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Professorial Drunkenness: Dos and Don’ts

"Professor Trowbridge! Have another, dude! And tell us that awesomely funny story again about Chomsky, Said, the ambassador, and the poodle!"

My mother recounts a story whose narrative confection never ceases to delight me.  It goes like this:

About 40 years ago, at a New Year’s party for a group of doctors and residents, my father and his colleagues became so preposterously irrigated that they decided it would be a great idea to burn down their own hospital.

One detail from this episode that I find especially intriguing concerns the extremely multicultural composition of the would-be arsonists. The medical staff was quite a mix, comprised of Pakistanis, Indians, Iranians, Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Egyptians, Turks, and many others.

More diversity than any of them was bargaining for,” as my ever-perceptive mother likes to quip. And perhaps, I would add conspiratorially, more diversity than the surrounding and conspicuously less heterogeneous hospitals in the 1970s were bargaining for as well. But I am divagating.

Whenever the story is told, which is astonishingly often, my father has assiduously contested its accuracy. His denials reflexively lead my mother to exclaim: “What are you talking about? I was the one who had to hide the matches. You were all headed for the Children’s Wing.” To which my father ripostes that, at the very worst, the mob had set its  sights on the cancer ward.

The lesson learned from this story is transparent enough: Health-care professionals should not set their workplace ablaze. Yet it does leave professors, a cohort not unacquainted with bacchanalia, in the dark as to what the guidelines are for academic inebriation. In that spirit, I submit the following clear and concise ground rules governing our alcoholic intake in academic settings:

Don’t ever, under any circumstances, load up in the presence of your undergraduates: I say this not merely because it violates university policy. Not merely because it may encourage underage drinking. And not merely out of any fear for the safety of the undergraduates. I say this because students are better at this game than you are. Getting Professor X to do vodka shots will be an awesome, transformative, even educational, experience for them. For you, it will be the single most humiliating experience of your career. And if you disregard my advice, rest assured that picture of you holding a red plastic cup in one hand and a copy of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (upside down) will be posted to YouTube. Or this. Wine and cheese after the poetry recital is, however, acceptable.

Do think carefully about throwing a few back with your graduate students: The data here is somewhat difficult to interpret. Graduate students are kind of like us. The problem is that you, Professor, are in possession of a good that they desperately covet. I refer not to your capacious fount of wisdom, but an actual paying job in academe. “Massive status differentials within the context of one professional environment provide ample opportunity for misunderstandings and subsequent litigation” is my motto on this issue.  Stray graduate students who you meet at other universities, zoos, or in public parks? Bottoms up.

Don’t underestimate how unpleasant drinking with your departmental colleagues can be: Decades back a colleague became frightfully wasted at a loud, raucous affair held at the chair’s demesne and passed out in the bathtub. Our fallen comrade was a bit of an oddball—a journeyman Chaucerist who many suspected had been involved with paramilitary organizations in South America.* Two immediate problems presented themselves. The first was that none of us left standing liked the fellow enough to want to take him home. The second was that the chair didn’t like him much either. What emerged as people were reacquainting themselves with their coats and heading out the door was something we all knew well: the tensile, subtextually ridden play of power that embodied every sober moment in our dysfunctional department. After all, wasn’t the task best suited for the associate professor with the student evaluations hovering in the negatives? Or maybe, the new guy we just hired? In other words, our “party” mode began to replicate our non-party mode. Drinking with colleagues at your own institution, I wish to say, is fraught with peril.

Do drink with other people’s colleagues!: Invited to lecture at another university? This is a most excellent time to sauce up. It is here where you can play the role of anthropologist, participant-observation being your preferred mode of field research. That’s because so many there will have ignored my advice in the previous paragraph. Be prepared to hear things like this: “David just admit it, you, you EXPLETIVE! little EXPLETIVE!—you never read my paragraph, my monograph, you never even read my course descriptions, so why don’t you . . . you do INCOMPREHENSIBLE EXPLETIVE.”

Do drink at conferences! Drinking at an annual conference is good, clean fun. Although it might not be widely known, biblical scholarsof which I am oneare extraordinary skilled in the arts of public intoxication. One of my fondest professional memories occurred  in Nashville some years back. An immense cohort of exegetes had somehow ended up drinking en masse. We found ourselves all together, far from our rooms, in the wee hours of the morning. There too we may all have found more diversity than we were bargaining for. I recall, with sovereign reverence, how scholars who had previously assaulted one another in print drank together amiably, as did scholars who had previously assaulted one another. When the evening was over the whole group engaged on a Drunken Fool’s March through that odd Biosphere called Opryland. Arm in arm we staggered; Evangelicals and atheists, Catholics and Lutherans, Postmodernists and source critics, Biblical archaeologists and . . . (actually they staggered alone), Postcolonialists and defenders of Empire. If alcohol may offer any redemption it is thisthe leveling of distinctions, the possibility of reconciliation, the reminder that we are all creatures of folly.

*Some of these details have been fictionalized to protect nonfictional persons.

Photo by Flickr user sheriffmitchell

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