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.

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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 …

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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.

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Teaching Points: History as a Resource for Understanding Drugs Today

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. Together, Ramos and Lanzarotta are teaching a course on the history of drugs in the twentieth century and we’ve invited them to contribute to our “Teaching Points” series. Enjoy! 

ClassroomThe idea for our course on the history of drugs developed out of a conversation a few years ago concerning the medical management of opiate addiction in our community of New Haven, CT. We are both graduate students in the Program in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University, and Marco is also a medical student at Yale School of Medicine. Having recently completed a clinical rotation at the hospital, Marco reflected on the patient-blaming and suspicion that often accompanies discussions of opiate prescription among physicians. During his rotation, he heard physicians and residents bemoan their patients who requested, and often demanded, opiate prescriptions. He watched as physicians speculated about whether patients were “feigning” their pain to acquire drugs and realized that physicians made judgments about who should receive opiate prescriptions based on imperfect, biased assumptions about what “addicts” looked like racially and economically. Given the large body of medical evidence that demonstrates addiction is not a matter of voluntary choice or individual responsibility, Marco wondered why physicians continued to blame and shame patients for their struggles with addiction.

Tess pointed to the utility of history in understanding opiate addiction in the United States today. She discussed the pharmaceutical companies’ role in this story, as the industry downplayed the addictiveness of opiates and encouraged their widespread use for profit in the medical community throughout the 1980s and 90s. A long history of inadequate consumer protections from the Food and Drug Administration did not safeguard patients from the rapid circulation of this dangerous class of drugs during this period. Though the pharmaceutical industry and a weak federal regulatory body were largely to blame for the growing incidence of opiate addiction across the country, drug enforcement held individual patients responsible for their addictions.

As the conversation progressed, we began to reflect on the importance of history for understanding dilemmas — like opiate addiction — presented by drugs today. We imagined a course that would focus on the history of drugs as a way of generating “useful pasts” that could inform how our students thought about drugs and drug policy in the present. As our thinking evolved, we drafted an application to co-teach a course that centered on the categorization of drugs across the twentieth century. Rather than using drugs as a lens to understand social, cultural, legal, or political history in the Unites States, we hoped to use history to reflect on drug categories themselves. We were interested in how lines dividing chemically active substances into categories and classes, such as illicit and licit or medical and recreational, have shifted across the twentieth century. Historically shifting boundaries between drugs have hinged upon changing cultural norms surrounding the characterization of “use” versus “abuse,” the prescribed treatments or punishments for drug users, and the labelling of drug use as an individual or social problem. Such beliefs continue to be wrapped up in socially-mediated understandings of identity — along ethnic, racial, gender, class, and religious lines — and in opposing ideologies of health and governance.

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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.

L'absinthe
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.

GHWB crack
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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