UMass professor teaches course on the global power of alcohol

A stigmatized subject with a rich history

November 8, 2018


Professor Stephen Olbrys Gencarella (Isabel Fowler/ Amherst Wire)

Among the many subjects taught at universities today, there is one that our society often neglects. This also happens to be one of the most prevalent aspects of the college social sphere — alcohol.

The college drinking culture is one of over-indulgence and is often portrayed negatively through the education system. However, in his course, “Spirits & Stories: The Folklore of Alcohol,” Professor Stephen Gencarella attempts to bring this stigma to light. He does so by discussing the universal importance of the drink. 

Gencarella focuses his class on the global significance of alcohol. He shares myths, legends and personal anecdotes related to alcohol. As a student of his, I interviewed him on the deeper meaning behind his class.

Gencarella claimed that alcoholism in his own family is what led him to study liquor — a drink that can be both a blessing and a curse. 

“I’ve been interested in the power that alcohol has over us humans ever since I saw firsthand what it could do,” he said. “And I don’t want any of my students to face that same fate.”

He seeks to introduce a topic that is not widely discussed in an academic setting, aside from warning lectures and advertisements. In the media, alcohol is seen in the hands of celebrities at lavish rooftop bars. It is also seen in the hands of teenagers behind the wheel or becoming ill after a night of drinking. Whether we choose to indulge or live in abstinence, our opinions on alcohol are largely formed by these binary portrayals.

I think there’s a shameful lack of education on alcohol in this country and that we adults are failing young people. Right now, most education comes from corporate advertising or undergrads teaching each other. That’s a terrible, dangerous idea,” Gencarella said.

Most high schools give lectures and assemblies that warn against the dangers of drinking. It is seen as nothing more than a substance to be abused. This harsh denunciation of the drink can lead students to over-indulge once they go to college. They are not taught how to properly enjoy alcohol or appreciate the cultural significance behind it, so instead it becomes a forbidden fruit meant to be drank in excess.

According to Gencarella, what most college students consume is considered “swill,” a word that ultimately means garbage. Students will choose the cheapest drinks as a means of getting drunk. 

However, Gencarella hopes that students will mature in their drinking habits and take the time to enjoy and savor the liquor they consume.

“Slow down, enjoy the beverage, understand that we always drink history and culture, and learn everything you can about what is going to enter your mind and body,” he said.

The course is largely rooted in mythology. In his lectures, Gencarella alludes to legends with ties to alcohol from around the world.

These tales remind us about the inevitability of death, the desire for alternative realities and the need for communal bonds,” he stated.

Each class focuses on a different type of booze — whether it is beer, chicha or palm wine — and with each comes an explanation of its cultural significance in different parts of the world.

In a class about palm wine, he shared a myth featuring the divine god Olodumare and Obatala, the god tasked with creating humans. After Obatala becomes drunk on palm wine and cannot finish the creation process, his younger brother must finish the job for him. Embarrassed and wise from his mistake, Obatala vows to never drink again. This principle continues to guide the followers of Obatala today to lead sober lives.  

In most of the myths Gencarella teaches, alcohol is a divine beverage that either leads to wisdom or destruction among humans. As made evident in the myth of Obatala, even the gods are swayed by its power. In fact, many stories explain the curves of rivers and the flaws of the earth with the gods’ drunkenness.

 You do not have to believe in the gods and goddesses behind these stories to understand the driving force that alcohol has had throughout history and tradition.

“The issues it [alcohol] raises will go away only when we humans are gone from the planet. So I think it’s best to pay attention to what people have said about that power and learn from it,” Gencarella said.

This class takes the small, stagnant image that we have of alcohol in this country and turns it into a panoramic view of the vast cultural and folkloric depth it holds. 

Gencarella’s students are appreciative of the new perspectives the course offers.

“One theme that I will remember from that class is that alcohol is surrounded by interesting history, and learning can give new satisfaction from drinking in your own life,” said senior Brian Cavanaugh, who took the class last semester.

“He [Gencarella] really wanted to make the point that going out and buying cheap beer to get drunk off of is what people who don’t appreciate the history and stories surrounding alcohol’s past do,” Cavanaugh added.

Junior Bridget Sherman, currently in the class, said, “This class has taught me a lot about the folklore and stories that accompany alcohol and I have learned a lot that I was previously unaware of.”

The students appreciate the new light in which Gencarella presents the topic of alcohol, opening their eyes to a rich history that is not otherwise taught.

“Ethically, I hope that students are inspired to drink the world — that is, to adopt a global perspective and respect for other cultures and for difference… In other words, I hope the class provides an alternative to undergraduate drinking culture and to imbibing swill,” Gencarella said.

Gencarella will teach Comm297FA next semester on Mondays and Wednesday from 2:30p.m. to 3:45 p.m. 

 Email Isabel at or follow her on Twitter @izzy__fowler


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