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Comments on The State of Drug and Alcohol History Pedagogy and Research

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Editor’s Note: In this post, David Korostyshevsky comments on The State of Drug and Alcohol History Pedagogy and Research Roundtable Discussion at the Alcohol and Drugs History Society Conference, Mexico City, June 15, 2022.

 

After more than two long, hard years of global pandemic, it was truly wonderful to assemble once again with colleagues, friends, and fellow scholars at the Alcohol and Drugs History Society’s Conference in Mexico City this past June. As I begin designing a new course on the history of alcohol and drugs, it is with particular interest that I participated in “The State of Drug and Alcohol History Pedagogy and Research” Roundtable discussion. Without giving a point-by-point breakdown of the presentations and discussion, I highlight general themes and salient observations about the conversation. I also include a few comments about my takeaways from the conversation.


Roundtable Panel Presentations


The panelists represented a wide range of experience and academic positions. Some teach in traditional history departments. Most others, however, teach history within other humanities or STEM departments. James Bradford, Mat Saveli, Lucas Richert, and Robert Stephens—who teach in music, social science, pharmacy, and psychology departments—explained that they could more effectively engage students if they put significant field-relevant themes forward rather than focusing explicitly on “history,” which many non-history students seem to find initially dull. Richert explained how pharmacy education represents a specific STEM context that offers opportunities to teach alcohol and drugs history.


Another significant insight came from panelists focused on experiential and active learning in the alcohol and drugs history classroom. Taylor Dysart, a historian of science, described a summer course inspired by the pedagogy of bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress that emphasized excitement, experimentality, and student agency in the classroom. One way that Dysart generated excitement was by giving students more autonomy. For example, students had input into the kinds of activities or assignments they would like to complete and took a free-form final exam. Even as Dysart acknowledged the challenges this approach poses to some students and larger classes, active learning and student agency are essential concepts for all instructors to consider as they improve their pedagogy.


In a very different vein, Alice Teague offered a different example of how to supplement classroom learning by making it experiential and interactive. Teague brought various guest speakers into the classroom, including treatment professionals and law enforcement agents. Teague also allowed the students to learn within the community through field trips to key sites such as methadone clinics. In the discussion that followed, Teague explained that to make this approach work, the instructor must do the leg-work of engaging with community actors well ahead of time to establish trust and gain their buy-in.


Finally, Robert Stephens and his students write and publish an edited collection at the end of every single semester. The process of producing a volume together demystifies the publishing process and gives students the confidence that comes from a major accomplishment. Ultimately, student publishing is another form of experiential learning.


On Presentism


The post-presentation discussion diverged into various fascinating and relevant subjects in true roundtable fashion. One important conversation developed around the question of “presentism” in alcohol and drugs history; concern was expressed about historians focusing on contemporary events in ways that speak to student interests rather than theoretical concerns.


Concerning the discussion about presentism, I distinguish between two kinds of presentism. The first presentism has been adjudged as bad by historians. At its best, this form of presentism represents a narrow focus on contemporary events or anachronistic interpretations of the past. At its worst, it is a disingenuous engagement with the past in which evidence is massaged or omitted to fit preconceived interpretations or arguments. Historians, and all scholars, should rightly be concerned about this form of presentism and strive to contextualize the past as objectively as possible (and I stress, “as possible”).


But there is a second kind of presentism in which scholars recognize that historical study is a study of our current moment. We recognize that works of history often reveal the author’s questions at the same time they illuminate the events described. All works of history inform the present, and it is impossible to achieve political and social reform without understanding the history of that which is to be reformed.


Based on their position within the academy, the local legal and political climate, and other personal factors, each scholar must decide how presentist to be in this second sense. And as a historian of early-modern and nineteenth-century North America, I firmly believe that my work is (and should be) relevant to present-day concerns. Beyond the theoretical commitment to engagement with contemporary issues in my scholarship, I would want to ensure that I have the support of my department and college leadership before taking any overtly activist efforts within the classroom.


