Thursday, September 30, 2010

That's Why I'm Drinkin' Again: A Longer, Taller Look At Collegiate Partying

The Davidson College student newspaper, artfully named The Davidsonian, published a piece yesterday about one of the Radical's favorite topics, college drinkin'.  Davidson is one of 30 schools that is part of a  long-term study measuring substance (ab)use on college campuses. "This assessment, administered by the CORE Institute at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale (SIUC)," writes kid reporter Kelly Wilson, "was developed in the late 1980's by the U.S. Department of Education. Colleges and universities across the country use it to gauge alcohol and other drug usage, attitudes, and perceptions on their campuses."

Davidson, like many other liberal arts colleges (including Zenith) has been trying to decide what to do about binge drinking, and has been using the CORE survey data to strategize interventions.   More stringent policing, student life administrators worry, would drive students off campus where drinking is even less safe.

Interestingly, Davidson Health Educator Georgia Ringle is arguing that there is a wide range of drinking behaviors on campus.  Close to 30% of students don't drink at all, around 25% drink a lot; and all the students in the middle would not drink so much if the ones who drank a lot didn't put so much energy into persuading their peers that you can only have a good time when you are drunk.

One question that comes to mind is whether, as educators, we have become adept at inventing phrases such as "binge drinking" and "pre-partying" to avoid admitting that a significant percentage of our students have become alcoholics at a young age, and perhaps have been destined by genetics or their family environment to become so.  This article certainly points to that conclusion, among others.  The kind of social pressure to make others get drunk too is typical of alcoholics, and many alcoholics function at high levels despite drinking in a way that would ruin, say, me.  It is not inconceivable that drinking by imitation may be causing students in that middle group to underperform academically while some of the binge drinkers  -- who are hard-wired alcoholics --  are going on to Phi Beta Kappa. As Ringle notes,

the campus mentality around alcohol on campus is set by a minority of students who are drinking much more than five drinks per week. They set "the peer standard because they're out there having more fun, playing the music, talking about it, whereas the non-drinkers don't say, ‘Guess what I did Saturday night, it was so cool!' I mean they should, but they're not quite as boisterous.
"So there could be kind of a core group of 200 that are always leading the pack, saying ‘Come on, come on we should go out. Let's pregame in my room; let's go down,'" Ringle continued. "But if you actually study each individual's drinking, most are moderate."

In fact, she has data indicating that 53.5% of Davidson students drink five drinks or less per week. "Now, would I like that 53.5% to be higher? Yes," Ringle said. "But most students imagine everyone's drinking much more than five. I want to give back the actual truth and fact to the students, and this number is a lot lower than what most students imagine. What we have found – and this is not just Davidson – is that if students think everyone's drinking more, they will raise their drinking level to match their perception." She pointed out that 28% of students at Davidson do not drink alcohol on a weekly basis.

That's right:  most students drink because it is cool, and because a minority of the student body has enough influence to set the norm.  In fact, as the article goes on to say, many students who don't like to drink pretend that they are doing it.  They will "go to parties and just hold a red cup even though the red cup didn't have alcohol in it – simply because they felt like they needed to do it[.]"

I wonder what we would have to do to make working really hard at your academics look cool? Are students so hard-wired from high school that good grades + geekiness that even at selective schools such as Davidson and Zenith they have to act as if they don't care about anything but "fun" in order to feel like they have a shot at being popular?  And is anyone studying that 28% who don't drink to figure out how they resist peer pressure to conform?

You can read the whole article -- the second in a two-part series -- here.


token undergrad said...

I think the real problem is not making academic interest/achievement "cool" but devaluing the concept of "cool." I was talking with some friends at my small selective university the other day about how even though we take a lot of pleasure in our academic pursuits, we love spending time with our less boozy/fratty social group, and we believe in the value of dorky things like being good RAs and good mentors/models to younger students, we still feel bad about ourselves on Saturday nights when it seems everyone on campus is walking to the frat row and we're some of the very few literally walking in the opposite direction. We can love what we do, but that concept that there is something else that people who really belong at our school do with their time matters to us. I think we would feel better about ourselves and our choices if we had the sense that what they do wasn't anything special--as opposed to having the sense that what we do is special too. Though I still don't know how to achieve that; it's not really something that can be achieved by a top-down, administrative-policy strategy.

