One of my favorite parts of my new job as a college health educator is teaching my alcohol education class. Every couple weeks I have the privilege of working late to spend my evening in a classroom with 4-12 students who were caught violating the school’s alcohol policy. Yep, this is a mandated class. (Talk about a captive audience.)
But seriously, I love it. The first couple classes were tough since I was still learning the ropes, teaching myself everything I needed to know about alcohol, and hammering out the kinks in the curriculum I inherited. The next month was still somewhat fraught as I tried new things that flopped and continued to tweak and adjust the lesson plan. I learned a lot of things, like for example, that students don’t readily believe statistics that challenge their assumptions and that older students have a much, much bigger attitude about going to a mandated alcohol education class than younger students. (And that 20 year old boys are SO MUCH BIGGER than 18 year old boys. The difference is unreal, people.)
Tonight I taught a really great, mixed-age group of guys (remember, I teach at a school that’s 85% male) and I finally feel like I’ve got this on lock. I love teaching this class.
As you might expect, a lot of the class focuses on the effects of alcohol on the body and talking about standard drinks and Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) levels and the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning, etc., but I begin each class by giving a brief talk about the history of alcohol and the culture of drinking.
I explain that ever since Ancient Egypt, alcohol has been a part of the human experience. I say that alcohol has always been understood to have benefits when used in moderation, and consequences when used in excess. I talk about the nutritional, medicinal, and ritualistic uses of alcohol in the history of human civilization. And then I talk about our modern culture of college binge drinking and how we got here from there.
As a part of this discussion I talk about the impact of alcohol advertising and movies like Animal House (1978) and Old School (2004) and Project X (2011). And here is where it gets good because here is where, even when I’m not particularly trying, we get to talk about drinking and gender.
First I show the class this ad for Coors:
I ask what messages they think this ad is sending. What is this ad trying to say? I ask them to focus on the “credit card roulette” part, and we end up talking about risk-taking, recklessness, impulse control, and competition and how that relates to masculinity. Then we focus on the “guys night out” part, and I ask them to think about all the different things that are marketed as “guy things,” like sports, man caves, grilling, etc., and ask what percentage of those things involve drinking beer.
“Like, all of them,” a student says.
“Why do you think that is?”
“Well, guys like to drink beer,” another adds.
“It’s fun,” says one student.
“Women like to drink wine and stuff,” adds another.
“Yeah, they prefer wine or like fancy drinks.”
“Why? Is there a something in the female hormones or chromosomes that makes women like wine more than beer?”
“Why are advertising companies trying to sell beer as something that’s for guys?”
“To sell more beer.”
“Is there any particular reason why we think that watching sports and drinking beer go together?”
“Well, it’s fun. It’s just part of it.”
“And which came first, the chicken or the advertising?”
Then I show them the following ads for Barcardi.
“So, what message are these ads trying to tell us about drinking?”
“That it turns you into someone else.”
“That it makes you sexy.”
“It gets you laid.”
“Who is the audience for these ads?” (There is debate about the first ad and whether it’s targeted at men or women.)
“Do women wear a lot of clothing in alcohol ads?”
“In movies like Old School and Project X, when do you see female characters on screen?”
Etc., and so on.
Being an old-fashioned tech school that’s 85% men, my campus is average or below average when it comes to gender awareness. It might also be below average in awareness regarding media literacy and critical analysis. So these conversations are pretty huge, and even though they barely scratch the surface of the complexities of what there is to understand about gender, they are an important, eye-opening, first step.
As a follow-up to the alcohol class, I assign each student a reflection paper. I ask them to write about a few things they learned that they found particularly interesting or surprising. A lot of them mention tidbits from our discussion of gender in drinking culture, and that just warms the shit of my little, feminist heart.
There have been moments in my new job where I felt disappointed that certain gender-related topics were outside the scope of my position. I am a health educator not a gender educator after all. Still, I am learning and evolving and infusing gender into other discussions in ways that are relevant and meaningful. I’m also upping the ante by serving on the Diversity Committee and helping plan programming around gender and other great things like race and religion.
My tiny revolution is brewing, and hopefully soon it’ll grow to a simmer. How many licks does it take to turn a bunch of conservative engineers into feminists? I’m not sure, but I’m certainly up for the challenge.