Teaching Points– Matt Crawford Comments on “History of Drugs in the Modern World”

 Editor’s Note: Today, historian of early modern drugs Matt Crawford reflects on his seminar “The History of Drugs in the Modern World,” the syllabus of which inaugurated this fall’s “Teaching Points” series.  In his commentary today, he discusses the abiding aims of the class as well as what he changed from its first iteration– the syllabus of which was posted yesterday– to its second.  That syllabus is available in full right here.

“Mexico is a failed state and the United States should invade it,” exclaimed a student in my “History of Drugs in the Modern World” course. His impassioned statement was in response to other students’ critiques of the United States’ policy on drug trafficking in Latin America—a  part of our discussion of Paul Gootenburg’s book Andean Cocaine(2008). Even if it was one of the more contentious moments that semester, I took this exchange as evidence that the course had achieved one of its goals: to provoke engaged (and informed) discussion about the course material.

Matt Crawford (left) Sparks Engaged and Informed Discussion

One advantage of teaching the history of drugs is the intrinsic interest that students have in the topic. Many of them also come to class with strong feelings and pre-conceptions regarding drugs, drug use and drug regulation. Consequently, while it is a topic that works well in a primarily discussion-based course, one of the challenges can be encouraging students to recognize and grapple with perspectives and historical narratives that don’t always fit with common and deeply held beliefs about drugs in our culture.

Course Design
I begin the course by asking the students to name some drugs and then ask a deceptively simple question: What is a drug?

This exercise serves two functions. It helps to assess their thinking about drugs, while setting the tone of the course as a serious intellectual endeavor. One of the central goals in the course is to encourage students to understand drugs as substances whose properties are defined as much by the societies and cultures in which they exist as by their chemical composition and physiological effects. In addition, I ask students to consider how the ways in which individuals, societies, and states use or regulate drugs depends on how they understand and define those substances. Finally, I use several of the course readings to highlight the forms of social and cultural regulation of drug use beyond the legal regulations of states, with which students are most familiar.

In the first iteration of my “History of Drugs in the Modern World” in Spring 2010, the course organization was fairly straightforward and focused on five drugs: tobacco, opium, cocaine, Taxol (a cancer drug), and Viagra. Three main principles informed the selection of these cases.

Read more