It's also problematic, however, that absent a culture in which you as an undergrad can have a glass of wine with dinner, there's a pretty stark binary that gets enforced between teetotaling and binge-drinking, and there are few contexts (at least at my university) where you can drink in moderation. Perhaps some of those kids who seem to drink only because it's cool and wind up being hurt by binge-drinking are really looking for and not finding a middle ground between those two alcohol-consumption extremes. But of course as long as the drinking age remains 21 there's no real way to combat this.

Thanks so much for continuing to discuss this topic, Prof. Radical. It's one which troubles me as I experience it firsthand, and which I don't think gets discussed in the public sphere nearly enough.

JoVE said...

" And is anyone studying that 28% who don't drink to figure out how they resist peer pressure to conform?"

This is an important question.

I also agree with Token Undergrad about opportunities to drink moderately. The whole policy context & public discourse around alcohol in the US seems to create a culture in which drinking is problematic.

That peer pressure continues, btw. At age 46, I have recently had the experience of being pressured into drinking with pals at a conference. The choice of beer was not up to my standards (yes, I'm a beer snob) and I declined free beer. I've got enough self-esteem not to care, but this clearly disrupted the status quo.

Anonymous said...

Dear TR (with apologies for the length of this comment),

I'm a regular pseudonymous commenter, but feel I need an extra layer of anonymity for this. I am a tenured professor and an alcoholic who got sober around the time of my comps, and I agree with what you and others referenced in this post say about how mistaken perceptions of others' drinking can fuel problems.

I was probably always genetically predisposed to become an alcoholic; I'm not sure anything could have stopped it from happening. But part of the problem during my undergraduate years was a warped perception that everyone was out drinking all the time. This perception is fueled by the fact that we don't often see people having fun in groups outside the context of a bar or party, and the current definition of "party" tends to include alcohol by default. Professors contribute to the problem by modeling alcohol use as a part of adulthood and professional maturity: alcohol-available parties for seniors at a professor's home and senior seminars meeting at the local brewpub were part of my undergraduate experience, and cemented the idea that what I was doing was good and right, and made me one of the grown-ups.

I don't think that a university-directed campaign touting the statistics would have helped change my perceptions, or at least not much. In my case, it's entirely possible that nothing would have gotten through. But what about the non-alcoholic binge drinker? What might help would be if the non-drinkers more visibly organize fun group activities that don't revolve around alcohol. Alcohol might be part of a board game night, a pizza party/study session, an illicit after-hours skinny-dip in the campus pool, but these activities can take place without alcohol and still be a hell of a lot of fun. Students could use ever-so-hip irony, designing these get-togethers as a throwback to the slumber parties of their childhood, with appropriately kid-like beverages.

I'm sure my suggestions sound naïve to many. So be it. I've lived through the alternative, so I'm just speaking from my own experience. Others can take it or leave it, as they choose.

The most important thing, I think, is that change has to come from the students themselves, one student to another. Faculty and administrators can and should support fostering a sobriety-friendly culture (though without prohibiting legal drinking), but only the students can really make an effective change.

Anonymous said...

TR, some students work hard at their academics AND drink -- you've heard the expression "Work hard, play hard" I presume. In any case, student drinking has been perceived as a problem since medieval times (cf. Carmina Burana). It is a problem for some folks, but it seems to me that most grow out of it. College is a time to experiment and blow off steam, and there are many ways of learning. In any case, if those in charge couldn't put a stop to it in the days of "in loco parentis" they sure as hell ain't gonna be able to stop it now! Gaudeamus igitur!

Jack Daniels Black

Anonymous said...

As a recent 2009 alum of Zenith, I want to disagree with this view of the drinking atmosphere a little bit.

As a freshman at Zenith, I chose not to drink at all. I was still social and went to parties, and I never felt pressured to drink. I'm pretty surprised that people feel the need to hold a Solo cup to make it appear that they're drinking, because that doesn't jive with my experiences at all. In fact, people thought it was pretty cool that I chose not to drink and were very respectful. Students were generous and often offered me alcohol, but when I turned it down, it wasn't an issue whatsoever.

