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Teaching Points– Matt Crawford Comments on “History of Drugs in the Modern World”

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

 Editor’s Note: Today, historian of early modern drugs Matt Crawford reflects on his seminar “The History of Drugs in the Modern World,” the syllabus of which inaugurated this fall’s “Teaching Points” series.  In his commentary today, he discusses the abiding aims of the class as well as what he changed from its first iteration– the syllabus of which was posted yesterday– to its second.  That syllabus is available in full right here.

“Mexico is a failed state and the United States should invade it,” exclaimed a student in my “History of Drugs in the Modern World” course. His impassioned statement was in response to other students’ critiques of the United States’ policy on drug trafficking in Latin America—a  part of our discussion of Paul Gootenburg’s book Andean Cocaine(2008). Even if it was one of the more contentious moments that semester, I took this exchange as evidence that the course had achieved one of its goals: to provoke engaged (and informed) discussion about the course material.

Matt Crawford (left) Sparks Engaged and Informed Discussion


One advantage of teaching the history of drugs is the intrinsic interest that students have in the topic. Many of them also come to class with strong feelings and pre-conceptions regarding drugs, drug use and drug regulation. Consequently, while it is a topic that works well in a primarily discussion-based course, one of the challenges can be encouraging students to recognize and grapple with perspectives and historical narratives that don’t always fit with common and deeply held beliefs about drugs in our culture.

Course Design I begin the course by asking the students to name some drugs and then ask a deceptively simple question: What is a drug?

This exercise serves two functions. It helps to assess their thinking about drugs, while setting the tone of the course as a serious intellectual endeavor. One of the central goals in the course is to encourage students to understand drugs as substances whose properties are defined as much by the societies and cultures in which they exist as by their chemical composition and physiological effects. In addition, I ask students to consider how the ways in which individuals, societies, and states use or regulate drugs depends on how they understand and define those substances. Finally, I use several of the course readings to highlight the forms of social and cultural regulation of drug use beyond the legal regulations of states, with which students are most familiar.

In the first iteration of my “History of Drugs in the Modern World” in Spring 2010, the course organization was fairly straightforward and focused on five drugs: tobacco, opium, cocaine, Taxol (a cancer drug), and Viagra. Three main principles informed the selection of these cases. First, I wanted to have the different uses of drugs represented – tobacco as an everyday drug, opium and cocaine as illicit recreational drugs, Taxol as a medicinal drug, and, finally, Viagra as a “lifestyle” drug. Second, I wanted the course to focus on drugs that crossed political, social and cultural boundaries either within or between societies. The travels and transformations of such substances often make the social and cultural dimensions of drugs readily apparent to students, especially those substances, like coca, that have moved from so-called “indigenous” and “traditional” societies to modern society or from non-Western societies to Western society and culture. My final principle of selection was to choose drugs for which there was a relatively recent historical monograph appropriate for undergraduates. One of the skills that I wanted to emphasize was how to read, understand, and critique a book-length historical studies. The obvious exception to all of these principles was Viagra; not only is Viagra a synthetic drug but also the book that we read on Viagra, Hard Sell, was not a historical monograph but an autobiographical account written by a former Viagra sales rep. I included Viagra for comparative purposes and also to give students some lighter reading at the end of the semester while they were working on their final research projects.

Brandt, Cigarette Century (2006)


Coursework There were three main components to the coursework – weekly discussions, two take-home essay exams and two papers on primary sources. To facilitate discussion and encourage students to keep with the reading, students were given a reading response question at the first class meeting of each week and asked to write for 10-15 minutes on that question. For example, when reading Allan Brandt’s The Cigarette Century, I asked them: “According to Brandt’s first three chapters, what were the main factors that contributed to the rise of cigarette consumption in the United States in the early twentieth century? Which was most important and why?” Most sessions were entirely discussion with the occasional lecture as needed for information or background. On the second class session of each week, discussion was run by a group of students who were required to give a short introductory presentation on some aspect of the readings.

The two essay exams were take-home, meant to encourage thinking about the larger comparisons and contrast among case studies as well as the larger themes of the course. Finally, I had them write two papers using primary sources. The first was connected to our reading of The Cigarette Century and asked students to write about sources from the online collections of tobacco documents. The second was a short research paper on a drugs-related primary source of their choosing. Because the students came from many different academic disciplines, I was very flexible on the sources they could use and the kind of paper they could write. The papers’ main goal was to give the students “hands-on” experience in the challenges of really doing drugs history.

What Worked and What Didn’t Discussions, for the most part, were lively and thoughtful. Of the four historical monographs, the book that worked the best was Allan Brandt’s The Cigarette Century. It was the only book that I used again the second time that I taught the course. Not only easy and engaging to read, it is also an excellent example of how to do the cultural history of drugs. By tracing the changing meanings of cigarettes in America culture across the twentieth century, The Cigarette Century shows how the history of drugs can provide insight into an entire society and culture. It was a good first book to read.

Teaching the course again in Fall 2011, I had the chance to reflect on how to improve it. One problem was the case-study approach. While I liked looking at different kinds of drugs, after the second or third book, it became clear that the new case studies were not adding much to our understanding of the history of drugs writ large. In the future, I would to select case studies that highlight different themes in the social, cultural and historical study of drugs.

In addition, I needed more coherence and sense of purpose. In the second iteration of the course, I organized the readings more chronologically beginning with those on drugs in the early modern period and ending with readings on more contemporary issues related to drugs and globalization. While not the perfect solution, this chronological structure provided more of a framework for thinking about the relationships among the different case studies.

Petryna et al, Global Pharmaceuticals: Ethics, Markets, Practices (2006)


The emphasis on monographs was the other major problem. While the book-length studies were useful in terms of providing insight into changes in the meaning and uses of certain drugs over the long term, they only give one perspective. In the second iteration of the course, I still used three historical monographs– the Brandt volume, along with Peter Mancall’s Deadly Medicine,and Joe Spillane’s Cocaine– but supplemented them with scholarly articles, so that students have different points of view. For example, in the first week of the revised course, I gave them 3-4 articles on different theoretical and methodological issues related to the study of the history of drugs. At the end of the course, I used a collection of essays on contemporary issues related to the globalization of pharmaceuticals called Global Pharmaceuticals; many of these readings were challenging but the students enjoyed their variety.

The other major revision I made was in the research paper assignment. While I liked the idea of having students work with primary sources, many students – especially non-history majors – seemed a little confused by this source-based approach and their papers were not as strong as they could have been. In the second version of the class, I required the students to pick a specific drug and write a paper on some aspect of its history by producing a synthetic narrative from a number of different secondary sources (primary sources were optional). In addition, I made the research paper a semester long project that required a project proposal, preliminary bibliography, rough draft, peer reviews and a final draft. By reviewing proposals and drafts, I was able to help students identify problems and produce much stronger papers. One of the challenges with letting students choose their own research topics is that they tend to gravitate towards very broad or cliché topics such as “drugs and popular music.” In the future, I would consider defining more specific parameters for paper topics so that students frame projects that are focused and feasible.

Teaching a broad survey of the history of drugs can be daunting but it is also exciting. The lack of an established historical narrative gives you the freedom to define the topic as you see fit. I like to take a global perspective as a way to illuminate some of the arbitrariness in our understandings of drugs and to increase awareness of how many things that are made to seem “natural” about drugs in our own culture are the result of social, cultural and historical processes. Finally, the course is a good one for demonstrating the utility of thinking historically. We all know that many students think that history is primarily about memorizing facts. Drugs remain an important and contemporary issue and so make a great topic for showing students the ways in which history really matters.

What is a Drug?


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