Narcotics and Western Civilization: A Student-Based Reflection

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and the Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canandian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School. He adds to our Teaching Points series, on bringing drug history into the classroom. 

Screenshot 2019-10-14 at 10.07.33 PMIn an effort to bring to the classroom the debates over global intoxicants, I was given the opportunity to teach an Honors College tutorial at the University of Maine titled “Narcotics in the Construction of Western Civilization.”  My objective was to deconstruct stereotypes and build awareness about the long history and culture of drugs in the West, juxtaposing it to the experiences of other cultures that also built intimate relationships with intoxicants of all kinds.  The course became a way to connect my past with the present.

Screenshot 2019-10-14 at 10.08.52 PMI grew up in Colombia during the 1970s and 1980s, experiencing the escalation of the American-led War on Drugs.  I had been searched at airports continuously as a child when visiting my family in Texas, and later disenfranchised by the narco-centered stereotypes during my college years in New England.  My first exposure to marijuana had taken place in Brownsville, Texas, not so distant from the story told by Domingo Martinez in The Boy Kings of Texas.  Since then I always asked myself, why was I exposed to narcotics in the U.S. and not in Colombia, where everybody said drugs were the common denominator?   Growing up I was always curious about the nature of the construction of Colombia’s narco-stereotype, knowing first-hand that the cultural desire for all kinds of intoxicants was in the U.S., and the West for that matter, and not in Colombia.  As a preceptor in the Honors College, I wanted students to have the unique opportunity to ask similar questions and reflect on their own experiences growing up in the largest global market for intoxicants, where the cultural taboo and the demand-side of intoxicants slept side by side in the same bed. 

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Teaching Points: Using Drugs as a Gateway to Historical Methods

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Adam Rathge, director of enrollment strategies and part-time history professor at the University of Dayton. Rathge is also a drug scholar and a longtime friend of Points. He continues our Teaching Points series here, explaining how drug and alcohol history can be brought into the classroom and can be a vehicle for understanding historical methods. Enjoy!

During the coming Spring semester at the University of Dayton, I’ll be teaching HST 299 – Historical Background to Contemporary Issues. This will be my second time teaching the course. It is offered once a year by the History Department and open to students of all majors, with rotating topics driven primarily by faculty expertise and current “headline news” issues. In my case, this means teaching about drugs by focusing on current trends in marijuana legalization and the opioid crisis. From the department’s perspective, the topics are somewhat secondary to the true purpose of the course, which is designed to “focus on the methodology of history as a discipline and on the utility of historical analysis for understanding contemporary political, social and economic issues.” As such, in my version of the course, drugs become the gateway to teaching historical methods.

Over the fifteen-week semester, I divide the course into three, roughly five-week blocks. The first block covers recent developments with marijuana legalization. The second block explores the ongoing opioid crisis. The third and final block provides time for scaffolding the research process on a headline news topic of each student’s choosing. In essence, the first two blocks are designated topics on contemporary issues that allow the class to work through a guided model of historical methodology together, while the third allows them to put those skills into practice for themselves on a topic of interest. Each five-week block, therefore, introduces not only the topic at hand but also skills relevant to reading, writing, and thinking like a historian.

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Teaching Points: Teaching Marijuana Legalization in One Credit? An Educator’s (Incomplete) Guide

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, and adds to our “Teaching Points” series, which shows how scholars are bringing alcohol and drug history into the classroom. 

For the second time in as many semesters I accepted an offer to teach a course at Utica College this term. It is a five-week, one-credit course that is part of the college’s effort to round out students’ schedules, often for financial aid purposes. The course runs during the last five weeks of the 15-week semester.  When it was offered to me in the spring, I had never taught a one-credit course before, and hadn’t considered how I might approach it. My major challenge, as instructors of these kinds of courses can probably attest, is getting students invested in brand new material just as their “regular” semester is winding up for final exams. This requires walking a fine line between maintaining the appropriate academic vigor and being overburdensome.

Luckily I didn’t have to work from scratch. I’ve been fortunate have had the opportunity to create and teach three sections of a survey-level course on the history of drugs and alcohol in American history in my time at Utica, and as a TA at University at Albany, SUNY. I’ve also discussed the challenges of teaching that class on this forum.  As I saw it, the first major decision was generating interest (to get it filled in a week or so) and the second was whether to create a summarized version of the full course, or to offer a five-week snippet of the first course. I chose the approach and format hastily, but not without some longer-term considerations. I have always been keen to critically assess my course evaluations (weaknesses and problems with that approach notwithstanding) to find out what students want with their classes.