When I first started drinking occasionally my sophomore year, it was because it seemed fun and I no longer felt convinced by my moral arguments against drinking. I continued drinking because it was, indeed, fun. I could go out, feel a bit more uninhibited, stop thinking about all the reading I needed to do for the next day, and just dance! I think individuals' reactions to alcohol can differ dramatically, and I am thankful that I am a happy drunk. Drinking a large but unlikely to be dangerous amount of alcohol (about 5 drinks) made me love the world and want to hug all my friends. I've seen other people turn into belligerent drunks who try to throw furniture down the staircase or punch walls; I would strongly encourage those people to limit their drinking severely.

Is drinking 5 drinks in a night every week or two so terrible? I don't think so. It certainly enhanced my enjoyment of my undergraduate experience, facilitated bonds with my peers, and it never led me to make any decisions I later regretted (probably because when I drank, I drank excessively, rather than extremely excessively; I think there's a difference).

Alcoholism can certainly be a problem for some people, but I don't think that was what is happening for most of the Zenith student body. They are people enjoying themselves at the one time in their life they're surrounded almost exclusively by peers their own age. Now a twenty-something Zenith alum in NYC, I will say that most of the twenty-something Zenith alums in NYC that I know do basically the same thing but more expensively at bars, and in some ways more dangerously because we have to take the subway back across town at 4 am instead of getting the RIDE to drive us across campus safely.

I'm going to be honest: I wouldn't trade my drunken Zenith nights for anything. I sang Hedwig and the Angry Inch loudy on the main campus hill, went mudsliding in the rain, and played "drinking games" like Never Have I Ever that allowed me to learn more about and get closer to my friends. (For the record, drinking games like Never Have I Ever are definitely playable with people who choose not to drink! We often would have friends join in and use water or soda instead.)

There's definitely a limit to what is OK. I was even an RA, and I dealt with students who struggled with alcoholism or drank too much (whether that meant hooking up with someone they felt ambivalently about, acting belligerently, or going to the hospital [though luckily that never happened to any of my residents]). There is a fine line between healthy and not healthy. I urge you to keep the relatively healthy, fun drinking separate from the unhealthy, problematic drinking.

I think that the Zenith wellness center does a great job straddling that line. Students should be taught how to properly count their drinks (reading the % alcohol on bottles, learning that the bottom line of a Solo cup is already a shot, etc.), to politely say no, and what levels of alcohol are dangerous.

Anyway. Just my two cents.

Needlelover said...

People are always going to drink. The problem seems to be drink-driving, drink-sexual assaulting, and drink-smashing- some-shit-up. As much as the former is a necessary condition for the latter it isn't a sufficient condition - people all over the world manage to get drunk, have a good time, and do no more wrong than be a bit slow at work the next day and take a couple of painkillers more than they should. In other words, the real question is not why are so many kids so drunk (or how do we stop it - impossible) but rather why are so many kids so stupid. A couple of weeks ago someone suggested a compulsory first term course (not advising session) that really got into the practicalities of being a college student/adult. I think this would be a start - have them learn about college drinking in conjunction with a medical perspective on alcoholism, the impact of the drug trade in conjunction with (abomination!) safer drug taking practices, sexual assault with gender issues, plagiarism with intellectual property, vandalism with economics, anger with neuropsychology, etc etc. Get the students to tie the little freshman things with the big adult things from day 1 on campus so they know they have absolutely no excuse to screw up, plus I think there's some real academic outreach value in there too. Then tell the parents to take it or leave it. Yeah, that's probably why I'll never work in the administration.

Tenured Radical said...

One ought never to base scholarly analysis on nostalgia and regret, but I remember the first time I got stinko drunk at college, and it was exactly a group situation (end of season team party) at a venerable campus club which was famous for serving large loving cups full of alcoholic punch. They would be passed around the table, and you had to drink as long as everyone sang. Saying no (the coach was present, by the way) meant not being part of the team. What I learned from that -- a truly dangerous situation in which we then reeled out onto the street of a highly unsafe city, I was returned home by friends, and subsequently vomited out the window (some of which leaked into the window of the woman below) was that this was normal college drinking behavior.

