Booze And Culture: Penn State’s New, Educational Look At Alcohol
Talking for even a few minutes with Dr. Kirk French about his new class, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the man has a passion for alcohol. Discussing alcohol, learning about alcohol, drinking alcohol — French loves it all.
“I’m sure somebody’s told you this before, do what you love,” he said. “I love to drink, and I love to teach, so I’m going to teach about drinking. It’s perfect for me because I get really excited about it.”
Next semester, the anthropology professor will debut ANTH 140, the Anthropology of Alcohol. The course is designed to take students around the world, learning how alcohol fits into different cultures from an anthropological standpoint. From far East Asia to frat row, the class will look at the development of drinking, its cultural significance, and how alcohol has affected civilization for as long as it’s been around.
“The class is a trip around the world introducing people to different cultures, but the vehicle is booze,” French said. “We’re gonna see the world, we’re gonna talk about the history of a particular culture or society, and we’re gonna look at it archaeologically, like where the earliest evidence of this particular type of booze started, where it came from, and get into the cultural aspect of it, of how people drink there, what are the drinking cultures, is it ceremonial only or is it extremely social, or whatever it is, each group has their own way in which they do this.”
He explained as long as people have been around, alcohol has played a role in shaping cultures — even if that role is one where alcohol is prohibited. From the ceremonial to the social, different regions of the world have unique customs and rituals when it comes to making and drinking types of alcohol. The world of alcohol ranges everywhere from the normal (like Russian vodka) to the strange (like Mongolian Airag, more commonly known as fermented horse milk).
French, whose background consists almost entirely of Mezo-American studies and extensive research into Mayan culture in Mexico, got the idea for the class after research trips to see how tequila is made.
“I love tequila, and I wanted to know more about it, so I would just go places and ask some people about it and go to some small distilleries…and I would drink with [the Maya] and see how they make [their alcohol] and it started fascinating me,” he said. “I started dabbling in taking photos of what people drink and asking why they drink it. I started really seeing the interest from students, and thought maybe I should start a whole class on this.”
For some students, the experience could extend beyond the classroom into an embedded component that includes a spring break trip across the Atlantic. French plans to take 12 students to Scotland to get a hands-on feel of how other cultures make and develop their specialty drinks — in this case, Scotch-whiskey.
“I’m taking about 12 students to Scotland for spring break, and we’ll go to some whiskey distilleries and have lectures from distillers from the whiskey museum, visit some castles, but mostly distilleries,” he said. “It’s seven days of touring around Scotland looking at the rich history of Scotch-whiskey.”
Currently, the class is only scheduled next semester, but French hopes to teach it in both the fall and spring semesters. He understands the difficulty of getting students to take an embedded trip over Thanksgiving break, so to compensate, he plans to switch it up a bit and give students a chance to study something near and dear to their hearts: tailgating.
“In the fall is when you’ll do more of a tailgating component, so then everyone in the course will be required to tailgate, but not to go out and booze it up, but to step back and see what people do, watch the behaviors of this very strange ceremony that goes on, that surrounds what is essentially a temple while everybody is consuming alcohol on the grounds. What are they drinking, what is the quality of what they’re drinking?”
At first, given Penn State’s continued attempt to cut down on binge drinking, Dr. French felt the odds of getting the class approved were low. But when he proposed it, he got an encouraging response from the university. It welcomed the idea of a class giving students a broader world perspective on a topic so prevalent on college campuses.
“They were in full support that students see how people around the world drink, not to entice them to drink, and not necessarily to dissuade them, but knowledge is power,” he said. “So if you know more about how people do things all over the world, you think about things a little differently, maybe you won’t drink until you puke next time, who knows.”
For now, the class will accommodate about 90 students since French was unable to get the class approved as a general education option for the spring semester. While liberal arts majors will be able to use the class as a gen ed, the rest of Penn State will have to wait a while. However, when the class is cleared as a gen ed for other students, French hopes to teach 250 students each semester.
Aside from the embedded trip, the class will feature two days of lecture each week, using Fridays as more of an open forum with topics driven by students’ social media posts for credit. With his passion for the subject, French hopes to engage students in a meaningful way that allows them to learn and enjoy the class at the same time.
“It’s a 100 level course. It’s not gonna be that hard. There’s gonna be exams. There’s gonna be quizzes. You’re going to have to do your stuff and show up to class, but the subject matter is fun and I hope that people walk away from it thinking ‘I just learned a lot about the world and different cultures,'” he said. “And then the next time they’re at the liquor store they know exactly what they’re looking for.”
The class promises to be an informative and interesting look at one of the most universally-known topics, one almost any college student can relate to. Because at the end of the day, Dr. French just wants to teach about alcohol and its place in society.
“I wanted to call it Booze and Culture, but I didn’t think that was appropriate for the books, so it’s Anthropology of Alcohol, but I’ll call it Booze and Culture.”