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College course examines depiction of drinking in film and its social consequences


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: As college students wrap up the year, many reflect on what they learned in the classroom and what it means for their lives.

At the University of Notre Dame, a hugely popular course offering has very real-life implications.

Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports for our ongoing series at the intersection of health and arts, part of Canvas.

Mike Cerre: From "Animal House" in the '80s to the more recent "Hangover" films...

Actor: Oh, it's like college.

Actor: All right.

Mike Cerre: ... pop culture and advertising's depiction of drinking is playing out on college campuses to a much more alarming degree than the toga parties of the past.

Nearly half of college students say they drink, and 30 percent say they binge-drink, according to a recent survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Alcoholism.

Here on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, they are taking a more academic and intellectual approach to the issue, in addition to traditional counseling and disciplinary action. The psychology department is teaming up with the film, television and theater department on a course that teaches students why they think drinking is so cool and why it's probably not.

Man: Societally, people seem to condone your actions because you are drunk.

Mike Cerre: "Drunk on Film" is a full-credit in person and online course with over 150 students on the wait-list each semester.

Psychology Professor Anre Venter and film and TV Professor Ted Mandell lead the students in their critiques of popular films featuring heavy drinking and its social and health consequences.

Man: So what we want to focus on and what we, like, researched a little bit into is kind of this effect of depressed on depressants, obviously, since alcohol is a depressant.

Mike Cerre: Along with pop culture favorites, the films include classics like "It's A Wonderful Life" and even some cartoons the students grow up with, like "Beauty and the Beast."

Professor Mandell believes film, TV and advertising have long cultivated the students' acceptance of drinking as part of normal life. Where does total abstinence fit into this course?

Ted Mandell, Professor, University of Notre Dame: Nowhere. Nowhere.

This course is -- to me, is about the ability to look at media and entertainment that you have been exposed to since you were 2 years old and reevaluate it and ask yourself, is this really the narrative of alcohol that's true? Does alcohol really bring me community?

And to get students to look at narratives and reevaluate that and then compare that to what they are personally doing in college.

Mike Cerre: Co-professor Anre Venter has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and focuses more on the behavioral aspects of college drinking.

Ted Mandell: Right. It's the social anxiety?

Anre Venter, Professor, University of Notre Dame: But isn't that what we often hear students talk about, drinking because of social anxiety?

Ted Mandell: Yes.

Anre Venter: Liquid courage.

Mike Cerre: The professors are careful not to turn the "Drunk on Film" class into an intervention or therapy session that would more likely shut down the students, rather than open them up for the discussions, which are the key teaching moments.

Anre Venter: I'm not a licensed therapist. Ted's not a licensed therapist.

Ted Mandell: Nope.

Anre Venter: And we're not doing therapy in any way, shape, or form,.

But what we're, I think, getting the students to do is to begin to ask questions as to why? Why do I do it this way?

Man: Alcohol changes the relationship between what's called the hypothalamus and the pituitary ground and the adrenal.

Mike Cerre: Related podcasts and nonfiction films addressing the health and social consequences of excessive drinking and are part of the mix of videos.

Ted Mandell: I want to welcome you to tonight's conversation with Holly Whitaker.

Mike Cerre: Guest lecturers have included Holly Whitaker with The New York Times and bestselling author of "Quit Like a woman," which highlights the added health and safety risks for female students drinking heavily on campuses.

Holly Whitaker, Author, "Quit Like a Woman": I think that you are trained to become a participant in drinking culture. We are trained to drink like this. We're given images and those images are reinforced our entire lives. When you go to college, you let loose. You get drunk.

How many of you didn't drink in high school?

Mike Cerre: She and the course take on call traditions, like the football tailgating parties, often hosted by parents and adults, who she believes are often complicit in normalizing excessive student drinking as socially acceptable.

Ted Mandell: The phrase you can't be an alcoholic while you're in college is a very common. People have heard that around here.

Mike Cerre: Aedan Joel and Ava Bidner took the class last year and are now teaching assistants.

Ava Bidner, Student: Yes, so we watched one called "The Spectacular Now," which has Miles Teller as the main actor, and he plays a character called Sutton. And it's really just about his relationship with alcohol and his story.

And you kind of see it gradually progress, where you don't really think his drinking is a problem. And then, as you kind of go through the film, you see that he becomes just increasingly dependent on it and it really affects all aspects of his life.

Aedan Joel, Student: I was drinking freshman year and then after that started to kind of become curious as to whether or not, not drinking would be something that would fit into my own self-concept.

Anre Venter: As a social psychologist, we think that human behavior is a function of both the person and their environment. Often, the environment is a more powerful predictor of behavior than the person's disposition.

Ted Mandell: I think the one thing when we started this class that truly surprised me was not that students drink in college, but the level of drinking that is normalized. What is considered normal right now, I would never even think -- it wouldn't have crossed my mind when I was an undergraduate.

Mike Cerre: Many students taking the course believe alcohol has taken on an oversized role in socializing on campus, at the expense of other activities.

Because so much of college life today is based on drinking, if you say, one of the premises of the course is that media has caused this new acceptance of a moral standard that probably doesn't really work for these kids, can media also correct it?

Ted Mandell: Yes. Look at cigarettes. I mean, cigarettes for decades and decades were pushed on audiences as being socially desirable. And then that narrative has changed.

Mike Cerre: How many of you really didn't drink at all until you went to college?

There are no solid metrics for gauging the course's success in curbing alcohol abuse on campus. But if the student's final exam, in the form of a personal essay, is any indication, Professors Mandell and Venter are confident they're on the right track.

Ava Bidner: So, as I started thinking about all those things, I realized that we really all do have a relationship with alcohol, whether your choice is one way or the other. And even just with my family and friends and all those different connections, I think it really does affect a lot of different parts of your lives, whether you realize it or not.

Mike Cerre: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Mike Cerre in South Bend, Indiana.

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