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Teaching Points: “Drugs in U.S. History”

Around the beginning and end of every semester (summer included), we feature syllabi, instructional materials, and instructor reflections on courses related to topics of interest to Points readers. Below, you’ll find the syllabus for “Drugs in U.S. History,” a summer course taught this year by Kyle Bridge at the University of Florida. In a few weeks, like those who came before him, he will publish a reflection on Points, thoroughly detailing the progression of the course, from planning, assigning, and evaluating student work to connecting themes developed in class to his own research. Stay tuned!

AMH 3931: Drugs in United States History

Instructor: Kyle Bridge (kbridge@ufl.edu)

Course meets: [redacted]

Office hours: [redacted]

Course objectives: Upon successful completion of this course, students will understand the complex role played by drugs in American society, beginning with the construction of drug debates and the evolving definitions of key concepts like “drug” or “addiction.” They will be able to identify and explain historical contexts of drug use, to critically analyze cultures of control that have developed around different substances (including in the criminal justice system but also the addiction treatment field), and to articulate and assess challenges to those cultures through measures including drug legalization, medicalization, and harm reduction. Continue reading →

Teaching Points: Teaching the “So What?” in “Marijuana in American History”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to you courtesy of Seth Blumenthal, a Lecturer at Boston University. Contact the author at sblument@bu.edu.

In 1994, the president of the Modern Language Association, Patricia Meyers Spacks, outlined the need to consider “So what?” in higher education. “We get a bad press these days … many believe that we too often devote our efforts to enterprises mattering only to ourselves,” Spacks warned.  “Our research and writing, these critics appear convinced, possess even less value than our teaching. ‘So what?’ echoes loudly around us.”[1] Spacks then suggested a solution:  “We must answer ‘So what?’ as a real rather than a rhetorical question.”  This battle cry to co-opt the critics’ “So what?” applies to disciplines across the humanities that have suffered from a shift toward more focused and vocational training in college. Specifically, while making historical narratives compelling and relevant has always motivated historians’ research and teaching, this cause has become even more urgent with on-going decreases in student enrollment in history courses.

As a lecturer in Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences writing program, I have attempted to answer this call by teaching the first history course dedicated to cannabis in the United States, “Marijuana in American History.” This course attracts students from a wide array of fields in fulfillment of BU’s required two-semester writing and research sequence. For many students, especially those from disciplines outside of the humanities, taking a course that revolves around writing papers represents a trip to a foreign land. Thus, students’ dismissal of history writing as an arcane and niche enterprise reflects a wider protest that asks “So what?” in its most derisive context, analogous to its evil twin, “Who cares?” In 2007, 2.24 percent of college graduates majored in history, but only 2.02 percent in 2011.[2]  In response, historians have initiated an emphasis on a new pedagogical approach to authentic historical problems or controversies that more accurately reflect the profession’s self-directed historical inquiry to establish an argument’s significance—the “so what?”

In my own teaching, making history relevant is a two pronged strategy. First, the subject, marijuana, is a popular topic that many students (mostly male) are curious about for a variety of reasons (some better than others). This course follows three eras of marijuana politics. First we cover the major controversies surrounding the Anslingerian prohibition years in the 1930s; next, we examine the war on drugs that began in the 1960s; and finally, we research the legalization era that began in the 1990s.  The topic obviously provides a rich cultural history with a dizzying array of sources that engage students but also consider marijuana’s symbolic and political significance. For example, while reliable entertainment, comparing Reefer Madness, Easy Rider, Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke and Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High provides a fascinating window into Americans’ shifting sentiments about pot and the stoner from the 1930s to the 1980s. While the first two papers ask students to argue about the historical trends in marijuana culture, science and politics, the final assignment embraces the topic’s current controversy and asks students to develop an argument about the reason for the recent growing support for legalization. This assignment gives students free reign to choose their topics, as they write about issues such as marijuana culture and research in social media, women’s roles in the effort, the motivation for racial justice and of course the medicinal movement.

Second, this class shows history as controversy with contemporary implications rather than a list of dates and names. Students analyze political texts such as congressional testimony and Richard Nixon’s tapes to explore the complicated messages and cultural assumptions that informed our policies on drugs. Practicing these historical skills, students quickly learn that as soon as they can formulate a thesis, the “so what?” should also be included.  Why does it matter if we scapegoat the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, for passing the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937? What lessons should we learn from following the rise and fall of the gateway theory? What does millennials’ overwhelming support for legalization say about this generation? All of these questions push students to make the connections between their scholarly argument and its current implications. Beyond the academic pursuit of marijuana history’s larger significance, my students can feel the topic’s controversy outside the classroom.

