Addiction, History and Historians: Nancy Campbell’s Response

Editor’s Note: This week, Points offers readers a series of responses to David Courtwright’s reflections on history, historians, and addiction.  Today’s first entry comes from Nancy Campbell, a Points Contributing Editor.    

David Courtwright’s prose sparkles with wit and insight. The current stakes in the ongoing conversation between addiction researchers and historians of addiction are high. As a historian of addiction research, I share David’s sense of urgency that we might miss the intellectual opportunities now available.

The scientific communities who make addiction science—the behavioral pharmacologists, geneticists, medicinal chemists, molecular biologists, and neuro-imagers—inhabit what Courtwright calls “the latest dispensation.” I study this space—where addiction science comes alive. Some of my subjects are alive; others are dead. Some are as multi-lingual and hyper-aware as we historians. Others are reductionists. What moves scientists to reduction ranges from compassion, to the complexities of biography and memory, to the burning urges of scientific curiosity, and to widely held notions of what counts as scientific excellence, clinical significance, or objectivity. None are what I would call “mono-lingual” or hypo-aware of the stakes of their science.

Courtwright takes aim at persuading two groups of people to take each other’s insights more seriously. The first group is addiction researchers who have not yet realized the significant contribution that historians can make to the phenomena that they are trying to understand. Now I am familiar with this group, but I prefer to think of them as addiction researchers who have been overtaken by cravings and uncontrollable urges. They are in the grip of scientific fascination—and in that state nothing else is so compelling as the objects and subjects of desire. Continue reading

Addiction, History and Historians: A Symposium

This month, the journal Addiction published an essay by David Courtwright, “Addiction and the Science of History.”  For readers unfamiliar with the journal, Addiction is one of the oldest and most influential interdisciplinary journals focusing on issues related to substance abuse and addiction.

Society for the Study of Addiction

Puzzling on Addiction Since 1884

Recently, the journal has begun a series called “Addiction and Its Sciences,” in which leading scholars from various disciplines discuss the relationship between their field and the addiction field generally.  Recent entries in this series include Bennett Foddy, “Addiction and Its Sciences–Philosophy,” Addiction 106 (January 2011), 25-31, and Jonathan Caulkins and Nancy Nicosia, “Addiction and Its Sciences: What Economics Can Contribute to the Addiction Sciences,” Addiction 105 (July 2010), 1156-1163.  David Courtwright’s essay has a kind of twofold purpose: first, to explain history (and historians) to the addiction research field and, second, to take stock of where both fields are in relation to one another.  In that latter instance, David’s essay offers a useful set of reflections for those of us interested in where history is/should be headed.  That includes Points readers, of course, and so it seemed like a good idea to make this essay available through this site.  The editors and publishers of Addiction have generously agreed, and readers of this blog may access the article for free by following this link.

But wait, that’s not all!   Continue reading

Points on Blogs: Understanding Society

There’s plenty of self-promoting, self-referential nonsense out there in the blogosphere.  When it came time to thinking about “Points on Blogs,” well…let’s just say that your editor did not feel this feature needed to promote the self-promoting, or add layers of nonsense to the nonsensical.  Consequently, we were very pleased to be able to bring to the Points readership the earnest inquiry of the Drugs, Law and Conflict blog and the vivid explorations of the Res Obscura blog.  Last time, I promised we’d “go drinking” in this installment, but I’ve decided to “go thinking” instead.  Our third blog is Prof. Daniel Little’s Understanding Society, and it moves away from the realm of alcohol and drugs particularly, to the broad questions that animate our investigations.  Little is a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where he is also currently university chancellor.  Here’s how he describes his intellectual orientation on the front page of Understanding Society: “I am a philosopher of social science with a strong interest in China and Southeast Asia. Right now I’m thinking about how to reformulate the philosophy of history in a way that is more closely related to the practice of contemporary historians. I think philosophers need to interact seriously and extensively with working social scientists and historians if they are going to be able to make a useful contribution.”

Crowds cheer war

Crowds cheer for war--understand them?

