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Teaching Points: “Hooked: Addiction in American Culture”

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: This week brings the second installment in Points’ back-to-school series on teaching the history of alcohol and drugs.  Last week, Joseph Gabriel discussed using a History of Science approach to the topic in a seminar for medical students and PhD students in History.  This week, historian Michelle McClellan presents a more…well, point-ed approach in a class designed for undergraduates in a residential college setting.  Next week, guest blogger Sarah Carnahan of Ohio State University’s School of Social Work and Department of Women’s Studies will talk about “Women and Addiction: A Feminist Perspective.”

As an American historian, I have taught courses on the history of addiction at several institutions over the years.  While their subject may seem unusual or controversial to some, these classes followed a structure that is pretty typical for a history curriculum, tracing different substances chronologically through the last few centuries of American history.  Now I am jointly appointed in the History Department and the Residential College at the University of Michigan.  The Residential College (RC) is a “living-learning community”– an undergraduate liberal arts college within the larger university.  Although any University of Michigan students can take classes there, the RC has a self-conscious identity as an interdisciplinary college which fosters a special kind of student creativity and initiative.  Last year I taught a course on addiction which I deliberately located in the RC so that I could challenge myself to think about addiction in new ways and, I hoped, use addiction as a subject that would demonstrate to students the value of an interdisciplinary approach.  The syllabus follows.  Tune in tomorrow to see whether I succeeded in this endeavor.

Hooked: Addiction in American Culture

Michelle McClellan Endorses Moderate Drinking

Drinking, smoking, gambling, drug taking.  Although they might seem to be modern inventions, the “bad habits” have a long history in the United States.  Ministers, lawyers, politicians, physicians, and plenty of other “experts” have argued that they should be the ones to define what makes the bad habits so bad and what should be done about them.  Americans (and others around the world) have variously taxed, regulated, medicalized, punished, and celebrated participation in the bad habits.  In this course, we will trace the various ways that addiction has been conceptualized: as a sin or moral weakness; as a lack of will power; as a medical condition; even as a “chronic relapsing brain disorder.”  Readings will include works of historical analysis, as well as scientific and social scientific studies.  We will also explore representations of addiction and of addicts in popular culture, such as memoirs, films, and television shows.  The class format will include discussion of readings as well as some brief lectures for background and context.  Assignments will include short written responses to readings; two analytical essays; and a take-home final exam.

BOOKS David T. Courtwright, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World Jack London, John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs Peter Mancall, Deadly Medicine: Indians & Alcohol in Early America Carol Groneman, Nymphomania: A History David Herzberg, Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac Nicholas Rasmussen, On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine

Wednesday, January 5: Introduction to Course

Monday, January 10 Clancy W. Martin, “The Drunk’s Club: AA, the Cult That Cures,” Harper’s Magazine, January 2011 (CTools) Benoit Denizet-Lewis, “An Anti-Addiction Pill?” The New York Times Magazine, June 25, 2006 (CTools) Courtwright, Forces of Habit, Part I

Wednesday, January 12 Courtwright, Forces of Habit, Part II


FILM – TRAFFIC (2000) – see on your own in preparation for class discussion on Wednesday, January 19

Wednesday, January 19 Courtwright, Forces of Habit, Part III

Monday, January 24 Mancall, Deadly Medicine, Preface, Prologue, Ch. 1-4

Wednesday, January 26 Mancall, Deadly Medicine, Ch. 5-6

Monday, January 31 Mancall, Deadly Medicine, Ch. 7, Epilogue, Appendices

Wednesday, February 2 London, John Barleycorn, Ch. 1-28

Monday, February 7 London, John Barleycorn, Ch. 29 to end

Wednesday, February 9, 7:00 pm – FILM SHOWING and Discussion THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)

Monday, February 14 Allan Brandt, “The Cigarette, Risk, and American Culture,” Daedalus (1990) Howard Markel, “Tracing the Cigarette’s Path from Sexy to Deadly,” New York Times (March 20, 2007) (CTools)

Wednesday, February 16 Bring a cigarette ad to class to analyze Read one review or other article about Brandt’s book The Cigarette Century

Monday, February 21: The Science of Addiction – guest lecture by Pharmacologist

Wednesday, February 23: Tour of Pharmacology Lab

Monday, February 28: NO CLASS – SPRING BREAK

Wednesday, March 2: NO CLASS – SPRING BREAK

Monday, March 7: Groneman, Nymphomania: A History, Acknowledgments, Introduction, Ch. 1-3

Wednesday, March 9: Groneman, Nymphomania: A History, Ch. 4

Monday, March 14: No class at regular time but finish Groneman (Ch. 5-6 and Afterword)

Monday, March 14, 7 pm – FILM SHOWING and Discussion DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962)

How They Became Desperate Housewives

Wednesday, March 16 Herzberg, Happy Pills in America, Introduction, Ch. 1

Monday, March 21 Herzberg, Happy Pills in America, Ch. 2-4

FILM – I’M DANCING AS FAST AS I CAN (1982) – See on your own in preparation for class discussion on Wednesday, March 23

Wednesday, March 23 Herzberg, Happy Pills in America, Ch. 5, Conclusion, Appendices

Monday, March 28 Maia Szalavitz, “Can Amphetamines Help Cure Cocaine Addiction?” Time (December 8, 2008) (CTools) Rasmussen, On Speed, Acknowledgments, Introduction, Ch. 1-3

Wednesday, March 30 Rasmussen, On Speed, Ch. 4-5

Monday, April 4 Rasmussen, On Speed, Ch. 6-8, Conclusion

Wednesday, April 6 Rawson, “OxyContin Abuse: Who are the Users?” The American Journal of Psychiatry 164, no. 11 (2007) (CTools) Jeffrey Kluger, “The New Drug Crisis: Addiction by Prescription” Time (September 13, 2010) (CTools) Grau et al, “Illicit Use of Opioids: Is OxyContin a ‘Gateway Drug’?” American Journal on Addictions 16, no. 3 (2007): 166-73 (CTools) “What Have We Learned from OxyContin” Journal of Pain & Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy 17, no. 1 (2003): 1-4 (CTools)

Monday, April 11 Internet Addiction (student led); Reading to be selected by students

Wednesday, April 13: Student reports on Essay #2

Monday, April 18: Student reports on Essay #2 Review for Take-Home Examination



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