History With a Beer Chaser

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

December 10, 2012

Not far from the campus of Cornell University sits a slightly shabby watering hole redolent of popcorn, old wood, and, on winter nights when it's all closed up, stale beer. The walls of the Chapter House are adorned with the visual flotsam of a college town: photos of bygone athletic events, old composite photos of fraternities, scarves of European soccer teams, and graffiti carved into the tables and scrawled on the walls.

Occasionally the Chapter House plays host to a group of historian friends—a beloved little community whose advice about writing and life has sustained its members for more than a decade. With our sheaves of papers and pens sharing the table with pint glasses and popcorn bowls, this group is both an oddity and perfectly in keeping with the eclectic atmosphere of the place.

After all these years, it might seem that any stated reason for our get-togethers is a pretext for drinking beer and unburdening ourselves of accumulated psychic detritus. In fact the gathering began as, and remains, a writing group.

Having ranged in size from four to six members, the Chapter House writing group—aka Beer 'n' History—has helped midwife 10 books and nearly a score of articles and book chapters, a powerful testament that we have succeeded in our purpose. As publishing has become an ever more significant part of the reward system in academe, Beer 'n' History has been indispensable to all of us, both for encouraging our scholarly productivity and for celebrating the craft of writing.

But above all we value our gatherings for the way they embody what too often seems to be missing from academe: trust, honesty, and the absence of hierarchy.

The group represents the ethos of scholastic fellowship that drew us to the academy in the first place. More powerful than a list of the published titles of works vetted through our writing group are the words of gratitude found in the acknowledgment sections of our books:

  • "It is not an overstatement for me to say that without this group I would not have been able to write this book."
  • "To the gang of Beer 'n' History: you are that rarest of all things, a true intellectual and creative community."
  • "And then there's Beer and History. If not for this group of Ithaca's rowdiest historians, I might never have spent an evening outside my home or office this past year."
  • "Finally, I owe a hearty thanks to the Chapter House Beer and History Workshop in Ithaca ... for teaching me many lessons about historical scholarship, intellectual comradeship, and the venerable tradition of buying rounds."

It is difficult to overstate the benefits of having the focused attention of a table of fellow historians in an environment made for bonhomie. The discussions of our work are heated and humorous (often at the same time), always with a serious sense of purpose, and increasingly animated as the noise level of the bar and the blood-alcohol level rises.

The critiques can be strongly worded, and I suspect that an outside observer could readily identify a scholastic alpha-dog growl from time to time. We are friends first and academics second, but the critical knives first sharpened in graduate school are the tools of our trade. We know, however, that everyone at the table is engaging fully and honestly with arguments and ideas. The sense of trust is palpable; we know there are no ulterior motives at work. That has always been the overarching appeal of sharing writing in this group.

And levity is always near the surface, even during the most heated discussions. We have running jokes about a member of the group whose losing effort to master the grammar of possessives should land him in a 12-step program. We have laughed in disbelief at a campus job-interview story more bizarre than anything Richard Russo or Robertson Davies could conjure. And none of us will forget the warm spring evening when someone leaned in a window from the sidewalk and asked for his own copy of the offprint of one of our recently published articles being distributed around the table.

We have often debated the value of peer review, a serious topic best tackled with a light heart. Some of our most therapeutic interventions as a group have been to deal with the often contradictory and, sadly, savage character of peer review.

Because the writing process can be so arduous and the stacks of ungraded student papers so high, occasionally we gather to take a break and make our gathering a social outing. Yet even then we often find we cannot escape the discipline of history.

One memorable evening several years ago, we began discussing the most recent ranking of U.S. presidents. Most such lists have had a consistent top three for decades: Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Washington. When it became clear that the group's own vote was evenly split between Lincoln and FDR, we resolved to settle the debate in the most definitive and consequential way a barroom can offer: by playing pool, foosball, and darts.

Sadly for Mr. Lincoln, the FDR partisans excelled at leisure sports.

For all of the intellectual stimulation and social bonding that has occurred over the years, we have always wondered how much of our cohesion can be attributed to our homogeneity. With only two exceptions, the 11 members of our group have been politically liberal males working primarily in cultural and intellectual history. That probably means we share intellectual blind spots. In academe, no less than in society writ large, there is a tendency to gravitate to one's own tribe, even if the drift is often unconscious. That dynamic probably accounts, in part, for the composition of our group, especially given its social-club character.

But there are also practical reasons. For the first several years of its existence, the group was more diverse as a consequence of the less static nature of its members' lives—everyone was a postdoc, pre-tenure, on the job market, or a trailing spouse of a graduate student. Life in academe at that stage is often transient. And when the dust had settled, there were six of us more or less permanently ensconced in Ithaca.

Stability has its virtues. For some of us, however, the urgency (and time) to write and publish has diminished as we have entered middle age and middle career. Most of the writing projects that had such high professional stakes are long since finished. What with family commitments, additional service duties, and career shifts, new projects have developed more slowly. We gather much less frequently now, and the occasions when we actually vet someone's new writing are even more infrequent.

Yet the value of gathering every once in a while remains clear to us all. The camaraderie and trust forged around those tables have not only enriched our lives as academics but also led to collaborations on home renovations and soccer fields, to an annual intergenerational family football game the day after Thanksgiving each year, to canoe trips to the Adirondacks.

So Beer 'n' History will endure. And who knows, maybe one day we'll put together a composite image of all the work we've done at the Chapter House to hang proudly on its scarred walls.

Michael B. Smith teaches history at Ithaca College. Without the help and inspiration of Derek Chang, Jeff Cowie, Joel Dinnerstein, Finis Dunaway, Adriane Lentz-Smith, Caroline Merithew, Aaron Sachs, Jason Sokol, Michael Trotti, and Rob Vanderlan, this essay would never have been written.