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 too often devote our efforts to enterprises mattering only to ourselves,” Spacks warned.  “Our research and writing, these critics appear convinced, possess even less value than our teaching. ‘So what?’ echoes loudly around us.”[1] Spacks then suggested a solution:  “We must answer ‘So what?’ as a real rather than a rhetorical question.”  This battle cry to co-opt the critics’ “So what?” applies to disciplines across the humanities that have suffered from a shift toward more focused and vocational training in college. Specifically, while making historical narratives compelling and relevant has always motivated historians’ research and teaching, this cause has become even more urgent with on-going decreases in student enrollment in history courses.

As a lecturer in Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences writing program, I have attempted to answer this call by teaching the first history course dedicated to cannabis in the United States, “Marijuana in American History.” This course attracts students from a wide array of fields in fulfillment of BU’s required two-semester writing and research sequence. For many students, especially those from disciplines outside of the humanities, taking a course that revolves around writing papers represents a trip to a foreign land. Thus, students’ dismissal of history writing as an arcane and niche enterprise reflects a wider protest that asks “So what?” in its most derisive context, analogous to its evil twin, “Who cares?” In 2007, 2.24 percent of college graduates majored in history, but only 2.02 percent in 2011.[2]  In response, historians have initiated an emphasis on a new pedagogical approach to authentic historical problems or controversies that more accurately reflect the profession’s self-directed historical inquiry to establish an argument’s significance—the “so what?”

In my own teaching, making history relevant is a two pronged strategy. First, the subject, marijuana, is a popular topic that many students (mostly male) are curious about for a variety of reasons (some better than others). This course follows three eras of marijuana politics. First we cover the major controversies surrounding the Anslingerian prohibition years in the 1930s; next, we examine the war on drugs that began in the 1960s; and finally, we research the legalization era that began in the 1990s.  The topic obviously provides a rich cultural history with a dizzying array of sources that engage students but also consider marijuana’s symbolic and political significance. For example, while reliable entertainment, comparing Reefer Madness, Easy Rider, Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke and Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High provides a fascinating window into Americans’ shifting sentiments about pot and the stoner from the 1930s to the 1980s. While the first two papers ask students to argue about the historical trends in marijuana culture, science and politics, the final assignment embraces the topic’s current controversy and asks students to develop an argument about the reason for the recent growing support for legalization. This assignment gives students free reign to choose their topics, as they write about issues such as marijuana culture and research in social media, women’s roles in the effort, the motivation for racial justice and of course the medicinal movement.

Second, this class shows history as controversy with contemporary implications rather than a list of dates and names. Students analyze political texts such as congressional testimony and Richard Nixon’s tapes to explore the complicated messages and cultural assumptions that informed our policies on drugs. Practicing these historical skills, students quickly learn that as soon as they can formulate a thesis, the “so what?” should also be included.  Why does it matter if we scapegoat the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, for passing the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937? What lessons should we learn from following the rise and fall of the gateway theory? What does millennials’ overwhelming support for legalization say about this generation? All of these questions push students to make the connections between their scholarly argument and its current implications. Beyond the academic pursuit of marijuana history’s larger significance, my students can feel the topic’s controversy outside the classroom.

Soon, the class picked up wider publicity and critics predictably asked why something like this should pass as “college material.” One response to an article USA Today ran on “Marijuana in American History” expressed the abhorrence that many parents shared. “As a parent of a prospective student: STRIKE 1” read one typical reaction.  “This is not something we are looking for in a future college.” As a new hire, I began to question my decision to offer the course. After checking with BU’s public relations office, however, I quickly realized that the positives greatly outweighed the negatives and they reassured me of the university’s support.  In addition, students in my class found the controversy over their course flattering. One even expressed that she felt she was actually a part of history, while another engineering student reflected in his course portfolio, “At this time I think I have far greater perspective on the marijuana issue, but really what I think I got out of this course was a greater appreciation for how the whole ‘liberal arts college’[humanities?] thing can teach you how to think about issues.”  In his paper, he argued that courses like “Marijuana in American History” are necessary, asking: “if marijuana has been legitimized in business, medicine and in politics-why not in academics?”—essentially developing a “so what?” that answered many critics who wondered “who cares”? (Or as one person protested: “And this course will prepare the student to do something?”). Despite the current hostility to the humanities, or perhaps because of it, the history of marijuana is a new and exciting field that can expand undergraduates’ notions of history’s role in changing perceptions of drugs and alcohol in society.

