Friday, April 20, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Alcohol on a Student's Breath

A new correspondent writes:

I'm currently a graduate student within a large, urban, drastically overcrowded and underfunded public university system. This is my third year of adjuncting. I teach writing and humanities courses. And basically, I'm trying to figure what I ought to do if I think a student's using alcohol to cope. The student in question is an older-than-average female with something of a comprehension problem (basic to intermediate English is okay, three-dollar words are not). And at our last two individual meetings (I do a number of one-on-ones in this course), I've smelled alcohol on her breath. If it were an evening class I probably wouldn't have the same level of concern, but the course meets from 8-10 AM.

On some level, I feel that ethically, I ought to "do something" -- but there are a number of reasons I'm reluctant to engage. This is not an "in loco parentis" kind of institution. My students all commute, they've got jobs and often families. This student is probably at least a decade older than I am. It's not the same campus at which I do my grad work, so I'm not all that familiar with the administration or campus life. (I mean, I adjunct -- I get there, teach, grade some papers, maybe meet with a student or two, and leave. I don't get paid enough to establish a presence, particularly when I'm also expected to be a student elsewhere.) I'm also stretched a bit thin at present, psychologically speaking. (Teaching three classes this semester has improved my standard of living, but hasn't really helped me be a good graduate student.) So I'm not sure I can "deal" with this on top of everything else I've got to manage on a regular basis.

I feel bad for the student, but is it honestly my problem? Can I designate it an SEP field [someone else's problem] and move on? Or do I need to involve myself?

My first concern here is that you say everybody commutes, and the class is at 8:00 in the morning. Unless she gets a ride somehow, or drinks in the parking lot before class, she's driving drunk. That's a serious public safety issue. So I don't think that just pretending not to notice is a good idea.

You're within your rights to ask the student directly if there's a problem, but unless she's about to get in her car, I wouldn't recommend it. Most likely, you'll get indignant denial followed by retaliatory charges, and life is too short. (If she's about to get in her car, I'd call campus security and/or the local police.) Even if she doesn't react with anger, you may well wind up getting sucked into her drama, which is not likely to turn out well for you.

A better approach, most of the time, would be to engage the folks on campus whose job it is to deal with this sort of thing. Most colleges and universities I know have something like a Dean of Students, a Dean of Student Affairs, or a Dean of Student Development. Those areas typically include counselors who are trained to deal with all matter of student issues, including alcohol abuse. (That's actually one of the classics.)

At my campus, an instructor can go directly to the Student Development people and report a concern about a given student; the Student Development people then reach out to the student. That means you don't have to confront the student personally. The Student Development people can then keep a record of a concern, do referrals to substance abuse counselors if needed, deploy their in-house counseling staff, or whatever else is appropriate. (They don't disclose the name of the professor if it isn't a disciplinary matter, but the student may well figure it out anyway by process of elimination.) Make it their problem, rather than yours. They're trained for it.

In this case, adjunct status shouldn't make a difference. It's not about you; it's about the student.

You don't mention anything about any actual improper behavior, so I'll assume that alcohol is the only issue. Since that's the case, and I'm assuming this isn't a 'dry' campus (since you say it's public), this really isn't a disciplinary issue. It's a counseling issue. Let the counselors handle it.

I've had variations on this issue in the past with faculty who had alcohol on their breath. That's a trickier case, since a drunk professor on campus is a disciplinary issue by definition, and a mistaken (or unproven) charge would bring countercharges of discrimination, union grievances, and all the rest. And it's not like I walk around with a breathalyzer.

In grad school, I had a professor who regularly held a Friday morning drinking club in his office. He invited his favorite grad students (always deferential young men) to drink brandy out of paper cups and talk about life, the universe, and everything. (I was never part of the group. Not deferential enough, I guess.) He also tended to lubricate his lunches with bourbon manhattans. (Bourbons manhattan? I'm not sure what the plural of that is.) It became a sort of accepted wisdom that if you needed to talk to him about anything substantive, you did it before Friday, and before lunch. How he never got a DUI was utterly beyond me.

(I once had a conversation with him at a conference, after he had had his share. He was feeling no pain, and actually said this to me, in all inebriated sincerity: “I used to wonder why I don't like you. I mean, you're a nice guy, you're smart, and you write like a dream. Then I realized, you remind me of me at your age.” Armchair psychologists, have at it. I thought it was one of the most f-ed up things I'd ever heard.)

I'm just cynical enough to suspect that quasi-secret drinking on campus is more common than most of us would like to think. My usual reaction to that kind of drama is to try to distance myself from it, since I suspect that no good could come of my mucking around in it. I'd recommend a call to the student affairs office.

For a more humanistic viewpoint, I asked Lesboprof what she would do. Her response:

Well, if it were me, I would:

(a) talk to the head of the department/adjunct coordinator/whoever hired you about the issue, so they know what is going on and so you can get suggested referral resources from them;

(b) if that person cannot tell you answers, look up the campus resources that ARE available (usually some kind of student health services, often focused on issues like mental health and alcohol and drug stuff), or, if not, what is available in the local urban area--this should be a 15 minute long endeavor, at most; and

(c) next time you meet with the student, once you have completed all related academic work, confront the student, nicely and helpfully, and say, "I may be wrong, but I thought that I smelled alcohol on your breath both times we have met. It made me a little concerned about you. I wanted to make sure you know that there are resources available on campus and in the community if you think you might have a drinking problem." Reassure the person that you respect her and you just want to help her be successful.

I would document the meeting and keep it handy, in case said student is offended or defensive, which could definitely happen whether the student is addicted or not. And then I would let it go, because addicts will only pursue help when they are ready.

And he should not sweat the age stuff--I think we all still have some authority as a teacher, whether earned or not. :-)

I do see this kind of intervention as a kind of public service with students, just as I try to help them reduce anxiety, follow up on what they are supposed to be doing, use a planner to keep track of assignments, write an outline for papers, learn to call if they have to miss class, etc., depending on their needs. But I am not their friend or parent, and so I do not follow up or feel responsible.

If you're okay with confronting the student yourself, her advice to document the meeting is spot-on. And I'm absolutely in agreement about not following up or feeling responsible. If you're not okay with confronting the student, go with my slightly more weaselly approach.

Loyal readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

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