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 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.

In a February post, I detailed the structure and main learning objectives of the class – an upper-level research seminar on “Drugs and Trade in American History.” As I wrote then, I hoped the course design would 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 believe the results highlighted above reflect that promise and more. Students pursued their own research interests from the start of the class and honed those interests through multiple assessments, including a primary source review, annotated bibliography, and brief presentation. In doing so, they also actually learned more meaningful content than I would have been able to cover in a standard course design. Most important, students were able to advance at their own pace, receiving regular feedback on how to best achieve the course’s learning objectives.


Whether successful or not, there were still things in the course design that I would alter for future offerings. During the first few weeks of the course, students were responsible for locating a primary source that related to a theme or topic from that week’s course readings. To prepare students for this task, we had a session with a university librarian, who detailed the wealth of digital archives available through the library. In the future, I might replace or complement this session with time in the University Archives, which would allow students more direct contact with a more defined set of primary sources. I saw a few struggles to narrow interests or find topics that were sufficiently historical, and I believe some students’ first exposure to mostly 20th century digital archives might have contributed to such problems.

On the whole, I think the task of using primary source analysis to get students thinking critically about course readings has a lot of promise for a number of course settings. In future iterations of this course, however, I would also like to spend more time directly engaged with the scholarship. In addition to important content, students could benefit from more interrogation of how scholars structure their arguments and use their sources.

Despite those issues, I am confident that the course reflects the promise of learner-centered teaching. It gets students thinking and working like historians, and it allows them to pursue a variety of interests and use a range of methodologies. Readers of this blog know well the numerous ways historians have explored the immense topic of drugs. At a time when history departments are often fretting about declining enrollments, a course with a broad focus, such as “Drugs and Trade in American History,” offers the possibility of attracting students with diverse interests and backgrounds. More important, the course design and learning objectives allow us to make a clear argument for the applicability of historical work beyond the content memorized in a classroom.

At the risk of taking the self-congratulatory tone of this post to obscene levels, I still must conclude with one student’s comment from the course reviews. Among other questions, the university asks, “Did the course help you learn?” The anonymous student responded, “Yes. I cannot even begin to describe how effective the structure of this course was for improving my ability to do research. It is as real shame I didn’t have it until senior year, because, had I taken this earlier, I believe many of the research papers I have written over the course of my time here at NU would have been much better. The system which Matt used to help us develop our topics – primary source reviews, an annotated bibliography, and, most importantly, the final presentation before we actually wrote our papers, was truly incredible.”

There are probably many ways to define the success of our courses, but that is good enough for me.