Dear Mentor: Alcohol in grad school?

Dear Mentor,

I am a new graduate student who would like to foster friendships with some of my fellow graduate students, but it seems like most social interactions revolve around alcohol. I don't drink, simply because I've never found alcohol appealing. I wouldn't necessarily mind going out to a restaurant that serves alcohol, but most of my friends prefer going to bars for the sole purpose of getting drunk. I typically avoid socializing with those people for that reason, but I am in the minority as an individual who does not drink. I'm also about to begin attending academic conferences, which I've heard tend to be excuses to travel and get drunk, so I'm concerned that my avoidance of  alcohol may earn me a reputation for being anti-social at those events. Do you have any suggestions for how best to navigate the drinking culture of academia as a teetotaler, while also connecting with friends and colleagues?

from guest mentor Travis Stevick

While I can by no means speak for all academics, I am a teetotaler in the academy and am happy to share my own experience on this issue. I belong to a tradition (United Methodist) that has, historically, taken a very negative stance on alcohol consumption, though my own abstinence is based on a variety of considerations.
If indeed the stated purpose of going out to bars is to get drunk, and only to get drunk, then I am not sure there is much that can be done if taking time away from other things to hang out with drunk people is not your idea of a good time. However, just speaking from my own experience, I have found that these times at bars are often used for more than just drinking heavily (though that is not to say that there is not heavy drinking that can take place).
I have had delightful times sitting in bars with others, having informal discussions about our fields, about life, and all manner of topics. It is true that some people use conferences as an excuse to drink more heavily than they might at home, where they have more responsibilities but, even in such cases, it has been my experience that it is a far different kind of drinking than characterized, say, the social life I saw among my peers during my undergraduate days (where drinking ended, on more than one occasion, in setting fire to things best left unburned, including the University's administration building).
Beyond that, I have found that being a teetotaler who is willing to go to bars with colleagues has enabled me to serve others in a few ways. One that might seem obvious is that I have been able to serve as a designated driver. My ability to provide safe passage and peace of mind is not something I have in spite of my abstinence from alcohol but because of it. On top of that, soft drinks are usually cheaper than alcohol and some bars (though certainly not all) will give it to you for free if everyone else is drinking.
Interestingly, you never know when your abstinence might be not only tolerated, but appreciated. I remember one time in particular. After defending my thesis, several of my fellow students and I went to a bar in town. One friend in particular said he was so glad that I wasn't drinking alcohol because, while he drinks socially, he prefers not to, because he often gets headaches when he drinks. My ordering of a soft drink empowered him to do the same.
As someone who doesn't drink in a world where alcohol consumption, whether in large or small amounts, is common, I used to worry that I would stick out. I was concerned that people wouldn't want to be with me if I didn't drink or that I would be made fun of or, perhaps even worse, that I would be seen as silently judging those who were drinking. I am happy to report that I have not had those experiences. The most I get (and this doesn't even always happen) is the occasional question as to why I don't drink, but even in those cases, it isn't in a mocking tone, as it might have been if we were younger. It is usually just pure curiosity (and even then, people have almost always been content with a simple "I just choose not to") or out of trying to be compassionate, in case there is was a medical reason for it that they should be aware of.
Of course, every field is different, and every person's experience is different. If you have concrete experience that these people truly have no interest in going out for a drink than getting drunk, then new strategies for socializing might need to be made. Short of that, I have found that there is plenty of space for someone not drinking in the social times at academic conferences.

from guest mentor Jennifer Woodruff Tait

First of all, you do have my sympathy, The academic culture can be difficult to negotiate for non-drinkers, as many academic social events do include alcohol. But there are some things you can keep in mind.  It’s certainly been my experience that by no means does every grad student or academic who drinks do so to get drunk. If you really have friends who truly find that to be their only purpose in socializing, then it’s probably time to find new friends. I suspect there are people in your department who will be sympathetic to and supportive of your choice not to drink even if they do so themselves., They may also happily join in other social activities, or, if you do accompany them to a bar, may only have one drink. (Responsible drinkers committed to never getting in a car if they have had any alcohol will also be happy to have someone along who can serve as a designated driver.) Begin cultivating relationships with those people.  Expect to also meet such people from other schools at conferences when you begin attending. They will be there.

At least in my field, while academic conferences generally serve as a great reunion time between separated colleagues and friends as much as they serve any academic purpose, and while they do feature a certain amount of drinking, they don’t feature drunkenness as an adjunct to networking. While ten or twenty years ago the average academic reception featured an open bar, most groups today, as a cost-cutting measure, have issued drink tickets and will limit attendees to one or two drinks, which makes a more pleasant social environment for everybody. If you feel less awkward with a glass in your hand, any bartender should gladly give you soda or water, and if mixed drinks are on offer they may have cranberry or tomato juice available as well. (Do tip them anyway, even if you get water! They have a hard job to do.)  

