by Kelvin Smith 

In more than fifty years I have rarely been to a publishing event (a book launch, company celebration, party of any kind) that did not focus on the availability and consumption of alcoholic drinks. Likewise, the academic world nearly always includes ‘drinks’ or ‘wine’ on the announcement of seminars, conferences and academic celebrations.

As someone who has a long history of enjoying alcohol and a more recent period of several years’ total abstention, I wonder if alcohol doesn’t have a significant bearing on the current debates on inclusivity in both publishing and in universities. Both publishers and academics are now exploring what it would mean to be more inclusive – of different classes, ethnicities, cultures, nationalities, languages, genders and political views. But I have yet to hear or read much about the role alcohol plays in limiting inclusion and acceptance. Perhaps it’s time to look at this.

Publishing has long incorporated excessive drinking in its self-image.  If companies and organisations don’t always centre their public events on the consumption of alcohol, drinking is almost always the bookend against which any publishing event rests. The words ‘networking’ and ‘drinks’ appear together on notices and invitations, implying that one would be almost nigh impossible without the other. It goes without saying that the habit of drinking in this way is more likely to be acquired by certain class, gender and cultural demographic groups.

drinking is almost always the bookend against which any publishing event rests

Universities too are full of people who use alcohol with the intention and expectation that it will make them more interesting and attractive. Undergraduates binge on any free drink going, lecturers consume large glasses of cheap wine anxious to show their empathy with students and colleagues (often the intellectual version of dad-dancing), and distinguished professors posture as they mimic the claret-soaked denizens of Oxbridge high tables.

In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey J Cohen talks about the “many potential members a community of drinkers quietly excludes”. His long list includes people who abstain for religious reasons; people with allergies and medical conditions; people who are pregnant; those who have successfully overcome a struggle with substance abuse; those who are particularly conscious that alcohol can increase the chances of assault and unwanted attention; those who worry about the way alcohol can bring on unprofessional behaviour; and those who simply do not want to drink.

It’s true that academic meetings now sometimes try to bring in other concepts of scholarly refreshment. An annual meeting of medievalist, Jeffrey J. Cohen tells us, now has a regular social event centred on the ‘Medieval Donut’, and the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) puts a lot of emphasis on ice creams at its conferences. SHARP Ice Cream even has its own Twitter account at @sharpicecream.  But in spite of the cupcakes and artisan savouries, it’s alcohol that still rules the roost, and if alternatives are offered they are often sugary own brand soft drinks, cheap fruit juices or water from plastic bottles.

in spite of the cupcakes and artisan savouries, it’s alcohol that still rules the roost

The message is sent and received: alcohol and its ‘enjoyment’ are an integral part of the academic institution, a bolt-on to intellectual and scholarly life, one which acts as an exclusionary disincentive to those who do not conform. Whether for religious, moral, or health reasons, or because they do not like the effects of alcohol on themselves or on others around them, many who choose not to drink are excluded, and probably made to feel so. Those affected in this way may well be members of the precise groups that universities make noises about wanting to ‘include’.

I no longer attend such meetings, but I would respectfully suggest that those – in both the publishing and the academic world – who have a commitment to inclusivity in all its many manifestations give some thought to the following. The mostly unquestioned assumption that alcohol is a necessary adjunct to joining a professional group or network may be a real obstacle to some currently excluded people ever being included, or even wanting to be.

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