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Teaching Points: Reflections on “Addiction in American Life”

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: This post comes from contributing editor Kyle Bridge. Enjoy!

One of my best professors once told me that I should sit down and take stock of what went right and wrong after every course I teach, and I figure there’s no better place than Points to reflect on a class about oral histories of addiction that I helped put together this past spring.

Sam Proctor

Each semester the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) invites undergraduates to apply for its internship, through which they learn the ins-and-outs of oral history: archive management, transcription, theory and methods, and applied fieldwork, among other topics. The organizing theme changes every go-round, with past subjects ranging from veterans to organized labor.

I started as a SPOHP internship coordinator in January and chose to focus on addiction because my own work revolves around it, but also because I hoped the topic would resonate with students. I thought that drug use had a certain taboo that made it almost inherently alluring, and if students had watched the news with any regularity in the past five years they would be aware of the ongoing opioid crisis and might like some historical perspective. It was an educator’s win-win.

Little did I know how big the wins would be. Students lit up during almost every discussion, informed by books and articles from David Courtwright, Don Ritchie, Caroline Acker and Joseph Spillane, among others. (Also, it turns out that sufficiently interested undergraduates are actually capable of completing all their assigned readings.) But the enthusiasm was more evident when students were preparing for fieldwork. I compiled a pool of interviewees including recovering addicts (though, contentious as debates within the recovery community can be, some would dispute the “recovering” label), addiction researchers, drug court personnel, counselors and treatment providers, and even a drug historian for the students to divvy up. Collectively, their efforts were more impressive than I could have predicted.

If I could repeat the class, which I hope to do someday, I would include more discussion of two key debates in this field: theories of addiction and, as referenced above, treatment modalities. Many students picked up on these issues through the readings, and some even on the fly during interviews, but I should have provided a more thorough primer.

In any event the SPOHP team is currently working to digitize the interviews our interns conducted and raise awareness of the resulting (and still-growing) collection, “Addiction in American Life.” As part of the class interns also edited their hour-plus interviews into five-minute podcasts, which also should be posted shortly. Rest assured that I’ll spread word on Points once they are made available. In the meantime, I copied sections of the internship syllabus below and invite comments, suggestions, and for anyone to incorporate ideas into their own courses.

Course Description:

Addiction is prevalent in American society yet often misunderstood by the general public. This course introduces students to the history and present state of American drug use. By the end of the semester, students should grasp essential concepts like why people use drugs, the experience of addiction, and how people stop using. They will also fully integrate into the workings of an oral history research center, learn about and use the central philosophies and practices of oral history, and gain experience in sharing oral history and their research with the general public. Students will ultimately apply this knowledge to record oral histories of addiction, transcribe them, and edit them into digestible podcasts for public and academic consumption.

Required Texts:

Courtwright, David T., Herman Joseph, and Don Des Jarlais. Addicts Who Survived: An Oral History of Narcotic Use Before 1965. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985, 2012.

Ritchie, Donald. Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.


1/12 Week 1: Introduction

– David T. Courtwright, Herman Joseph, and Don Des Jarlais, “Memories from the Street: Oral Histories of Elderly Methadone Patients,” The Oral History Review 9, 1981: 47-64.

– Ritchie, Chapters One and Four. (1-34, 103-136)

– SPOHP Style Guide.

1/19: NO CLASS. Begin intern office hours on Tuesday!

1/26 Week 2: How to Do Oral History. Guest Speaker: Senior Research Staff Sarah Blanc

– Readings: Oral History with Madelyn Lockhart, 2003. UF Digital Collections.

– Browse the oral histories of some esteemed drug addiction researchers, including some of your textbook authors

2/2 Week 3: Oral History and Theory

– Marjorie L. McLellan. “Case Studies in Oral History and Community Learning,” Oral History Review 25/1-2 (1998), 81-112.

– Paul Ortiz. “Reflections: Behind the Veil,” Radical History Review 97 (2007), 110-116.

– Paul Ortiz. “Tearing Up the Master’s Narrative: Stetson Kennedy and Oral History,” Oral History Review 41/2 (2014), 279-89.

2/9 Week 4: Historical Context

– Addicts Who Survived, “Introduction.”

– Excerpt from Courtwright, Dark Paradise, pp. 165-185.

– Addicts Who Survived, “Epilogue to the 2012 Edition.”

2/16 Week 5: Why Do People Use Drugs?

– Excerpt from Jill Jonnes, Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams, pp. 9-11

– Addicts Who Survived, pp. 47-102.

– Excerpt from Peter D. Kramer, Listening to Prozac.

– Caroline Jean Acker, “How Crack Found a Niche in the American Ghetto: The Historical Epidemiology of Drug-Related Harm,” BioSocieties 5 (2010), 70-88.

– Optional: Courwright, “Learning from Las Vegas: Addiction, Capitalism, and Pleasure Meccas.”

2/23 Week 6: The Experience of Addiction. Guest Speaker: David Courtwright!

– Addicts Who Survived, pp. 103-248 (to be divided in groups).


3/9 Week 7: How to Do Video and Podcasting Professionally. Guest Speaker: Deborah Hendrix

– Listen to sections of “An Interview with Frank Towers

3/16 Week 8: Why Do Users Stop? (Part I: Arrest) Guest Speaker: Danny Brinsko

– Addicts Who Survived, pp. 249-276.


3/23 Week 9: Why Do Users Stop? (Part II: Treatment and Recovery)

– Addicts Who Survived, pp. 277-343.

– Excerpt from Trysh Travis, The Language of the Heart, pp. 1-10.

3/30 Week 10: Restating Our Missions and Methods.

– Joseph Spillane, “Historians and Harm: Toward a More Thoughtful Appraisal of Policy Consequences,” London School of Economics Ideas 14 (October 2012): 31-36.

– Addicts Who Survived, pp. 385-387.

– Alcoholics Anonymous, “Oral History Kit.”

4/6/2014 Week 11: Presentations of Podcast Drafts





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