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Thirsty Knowledge

I’ve recently resuscitated my iTunes account, and I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the joys of the podcast. As a mad fan of Internet radio, having the most recent episodes of More or Less, the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian‘s Science Weekly, NPR’s Fresh Air, the Granta Podcast and, obviously, the Food Programme, arriving periodically is a glorious thing.

Relatively recently, I’ve become faintly obsessed with This American Life, and have relied on its extensive archive to keep me sane while writing lectures. I particularly enjoyed two, linked, episodes on Pennsylvania State University. The first, broadcast in December 2009, is an account of why Penn State has consistently been nominated as ‘America’s number one party school,’ and the second, from the end of last year, revisits the university’s reputation for heavy drinking in light of the recent scandal.

As you’d expect of This American Life, both episodes are thoughtful, intelligent accounts of life in State College, PA, where townsfolk have to put up with the antics of drunken students – from stealing traffic signs, to urinating in private gardens – and where the university’s various strategies for dealing with the campus’s drinking culture are impeded by a strong lobby from alumni and other donors.

A lot of what these episodes covered felt familiar. I grew up in a South African university town and now hold a fellowship at that university. The institution is based in the heart of the country’s wine-producing region, so alcohol is cheap and plentiful. As someone with a comically low tolerance of alcohol, I’ve never been a big drinker. I sailed through university as, usually, the only sober person at parties.

A while ago, I wrote a post about academia and the food at conferences, and one of the themes in the responses I received was that I needed to focus more on the booze. And that’s absolutely true: while we may be – justifiably – concerned about undergraduate binge drinking, there’s a stereotype that academics drink – in the same way that we dress badly, drive banged-up cars, and are chronically forgetful. As Malcolm Bradbury writes in The History Man (1975):

It has often been remarked, by Benita Pream, who services several such departmental meetings, that those in History are distinguished by their high rate of absenteeism, those in English by the amount of wine consumed afterwards, and those in Sociology by their contentiousness.

I think that many would suggest that Benita’s point about the wine could apply to all departmental meetings, regardless of the discipline involved.

Just about every decent campus novel contains at least one scene of drunken, academic embarrassment. Or, indeed, in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), of success. Jim Dixon spends most of the novel either pursuing the pretty-but-dim Christine in a fairly desultory way, or trying – in post-war, still rationed Britain – to scrape together enough money to buy cigarettes and drink.  In the famous, final scene, he gets completely hammered, delivers a speech which should get him fired, but which, instead, gets him both the girl and his dream job.

My two favourite campus novels, The History Man and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995) – yes the one that was turned into the surprisingly fun movie – both feature heroes whose academic careers are linked to the – occasionally excessive – consumption of alcohol and various banned substances. Both novels have parties at key turning-points in the narrative. In The History Man the suave socialist sociologist Howard Kirk and his long-suffering wife, Barbara, host parties at the beginning and end of the novel – places where students and lecturers at a red brick, radical university mingle, discussing contraception, Hegel, revolution, and, of course, religion:

No sooner are the first arrivals in the living-room, with drinks, talking breastfeeding, when more guests arrive. The room fills. There are students in quantities; bearded Jesus youths in combat-wear, wet-look plastic, loon-pants, flared jeans, Afghan yak; girls, in caftans and big boots, with plum-coloured mouths. There are young faculty, serious, solemn examiners of matrimony and its radical alternatives…. Howard goes about, a big two-litre bottle hanging on the loop from his finger, the impresario of the event, feeling the buoyant pleasure of having these young people round him…. He poured wine, seeing the bubbles move inside the glass of the bottle in the changing lights of his rooms.

Howard maintains – and gains – his position of power within his department and on his campus by wielding wine at important moments.

The appropriately named Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys uses grass and a range of other drugs – legal and illegal – to cope with the collapse of his marriage, his career, and his reputation as a writer. He holds a position at a small liberal arts university in Pittsburgh, but can’t finish his novel, is having an affair with the Chancellor, and has been (deservedly) deserted by his wife. Over the course of the university’s annual Wordfest weekend, his life falls apart. As in The History Man, parties take place at pivotal moments – one of them in Grady’s house. He returns to discover

writers in the kitchen, making conversation that whip-sawed wildly between comely falsehood and foul-smelling truths, flicking their cigarette ash into the mouths of beer cans. There were half a dozen more of them stretched out on the floor of the television room, arranged in a worshipful manner around a small grocery bag filled with ragweed marijuana, watching Ghidorah take apart Tokyo.

But most academic drinking is done more decorously: over dinner, and after conferences and workshops. Some of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges have legendarily well-stocked cellars. Just about every seminar I attended in London ended with a trip to the pub. There’s even a Radio 4 series called The Philosopher’s Arms, where Matthew Sweet and a collection of philosophers discuss ideas and issues in a real pub:

Welcome to the Philosopher’s Arms, the only boozer in Britain where, if you ask the landlady whether there’s a happy hour, she’ll remind you of the words of John Stuart Mill: ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you’ll cease to be so.’

The appeal of the pub is that it allows for the usually fairly byzantine rules which govern academic life to relax a little. Anxious postgrads get to talk to well-known, senior researchers, gossip is exchanged, and friendships and alliances formed. One very grand historian who used to convene a weekly seminar I attended, was transformed from an incisive and ruthless eviscerator of poorly-constructed arguments, to a jovial old cove as he nursed his half-pint of real ale.

It’s also true that pubs and drinking can be used to exclude those who don’t drink, for whatever reason, or those who don’t feel welcome in pubs or bars. As AS Byatt points out in an interview with the Paris Review, up until the mid-1960s, university departments could prevent their female staff from contributing to important decisions by conducting meetings in pubs, then an almost exclusively male preserve.

But I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that pubs, in particular, feature so strongly in a lot of the mythology surrounding significant moments in academia: in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, and in the meetings of the Inklings – the most famous members of which were CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien – at the Eagle and Child in Oxford, for instance. Pubs – and other, similarly festive occasions involving drinking – provide academics with a chance to talk and to think beyond the usual strictures of academia and, in doing so, to arrive at new and surprising ideas.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. I think I know who the ruthless eviscerator is… I think.

    August 23, 2012
    • He was at the Imperial History seminar – weren’t you spared that peculiar agony?

      August 23, 2012
      • Okay, then it wasn’t who I thought it was.

        I was picturing someone we both know who has quite distinct body positions while listening to papers.

        August 23, 2012
  2. bella_velo #

    I have 2 years worth of The American Life podcasts for you! I was thinking about deleting them but knew someone would enjoy them!

    August 28, 2012
    • What?! *Squeaks with joy.* We have coffee as soon as term’s ended? (7 Sept for me.)

      August 28, 2012
      • bella_velo #

        you have hit the motherload of podcasts. We’ll org a swap when you’re clear!

        August 28, 2012

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