Self-Disclosure in the Classroom


The conversation about classroom activism quickly engaged another significant discussion of the session: the question of self-disclosure in the alcohol and drugs history classroom. Instructors, especially those who teach in non-history departments, find that many students are drawn to the class for various personal reasons. As a result, they are often curious about alcohol and drug use, want to know more about their instructor’s experiences with intoxicants, and voluntarily self-disclose their own various experiences. In these contexts, instructors wonder how open to be about their own experiences.


Most instructors expressed a desire to be honest about their experiences with intoxication to help eliminate the stigma surrounding drug use without glorifying it or getting anyone in trouble. Open and honest discussion can work to destigmatize addiction by normalizing open discussion about personal experiences with intoxication. It helps, for example, to render visible so-called normal, not-problematic drug users all around us who we never really notice. But there are very real risks to instructors and students who choose to self-disclose in a country like the United States.


For most instructors, illegal (and, depending on the situation, even legal) drug-related offenses may hold a strong potential for discipline and termination. Therefore, regarding my experiences with intoxication, I choose to take a middle road. I do not deny having some personal experiences, but I do so without going into specific details. I also work to redirect focus back to the sources we are studying.


I feel more at liberty to go into detail about personal experiences of legal drugs, such as my self-admitted coffee addiction. I like to expose students to the constructedness of the licit/illicit boundary by talking about my coffee drinking. This topic is safe because coffee addiction carries little to no social stigma, at least in the United States. I often drink coffee while teaching, which drives home the point about how accepted and ubiquitous some drugs are and offers a larger lesson about shifting the focus away from sensational illegal drugs.


I am more careful, for example, about discussing alcohol because of potential issues surrounding underage drinking. But I am even more reserved regarding the use of illegal drugs. Upon considering the round table discussion, I intend to merge the issue of my own self-disclosure more directly with deliberate classroom discussions of the issues surrounding self-disclosure.


Moreover, self-disclosure holds significant risks for students. For students who live in university housing, varying forms of legal and illegal drug use may violate housing policies. Illicit drug use may expose students to criminal charges. Many instructors in the United States are mandatory reporters under federal law. Even if an instructor does not report a student, another student might, especially if they are neighbors. The growing partisan divide in the American classroom only exacerbates these tensions. And to make this even more complicated, many participants noted that stigmas and prejudices about intoxication disproportionately impact students experiencing economic hardship and students of color whose communities are subject to extra policing.


Therefore, students need to know the risks before they self-disclose. I look to the medical concept of informed consent for guidance. According to the American Medical Association, informed consent is a process in which a patient authorizes a physician to treat them based on communication in which the patient understands their diagnosis, the proposed treatment, and, most importantly, the risks associated with that treatment. I intend to discuss the problems surrounding self-disclosure deliberately with the students at the beginning of and throughout, the semester. I want my students to feel comfortable self-disclosing without feeling a pressure to self-disclose. Most importantly, I want my students to feel comfortable keeping their experiences to themselves if that makes them feel safer.


Ultimately, when self-disclosure happens, problems and struggles with alcohol and drug use come up alongside stories of parties and good times. However, the history classroom is not always the most appropriate venue to discuss such sensitive personal issues. Most instructors are not trained as therapists or treatment providers. However, deliberate discussions about informed consent, openly discussing the risks associated with self-disclosure, and ensuring students feel comfortable exercising agency about how to participate builds classroom community. Fostering this environment can also create a safer space for students dealing with their own or a family member’s substance use issues to seek additional help from the various services many colleges and universities now provide.


Stigma and Jobs


Lastly, the roundtable discussed how the lingering stigma related to drugs and drug use also impacts the job market for new scholars in the field. How can students (and their faculty mentors) best position themselves for an already shrinking job market in a society where this lingering stigma presents drug historians with obstacles to openly addressing drug history? The variety of contexts—history, STEM, and other humanities departments—in which to teach alcohol and drugs history complicates this question further.


Conclusion


While it is helpful to name the problems facing us as individuals and as a field, I am not sure we have found any conclusive answers yet. I contend that the challenges facing historians of alcohol and drugs across the academy are rooted in wider structural problems of the neoliberal university and Western-style just-in-time capitalism that cannot be solved in a single conference. Nevertheless, through our masks and across the socially distanced room, everyone in the room stimulated and participated in generative conversations that offered a spectrum of ideas for people to consider and adapt as needed in their particular situation or context.

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