Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Torn by alcohol awareness

As I've mentioned before, NWU has a special first year program (as do a good many other schools). In our case, we sign up for (usually) one of our classes, in English, almost always the first year writing class, to be a Special Programs Class (SPC).

When we participate, we basically agree to try to foster the goals of the SPC program, which are basically:

introduce students to the idea of a liberal arts education
enhance students' academic skills
enhance students' connection to the university
participate in meaningful academic and non-academic out-of-class activities
encourage students to take responsibility for their education

All of these are goals I can easily get behind, seriously. While some are probably obvious (doesn't every class seek to enhance students' academic skills?), the out-of-class activities one might not be. In my classes, this means students have to attend and write about the campus art gallery, a live performance, a lecture or academic talk, and at least two meetings of campus organizations. They have choices for all these activities, so they can work them in over the semester, do what interests them, and so forth. Few of my students have ever been to an art gallery, live theater, or a lecture, so they get a bit of a taste of some of the things that make a college community really wonderful.

Anyway, today I got the usual beginning of the acadmic year information about the SPC workshop we're supposed to attend. Does the workshop try to help us address the goals we're all supposed to be working towards in common? Do we talk about activities or assignments that might help us accomplish our goals? That would make sense, wouldn't it? It would help me a lot!

But no, in my experience, mostly these workshops try to convince the faculty that we're responsible for educating our students about alcohol awareness.

Yes, alcohol abuse is a serious problem, for students and everyone else in this state (seriously, the statistics are dismal). But...

First, my class isn't the place for anti-alcohol education. I'm not qualified to teach people not to drink. I'm qualified to teach English lit and writing. And it's hard enough to teach writing in the time we have in this class. What should I give up to teach alcohol awareness? And who's going to really teach me about alcoholism and such, because if I'm supposed to do another PhD in counseling to do this, it's going to be a cold day in hell.

Second, every student on our campus is aware of alcohol. They've been told every year since they were very young that smoking and drinking alcohol are bad. BAD. B. A. D. They've also been told that all drugs will make you instantly addicted. And yet, the whole state has a drinking problem, so something about this educational message isn't getting through. People also smoke, use recreational chemicals, and have unsafe sex.

At any rate, I doubt that hearing me tell them not to drink would have much effect.

Our more senior students have little good to say about the alcohol awareness campaign that's been going on for years now. They don't respect it, though they do express respect for the SPC program and the class they took through it. Yet by and large, our more senior students drink less than our first and second year students. So things do change (population? practices? some combination?)

And third, those goals above, see how none of them says anything about alcohol awareness? You know, every so often all the assessment driven focus on goals and meeting objectives really does serve a purpose!

And yet, I do know that alcohol abuse is a problem on our campus, that most rapes involving our students involve alcohol (though too often that fact gets cast as the victim's fault, because she was drinking so someone could take advantage of her).

What would effective alcohol abuse prevention look like?

Where would it happen?

Who'd teach it?

I don't have the answers to those questions; if I did, I'd make millions very fast off the college anti-alcohol industry!

What works on your campus? Who's responsible?


  1. We've had a reputation as a bit of a party school too, and one of the things that we've done in recent years is a program called something like "WVUp all night" which supposedly offers a regular alternative to drinking on drinking nights.

    You can blather on about responsible behavior all you want, but if responsibility means there's nothing to do, then screw responsibility. You can read a little more about the program here:

  2. I read some really interesting research on college drinking (don't remember where, unfortunately) that suggested that the more campuses talked about alcohol abuse, the more students got the impression that everyone was doing it, and that actually made them more likely to! Where campuses that didn't make as much fuss gave the students the impression that there wasn't that much binge drinking going on, so they felt less pressure to join in. It's a tricky game to play, of course, because you don't want to downplay the problem, but this does make a perverse kind of sense.

  3. I'm confused, as a Brit. If you are at a university, NW(University), aren't your students a bit old for stuff like that? Still, if you want to get them to think about alcohol consumption you could get them to produce advertising copy to maximise the sale of drinks to folk of their age and younger, knowing that it is damaging to their health. Put them in the position of entirely unethical advertising executives intent on getting their punters (underage or young adult) to buy as much booze as possible, regardless of the individual and social consequences, and all whilst dodging around any regulatory laws. You will bring home to them that alcohol sells like tobacco, as a product, to make money, and they are just the expendable cannon fodder that makes the booze corporations rich. Doesn't matter whether it is salt, sugar, and fat in over-processed food, tobacco, or alcohol. It is all taste-addictive and will make them obese, sick, vulnerable, and lead to long term health problems. Show them how they are targetted by making them the seller, not the punter who buys it.

  4. Clanger, that's a brilliant idea! WOW! (Our students generally start around 18, drinking isn't legal til 21, but it happens a lot, sometimes fatally.)

    C&D, There's a fair bit of stuff to do that doesn't involve alcohol in the evenings, like STUDYING! (or bowling, billiards, a non-alcohol serving dance area, all near the dorms.)

    PH, I've never heard that research, but it's interesting, isn't it. I've certainly heard students complain that the programs are way too much, and make it seem like everyone drinks. Hmmm. I should maybe look to see if there's any research showing that all the programming actually makes any difference!

  5. Our school has a similar program, though the anti-alcohol component is actually led by someone with research expertise in it.

    I have no idea whether it's especially effective, and now I can't remember what it's called, but it aims directly at the assumption that "everyone" drinks. The argument is that college students consistently overestimate the number of students who are actually drinking to excess regularly (though they may underestimate the incidence of problems).

    Like Bardiac, I have always had qualms about teaching this in class. This year, though, my comp class is linked with a section of General Psych, and so that professor is handling it.

  6. JBJ- I think the program you're talking about is some form of social norming campaign, which is being replicated across the nation as the next big thing in alcohol education. The basic premise centers around using peer pressure to elicit good rather than destructive behavior. From what I've seen, it has had a positive impact on students' views and use of alcohol.

    I used to coordinate a first-year experience course, and one of the major things we discussed is substance abuse. Because the seminar was taught by upperclassmen rather than faculty, the topic was something students could talk about candidly without fear of reprisal from the scary professor in the room.

    But, in doing training workshops for faculty, I remind them that while they don't have to be experts in alcohol education (especially because someone else is better trained and better qualified to do that), at minimum they should know the campus resources to help students facing that particular issue.

    I frame it within Maslow's hierarchy of needs: If a student is consistently drunk, broke because he goes out too much, or experiences relationship troubles because of alcohol, then there's little chance that any kind of academic and intellectual development will occur. As we all know, the first thing that goes out the window when these "life crises" occur (and believe me, students consider them crises) is academics. They start skipping class, doing poorly on assignments, etc.

    I think the least we can do as educators is to recognize the issue and refer students to help as appropriate.