Soon, the class picked up wider publicity and critics predictably asked why something like this should pass as “college material.” One response to an article USA Today ran on “Marijuana in American History” expressed the abhorrence that many parents shared. “As a parent of a prospective student: STRIKE 1” read one typical reaction.  “This is not something we are looking for in a future college.” As a new hire, I began to question my decision to offer the course. After checking with BU’s public relations office, however, I quickly realized that the positives greatly outweighed the negatives and they reassured me of the university’s support.  In addition, students in my class found the controversy over their course flattering. One even expressed that she felt she was actually a part of history, while another engineering student reflected in his course portfolio, “At this time I think I have far greater perspective on the marijuana issue, but really what I think I got out of this course was a greater appreciation for how the whole ‘liberal arts college’[humanities?] thing can teach you how to think about issues.”  In his paper, he argued that courses like “Marijuana in American History” are necessary, asking: “if marijuana has been legitimized in business, medicine and in politics-why not in academics?”—essentially developing a “so what?” that answered many critics who wondered “who cares”? (Or as one person protested: “And this course will prepare the student to do something?”). Despite the current hostility to the humanities, or perhaps because of it, the history of marijuana is a new and exciting field that can expand undergraduates’ notions of history’s role in changing perceptions of drugs and alcohol in society.

[1] Patricia Meyers Spacks, “Presidential Address 1994: Reality-Our Subject and Discipline,” PMLA, 110 (May, 1995), 350-357.

[2]Robert Townshend, “Data Shows a Decline in History Majors,” Perspectives, 51 (April, 2013); Mills Kelly, “A Looming Disaster for History,” April 12, 2013, edwired ; http://edwired.org/2013/04/12/a-looming-disaster-for-history/.

 

Teaching Points: “The History of Drugs in Twentieth-Century America”

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Marco Ramos and Tess Lanzarotta. Ramos is an MD/Ph.D. candidate in the History of Science and Medicine program at Yale University focusing on the production and circulation of scientific knowledge during the Cold War in the global south. Lanzarotta is a Ph.D. candidate in the same department focusing on the ways that contemporary interactions between biomedical researchers and indigenous populations are shaped by their historical antecedents. This summer, Ramos and Lanzarotta taught a course on the history of drugs in the twentieth century and we’ve invited them to contribute to our “Teaching Points” series. Enjoy! 

Over the course of five weeks this summer, we co-taught a course on “The History of Drugs in Twentieth-Century America.” As discussed in our earlier post, we decided to focus the course around historical processes of drug categorization, rather than on a single drug or class of drugs. We hoped that this approach would draw undergraduate students’ attention to the ways that systems of drug classification are and have been shaped by their historical contexts. In particular, we felt it was crucial to emphasize the ways that drug categories affect and are affected by the people who use and regulate drugs.

Part of the impetus for the course was our own sense that historical analysis makes a particularly useful tool for understanding contemporary dilemmas surrounding drug use and drug policy. Bearing that in mind, we structured our classroom discussions and course assignments to encourage students to draw lessons from the past and bring them to bear on the present. The class was a seminar format with sessions running for three hours, twice each week; we tried to break up this rather long classroom time by delivering short lectures, showing documentaries and television episodes, visiting the Yale Medical Historical Library and Yale Art Gallery, and by bringing in guest speakers who could share their perspectives and expertise.

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Teaching Points: Opium, Empire, and State in Asia

Today’s post is from Dr. Bruce Erickson. He is currently the chair of the department of history at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY.

In recent years I have included in my rotation two courses that begin with the narcotics trade, “Coca, Culture, and Politics in Latin America” and “Opium, Empire, and State in Asia.” These two classes began life as one that tried to combine “Wars on Drugs” with Wars of Drugs,” so really they were and are less about drugs themselves than about the politics of drugs. Or better, they use the study of narcotics to explore larger histories. In their conception my classes are simply a commodity chain approach to studying and teaching history. What differentiates coca, opium, and their derivatives from other commodities goes beyond their effects to their inconsistent and shifting legal status, the social consequences of their introduction, and their social, political, and economic importance at particular times and places. Continue reading →