Drinking and Conferencing

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

June 04, 2017

Every year 3,000 medievalists from around the world converge on Kalamazoo, Mich., to speak about their research, learn about new discoveries in the field, contemplate urgent issues together, and enjoy one another’s company. As you would expect, ale and mead tasting are part of the conference program — and many attendees spend plenty of time at Bell’s, the excellent local brewery.

At our conference, as at most academic gatherings, socializing typically unfolds in the presence of alcohol: at the daily wine hour, at large dinners with plentiful cocktails, at champagne celebrations of prizes awarded or careers coming to a close, at casual meetings with friends late at night, midafternoon, or any time in between sessions when we can gather for a drink. Or three.

I want to emphasize from the start that I am not against alcohol at conferences or anywhere else. I enjoy good beer and wine. I have a passion for crafting my own cocktails, and sometimes feature my favorites on social media.

As a medievalist I know well the social glue that the shared consumption of alcohol has provided throughout the ages. The English monk Bede (d. 735) tells the story of a lay brother named Caedmon who routinely left feasts whenever the harp approached him (medieval English monks passed around a harp for singalongs, today we have karaoke). Because he did not know any poems to sing, Caedmon departed the revels early and slept with the animals in his care. To be present but not participating at the party was, it seems, too painful for him. The Old English translation of Bede’s Latin account calls the gathering that Caedmon flees gebeorscipe, a word that might be best translated "beer-fellowship." Then, as now, alcohol and community were intimately linked.

Just as Caedmon long ago could not find his confident place at the table, it’s worth thinking about who is excluded in academe when we found our conference conviviality on drink.

In 2014 several medievalists attending the Kalamazoo conference started an event called "Medieval Donut" specifically to ensure that not every moment of community would be structured around the consumption of alcohol. The gathering is informal and welcomes everyone (even people who are just walking by and are not medievalists). We converge at some tables near the registration desk for the conference hotel with five or six dozen doughnuts from the nearby and superb Sweetwater’s Donut Mill.

We encourage anyone who is planning to come to contribute their own favorites for comparison and sharing purposes. We ask those who are vegan, who abide by a gluten-free diet, or who are kosher, diabetic, or have any other dietary preferences or requirements to please bring along something to share, knowing that others in attendance will share the same restrictions. We also encourage those arriving from out of town to bring their favorite regional doughnuts.

The event has been offered for three years in a row. It’s not sponsored by the conference — it is wholly informal and advertised extensively on social media. Each year 80 to 100 people have stopped by. Many who come and do not yet know anyone else at the gathering remark on how easy it is to strike up a conversation on, say, the relative merits of the strawberry cheesecake doughnut over the chocolate ring with festive sprinkles. Donuts seem a good equalizer.

I began thinking seriously about conferences, alcohol consumption, and unintentional exclusion a few years ago when I organized an unofficial conference session in a brewery’s outdoor garden. The session was wonderful: It was a perfect night, a large crowd, a set of inventive presentations "fermenting" new ideas, and a shared sense of possibility.

Yet I also found myself haunted by an email I had received shortly after we announced the session’s location. Its author pointed out that, by holding the gathering in a brewery, some people who would like to attend would not have access to this community — specifically, anyone who was trying to maintain sobriety and unwilling to put themselves in jeopardy by entering a space structured around drinking.

When I began to discuss this issue on Twitter, it soon became clear that a community of drinkers quietly excludes a lot of potential members:

  • People who might abstain for religious reasons (Muslims and Mormons, for example).
  • Those with allergies and medical conditions.
  • Pregnant women.
  • 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 overindulgence in alcohol.
  • Those who simply do not want to drink and do not want to be in the company of drinkers.

I am not saying that academic receptions and events should not include alcohol — though they must always include good alternatives. What I am saying is: (a) Those who arrange conference social events where alcohol is served must ensure that they are not the sole access provided to conference conviviality, and (b) when alcohol is involved, we all need to watch out for each other.

During the Twitter conversation on this subject, many tweets noted the relative ease with which academics can become alcoholics. The reasons vary. Academics face immense pressures earning our Ph.D.s, finding a job, and keeping that job. Who among us does not work long hours? When was the last time you took a whole weekend off, including email? Two other factors also affect the rate at which professors become alcoholics — the way alcohol consumption has been not only normalized but glamorized within the profession, and the relative isolation of our work and lack of consistent oversight or accountability.

In the academic world it is easy to vanish and tempting to self-medicate. We all have experience with the following:

  • A friend, colleague, mentor, or professor who might be charismatic after a few drinks but becomes toxic at five.
  • A young academic or would-be academic who self-destructs as a result of substance dependency.
  • A scholar who at some point turns to heavy 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 — and a disregard of shared futures).

We also all have friends, colleagues, and mentors who are now sober after struggling with the seemingly omnipresent lure of alcohol in academic life. What better way to respect their achievement than to make 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 just back from my annual pilgrimage to the medieval conference in Kalamazoo. One night I was at Bell’s Brewery, because I love craft beer. But I also arrived at the conference hotel with six dozen doughnuts in the trunk of my rental car, because we all need to proliferate options for access. Conviviality centered around the devouring of tasty rings of cake seems to me at least a small start.

Jeffrey J. Cohen is a professor of English at George Washington University and director of its Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute. He is on Twitter as @JeffreyJCohen .