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Teaching Points: The Urgency of History

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. He contributes to our Teaching Points series, which investigates the role of alcohol and drug history in the classroom. 

Things have changed.

In February, I wrote what now seems like a rather whimsical preview of my newly fine-tuned version of a Drugs in American History course at Utica College in the Spring of 2020. About two weeks into that ill-fated semester, I highlighted the “enrollment crisis” in history programs, perhaps the central issue among academic historians in the last decade, and how the History Department at Utica College was attempting to retool its history major to appeal to students’ interest in their world. I then discussed the results of my course survey, which brought out the various issues in drug history that interested my students and that I was going to center the course on.

At the time, based on the interactions at the start of the term, I was very optimistic. My optimism rose as we explored David Courtwright’s Forces of Habit as the course’s foundational/theoretical framework over the first seven weeks of class. As the Covid-19 crisis rose to engulf us here in New York State, the class was about to make the transition from theory to research. Students had chosen a “drug category” and were preparing to use basic research tools, also introduced during the first half of the course, to create a 5 minute research presentation (and accompanying 5-7 page research paper) exploring one of the major themes from Courtwright’s book within their chosen category.[1]

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Bob Beach is an adjunct at Utica College

Then Covid-19 forced the closure of campus and a hasty transition to remote teaching. Amid calls from college administrators to maintain the “full experience” online, instructors across the board (and at every age level) found themselves dealing with the difficulties of such a haphazard transition among a multitude of new problems, from students lacking internet or equipment to individual students’ at-home issues that frequently impacted full, or even adequate, participation in those courses. In the background of the teaching challenges, a global pandemic raged across a leaderless nation with its inevitable consequences. 

Utica College (located in the much less affected central part of New York State) draws students heavily from New York City and its environs, so a number of my students spent the last half of their semester in the most heavily infected city in the world. Needless to say, the second half of the semester was not nearly as productive as the first. 

Frankly, that was fine with me. Given the immediacy of the crisis, its novelty, and the haphazard transition to a temporary “new normal,” I still think that it was unfair to expect much of anything from most students during that time. I made it possible for students to finish out the course as designed if they chose (no one did), but gave them a range of options (from modified assignments from the course, to a documentary screening and discussion of PBS’s Influenza 1918) to fulfill the requirements of the class. The result was what it was.

Now, we’re less than a week away from starting a new semester. And even as it seems unlikely to many, colleges, universities and school districts across the country are lumbering toward ambitious (some might say delusional) reopening plans. These plans remain fluid even as I write this. And in history departments across the country, the priorities have changed.

On one hand, the “enrollment crisis,” which was always discussed with some undertones of dread, has quickly evolved into a full out existential crisis. Enrollments across all majors are expected to fall, possibly dramatically, as students (specifically first-year students) consider taking a year off to wait out the pandemic. An evaporating job market has turned into a black hole of hiring freezes, layoffs, and early retirements. Small colleges, which were already facing significant financial pressures, are expected to begin closing much sooner than expected.

Beyond the academy, conditions are worse. A recent report suggests that as many as a third of U.S. museums could be forced to close because of the pandemic. And the direct attacks on history from the President and his sycophantic base (regarding monuments, police brutality, racism), alongside Trump’s growing penchant for authoritarianism has brought us to a larger crisis point as a nation about the very future of the United States.

What can we do? I’m not about to suggest that my intro level history courses are going to solve any of these problems. But I am going to suggest that circumstances have provided us with two significant social issues to illuminate for students: the Covid-19 crisis and the protests following the murder of George Floyd. I’ll be centering my two courses on these two issues to teach a history of public health and public safety in the United States.

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It’s a new slogan, not a new movement

Conservatives and alt-right conspiracy theorists share nonsensical information on social media and their own “news” networks denying that racism exists anywhere. Given that these platforms are only increasing their scope and influence, it’s more important than ever that folks of a more reasonable temperament (and armed with the documentary evidence) finally take the offensive. My course, which will be taught online, will attempt to give students some important historical background on issues of public health and public safety and then will ask them to produce a five minute audio/video presentation on a topic of their choosing that they will research over the course of the semester.

