THE BEER BEAT: Your brain on coursework, or expanding the mind one pint at a time.


Just a few weeks ago, I happily contributed a segment to the IU Bicentennial Oral History Project.

I am the student worker of Dr. Elizabeth Gritter. Dr. Gritter is a Professor of History and Director of the Institute for Local and Oral History at IU Southeast. She is also supervising the IUS Campus Oral History Project, which is a part of the larger IU Bicentennial Oral History Project that is being done as a way to commemorate IU’s upcoming bicentennial in 2020. For this project, we are conducting oral history interviews of faculty, staff, and alumni who have been a part of the IU Southeast community to learn about their experiences at the school. These interviews are then archived at the libraries at both IU Southeast and IU Bloomington.

It might help to know that from 1978 through 1982, I attended IU Southeast in New Albany. Somehow I emerged from there with a Bachelors of Arts degree (majoring in philosophy) and an impending career of It’s Anyone’s Guess (majoring in beer).

Majoring in beer?

Evidently. At one point in the oral history interview, I paused for breath following a rambling recollection of perhaps ten minutes’ duration, all of it spent detailing fake IDs, Mario’s Pizza, the family room at Steinert’s, 4-for-1 Thursday nights at the Troubadour — though omitting the famous case of Wiedemann smuggled into (and out of) the fraternity office via a trumpet case during the campus chemical cloud lockdown — suddenly aware of my inability to remember anything substantive about any of my classes.

Or what happened to the trumpet.


I’m exaggerating, but only because even with the widespread availability of dirt-cheap rotgut beer, I couldn’t possibly afford to stay drunk my entire college career.

Look, I know there have been times in my life when I drank too much, and college was one of them. I’m neither proud nor apologetic about the daze back in those days. It just was. My grade point average was B-ish, and there wasn’t going to be a lucrative tenure in nuclear physics or municipal economic development waiting for me. At times, maybe we all get what we need.

By the way, here’s a link. It may even be relevant.

E = mc^2 … and make mine a pint while you’re there, by Tim Adams (The Guardian)

A Cambridge professor forgets that a glass or two can expand the mind with amazing results

Some university professors have always made it their mission to keep their students out of the pub. Professor Eugene Terentjev, head of science at Queens’ College, Cambridge, last week provided a spectacular example of this impulse, in a note sent to his new intake of undergraduates who, he had observed, like a drink.

Professor Terentjev’s letter ran as follows: “Please be careful how you handle yourselves here; remember you are NOT at any other uni, where students do drink a lot and do have what they regard as a ‘good time’ – and you are NOT on a course, as some Cambridge courses sadly are, where such a behaviour pattern is possible or acceptable. Physical sciences is a VERY hard subject, which will require ALL of your attention and your FULL brain capacity (and for a large fraction of you even that will not be quite enough)… People who just TAKE the course, but enjoy their social life, can easily survive in many subjects, but not in this one…”

Because: your damned brain. Skipping ahead, it’s delightful to learn that contemporary studies provide support for the notion of working a bit, then relaxing with the gang at a clean, well-lighted place.

Another apparent misconception in the professor’s remarks – that any kind of enjoyable social life would make it impossible to survive his course – sounded even more wrongheaded. We live in a country high in European league tables for working hours, and low in terms of productivity. Those habits are often ingrained in an education and exam culture that prioritises grind over balance. Bertrand Russell’s famous contention that human brains are capable of no more than four hours a day of serious concentration, and that the rest is best spent idling, is borne out in much of the recent science.

Recent studies of work suggest that all productivity declines sharply after 50 hours a week and that the most productive brains need about 20 minutes of inactivity for every useful hour. Crucially, the longitudinal studies show that the single key component of an engaged and productive life is the ability to forge and maintain strong friendship groups. Everything else flows from that.

Perhaps college taught me lots about pub culture, even if I didn’t connect all the dots at the time.