Hung Over Again

February 23, 2004

I'm tired.

Not an unusual feeling for Monday morning, particularly since I'm writing this on the Monday after the Super Bowl.

But this is a whole new kind of tired.

I just taught class hung over, the latest of countless episodes. I was scared to death that the students coming up to ask questions after class would catch part of the reek of alcohol that I'm sure still exudes from me. I can still taste the beer.

I say this is a whole new kind of tired not because of the physical effects of my hangover. Believe me, that's not new at all. What's new is that I'm tired of this kind of tired. I'm tired of being fuzzy for the first half of each day. I'm tired of feeling like hell and looking out at a class full of students, wondering how I'll be able to pull off a lecture. I'm tired of a routine of drinking that I no longer enjoy, but feel compelled to do anyway. And I'm tired of throwing away my career a pint at a time.

At this point, you're probably thinking that this essay is another self-indulgent litany bred by our current culture of confession. And that's fine. Maybe it is. But there's a point to what I'm saying that bears directly upon the world of academe.

How many of us have seen the older professor who everyone knew was a drunk, but no one talked about it because of either civility, his inherent entertainment value, or both? How many college or university receptions have we been to where a faculty member or administrator was loaded -- again -- and it was just regarded as par for the course? How many times have we told job candidates going to their first campus interview to avoid wine at dinner lest they be a little too candid with their hosts?

We all identify with these scenarios; they're part of the fabric of our academic lives. But what if you're "that guy"? What if you're the one who's gone to happy hour with colleagues and woken up the next morning wondering if you either offended someone or embarrassed yourself? What if you are the one who's the object lesson in all of those scenarios?

Take it from me: It stinks out loud. Because, as I'm realizing for the first time, I'm "that guy."

I don't know whether I can use the word "alcoholic." I am a profound skeptic of our pop-psychology culture. I believe people should take responsibility for their actions, and not resort to the numerous crutches that our culture offers its "victims."

It's confounding, then, to begin to reckon with something that, no matter what word one chooses to use, is now far beyond my personal control. Maybe I am addicted, maybe it's not that serious. But "drinking problem"? Yes, that's accurate.

And it's not how you imagine it. I rarely drink liquor; I confine myself to beer. And I like good beer. In fact, I'm somewhat of a connoisseur in that regard -- the smooth yet bitter taste of a nice Czech Pilsner, the rich fullness of a British ale, the creamy wonder of a pint of stout -- these are my stock in trade. I'm the one people ask if they want to try a new beer and are unsure of its taste. I'm the one who is assigned the task of purchasing "refreshments" for the department's holiday party. I'm the "facilitator" for social gatherings.

Want to organize a happy hour? I'll be there, I'll call others to come, and you can count on me to laugh, help you forget about the everyday stresses of academic life, and we'll tell stories about our students until I've run up a bar tab equivalent to a week's worth of groceries. I'm the one you want to hang out with at conferences because I'm not stuffy and I know where the good bars are near the hotel. It's part of my very identity -- it's how my public persona is now defined.

And now I don't want to do it anymore.

I just started a tenure-track job this fall. It's at a small, liberal-arts college, in an area I love. My field is a crowded one, but I had seven conference interviews and a range of options when it came time to choose. My teaching evaluations have been good, stretching back into my adjunct years. I've published in reputable journals. I'm making a name for myself.

That's my presentation, at least. The reality is that I rarely read anymore, in my field or otherwise. I fly by the seat of my pants in the classroom, because I don't put in the time to prepare the day before. I ask my students questions about texts that I've either forgotten (all too common now) or never read. And don't ask about my home life or my finances, because it just gets uglier.

I blame myself, not the culture of academe -- it would be delusional to think otherwise. But we are in a culture where one can get away with stuff like this longer than in any other career field. We don't punch a clock. Our tasks are largely self-directed. We work long hours, but we can also schedule how we do so with a lot of freedom. We've never left college!

We know many of our students binge drink, or come to class hung over, or miss that Friday afternoon class a bit too often. But what happens when these things occur on the other side of the podium? How do I stop doing something that has essentially come to define me? And how do I get my act together when I've let things slip so far? I'm writing this partly to help myself figure these questions out, and partly to ask these questions publicly. Because I don't think I'm the first or the only academic who's confronted them.

So, with these realizations hitting me for the first time, with an impact like nothing I've encountered before, I sit in my office not knowing whether to cry or throw up. Of course, I've done both already today. And I sit in fear, because in five hours I meet with the various administrative elements who will give me my first-year review -- the first big piece of the tenure file for a job I love and want desperately to be good at.

I'm afraid, I'm sick, I'm tired, and I smell like beer. Should be a fun meeting.

James Waite is the pseudonym of an assistant professor at a liberal-arts college in the East.