What is it that interests students about the history of drugs? As it turns out, a wide variety of topics. And not necessarily the ones I would have expected. In this post I’m going to reflect on the experience of teaching a research course on the history of drugs. The idea here is to start a conversation about how to teach the history of drugs, how to help students shape research questions, and what subject areas may be particularly accessible.
In spring 2010 I taught a required (for history majors) undergraduate research course—choosing as my theme, Drugs in the Modern World. Students completed a series of readings, including David Courtwright’s Forces of Habit (2001) and David Musto, The American Disease (3rd ed., 1999 ) and a series of articles on topics such as the US drug wars in Latin America, Probibition, drugs and colonialism, addiction and treatment. In a course limited to fifteen, probably most students enrolled because it’s required and the time fit their schedule. But others had a particular interest. One student brandished passionate conservative politics (although he was a bit unsure what that meant in terms of the history of drugs), another his participation in the student group advocating drug liberalization, and others seemed to have more of a non-academic interest in the subject. Early in the course they had to choose research topics and begin developing a bibliography. By the end of the semester those that survived had each completed a 20+ research paper based on original (or at least contemporary) sources. Most of them came to understand that the big building called a library housed more than computers and a café. In a trade off, I had to acknowledge that an ever-expanding body of material is available digitally. The advent of Google books in particular makes it possible for students at regional universities like UTEP to explore a wide range of nineteenth and early twentieth century topics that previously would have been impossible. Still, the many volumes on “drunkenness” in our library’s collection of the British Parliamentary Papers remain largely undisturbed.
So, what did my students decide to write about?