As you begin to network and make friends at conferences, offer to meet people for coffee or tea.  At most conferences I go to, there seems to be just as much meeting for coffee as there is meeting for a drink. If new acquaintances suggest going out for drinks, you can order soda or water (and often coffee) at most places that serve alcohol. If you go out with new friends and are uncomfortable with how much they drink, you can always choose not to go out with them again. If anyone asks you if and why you don’t drink, explain honestly and kindly. If anyone pressures you to drink, they are probably someone you don’t want to keep hanging out with.

Good luck! It is possible to negotiate academia as a non-drinker.

For a fuller discussion of the topic of Christians and abstinence from alcohol, see Jennifer's piece at Christianity Today: The Teetotalers I Never Knew.

from guest mentor Edwin Woodruff Tait

I grew up in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, where abstinence from alcohol and other “lifestyle” issues are perhaps even more prominent than in other forms of evangelicalism. For most of my youth I took it for granted that a committed, serious Christian did not drink alcohol. By the time I went to grad school, I was a lot more open to the legitimacy of alcohol consumption, but it was several years before I began to drink myself. My experience in graduate school was probably unusual (compared to that of people in more secular fields) because I was studying religion, specifically Reformation church history, and many of my professors as well as colleagues were devout Christians, but not from traditions of abstinence. Hence, I was surrounded by a Christian culture in which drinking was accepted as normal and was generally practiced responsibly. Ironically, this also made it difficult to remain a total abstainer, since abstention from alcohol was associated with anti-intellectual, culture-denying legalism. (On the other hand, a Catholic friend told me that he wasn’t sure I ought to drink because it wasn’t something I’d been brought up to do and it probably wasn’t a great habit to get into.)

When I received a job offer at a Christian college, I had to give up drinking again as part of the conditions of my employment. This was only difficult when traveling in Britain or when attending academic conferences. On one occasion at Sixteenth Century Studies, an ex-Lutheran Catholic scholar of my acquaintance expressed a strong desire to help me find another job because he thought it was intolerable that I wasn’t allowed to drink. (On that occasion, I remember ordering the non-alcoholic beer O’Doul’s, which I don’t actually like, because it was a way to participate in the social occasion without violating my obligations to my institution.)

Several years after taking the job, the university changed its rules to allow faculty to drink. But having gotten out of the habit, and now being a university professor with a small child, I found fewer appropriate occasions to drink than as a single graduate student. Furthermore, some of my medications didn’t interact well with alcohol. Eventually, after being laid off for financial reasons, my family and I moved in with my non-drinking parents. My wife and I still drink very occasionally, but for the most part I am, once again, functionally a teetotaler.

While I reject the attitudes toward alcohol I grew up with, I am no longer ashamed of them as a piece of anti-cultural legalism. I think there are excellent reasons why some Christians might choose to abstain from alcohol, and that such abstinence should take its place among ascetic practices such as celibacy, fasting, and vegetarianism. Eschatologically, we all look forward to the day when we will drink the new wine of the Kingdom. Drinking alcohol may be an expression of Christian liberty. But so may abstinence, particularly when motivated by a desire to identify with the poor and those who suffer from alcoholism. I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the smug and intolerant way in which Christian intellectuals speak of abstinence from alcohol as a practice that has no value or place in Christianity whatever.

For Christians in a context where alcohol consumption is taken for granted, I think the most helpful way to present the practice of abstinence is in light of other dietary regulations observed by various religious traditions. Jews and Muslims abstain from pork and have various other restrictions; Catholic and Orthodox (and some Protestants) abstain from meat on certain penitential days. And, of course, vegetarianism is a widely accepted dietary practice in our culture — not to mention low-carb diets, gluten-free diets, etc. Christians who do not drink need to learn to own their abstinence as a particular tradition — not an obvious moral principle that divides the godly from the wicked, but a practice that has grown up in certain Christian communities for historically contingent reasons. By expressing it in these terms, abstinent Christians can avoid seeming to condemn those who do drink alcohol in moderation, without also accepting the patronizing idea that becoming an enlightened, intellectual Christian means abandoning one’s heritage. If more discussion ensues, the non-drinker can further explain the historical reasons for the practice. Many people are unaware of the historic evangelical emphasis on ministry to the poor, and the desire not to be “puritanical” leads many to deny or downplay the very real evidence for the devastating effect of the alcohol industry on vulnerable members of society.

I don’t particularly think that it was wrong for me to begin drinking alcohol, and I still occasionally drink as occasion serves. But I recognize that one of the motives behind my beginning to consume alcohol was a desire to escape the stigma of radical, counter-cultural Wesleyan pietism. Christian liberty is good. Conformism for the sake of academic respectability is not so good.

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