Section: Features

A look into Professor Dave Suggs’ research on college drinking

On a fateful autumn day in 1986, a bulletin board in Philadelphia caught the attention of Dave Suggs, who would soon become Kenyon’s beloved anthropology professor. A flyer posted at the employment center of the American Anthropological Association informed Suggs that Kenyon College was looking to hire an individual trained in medical anthropology with an area focus in Sub-Saharan Africa. The College sought someone who had a master’s in sociology and a Ph.D. in anthropology, and who hopefully had an interest in gender studies. Suggs, who matched the description on the board perfectly, said, “I looked at this and I remember thinking, ‘That is just bizarre, right?’” It appeared that Kenyon and Suggs had unknowingly been searching for each other. 

Since his hiring in 1987, Suggs has created a particularly powerful legacy at Kenyon, as felt through his iconic storytelling lecture style, his unwavering devotion to students and the two Baccalaureate addresses he delivered at the College. 

But aside from his impact on the community through his teaching, he has made an equally important impact through his own ethnographic research into the lives of Kenyon’s students. Ten years into his Kenyon career, Suggs embarked on a decade-long research project that aimed to explore the alcohol consumption of college students. “I realized there was no ethnographic literature on college student drinking,” he said. 

Through on-campus ethnographic fieldwork, Suggs observed the behavior of Kenyon students, who were extremely welcoming to him throughout the intimate and lengthy research process. During these years, Suggs took part in a vibrant campus tradition called the Friday Afternoon Drinking Club. On these occasions, he attended Kenyon students’ pre-games, parties and after-parties, observing the influence alcohol had on students’ behavior.

Often, underage drinking in America is deeply misunderstood, making Suggs’s research all the more important. He finds that even with its potentially reductive consequences, drinking can still be a productive experience as it can facilitate all types of interactions. In particular, Suggs found that alcohol can be a utility for forming bonds and strengthening relationships. The depth of friendships that students were able to build in the presence of alcohol, which almost always involved a careful looking out for one another, was particularly astonishing to him. “I came to see the students were doing a lot of different things productively with alcohol, even if they were also creating problems for themselves with it,” Suggs said.

 The fundamental nature of social drinking changed when the U.S. Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984. With these laws forbidding individuals under the age of 21 from consuming alcohol, drinking became a privatized ritual for youth. Without social controls built into the context of situations involving alcohol, drinking comportment — which Suggs described as a “culturally learned thing” — can be severely affected. It is important to have mechanisms in place that keep people in check as they drink, and without these mechanisms, problems are much more likely to arise.

As drinking games and other similar behaviors became increasingly popular during the early 2000s, Kenyon’s administration considered how to best handle the College’s drinking culture. According to Suggs, the College’s decisions aimed to prohibit the activity of on-campus drinking, such as banning beer pong, were really just encouragement for students to leave campus to drink — a potentially more hazardous decision as driving becomes involved.

Time and time again, Kenyon’s administration has expressed anxiety about how alcohol affects the behavior and safety of students, and perhaps rightfully so. On April 3, 2005, Colin Boyarski ’08 lost his life to hypothermia after being outside on a very cold night without a coat. Boyarski’s death, which was felt deeply by the entire community, led to immense feelings of guilt by many, as alcohol may have contributed to his passing. “Boy, a bunch of us cried really hard for a very long time,” Suggs said. “I knew some of his friends and they felt responsible.”

Since the beginning of the 21st century, Kenyon’s drinking culture has changed a lot. In many ways, drinking may be better understood by students than it used to be. The pandemic has forced a great deal of responsibility onto students, who can now better see the immediate consequences of drinking, like the unintended spread of COVID-19 that inevitably occurs as inhibitions are lowered and people gather, perhaps forgetfully, in larger groups.

Despite a better understanding of alcohol among students, Suggs thinks that student drinking is less understood by the College’s administration. As Kenyon moves forward, he suggested that the administration should consider how students can be safer on campus. Suggs noted that Minimum Legal Drinking Age laws restrict student activity in a way that forces them to find unsafe alternatives, and urged the College to lobby Congress to reconsider these counterproductive laws. “It’s important for institutions of higher education to stand up to that governmental mentality and say to them, ‘You haven’t actually really saved lives. You’ve just shifted the age of the people who died,’” he said.

With his sabbatical on the horizon next spring, Suggs plans to conduct research on tourism and alcohol consumption in Ireland. He looks forward to the birth of his first grandchild in August of 2022, and to his retirement after returning from Ireland. According to Suggs, although he is no longer Kenyon’s “alcohol man,” he is eager for someone to take on the role of advancing the College’s efforts to create a safer drinking environment for its students.

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