Teaching Points: Transforming a Survey Course and Improving Student Research

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.  The Teaching Points series investigates the role of alcohol, drug, and pharmaceutical history in the classroom.

When I first started teaching in 2009, I assigned my class a research project. With absolutely no classroom experience beyond my own, I naively assumed that students just kind of knew how to do research, and I quickly grew frustrated with the poor results. From that point on, I decided to forego “independent” research entirely in my classes and instead to focus on providing a “guided tour” of the material, providing students with textbooks, articles, and/or primary sources and requiring a mix (over the years) of exams, quizzes, analytical essays, and/or source analyses. Unable to spend sufficient class time explaining the research process or troubleshooting issues, I reasoned that the efficacy of a research project in a survey course would always be undermined by my students’ limited exposure to proper research methods.

In subsequent years, I continued teaching under this assumption. But, coinciding with my transition to a PhD program at Albany and my TA responsibilities, I also increased my efforts to explore how others instructors taught their survey courses, and I continued to make adjustments to my own teaching based on knowledge gained at conferences and in professional journals, newsletters, and magazines. I encountered two appealing strategies. The first is the idea of the flipped classroom, where the activities that typically take place in a classroom and those activities usually occurring outside the classroom are flipped. The second are strategies that stress digital literacy (a topic covered recently on Points by Stephen Siff) to help future citizens confront the information dump that they see every day online.

Combining these two strategies, I thought, would provide the ideal model for teaching real-world “research skills” during class time. On this forum (so long ago) I dreamed of one day flipping my classroom, but I lamented the prep-time required—particularly for a doctoral student and later an adjunct. I could, and did, adjust for prioritizing digital literacy, but the flipped classroom remained just that, a dream.

Then the pandemic came, and everything changed.

Beach August Teaching Points Title Card
Left: Sample student research subject, “Why did the Reagan Administration show Just Say No Ads with the likes of NFL and MTV Stars?” Image of Nancy Reagan accepting a “Just Say No” jersey from quarterback Doug Williams in 1988 courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library.

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Teaching Points: Lesson Plan in Truth, Lies, and Anti-Drug Propaganda

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Stephen Siff, an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Miami University of Ohio. He is the author of Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience (University of Illinois Press, 2015).

I teach media literacy in introductory journalism and mass communication classes at Miami University of Ohio. My recent research explores the history of US anti-drug propaganda campaigns. I was happy when these interests collided over the summer in conjunction with the publication of my article, “‘Why Do You Think They Call It Dope?’: Richard Nixon’s National Mass Media Campaign Against Drug Abuse” in Journalism and Communication Monographs. As supplementary material for my article, I have also provided readers access to a digital lecture about 1970s anti-drug ads, a lesson plan, and two primary source/discussion exercises.

1970s Ad Council Anti-Drug Ad
1970s Ad Council anti-drug advertisement discussed in my powerpoint presentation.

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Teaching Points: The Urgency of 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. 

Things have changed.

In February, I wrote what now seems like a rather whimsical preview of my newly fine-tuned version of a Drugs in American History course at Utica College in the Spring of 2020. About two weeks into that ill-fated semester, I highlighted the “enrollment crisis” in history programs, perhaps the central issue among academic historians in the last decade, and how the History Department at Utica College was attempting to retool its history major to appeal to students’ interest in their world. I then discussed the results of my course survey, which brought out the various issues in drug history that interested my students and that I was going to center the course on.

At the time, based on the interactions at the start of the term, I was very optimistic. My optimism rose as we explored David Courtwright’s Forces of Habit as the course’s foundational/theoretical framework over the first seven weeks of class. As the Covid-19 crisis rose to engulf us here in New York State, the class was about to make the transition from theory to research. Students had chosen a “drug category” and were preparing to use basic research tools, also introduced during the first half of the course, to create a 5 minute research presentation (and accompanying 5-7 page research paper) exploring one of the major themes from Courtwright’s book within their chosen category.[1]

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