Teaching Points: “Hooked: Addiction in American Culture”: Commentary on the Class

In the second half of her post to the “Teaching Points” series, Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan reflects on how interdisciplinarity works–and doesn’t– in the undergraduate classroom.

“So how many of these drugs have you done?”  It was the first day of class, and the question came from a student who was clearly much hipper than I had been as an undergrad, or am now for that matter.

“Excuse me?” I was flustered but managed to rejoin, “Why do you want to know?”

“Because,” he said with a faint smirk, “I don’t see how can you teach about them if you haven’t experienced them.”

“Well, I didn’t live through the Civil War either, but I teach about that too,” I replied.

McClellan's Pedagogy: Take No Prisoners

Thinking back on that exchange from several years ago, I now realize that for me, teaching about addiction intensifies many aspects of pedagogy.  The classroom can be crowded: not just with ideas, but with emotions and backgrounds that are often invisible and therefore all the more powerful.  Many of these issues have been thoughtfully explored by Guest Blogger Eoin Cannon.  As the student’s challenge to me was meant to show, we instructors also bring a point of view into the classroom, whether we articulate it or not.  This is a useful reminder for me in all my classes.

These days, perhaps because I am older, perhaps because student concerns have shifted, I am more likely to receive student confessions about their own use, especially of pharmaceuticals, than to get questions about my habits.  Here too, I confront uncertainty about my role as an instructor and mentor—how much authority do I want to claim, and on what grounds?  I found David Herzberg’s meditations on this subject immensely helpful.  In my course, in fact, we read David’s book Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac which, along with Nicolas Rasmussen’s On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine, helped show students that cultural, political, and economic factors over time, not just a “march of science,” have contributed to that pill they take every day.

My reflexive invocation of the Civil War shows that my identity as an historian is well entrenched.  But as I said yesterday, in my most recent incarnation of my addiction class, I sought to develop a more robust interdisciplinary approach.  Although historical scholarship constituted much of our reading, and the general outline remained chronological, I also assigned material from social science and medical literature, a memoir and some pieces from the popular media, and films.  In addition, we toured a pharmacology laboratory where animal research is conducted.  I wanted to show that addiction is a multifaceted phenomenon that invites, perhaps even requires, a variety of perspectives to even begin to unravel it.  As well, I hoped the course would convey the value of interdisciplinary approaches more broadly.  For their part, students in the class had a wide range of majors, from specialized biological fields to engineering, psychology, literature, and film (interestingly, few if any had much background in history).  As such, they brought different expectations and views to the class, which I tried to harness in productive ways.

Afraid to Comment Because Our Photo Captions are So Witty?

To encourage student engagement with issues and materials that might be new to them, I assigned several different types of writing exercises, including a requirement that students respond to a post on this blog, which had only recently launched.  To my surprise, the students turned out to be very resistant to actually putting their responses on the blog, and so I allowed them to submit them to me just like any other assignment. I was also surprised that they tended to follow a link on the blog—to another article or a film, for example—and write about that.  In other words, they seemed to treat the blog as a transparent portal to other resources, rather than engaging with the commentary on the blog as a genre in and of itself.  Next time, I will be much more explicit in my expectations here, which I hope will take better advantage of the interactive nature of a blog as a teaching tool.

The other new element in this class was a week devoted to pharmacology, made possible through my involvement with the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center (UMSARC).  Emily Jutkiewicz, Ph.D.served as our guide, providing an introductory lecture that covered the use of animal models in the study of drug abuse and some basic grounding in neuroscience.  While some students in the class were familiar with this material, many were not.  Emily also led us on a tour of the lab and even demonstrated how a rat’s brain is sectioned.  For many students, and me, this was a new and very different experience.

Time to Make the Drugs

In many ways, the pharmacology interlude was a great success.  It is always fun to get out of the classroom, and that alone has pedagogical value in my view.  In this case, the lab tour brought a sensory immersion into the realities of research that is impossible to realize from a book.  Seeing the physical investment that is required for this kind of work helped students understand how funding structures and institutional commitments can perpetuate or foreclose avenues for research, and Emily’s nuanced discussion of the political and cultural pressures that surround animal research took on additional meaning since we were standing at the locked door of the lab as she did so.

In a follow-up discussion back in the classroom, however, I began to see pitfalls related to this excursion.  First, a common vocabulary can mislead us into thinking we agree on meaning.  I realized how much many of us in the humanities insert invisible quotation marks or offer a kind of nod and wink when we use certain terms that are fundamental to this field, such as “addiction,” “abuse” and even “drug.”  Physically taking my students into a foreign space, I lost the authority to signal to them how I expect such words to be used.

Second, while I meant the tour to illustrate just one way of understanding addiction, and chose it in part because it is so different from what I could offer in the classroom, the very intensity of the experience—combined of course with the cultural ascendancy of neuroscience—reinforced a disciplinary hierarchy that Joseph Gabriel has discussed on this blog.  I tried hard in subsequent class sessions to re-contextualize what we had seen in the lab within our particular historical and cultural moment.  Surprisingly, to me at least, the more scientifically oriented students seemed to accept this approach more than others, who perhaps had been so overwhelmed in seeing the lab that they had more trouble stepping back and analyzing it with the conceptual tools I tried to provide.

It would not surprise my students in the least that I have gone on longer than intended here.  So I will close by saying that next time I will still take students out of the classroom but organize more than one field trip so that the structure of the course better reflects my goal of providing multiple perspectives.

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5 thoughts on “Teaching Points: “Hooked: Addiction in American Culture”: Commentary on the Class

  1. “So how many of these drugs have you done?”