[1] Patricia Meyers Spacks, “Presidential Address 1994: Reality-Our Subject and Discipline,” PMLA, 110 (May, 1995), 350-357.

[2]Robert Townshend, “Data Shows a Decline in History Majors,” Perspectives, 51 (April, 2013); Mills Kelly, “A Looming Disaster for History,” April 12, 2013, edwired ; http://edwired.org/2013/04/12/a-looming-disaster-for-history/.



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.Read More »


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 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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Teaching Points: Reflections on “Addiction in American Life”

Editor’s Note: This post comes from contributing editor Kyle Bridge. Enjoy!

One of my best professors once told me that I should sit down and take stock of what went right and wrong after every course I teach, and I figure there’s no better place than Points to reflect on a class about oral histories of addiction that I helped put together this past spring.

Sam Proctor

Each semester the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) invites undergraduates to apply for its internship, through which they learn the ins-and-outs of oral history: archive management, transcription, theory and methods, and applied fieldwork, among other topics. The organizing theme changes every go-round, with past subjects ranging from veterans to organized labor.

I started as a SPOHP internship coordinator in January and chose to focus on addiction because my own work revolves around it, but also because I hoped the topic would resonate with students. I thought that drug use had a certain taboo that made it almost inherently alluring, and if students had watched the news with any regularity in the past five years they would be aware of the ongoing opioid crisis and might like some historical perspective. It was an educator’s win-win.

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Teaching Points- Tom Roberts on “Psychedelic Studies”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s guest author is Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D, an Emeritus Professor in the Honors Program at Northern Illinois University. He is author of The Psychedelic Future of the Mind, co-editor of Psychedelic Medicine and editor of Spiritual Growth with Entheogens. His website is: niu.academia.edu/ThomasRoberts. Below, he reflects on the history and purpose of his course in Psychedelic Studies, one of the first to be offered in the U.S.

“Psychedelics!? You mean they let you teach a course about psychedelics? I wish I could at _____.”

“Well,” I thought, “ now that I’ve started teaching a university course about psychedelics, the ice is broken. Professors in other colleges and universities can start theirs too.”  So I thought in 1981. Naïve optimism can be a great asset. For the next 30 years almost nothing happened except at some specialized graduate programs near San Francisco.

In 1980’s, there wasn’t much new research on psychedelics. The War on Drugs was in full swing with DARE, “Just Say “No’”, and a lock-em-up attitude. “This is your brain on drugs” aired in 1987.  As Nancy Reagan said, “Drugs take away the dream from every child’s heart and replace it with a nightmare.” This wasn’t an auspicious time to teach a psychedelics course, and my optimism about other professors following suit was wildly optimistic.

Now, however, things are beginning to pick up. NYU Langone Medical School –  Bellevue Hospital has a course for medical students that’s open to others too, and at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Health, Dr. Nicholas Cozzi includes a psychedelics unit in his Integrated Neuroscience course. Two undergraduate courses are going now, at last. The College of DuPage, a community college west of Chicago, has Psychedelic Mindview, which is mostly oriented toward both mental health professionals and the general student body. Best of all, the University of Pennsylvania Comparative Literature and Literary Theory Department, for the first time in the fall of 2014, offers Drug Wars: The Influence of Psychoactive Rhetoric.

History of the course

The exact origins of my course are lost in the mists of history and the fog of my memory. I know that in the early and mid-1970s, I offered a special topics course on transpersonal psychology. This was probably in the wake of a conference I organized in 1973 that looked at consciousness and transpersonal psychology, including psychedelics. I know that when Stanislav Grof’s Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Psychotherapy was published, the class took turns reading chapters from my copy and discussing them in class.  That was 1975.

Realms of the Human Unconscious (1976 edition). Via amazon.com
Realms of the Human Unconscious (Via amazon.com)

By 1981, the transpersonal special topics course became focused on psychedelics and took on the name Psychedelic Research. The first time I taught it — in fact, for its first two decades—I offered it as one of those one-shot special topics courses that are commonly titled “Special Topics in X”, “Selected Readings in X,” or “Advanced Study of X.” This didn’t require approval beyond an OK from my faculty chairperson. Fortunately, I was in the Educational Psychology Faculty of a College of Education. Unlike some departments in the liberal arts and sciences (which guard their intellectual boarders jealously) and others that restrict research only to an approved paradigm or two, colleges of education are singularly open-minded. A common College of Ed attitude is, “If it works, or even might work, let’s take a look at it.”