As for Understanding Society, calling it a blog doesn’t quite capture what Little is trying to accomplish.  The recipe for a typical academic blog mixes small amounts of extended analysis with a larger portion of timely reaction pieces, all baked together with heaping pile of whatever comes to mind at the moment.  In contrast, here’s Little’s goal, in his own words: “This site addresses a series of topics in the philosophy of social science. What is involved in “understanding society”? The blog is an experiment in thinking, one idea at a time. Look at it as a web-based, dynamic monograph on the philosophy of social science and some foundational issues about the nature of the social world.”  Indeed, one can find the entire site organized into a table of contents, or obtain the entire contents through July, 2011 in monograph form (obtained free from the site as a 1234-page[!] pdf file).

Needless to say, that’s a lot to go through.  Why should historians of drugs and alcohol care?

Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

Teaching Points: Culture, Medicine, & Society: Commentary on the Class

Editor’s Note: In the second part of our inaugural post to the “Teaching Points” series, Contributing Editor Joe Gabriel ruminates on teaching to both medical students and PhD candidates in the humanities.

Interventions in the Teaching of American Mediine

Yesterday I posted the syllabus to a class I taught for the history department here at Florida State. As I mentioned, I’m actually on faculty at the medical school and so I spend most of my time teaching medical students. If you haven’t done it, teaching medical students is incredibly rewarding – they are extremely hard working, very smart, and it’s gratifying to know that you might actually be helping them become better doctors. However, it’s also very nice for me to get the opportunity to interact with doctoral students in the humanities, as it allows for different types of conversations that just aren’t possible in the medical school.

As you’ll see from the syllabus, the course is an effort to provide a broad overview of the history of medicine in the United States. I tried to organize the class both chronologically and methodologically, with both earlier periods of history and more traditional approaches to the history of medicine being covered earlier in the course.  There are, I think, some problems with the syllabus.  Continue reading

Reminder: Pub/Street/Meds is Going Fast

The window is closing fast for next month’s scintillating Alcohol and Drugs History Society Conference on The Pub, the Street, and the Medicine Cabinet, 24-26 June in Buffalo, New York.  By “window” in this instance we mostly mean “conference hotel special discount rates.”  Those bargain basement prices will be available to all and sundry starting 15 May, and are only guaranteed through the 23rd, so make your reservations NOW by clicking here.  The conference will feature ADHS celebrities from around the globe, and I’ve heard rumors that upon registration participants receive P. Diddy goodie bags stuffed with Big Pharma swag.

If I Had Only Registered for the ADHS Conference in Time, My Life Might Feel More Meaningful Right Now

All session rooms are apparently equipped with chocolate fountains, perpetually re-stocked raw bars, and all the Four Locos you can drink (shrewdly sourced before it was banned by wily conference organizer and Points contributing editor David Herzberg). If you do only one conference this summer, this should be the one.  Don’t delay, register today!  Otherwise you might end up like this small plush cow, looking out at all the festivities and wishing you could join in.

Historical Scholarship as a Subordinate Enterprise

I was recently speaking with a very prominent psychiatrist about the history and science of various mental illnesses, and he told something along the lines of “what historians can do to help is to explain how diseases came to be defined as they are; that way we can have a better idea of what we are dealing with.” I looked at him for a moment, and thought to myself: “Fine, but what can you do to help me?” Of course I didn’t say that. The question of what he could do to help historians better understand the past had clearly never crossed his mind. So I just nodded and smiled and muttered something that he didn’t find particularly interesting. We soon moved on to talking about the beer selection.

I mention this anecdote to bring up what I consider one of the central problems facing historians and other scholars in the humanities interested in doing interdisciplinary work: our relatively lowly status in the institutional and epistemological academic food chain. I’ve very much enjoyed reading both Michelle McClellan‘s and Trysh Travis’s posts about the general lack of interest among feminist scholars toward addiction studies, but my initial response to both posts was: “hey, disinterest may not be so bad. At least they aren’t insulting you.” I’ve spent a bit of time here and there working with people from the so-called “hard” sciences, and I’ve found it surprisingly easy to walk away from those conversations feeling a bit put off. I don’t think the scientists involved in these conversations have been intentionally trying to insult me, but they sure have done a good job at it nonetheless – and I’m not particularly sensitive to such things. Here, then, is an issue that I think those of us working in the humanities need to confront: the assumed subordinate position of our disciplines to the sciences in the hierarchy of academic knowledge production. Continue reading