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Teaching Points: Using “Drugs and Trade” to Teach and Research American History

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

This winter I have the pleasure of teaching an upper-level history seminar on “Drugs and Trade in American History.” Working with fourteen undergraduates, I am using the opportunity to apply some principles of learner-centered teaching. In doing so, I hope to take a popular buzzword in teaching philosophies and faculty meetings from the realm of jargon and put it into actual practice. I believe the process of completing an original research project – the course’s primary objective – will prompt students to follow their own path into this history and engage with the themes and topics about which they are most passionate, encouraging the kind of deep learning not always possible in classes driven by content alone. I am also convinced a focus on the history of psychoactive substances – from heroin and cocaine to tobacco and alcohol – can be used to highlight general trends in U.S. history, helping students contextualize information and construct broader frameworks for understanding.

GHWB crack

President George H.W. Bush holding a bag of crack cocaine (1989)

While elements of my course may be unfamiliar, the obstacles it faces should not be surprising. First and foremost, if we expect students to succeed with an original research project, they need the proper instruction and sufficient time to complete the task. Students also need a starting point for their own explorations. We cannot forgo content completely, as it is needed to spark interests, provide context, and form research questions. (Not to mention, we are still in the business of communicating important information about the past.) Attempting to give both objectives sufficient in-class attention, however, can require some tricky balancing acts – a problem compounded by the particulars of my university’s ten-week quarter system.

This post will detail some of the ways I have designed this course to accomplish my objectives and overcome the above obstacles. A follow-up post will evaluate the outcomes of the course, including some of the resulting research as well as possible future applications or adjustments.

Coca cola sign

Classic Coca-Cola sign (circa 1950s)

I have tried to be purposeful in all aspects of the course design from types of readings assigned to the name – Drugs and Trade in American History. I am an historian of the United States and consider this primarily a U.S. history course, but we begin with the first contact between European colonists and the Native peoples of the Western hemisphere. We explore the various imperial forces that established the global flow of goods driving what David Courtwright calls the “psychoactive revolution.” Our “American history” therefore opens with a view that stretches from Christopher Columbus first trading for tobacco in September 1492 through John Rolfe using it to grow a colony and help the British crown compete with Spanish bullion. It continues with examinations of everything from alcohol on the frontier and opium in our Pacific colonies to the contemporary US drug control regime with international dimensions rivaled only by our pharmaceutical industry. Evaluating the global flow of drugs reinforces a second important theme of the class – all psychoactive substances’ interrelated histories as commodities. That grounding, in turn, provides an opening to explore the complex intersections of legality and illegality, medicine and trade, and politics and culture, which characterize the histories of both drugs and the United States.

To get started and gain some foundational context, the class spent the first few weeks reading Courtwright’s global history of the psychoactive revolution, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World. Subsequent readings, including selections from Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000, edited by Sarah Tracy and Caroline Acker, provide more focused looks at particular substances. Assigned when students are starting to gather their sources and consider research questions, those articles also introduce different styles for using diverse source bases and potential lenses for student’s to analyze their own topics. Class lectures and discussions on “Drugs and Empire,” “Drugs and Culture,” and “Drugs and the State” complement and advance this foundational work. Finally, as students are honing their projects and working on annotated bibliographies of appropriate secondary sources, the class will read the recent book by Suzanna Reiss, We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire. This transnational history of coca – from cocaine to Coca-Cola – presents a clear thesis that students can practice summarizing while also seeing how one scholar engages many of the core ideas of the course.

Screenshot 2016-02-02 09.46.27

Covering the history of drugs in America can be a difficult enough task in ten weeks, but I also wanted students to begin researching their own interests as quickly as possible. I wanted to scaffold the research process, breaking it down into less complex parts and providing feedback at all stages. And I wanted to accomplish all of this while maintaining a common framework for students to ground their projects, compare sources, and share ideas. So we started locating primary sources, right away.

By the second week of course, students were instructed in available library resources and were bringing their own sources to class. Instead of requiring a pre-class discussion question or other activity to ensure everyone was completing the readings, I asked students to consider topics from the readings that sparked their interests or raised questions and, in turn, search for related primary sources. During weeks two through four, students located and brought to class one of those sources along with a brief annotated review (source type, date, audience, significance, etc.). With these sources, we completed an in-class activity using a simple categorizing grid, which allowed small groups of students to relate their sources to each other as well as the key ideas of the class. Each group started by suggesting ideas for the week’s most important concepts, themes, or arguments. As a class, we compared suggestions, honing them and deciding on the most appropriate “categories.” The groups then discussed their sources and decided on each one’s relation to the selected “categories.”

Student projects will continue to develop, and some have already changed completely, but this activity allows them to get immediate feedback from their peers and me. It also prompts them to reflect on any potential source or research topic’s relation to the central themes of the course. It is only the first of many assignments that will help to construct their projects and enable me to provide feedback along the way. A research prospectus, summary of primary sources, annotated bibliography, and conference presentation all will serve as additional stages in developing the final paper. It will be a lot of work for all of us, but I know I am already learning from the students and look forward to seeing how their interests blossom. Potential project ideas already cover the entire spectrum – from the prohibition of absinthe and the invention of Penicillin to cocaine in 1980s Wall Street culture and the contemporary “purple drank” phenomenon. Stay tuned to learn more.



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