Teaching Points: A New Survey Course – The History of Drugs and Alcohol in American History

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. He contributes to our Teaching Points series, which investigates the role of alcohol and drug history in the classroom. 

The history department at Utica College, acutely aware of falling enrollments in history courses throughout the US, has decided to re-cast the 100-level “survey courses” in more thematic terms that we thought might appeal more to student interests, and possibly add some new majors in the process. I teach American history at Utica, and debuted my HIS 128: Drugs in American History this term.

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The Great Recession wasn’t kind to history

As long-time readers of Points might recall, I’ve taught several related courses in the past and have shared my experiences with those courses on this forum. The last time I taught the full-semester course was in the Spring of 2016, and I’ve since done two one-credit courses on the historical context to the marijuana legalization debate. As with the prior iterations of the course, this version has presented some unique challenges.

The biggest challenge this term was one of perspective. While I had expected my course to evolve up (to the 300-level as a reading seminar), the curriculum change necessitates the course to evolve toward the foundational levels. My prior experience with this class (the full version) was at the “200-level” which in our curriculum (as with many others) was a very fluid level which we tend to reserve for specialized survey for majors, and topics courses presented as electives. This new course is designated as a “core” (100-level) course, required for all students regardless of major.

As mentioned above, the goal in retooling these courses around current events and issues was to generate interest for these core-level courses to increase enrollment, but more than that more administrative concern. We felt that these turbulent times, we needed to reach more students with the message that history can be a tool for understanding their world. So while I wanted to touch the main stories of drug history from my own research and reading, I also wanted to make sure to orient the course in the direction of student interest in the topic. 

So I asked my students about their interests in a short reflective essay assigned during the first week of the course. I gave them 500 words (but encouraged concision and efficiency), to basically riff on what they knew about drug history and what they thought the course would teach them about that history. The answers provide some perspective, not only on what students (in an admittedly unscientific sampling) know — or think they know — about drugs in history, but also about why historians need to step into roles (beyond the fields of academic and public history) that provide answers to these questions.

From the Boston Tea Party to the Opioid Crisis, undergrads are interested in the history of drugs

There were few direct references to “historical” drug issues, most of them on the more “sensationalist” side of drug history (Speakeasies in Prohibition, Organized crime and the drug trade, MKUltra, The Counterculture, Heroin and Vietnam, etc.). Some students wanted to learn about the more structural power of drugs (and drug products) in shaping U.S. society. For example, students wanted to know more about tobacco (and slavery) in the colonies, the role of Tea in the Boston Tea Party, and the emergence of MADD.

By and large, however, students wanted to know about the origins of current-day issues, offering strong (albeit anecdotal) support for the history department at Utica College’s decision to retool the survey class. Students wanted to know more about marijuana legalization, the opioid epidemic, synthetic designer drugs, mass incarceration, and the use of drugs in sports.

Some of the responses were disheartening. In an expected but still frustrating symptom of falling history enrollments and the growing disdain for (though not the interest in) the discipline of history among the general public, some students either hadn’t considered historical perspectives on drugs or, more frequently, couldn’t conceptualize a “history of drugs” course as anything more than another canned anti-drug seminar. These students expected that the course would teach them about the various pharmacological effects of different types of drugs, and discuss risks related to abuse, addiction, and related effects on “community” and “families.”

But more than the general disinterest in engaging with history content, these responses must also be related to the continuing lack of honest public discourse around drugs and associated drug issues. As Brooks Hudson argued here in January, the reinforcement of old drug tropes, and the creation of new ones, is obscuring larger failings in this so-called “post-drug war” context. Even as my students, who have come of age in a much more drug-tolerant society than the one I grew up in, are still influenced by these older assumptions.

I’ve taken these reflections into consideration as I plot my way through this course. Stay tuned in May or June for some reflections of my own, after the course has wrapped up.