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

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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: “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

Teaching Points: Surveying United States’ History of Drugs and Alcohol

This past semester, I taught a course called Altered States: Drugs and Alcohol in America at the University at Albany, SUNY. It was my third version of the course. I had the unique opportunity to design two courses from scratch during my first adjunct gig at Utica College in 2010 and 2011. In addition to the drug course, I also designed a survey-level course on sports in US history. Professionally, this trial-by-fire was enormously beneficial and intensely productive, but for better or for (far) worse, my initial test subjects had to suffer through some serious inexperience as I fumbled through course design, reading lists (painfully long ones…), and lectures. I had wanted to hit every major vein in the field (so to speak) and did it without adequate attention to the broader historical context.

So this spring, I decided to stick with the basics. Rather than point out how drug histories stick out of the general narrative of American history, I wanted to make an argument that the histories of a myriad of psychoactive substances can help us better understand some important trends in the history of the United States. Through my doctoral coursework and achievement of candidacy, I came to this section with a much firmer grasp of the historiographical arguments in the field. Continue reading

The Role of Drug History in Interdisciplinary Study

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Leanne Horinko, the interim director of the office of graduate admissions at Drew University’s Casperson School of Graduate Studies. Enjoy!

As academic history continues to expand, incorporating interdisciplinarity and meeting the needs of public history, areas of history previously overlooked by scholars are becoming new spaces for exploration. Counter-cultural history is no exception. Scholarly inquiry of these new interdisciplinary subjects can lead to interesting challenges in understanding the subject matter without sacrificing academic rigor. Those interested in contributing original research to interdisciplinary fields like counter-cultural history or alcohol and drug history can find themselves neck deep in historiography from multiple fields and trying to piece together a framework for their work. These challenges are perhaps best illustrated in my own research.

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Teaching Points: Reflecting on a Learner-Centered Approach to Teaching “Drugs and Trade”

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Matthew June. Enjoy!

One student began the class with some knowledge of “purple drank” from her favorite hip-hop music. By the end of the course, that interest had developed into a detailed analysis of how the particular history of the Houston music scene, the rise of “managed care” health insurance, the aftermath of the 1980s crack crisis and war on drugs, and the process of media modeling all fueled the rise and fall of this fad.

Another student began the course with some concerns because he had never written an historical research paper. But a passage about the environmental consequences of colonial drug farming in a class reading sparked his interests as an Environmental Sciences major. Through multiple assignments developing those interests, we were also able to ground them in historical methods. The end result was an interesting study of past concerns about farming psychoactive substance and how they have been reflected and heightened in recent marijuana legalization policies.

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L’Absinthe by Edgar Degas, 1876

One History major wanted to know more about absinthe. Through some preliminary research, he discovered that the federal government banned importation of the drink four years before Prohibition. Performing primary and secondary source research worthy of graduate study, this student presented a fascinating argument about absinthe’s consequential cultural shift from “drink” to “drug” and its sources in developments such as the rise of medical professionalization and dominant cultural fears of the foreign other. He also taught me that, as a drug, the ban on absinthe’s importation was actually overseen by the Bureau of Chemistry, predecessor to the Food and Drug Administration – a subject of my own research.

These projects – and the many other successful student papers – all reveal the vast potential of learner-centered teaching and course design. And the history of “drugs and trade” is one of numerous frameworks for such a design.

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Teaching Points: Using “Drugs and Trade” to Teach and Research American History

This winter I have the pleasure of teaching an upper-level history seminar on “Drugs and Trade in American History.” Working with fourteen undergraduates, I am using the opportunity to apply some principles of learner-centered teaching. In doing so, I hope to take a popular buzzword in teaching philosophies and faculty meetings from the realm of jargon and put it into actual practice. I believe the process of completing an original research project – the course’s primary objective – will prompt students to follow their own path into this history and engage with the themes and topics about which they are most passionate, encouraging the kind of deep learning not always possible in classes driven by content alone. I am also convinced a focus on the history of psychoactive substances – from heroin and cocaine to tobacco and alcohol – can be used to highlight general trends in U.S. history, helping students contextualize information and construct broader frameworks for understanding.

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President George H.W. Bush holding a bag of crack cocaine (1989)

While elements of my course may be unfamiliar, the obstacles it faces should not be surprising. First and foremost, if we expect students to succeed with an original research project, they need the proper instruction and sufficient time to complete the task. Students also need a starting point for their own explorations. We cannot forgo content completely, as it is needed to spark interests, provide context, and form research questions. (Not to mention, we are still in the business of communicating important information about the past.) Attempting to give both objectives sufficient in-class attention, however, can require some tricky balancing acts – a problem compounded by the particulars of my university’s ten-week quarter system.

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