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/.

 

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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: Surveying United States’ History of Drugs and Alcohol

This past semester, I taught a course called Altered States: Drugs and Alcohol in America at the University at Albany, SUNY. It was my third version of the course. I had the unique opportunity to design two courses from scratch during my first adjunct gig at Utica College in 2010 and 2011. In addition to the drug course, I also designed a survey-level course on sports in US history. Professionally, this trial-by-fire was enormously beneficial and intensely productive, but for better or for (far) worse, my initial test subjects had to suffer through some serious inexperience as I fumbled through course design, reading lists (painfully long ones…), and lectures. I had wanted to hit every major vein in the field (so to speak) and did it without adequate attention to the broader historical context.

So this spring, I decided to stick with the basics. Rather than point out how drug histories stick out of the general narrative of American history, I wanted to make an argument that the histories of a myriad of psychoactive substances can help us better understand some important trends in the history of the United States. Through my doctoral coursework and achievement of candidacy, I came to this section with a much firmer grasp of the historiographical arguments in the field.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
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—Preparing for “Addiction in American Life”

It’s that transitional time of the semester: even as final paper due dates are looming for the fall, spring book orders are coming (or past) due and new course preparation demands increasing attention. In this installment of “Teaching Points,” contributing editor Kyle Bridge shares his experience crafting a course in oral histories of addiction. 

I have long held academic interests in oral history and drug history—though I suppose around here the latter should go without saying. I also enjoy teaching, so I was thrilled to learn that in spring 2015 I will be co-teaching a course titled “Addiction in American Life” through the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP). Actually, the course theme changes each semester with the interests of rotating instructors, and the idea was conceived as I was allowed to pick the topic this time around. My students will be history undergrads completing internships through SPOHP; the addiction angle is a vehicle for teaching oral history techniques and methods.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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