Teaching Drugs and Alcohol through the Filter of Student Life

In his second week as a Points Guest Blogger, Eoin Cannon reflects on the difficulties of talking intelligently about addiction with a roomful of undergraduates who may still be hungover from the night before.

Last fall, I taught a course called “Stories of Addiction” for my university’s Freshman Seminar program. It was the first opportunity I’d found to teach my scholarly interest in a sustained way. As in approaching any new course, I gave some thought during my preparation to what beliefs, assumptions, and values students would bring to the topic. In departmental courses, I think, you can count on your discipline’s critical tools, and your students’ developing comfort with them, to create analytical distance. Not a space, hopefully, in which personal experience is unwelcome, but one colored by the implicit understanding that our main purpose here is not to do therapy or reproduce conventional wisdom.

But three factors made the issue of distance particularly salient in my seminar. First, it was for freshman only, during their fall semester. They had no experience with college-level critical thinking. Second, the seminar context, combined with my own approach to the topic, put the course outside of any single disciplinary framework and its implied critical distance.

Your Experience Here

It wasn’t “addiction in literature,” it wasn’t “the history of addiction,” it was just “addiction stories,” and the shapes they take, the work they do, in various contexts. I was using the category of narrative to develop an interdisciplinary framework that would not be obvious to students. Third, and most important, alcohol/drugs is a topic freighted with official and unofficial discourses that play key roles in the social identities of college students. First-years arrive in class fresh from the most explicit lectures on this topic they’ll probably ever get, in orientation events and awareness campaigns. And many of them have been, or are beginning to binge-drink and drug-dabble in ways that defy the warnings they hear there. I feared that their work, and our discussions, would be distorted by a disconnect between what they understood to be permissible public talk about alcohol and drug use versus what they participated in or witnessed in their social lives. And I couldn’t simply draw a bright line between addiction and abuse, in an effort to cordon off student habits; the nature of that difference is central to the topic.

Teaching at other institutions, I saw a couple of examples this disconnect that were alternatively troubling and hilarious. In an introduction to fiction course, a student asked for an extension because, he admitted, he had drunkenly left his laptop at a bar. When the essay finally arrived, it was a finger-wagging discussion of the very serious problem of alcoholism in Ireland, as revealed in several of Joyce’s stories in Dubliners. This was closely rivaled by the student who wanted to talk about the “issues of childhood and consumption in America” in Lolita, having just admitted to me that he read the novel in one overnight sitting by using his roommate’s Adderall.

The Tip of the Tongue Taking a Trip of Three Steps

In this seminar, I didn’t want to counter this kind of compartmentalization by trying to play the cool prof, or by cueing them to talk confessionally or voyeuristically about student consumption habits. And there was always the possibility that I would have a student who is in recovery, or who has an addict as a close family member, and who perhaps signed up for the course for that very reason. Or a student who had blacked out at a party the weekend before and was frightened about what had taken place. This is not a topic to be glib about in the classroom. You have to model seriousness about what some people do– and have done to them– when they are incapacitated by drink, as well as respect for the suffering of addicts and their families. But how to do that in a way that gets beyond the easy reproduction of public-health and therapeutic language? How to make it clear that the purpose of the classroom is not to extend the mission of the university’s student health services, but that it can be connected to them if necessary.

In class, I knew there would be obvious ways of approaching this. I raised the issue explicitly and led a discussion about it. I tried to model a value-engaged critical distance, approaching as topics for analysis both public health language, and also media suggestions that binge drinking was a normal and largely harmless part of young adulthood. In putting the syllabus together, though, I found the topic as I conceived it already spoke surprisingly well to this particular classroom challenge. The premise of “Stories of Addiction” was that the life story is a component of almost every approach to understanding addiction. Telling these stories requires invoking all sorts of cultural norms, from broad values such as what constitutes the rational vs. irrational pursuit of pleasure, to, more reflexively, what a proper addiction story should do. As most scholars in the humanities would agree, debates over the nature of addiction are often a matter of contesting values that lie beyond the phenomenon itself. The course asked students to identify how these values arise in narratives and how they are handled by various kinds of writers and researchers. It called attention to the kinds of values they were expressing in their own talk about consumption, pleasure, social ritual, abuse, and addiction.

As an example, we compared George Vaillant’s and Joshua Wolf Schenk’s narration of individual lives from the Grant and Glueck Studies of Adult Development— a scientific treatise and a literary essay, respectively. Discussion that week took a philosophical turn, to questions about the nature of the well-lived life, and to debates about the wisdom of various reasons for drinking. The discussion clearly was informed by what the students were seeing and doing in their social lives, but this experience was being put toward the class’s scholarly purpose. I don’t want to sound a triumphalist note, here; students often fell back on easy invocations of public health language, and often judged addiction narratives using standards drawn from popular therapeutic culture. But overall I was pleased with the distance we traveled as a group, and I’m looking forward to teaching the class again this coming fall.

Finally, regarding the relationship of student bingeing to addiction: Gene Heyman, in his recent book, points out that many young people;s heavy consumption of drugs and alcohol fit the definitions not only of abuse, but also of dependence, according to the psychological authorities.  But many– Heyman argues argues the vast majority–of these apparent addicts quietly quit at the onset of late-young-adulthood, in a simple cost-benefit choice that makes a mockery of the “chronic, relapsing disease” concept of addiction. I’ll talk in my next post about how the students responded to this concept when Heyman visited my classroom.

4 thoughts on “Teaching Drugs and Alcohol through the Filter of Student Life

  1. Eoin, I taught a course last year (Excessive Appetities: Sociocultural Perspectives on Addiction and Drug Use) which raised some similar issues although I never got as far as articulating them as thoughtfully as you have done. It sounds like you did a great job of navigating potentially perilous waters (confession, voyeurism, pedagogy as therapy etc) to reach the sandy shores of critical reflection and engagement (sorry, about the metaphor, it’s late here). In particular the scientific treatise/literary essay comparison is a fantastic idea for promoting the discussion of life experience in an analytical but engaged way.

    My course wasn’t for first year students and the emphasis was on drug and alcohol use as a social practice. One assessment task the students could choose to do asked them to ‘write down your observations of or recollections of intoxicant use in one of the following situations: a party, pub, nightclub or similar intoxication space. How was the situation or experience socially shaped? Focus on the elements discussed in the lecture: symbolic meaning, social situation, identity construction and (if appropriate) norms of ‘drunken comportment’. This came towards the end of the course and some of them did it very well.

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