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Teaching Points– Myrna Santiago on “Cocaine…and US Latin-American Relations”

Editor’s Note: Professor Myrna Santiago talks about her undergraduate history seminar on the cocaine-fueled drug war, the detailed syllabus of which appeared yesterday.

Myrna Santiago, St. Mary’s College

Three objectives drove the development of a course on the drug trade in Latin America.  The first was to revise a course on U.S.-Latin American relations that was on the books and I had never taught.  I wanted to change the class from a standard diplomatic history to something broader.  Saint Mary’s College has only 2500 undergraduates and all Latin American history courses are upper division without pre-requisites, so I design courses that will intrigue students not otherwise interested in either history or Latin America.  Given that the “war on drugs” takes so much air time, I figured a class that looked at U.S.-Latin American relations through the lens of the drug trade would catch students’ attention and still cover the traditional topics covered in such a class.  This resulted in 25 student class that was heavily discussion based, with mini-lectures as necessary.

The second objective was, frankly, to learn about the topic myself. News coverage by its nature tends toward snapshots of whatever happens on a given day.  There is no room for context or analysis, much less for history, in the daily media, so I was quite frustrated by what I did not know and sought to educate myself.  And, as all teachers know, there is no better crash course on a topic than having to teach it!

The third objective was to speak to students’ experience. There is no young person in the United States today who does not have some personal experience with drugs.  Illegal substances are tightly woven into the fabric of American society today, so no one escapes their influence or impact.  Yet, what we know about illegal drugs generally comes from fiction.  For young people, in particular, the source is the movies.  The number of films about drugs or with drugs in them grows every year.  Focused on telling a good story, however, the context in most films is limited to the immediate environment surrounding the main characters.  The center of the genre is the individual; the story is personal. There are assumptions about history and socio-economic and political structures but they are left unexamined.

Thus, the course set out to investigate as many aspects of the drug trade as possible in historical context.  Read More »


Teaching Points– Cocaine, the Drug Trade, the War on Drugs, and U.S.-Latin American Relations

Editor’s Note: We close out our back-to-school Teaching Points series this week with Myrna Santiago’s upper division undergraduate history seminar “Cocaine, the Drug Trade, The War on Drugs, and U.S.-Latin American Relations.”  Professor and Chair of the History Department at St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, Santiago comes to drug history through border, economic, and environmental issues, a nexus of ideas represented in her prize-winning book The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938 (Cambridge, 2007).  Here she looks at another commodity fetish–cocaine– across a span of a hundred years.


For the last thirty years, one of the dominant themes between Latin America and the United States has been the drug trade, specifically the trafficking in cocaine. The policy of successive US administrations has been to wage a “war on drugs” to the exclusion of alternatives. The question then becomes, what has such a war accomplished? How has it affected relations between the United States and Latin America? What effects has the war had on production, transportation, and consumption patterns? This course will examine these questions by looking at the history of cocaine production from the late 19th century until today, tracing the changes the humble coca leaf underwent to become a powerful addictive substance.

We will follow the trajectory of cocaine production and transportation through the countries most affected over the course of the late nineteenth and the whole of the twentieth century—Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and now Mexico—paying attention to the impact such illicit trade has had on politics, economic development, and democracy.
Objectives. The primary goal of this course is to have students develop an informed and sophisticated analysis of the impact the drug trade has had on U.S.-Latin American relations and within Latin American countries themselves, in addition to gaining knowledge about the history of cocaine and a developing a more critical view of media representations of drug matters in general.

Required Readings

Paul Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug
Gabriel García Márquez, News of a Kidnapping
Roberto Escobar, The Accountant’s Story
Coletta A. Youngers and Eileen Rosin, Drugs & Democracy in Latin America
Jeffrey A. Miron, Drug War Crimes
Articles from e-reserve

Schedule of Classes

Mon Aug 31 Introduction

Wed Sept 2: Coca and the first wave of cocaine, to 1890

  • Gootenberg, Introduction, ch 1
  • Learning objective: understanding the historiography
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