Hence the launch of my career as a binge drinker, who never became an alcoholic, thank God. But I would have to say, when I partied hard? I didn't work hard. I couldn't. I was too tired, too hungover, and I often got sick from lack of sleep. Hence a rather lurching up and down two years of grades which fortunately straightened out by junior year -- but by then I had already established a record as a mediocre student which had to be overcome, and I had missed some of the opportunities to establish relationships with professors that would have taken me somewhere. Instead I had learned to lie about unfinished work with ease, and make excuses for myself which even I believed.

And I guess to the Zenith student for whom drinking recalls fond memories of camaraderie and intimacy: I get that. But some of that intimacy is just pretend, and one sign of alcohol abuse is using it to get intimate with people, or achieve a special feeling you can't get any other way. I'm glad you didn't turn into a drunk -- but yours is only one experience I'm afraid. And I wonder if you have any idea what you are like after 5 drinks? As someone who barely drinks at all anymore, and observes others who do, my guess is: you are boring, you repeat yourself, you spill stuff on other people, and you are intimate with people who may be sending you signals that you can't read that they don't want you draped all over them.

According to a highly place administrator at Zenith, about a dozen students every weekend end up at the local hospital with alcohol poisoning. That doesn't count the kids who don't make it to the hospital and live anyway; and the ones who are really drunk but don;t reach that threshold. I don't think we can write that off as the students who "just can't handle it."

Vellum said...

Two things: first, I'm a little concerned that we're conflating drinking 5 drinks or more in a week with alcoholism. Some of the drinking practices of students are certainly unhealthy, but unhealthy drinking isn't always (and in fact, in college-age students often isn't) alcoholism. If drinking a pint a day 6 days a week is alcoholism, a vast majority of the UK is comprised of alcoholics. This isn't to belittle the suggestion that there should be more non-alcoholic fun to be had on campus, just that the majority of those who have unhealthy drinking habits aren't likely to be suffering from alcoholism.

Second: while Ringle might like that number to be 53.5% higher, 46.5% is all she's likely to get.

SW said...

I think that most undergrads assume that everyone on campus is drinking more than they are, having more sex than they are, and having more fun than they are.

I grew up near Davidson, and one thing worth pointing out it is that there is a strong culture in North Carolina of people who don't drink for religious reasons. I suspect that many of the 28% who abstain do so out of religious principle, which may explain why it's easier for them to resist peer pressure.

Vellum said...

Also: regarding my earlier post:

Ugh. "Is composed of alcoholics," or "comprises alcoholics". Not "is comprised of" Vocab fail. *sigh*

Leslie M-B said...

As an undergrad in the mid-1990s, I was one of the students who didn't drink at Grinnell College, in an Iowa town of (then) 8,000 people where some folks might argue there wasn't much else to do. Even on-campus, college-sponsored parties had free beer--I suppose to keep students from getting too mixed up with folks at the bars downtown.

Yet I never felt peer pressure to drink, even though I was far from secure in my sense of self. I think it's a matter of (a) having a circle of friends who didn't consume much alcohol and (b) students feeling pretty confident about their choices and decisions (not just about drinking, but more generally). I'm wondering if there was a connection between the utter lack of academic competition among students (everyone assumed everyone else was a high achiever, and I don't recall folks talking about grades or test scores) and students lacking the desire to keep up with one another's alcohol consumption.

I suppose it helps that students aren't drawn to small-town central Iowa for the parties, and there weren't frats or sororities at Grinnell.

Yes, there were students who drank too much, but my sense is that these were a very small minority.

Urban Exile said...

The first time I got wasted at college was at a free beer event sponsored by alumni. Vomiting on the shoes of the young buffalo who was escorting me home was probably the only thing that saved me from date rape. Nothing like throwing up on his shoes to ruin the mood!

Peer pressure comes in various guises depending upon who you are and who your surrounding peers are. Alcohol is not the only distractor. I was not part of the sports or secret society groups, but I became part of the art, literature, poetry, hip gang that not only drank at the free beer nights but also did LSD, cocaine, free base, smoked marijuana (a lot) and even opium. I was immature and easily led, and was experiencing co-education and a lot of social and sexual opportunities for the first time in my life. It was all woozily seductive and I did what others did out of curiosity and a need to belong to a tribe.

