Teaching Points: “Narcotic Hedonism: American Drug Use”– Commentary on the Class

Editor’s Note: In the second part of their contribution to the “Teaching Points” series, Wesleyan University seniors Robert Echeverria and Siddhanth Issar meditate on the challenges and promises of a peer-led pedagogy of alcohol and drugs history.  The syllabus for their class on “Narcotic Hedonism” appeared yesterday.

“Hello Professors Echeverria & Issar.”
“We’re not professors. It’s just Rob & Sid.”

SOC420: Rob and Sid, Wesleyan '12

Having taught a class before, we expected it. Students come to believe that if you can put together a syllabus and demand a certain amount of work, you actually have the knowledge and authority to be at the head of the classroom. Sid & I saw things differently; we were teaching this class because it was something that we wanted to learn about that the faculty wasn’t offering. The turnout for the class really showed us just how much interest surrounds taboo topics such as drug use. These subjects merit academic rigor; having the opportunity to act on our curiosity and provide an outlet for our peers to do so as well has been a rewarding experience and is one of the best things about going to Wesleyan.

As we said in our last post, Sid & I co-led a Student Forum of 15 kids. We developed the syllabus from scratch and tried to put together a set of readings that acknowledged both sides of the debate in any given week. As an instructor, one strives to avoid pushing one’s own beliefs and biases onto the class, but it often proves difficult.  We hoped that the varied syllabus would allow for a balanced discussion and prevent Sid & I from articulating only our own points of view on the subject matter.  Our next concern was the actual students that we admitted into the class.  We strove to create as diverse a group as we possibly could.  Granted, the majority of students who come to apply for a spot in a seminar on the subject of “Narcotic Hedonism” already have certain beliefs about the subject matter. Nevertheless, through an application process, we put together a roster of all four class years and a wide spectrum of majors, hoping to benefit from both multi-disciplinary approaches to the subject and the possibility that the underclassmen had not yet been socialized into Wesleyan culture and thus might maintain the beliefs they held prior to college life.  We aimed to admit students who fell on both sides of a given debate: those who approved and disapproved of drug use as well as those who believed in drug traffic control and those who believed our resources could be better spent. We were fortunate enough to even have a class that was divided in terms of how much and/or how openly everyone engaged in recreational drug use. Despite the variety of opinions, by the end of the semester, most students had come to change their position on a majority of the central questions.

As the weeks went on and we continued to progress through our syllabus, personal anecdotes and friendly relations among the entire class became inevitable; we were after all, all students.  It was a beneficial aspect of the class and the Student Forum format, and it allowed for a safe, comfortable and open environment.  Students shared stories that ranged from the death of friends or relatives because of drug abuse to accidentally getting high because they mistakenly ingested far too much Robitussin.  It’s difficult to not get caught up in those sorts of tangents.  Although we required two-page response papers every week in order to ensure engagement with the material and ease discussion, those tangents seemed to help make the lessons learned more tangible and at times proved to be the more interesting part of the class.  Of course it can be argued that this takes away from the focus and objectivity of the class and puts the academic in the backseat, however, we found instead that it put a human face to all these concepts and ideas that are articulated by “boring old professors and academics sitting at a desk.”

The Boring Old Professor's Desk

As college students attending a notoriously liberal liberal arts university, it’s easy to think that we all believe that drug use should be treated as a health issue and not a crime; that marijuana should be legalized; and that drug prohibition and the war on drugs institutionalizes racism and the social injustice of mass incarceration, especially within minority groups.  As a class we discovered that these debates aren’t actually as black and white as we come to believe. Legalization or decriminalization bring forth different sets of problems and drawbacks.  There is no clear-cut solution; we don’t have a better alternative.  As a class, we couldn’t come to an agreement over how we would approach policy and law making, we couldn’t agree on a proper classification of drugs or even on the legal status of any drug, even marijuana.  The logic behind the disagreement varied from the ethical to the personal to the hypothetical: the academic and the tangents.  Nevertheless, the arguments of the authors we assigned revealed themselves to be true within the small sample of our 17-person seminar, and the anecdotes only made them more concrete.

Taboo subjects are difficult to study; the debates surrounding them are complex and often seem to boil down to choosing the lesser of two evils. Although we ourselves are just students, with little prior experience in proper pedagogy and classroom management, the format of a Student Forum allowed us to begin to analyze a subject that deserves further academic pursuit and proper instruction, in a manner that couldn’t be achieved in a formal classroom setting.

Photo: The Wesleyan Argus, ca. 2006

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