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.
The most common critiques that I receive is the lack of “hands-on” involvement, and the lack of relevant (to them) material to cover. I decided to focus on a hot topic, one that my own research made me uniquely familiar with, and took the middle road on organization, deciding to focus the course on exploring historical perspectives on the current debate over legalization of marijuana. The course’s goal was originally to produce a digital project, drawing some ideas from the AHA website.
Very quickly, I planned a course that gave students the opportunity to confront some of the prevailing myths about marijuana’s history, and to use the most recent scholarship to challenge those prevailing myths. I would also include some primary sources from my own research to buoy the scholarship. We would start the class by listing out these prevailing myths, define and articulate them, and then create some sort of digital history artifact (a social media campaign is what we initially agreed upon) to communicate their research and findings to an ostensibly public audience.
To be sure, the class was a relative success, given the challenges of designing and implementing such an ambitious set of goals in so little time. However, I quickly realized that students were less aware of the issues around marijuana’s history than I had assumed. Students were genuinely interested in the material, which was a definite plus, and they were able to intelligently discuss David Courtwright’s discussion of marijuana’s global trajectory in Forces of Habit, the early history of medical marijuana from a 2015 aritcle in American Historian by Adam Rathge, and the story of “Brownie Mary” in Emily Dufton’s Grassroots. Students were equally fascinated by some of the primary sources including HH Kane’s Hashish House in New York, as well as a short informal jazz revue featuring Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong.
But I quickly noticed that students were unable to place these stories into any sort of historical context. Their experience with marijuana was one of relative tolerance, and it was difficult for them to imagine how people reacted to various claims about violent, suggestive, lazy, or future addicted users roaming the landscape portrayed by many of the anti-drug advocates in history. As with many previous iterations of the course, I found that my students seem to be more concerned with justifying legalization today (or indeed, continued prohibition), than really understanding the complexities of how marijuana’s status came to be so. Today’s students were born post Prop-215, and came of age in a society that overwhelmingly rejects the old order in the Drug War. This was in stark contrast to my upbringing, during the Reagan 80s, that was decidedly intolerant of any sort of drug use (as a recent Points article reminds us), marijuana perhaps most prominently.
So while on one hand, it was difficult to create historical empathy for the principles that underlay drug prohibition among the students in the class, on the other, it was also difficult to generate critical analysis on the current debate, given the historical contradictions the students were forced to confront for the first time. The five week course proved inadequate to the task of adequately covering all of the appropriate legal, political, social, and cultural background, while still keeping the class focused on the topic of the course. So while I did feel like I accomplished something in the course last semester, I did realize that I had to rethink my whole approach if I ever taught the class again.
So in the new version, I’ve decided to pare down the course even more, worrying less about the established historiography of pot history and thinking more about how my students typically access information, especially information about pot. Simply asking them the question on the first day revealed that (unsurprisingly) today’s students get their information from each other, largely mediated through social media and other social platforms like YouTube. Students are much more likely to go to a webisode of Adam Ruins Everything than they are to pick up a copy of Forces of Habit. And as much as I wanted to work with social media, the limitations of the forum, and its unfamiliarity as a legitimate educational tool in the institution, led to some difficulties the first time around.
Instead, I thought more about how I could help students to critically assess the evidence that they are likely to encounter, help them to accurately assess and evaluate these sources, and perhaps even pique some curiosity for exploring more academic sources (Like Points!). The new approach also addresses a new but important issue that historians and other academics need to address: that of media literacy. In my experience, historians tend to dismiss media literacy as secondary to more academic, curated sources (in databases and the like). But we live in a time when information has become weaponized, and we can no longer merely hope that students will “ignore” digital sources and opt for more erudite and peer reviewed sources of information. To maintain this hands-on approach, I’m directing my students to find sources, evaluate them, and look at them in corroboration with other sources. We will meet each week, evaluate the sources, and determine how to use each sources as evidence to write a collaborative Wikipedia-type entry on the historical perspectives and its role in shaping the contemporary debate on its status in American life.
Instead of focusing on the historical myths about marijuana’s prohibition, I want to tackle their myth that marijuana policy change is simply a question about marijuana’s benefits and hazards. By looking at the more contemporary debate, I want students to discover for themselves that marijuana legalization has spawned an entirely new debate in the United States about criminal justice reform, mass incarceration, police power, and the opioid crisis. I look forward to a follow-up report at the conclusion of the course.