‘A Minefield’: How Scholars Who Don’t Drink Navigate the Conference Social Scene

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle
At the doors of a Hilton hotel ballroom, Lisa Rose Lamson was handed something she didn't expect: a drink ticket.

She passed it to a friend. Here, take this, Lamson said. Yes, I'm sure, she insisted.

Lamson, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Marquette University, hadn't considered that liquor would be served at a reception welcoming graduate students to the American Historical Association's annual conference. She can be "a little oblivious" at times, she said. "I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was."

Lamson has been sober for five years. It took seven months, and many missteps, for her to stop drinking altogether while getting her master's degree. Now she's on guard against situations that could provoke a relapse. Part of the problem, she says, is that people don't understand how proactive sober people must be to maintain their sobriety.

"I always want a drink," Lamson said. It's only by avoiding places in which alcohol is served that she can steer clear of drinking.

In the Hilton ballroom, that wasn't possible. So Lamson stayed far away from the bar, which meant she couldn't even get a glass of water, because the water was right next to the beer and wine.

"That's just the price I get to pay to network," she said.

At academic conferences, like those put on by the AHA and the Modern Language Association, which were held in Chicago last week, drinking is a social norm. Cash bars and open bars proliferate. Each year the history association holds a cocktail-naming contest. (This year's winners were "More of a Comment Than a Question" and "The Haymarket Rye-It.") There's collegial drinking among old pals. There's commiserative drinking among job-hunting Ph.D.s. And there's tactical drinking as part of the networking that happens after, or sometimes during, regular conference hours.

But for Lamson, and other scholars who don't drink, the bar isn't the place to make lasting professional connections. These scholars don't want everyone to become teetotalers, or for conferences to ban alcohol altogether. They just want to be able to tackle the social labors of being an academic without the expectation to imbibe.

'Flagrantly Sober'

At a conference last year, Sharrona H. Pearl heard about a scholar who disappeared during the meeting. That person had struggled with sobriety and was overwhelmed by the ubiquity of alcohol there, recalled Pearl, a special dean's research scholar in communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

That's when she had a revelation. There's lots of drinking at these conferences, she remembers thinking, and those who don't participate are de facto excluded. They might be dealing with alcoholism, they might be pregnant. Their religion might forbid the consumption of alcohol. They might just not like drinking.

Pearl reached out on Twitter to several academic associations, like the AHA, and asked if they had addiction-support meetings available at their conferences. Some responded, but nothing official came of her query. James Grossman, executive director of the AHA, said via email that as far as he knew, they hadn't had any requests to hold Alcoholics Anonymous meetings during the conference, but that it was an interesting idea.

The MLA does hold AA meetings during its conferences. Paula M. Krebs, the executive director, said the association tries to ensure that social events aren't all about alcohol. At awards ceremonies, for example, they also offer sparkling wine and sparkling cider, she said.

Drinking at conferences is double-edged, Pearl said. People loosen up, so "maybe you can approach that senior scholar you're terrified of."

Breaking down that hierarchy through drinking, however, creates its own set of problems.

Pearl isn't arguing that there shouldn't be any alcohol-related events, she said. She just wishes people would "be a little more attentive to what kinds of spaces we are creating, and who's being excluded."

These conferences encourage the feeling that if participants worked the hotel-bar network "a little bit better," they would unlock more professional advantages and opportunities, said a sober professor who attended the MLA conference and asked for anonymity out of fear of being judged by peers. For people who don't have problems with alcohol, that's fine, the professor said.

But alcohol addiction is a disability. If you've created a social environment in which having a disability is a barrier to access, the professor said, "that's a problem."

Sober scholars don't have only themselves to think about. When Lamson tells people that she's sober, they sometimes get uncomfortable, she said, and assume she's judging them if they choose to drink.

"I don't care" if they drink, she said. "But a lot of people think I do."

Robbie Hammel, a graduate student at California State University at San Marcos who attended the MLA conference, has been sober for five years. Being around people who drink doesn't bother him. But he avoids being "flagrantly sober," he said. He orders a club soda, which can be taken for a mixed drink.

"I don't want to be empty-handed," he said, "because I want to make other people more comfortable."

'You Have to Make These Choices'

At the AHA conference, Catherine Medici mingled at a reception for Twitter-active historians with a club soda in her hand. An administrator at Creighton University and a lecturer in women's and gender studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, she avoids drinks because of medical issues. But refusing a drink at a reception sometimes leads to questions, which means disclosing her condition.

Instead, Medici orders a club soda with lime, which looks like a gin and tonic. Or she'll order a white wine and just hold it, then get rid of it later. Academic drinking culture "is a minefield," she said. "You have to make these choices all the time."

When she was a graduate student looking for a job, Medici was especially aware of the conclusions that people might draw from her choices. She's married, and she didn't want people to assume that because she was without a drink, she might be pregnant. A mentor advised her that people could make that assumption, and passed along the club-soda trick.

"I was just really glad that someone had thought to tell us and acknowledge the hidden expectations and [the] ramifications of those expectations," Medici said.

Elly Truitt, an associate professor of history at Bryn Mawr College, also had a mentor who told her about academe's unspoken customs regarding alcohol. Truitt was told to not drink more than a glass of wine at professional functions, including conferences. It wasn't a morality judgment, Truitt said. It was a safety recommendation.

“Do I not go to something where I could get a lot out of it, but I might be putting myself at risk?”

Spaces in which people drink are rife for sexual harassment and sexual assault, Truitt said. For scholars who are especially vulnerable — graduate students, postdocs, adjuncts, women, people of color — it's a difficult calculation to square.

"Do I not go to something where I could get a lot out of it," Truitt said, "but I might be putting myself at risk?"

Some scholars see to it that people don't have to make that choice. In 2014, several medievalists who attended the discipline's annual meeting, in Kalamazoo, Mich., started an event called Medieval Donut, so that "not every moment of community would be structured around the consumption of alcohol," Jeffrey J. Cohen, a professor of English at George Washington University, wrote in The Chronicle. Informal and advertised on social media, the event has attracted 80 to 100 people each year, who bond over chocolate long johns and jelly-filled pastries.

When the socializing is in bars, Cohen wrote, all sorts of people are excluded: those with allergies to alcohol, those in precarious academic positions, those who are sober. "We also all have friends, colleagues, and mentors who are now sober after struggling with the seemingly omnipresent lure of alcohol in academic life," he wrote. "What better way to respect their achievement than to make access to community manifold?"

Lisa Rose Lamson doesn't think that by avoiding alcohol, she will be excluded from her professional community. It's not that her sobriety makes those connections unattainable, she said.

But she's had to get better at approaching people at the end of conference panels rather than at the hotel bar. She has to plan ahead for social functions. Buddies fetch nonalcoholic drinks so she doesn't have to approach the bar herself.

Still, she said, being sober is a barrier to full participation in academic conferences. So much of academe is networking. And so much of that, she said, happens over a drink she can't have, at a table she can't sit at, in a room she can't enter.

Emma Pettit is a staff reporter at The Chronicle. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaJanePettit, or email her at emma.pettit@chronicle.com.