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Teaching Points—Preparing for “Addiction in American Life”

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

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

Still, the readings should indicate that these concepts are quite complementary. Donald Ritchie’s Doing Oral History serves as the primary methods guide, while David Courtwright, Herman Joseph, and Don Des Jarlais’s Addicts Who Survived is the thematic foundation of the course. In preparation for interviews, students will be exposed to the history of American drug use but also fundamental questions surrounding the phenomenon: why people start using drugs, become addicted, and stop (if they do), and the experience of each stage in that process. Addicts Who Survived imparts crucial insight on these issues, but supplemental readings direct attention more specifically to, for some examples, the rise of what Peter D. Kramer calls “cosmetic psychopharmacology,” or how users navigate the illegality of their actions. (I am still on the lookout for suitable readings that cover addicts in and outside of the criminal justice system.) All this reading should equip students for productive interviews with both long- and short-term addicts, but perhaps there is no better substitute for comprehending the experience of addiction than through user narratives.

Addicts Who Survived

At this stage, the emphasis of the course will be simply documenting these narratives. If my conversations with people outside the field are any indication, addiction is something too often misunderstood by the general public. This is not to mention the fact that oral histories of addiction are themselves understudied by academics. I am locating interviewees through contacts I made in the course of my own research in Jacksonville, Florida, new sources found in Gainesville recovery services, and, with any luck, some colleagues’ networks in criminology departments. Students will transcribe the collected histories and add them to the SPOHP archives. There, they will be available for researchers to comb through. Each SPOHP internship class is also tasked with producing a publicly-accessible final product. Past examples include everything from interactive museum exhibits to podcast series, but “Addiction in American Life” can hopefully explore the academic and popular capabilities of digital humanities through a multimedia website. This site may host recorded interviews, transcripts, and mapping of (at least local) recovery services, among other items.

At bottom, “Addiction in American Life,” despite its title, is a methods course for oral history. But hopefully (and probably, I think) students will be just as interested in the subject as they are the process. They may be surprised to learn that the United States is currently experiencing perhaps its highest rate of opiate addiction in history, and we (my students and I) may be in a unique position to highlight this trend and illustrate its nuances with the final project. Or, they may come away with a new interest in drug control policy and its impact on users, especially given the recent failure of a constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana use in Florida.

If you come away anything from this post, remember that oral histories offer particular insights for drug historians, but that it also provides particular opportunities for teaching drug history. I thankfully welcome any comments or suggestions for the course (while there’s still time to incorporate new material).


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