the translation from undergraduate to graduate to faculty within the American academic system work to preserve, distort, and (re)produce barriers to entry? Who are the gatekeepers to those coveted graduate assistantships and tenure track jobs, and how much do they drink?

I wonder how my professional development, my position as a fledgling academic, the possibilities and promises of my nascent career are shaped and constrained by the uneven terrains of power which extend throughout the university system. Is it easier to make those connections, to weave the invisible threads forming the weft and warp of academic social life, if one goes to the conference bars to clink glasses with scholars in attendance? Does the social lubrication of alcohol similarly grease the gears of academic professionalization? Is academia a meritocracy, or something else entirely?

– – – – – –

Let me be clear—I still drink alcohol. I enjoy having a glass of wine or a beer at home with dinner, at a department happy hour, wrapping up a conference panel with my colleagues. I am not trying to indict anyone who likes to drink.

And yet.

The degree to which alcohol is embedded within academic professionalization is a problem. We are all pressured in ways both subtle and flagrant into accepting, and reproducing, an occupational culture of alcohol use (and abuse) that is indirect, elusive, nearly invisible. Invisible, that is, to those who partake. We drinkers are the ruling class, imposing our values and expectations and worldviews so that they become the cultural norm. Our careers and campuses are steeped within an ideology of alcohol.

To non-drinkers, those for whom the spaces of departmental happy hours and conference after parties are not designed, these unwritten rules and guidelines are far from invisible. They spring sharply into focus. They are explicit. They say, incredulously: You’re not getting a drink?


Gretchen Sneegas is a PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Georgia. Her dissertation research analyzes the production of farmers as environmental subjects in the context of shale gas development, with land grant colleges forming a key institutional node facilitating the negotiation of knowledge, expertise, and power. Gretchen holds a dual B.A. in Germanic Studies and Theater and Drama from Indiana University, and an M.A. in Food Studies from Chatham University. Her work has been published in Agriculture and Human ValuesExtractive Industries and Society, and Graduate Journal of Food Studies.

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