I am in the process of recording lectures, backed by Powerpoint, that cover the history of public health and safety, in a very broad sense during an introductory lecture. We’ll follow that (and each subsequent lecture) with a group meeting on Zoom. [2] We’ll move into the Progressive era as an important pivot point when the contours of modern American public health and safety began to take shape. From Prohibition, the FDA, the FBI and FBN, eugenics, the “white man’s burden,” and post-Plessy Jim Crow, the Progressive Era is a significant foundational moment in both realms (specifically from a “public” standpoint).

Then we’ll take these disparate threads and trace them to the recent present. Given my personal interest and expertise, the War on Drugs will be central to both stories in that narrative. In an effort to protect the public health from drug abuse, drug addiction, and the crimes commonly associated with drug abuse/addiction, state and local governments, and eventually the federal government, increased the power of the police to surveil, investigate, and, to borrow the Trumpian formulation, “dominate” law breakers in the “battlespace.”

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A now familiar scene of militarized police in 2014 Ferguson MO

As David Guba’s recent Points post explains, while the problems of racist policing practices predate the “War on Drugs,” the advent of the post-1970s phase of the conflict has served only to exacerbate existing racist assumptions that inform police policies, and more importantly, police culture. Michelle Alexander has argued that the War on Drugs (among other things) constitutes a “New Jim Crow” that only further reinforces these racist approaches. So in addition to a focus on the War on Drugs generally, we’ll focus too on the complicated history of race in the United States, and the role of police (and state) violence from Reconstruction to the near present. Students will find that while the ongoing protests against police violence are most immediate in our collective memories, this is only the latest in a long history of violent conflicts between the state and communities of color.

In terms of public health, we’ll spend some time looking at some of the major disease epidemics/pandemics in US history, and the various ways that governments and other institutions approached these various crises. We’ll cover disease outbreaks in the Civil War, tuberculosis, STD fears in war time, influenza epidemics and pandemics, and HIV/AIDS, as well as the ideologies and assumptions that inform public health approaches (for good and ill).

As we’re laying down some of the main themes of the course in the first few weeks, students will also be completing assignments exploring a research topic of their own based on one of those themes and developing a research proposal that they will present at midterm. In the second half of the class they’ll be reading sources and writing about them in four research reports, building toward an outline and a final 5-minute presentation of their research to the class during finals week.

With a bit of luck, a lot more leadership from Washington, and mask wearing from the public, I should be able to report the results of my class in a future post. You may see it emerge in the form of a compilation video, radio podcast, or documentary written and produced by the members of the class.

But more important than simply getting through the semester, we as historians face the urgency of this moment. We need to equip our students with everything we have in our arsenal right now. Abandon your regularly scheduled courses and focus on what is going on around us, especially when those topics intersect with our own research. Even if we’re not going to attract any history majors, we make a strong case that, despite all of the talk to the contrary, real history (based in the analysis and interpretation of primary sources) matters, and it can help our students to understand what is happening in their communities and work through their chosen professions to make desperately needed changes.

[1] The categories were: Opium&Derivatives, Coca&Derivatives, Cannabis, alcohol, “pharmaceuticals,” and “drug addiction/treatment.” These were very broadly conceived and designed not to compartmentalize these as distinct categories as much as it was to prevent students from focusing too broadly. For that same reason, I avoided adding “enforcement” or the War on Drugs as a category.

[2] I’m making the assumption that students are prepared for some degree of “synchronous” learning, and to the degree possible, I think it’s a necessary part of the learning process. Given the Covid-19 constraints, and the online format for my course, I’m going to break students up into smaller groups and will schedule several weekly meeting slots to choose from. These will be “required” but I will accommodate individual circumstances as needed.



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