I did more drugs and drank more in my freshman year of college than I have in the whole rest of my life. Besides that, the many liaisons and messy relationships took up a lot of time and emotional energy too.

Like TR, I did OK on the grades, but far from the top flight work I could have done. I missed a lot of connections with potential mentors and, frankly, with more sober focused peers all of whom might well have helped me proceed with greater excellence, creativity and achievement in my life. Getting drunk on free beer was definitely not compatible with being a scholar or with forming really sound relationship with, well, sober people. Neither was having ill-advised sexual liaisons or smoking big old doobies.

As we look at the juice problem on campus, let us also look not only at the other drugs (including Aderall and all the other modern hype up RXs), but also at the other distractions that keep students from being the people they could be. 18 years old can be too young to make responsible decisions -- depending on who you are.

Urban Exile said...

The first time I got wasted at college was at a free beer event sponsored by alumni. Vomiting on the shoes of the young buffalo who was escorting me home was probably the only thing that saved me from date rape. Nothing like throwing up on his shoes to ruin the mood! I was not part of the sports or secret society groups, but I became part of the art, literature, poetry, hip gang that not only drank at the free beer nights but also did LSD, cocaine, free base, smoked marijuana (a lot) and even opium. I was immature and easily led, and was experiencing co-education and men for the first time. It was all woozily seductive and I needed to belong to a tribe. The many liaisons and messy relationships took up a lot of time too. Like TR, I did OK on the grades, but far from the top flight work I could have done. I missed a lot of connections with potential mentors and, frankly, with more sober focused peers all of whom might well have helped me achieve more in my life. Getting drunk on free beer was definitely not compatible with being a scholar or with forming really sound relationships with sober people. Neither was having ill-advised sexual liaisons or smoking big old doobies. 18 years old can be too young to make responsible decisions -- depending on who they are.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The culture of my crowd in undergrad was to be hypercompetitive at scholarly accomplishments *and* dissipation. While I am not particularly proud of it now, back then I was very proud of being known as the guy who outlasted all his friends at the party Thursday night yet still aced the exam Friday morning. One of my friends dropped acid and then spent the next 24 hours writing his bachelor's thesis in fucken financial accounting, for which he was awarded high honors.

Having said all that, the fact that multiple students at Zenith are hospitalized every fucken week with alcohol poisoning suggests that things are more extreme nowadays. The only person I was acquainted with in college whom I ever even heard of ending up in the hospital was a woman freshman year who smoked one too many bong hits and thought she was "dying". And I was definitely associated with what passed for the hard-partying crowd.

dance said...

I might have gone to school at ComradePhysioProf's alma mater...

Anyhow--I'm always skeptical of these numbers and the research, which I am not sure are asking the right questions.

5 drinks a week is totally consonsant with getting trashed every Saturday night. Which, at my college, was general practice---Thursday tended to be low-key party nights, and it was such a jock school that Fridays were verboten as teams prepped for games. So that's not a stat that necessarily speaks to the healthy/unhealthyness of college social life.

The solo cup thing, to me--is not bad. I think the origin of the "do you need a drink" question is a desire to make sure people are happy at the party---that it can be deflected with a cup full of water is very useful.

Frats in themselves are not necessarily a problem--but the centralization of social life IS. My school did not have frats (teams substituted somewhat) but there were various social events that people could go to and still feel socially well-adjusted, part of the college, etc, that were not all hard-drinking things. Some group started a monthly Cotton Club-style thing. So that vocal minority of heavy drinkers didn't get so much traction, because other students had things to say back, and people heading out for a fun night are heading in ALL directions. But those spaces, when directly sponsored by the college, tended not to succeed. The organic ones did.

Personally, I would link anti-alcohol efforts to dancing. Redefining "cool" as not requiring a critical mass strikes me as unlikely. But the Black Student Union on campus, or the Latino student union, could get a full house with a DJ and no alchohol at all. No one else could. I think dancing at parties is becoming more mainstream among younger generations, as opposed to when I was in college, when most people had to be trashed before they hit the dance floor. (brewing a post about things like that) And it is tricky to both drink and dance at the same time, so that maybe general practice for a Saturday night becomes 3 drinks, spread over a longer time.

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