    “Well, I didn’t live through the Civil War either, but I teach about that too,”

    I think that’s somewhat beyond the point. If someone was teaching about the vietnam war, and a student asked the question “were you fighting in that war?” the answer would be a straight “yes” or “no”, not a counter question followed by an explanation why a straight answer is not required in this case.

    Of course I do understand that a teacher must not answer: “well I did X and I did Y, but I like Y better”. That’s unfortunate, that’s not what teaching should be like.

  2. Thanks for the comment. While I agree that a direct answer could be expected in the case of something like the Vietnam War, which is within the lifetime of many of us, I would still be concerned that the student would then assume that because I participated (or not), he could predict my views, and perhaps present his own views accordingly. My deflection in this case was intended to protect my privacy, especially as a new college instructor, but also to emphasize with the Civil War example that we can and MUST learn about things that we will never have the opportunity to experience. I wanted to challenge his assertion that it is only through direct experience that one gains expertise sufficient to teach. If that were true, it would make teaching history very difficult.

    My desire to protect my privacy in the realm of drug use is also revealing, I think, echoing what I tried to convey in the post about how teaching this subject seems to intensify many pedagogical issues. If I were a Vietnam War veteran, I might–but then again, I might not–be more comfortable disclosing that in the classroom.

  3. That sounds like a class I would like to take. I agree with Karl though. I understand where your coming from in wanting to challenge the students’ stance that direct experience is necessary to critically analyze something. It was rude of him to ask the question in the first place. It’s comparable to asking someone’s race or sexuality. It’s as if the answer matters so much to their opinion of you that they have to ask.

    At the same time, I think choosing not to answer the question is problematic. If I were your student, I might assume you as a professor found something shameful about drug use because you didn’t feel comfortable sharing. It’s none of your students business what drugs you use or have used, but because drugs and drug users are so stigmatized in our society, I feel like there should be a more proactive effort in academia and society at large to make dialogues on the subject open and nonjudgemental.

    I took a class on drugs a few years ago and the professor recited every drug he had tried the first day of class, and had everyone in the class stand up if they had also tried a certain drug. It surprised me what a huge relief it was to admit what illegal drugs I had tried in front of strangers and my professor in an academic setting, instead of at a party to a friend. Our class had only about 10 students in it, and it wouldn’t have worked in a larger class, but that exercise definitely made the class one of the most intimate ones I’ve had. There was no BS over protecting your identity as a drug user or non-drug user, making the discussion feel more equal by being up-front. The only thing I regretted was all of the recounts of so and so’s drug experience, and I wish the professor had cut them off at times.

  4. Julia, thanks for your comment. Your professor’s approach is really interesting, and I certainly appreciate the value gained in terms of openness in subsequent class discussions. I have had similar encounters with students individually and in small groups in my office, but I still would be uncomfortable doing this in the classroom, which seems to me to be a different kind of space.

    While your point about normalizing and removing stigma is very well taken, I hope that my course itself contributes to that goal through the material we study in class, by showing students how attitudes about drugs and users have changed over time. They were able to make many connections between the issues we explored and their own lives, even without such a direct exercise as you describe from your class. So for example, comparing so-called scientific temperance education of the early 20th century, which warned youth of the dangers of alcohol, with present-day drug curricula, the students could see that substances move back and forth across what might be called a “scare threshold” for many reasons. The students themselves then observed many times that, counter to what they may have been taught in health class in junior high, the vast majority of people who try drugs never become addicted, and “use” does not automatically equate to “addiction” (a point also made in a comment about chronic pain posted in response to my syllabus). I have no doubt that hearing this repeatedly in the context of a college class proved reassuring to many of the students, but neither I nor the rest of the class needed to know who they were for that message to be effective.

    Whatever my motivations for disclosing my own habits or not, I am even more cautious in what I ask students to do. Yes, I used my authority as the instructor to deflect the student’s question directed to me. Like it or not, any question I ask of students, particularly in the context of the classroom, also conveys authority and students may feel compelled to respond in certain ways. So in your class, I suppose that students could simply choose to remain seated as a form of non-participation, but I assume from the way you describe the exercise that that would be interpreted as a “no” response to whatever drug the professor just listed. It also sounds like at least some of the students then talked, perhaps at length, about their experiences. I wonder where that exercise might leave students who have not tried any drugs. Judgment can come from various directions, after all. There are also practical considerations, at least at some institutions, about protecting STUDENT privacy in the classroom, and asking students to disclose a behavior that could lead to disciplinary sanction from the institution if it were known in other settings strikes me as risky. There are some things I just don’t want to know.

    I do really appreciate both of these comments, because clearly this is a complicated issue that is worth exploring. I also continue to wonder about what might be called “drug exceptionalism” in teaching and our wider public discourse. Julia drew parallels between asking about my drug use and race and sexuality. I also teach about those issues, and I cannot imagine asking, “Would all virgins please stand up?”

  5. Michelle, thanks for a fascinating course outline and a thoughtful set of reflections on teaching. I confess I don’t really understand the enthusiasm for students and teachers presenting in-class narratives of their own drug experiences. What exactly does that accomplish? The student’s absurd justification–that one can’t teach what one hasn’t experienced–would force most historians out of the profession. Taken to the extreme, it asks us to accept the proposition that personal lived experience is the essential (perhaps only) basis for “true” historical understanding. Julia’s quasi-therapeutic justification makes some sense but, as Michelle replies, could be accomplished just as easily through the presentation of the course material. Karl makes an interesting comparison to service in Vietnam, but I’m not sure to what end. What on earth would students learn about the subject matter of the course by learning about the instructor’s drug-taking history? Nothing, unless they simply sat back and made their own, quite possibly unwarranted, connections between that personal history and the history being taught in class.
    I’m fascinated by these responses! Further discussion is most welcome.

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