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Teaching Points: Lessons from Drug History for the Classroom

Updated: Aug 13

Editor’s Note: In a recent post, contributing editor Bob Beach previewed his course offering for this past term and argued for the urgency of the moment in his decision to snap-adapt his 100-level survey courses into a survey of the history of public health and public safety, conceived loosely around an historical exploration of timely current events (the pandemic, and policing). In this post, he shares his experience this term.

The first time it happened was during an ADHS conference. David Courtwright, during a talk on non-food addictions, offered an interesting idea for managing student cell phone use in class, drawing on harm reduction strategies from drug addiction studies. For the first five weeks of my next term, I started administering a “maintenance dose” of cell phone use about half-way through each session. While the experiment outlived its usefulness in short order, I started to see my field of study reflected in my work as an instructor in ways that went beyond the history.

As I near completion of my latest academic term, I feel more like a harm-reducer than I ever have, overwhelmed by the mind-numbing U.S. response to the virus outbreak which left institutions squabbling over scarce resources and cobbling together wildly divergent plans, often needing to change them on the fly in equally haphazard fashion. I credit my own institution for managing the virus spectacularly, beyond my wildest expectations, but I recognize (as numerous other colleges and Universities in New York State did not fair as well) that this was unique, possibly an exception that proves the rule, if you will.

As will likely be the case with society at-large when we finally emerge from this, the successes during the pandemic will largely overshadow the problems. U.S. reckoning with the 1918 flu pandemic, despite over 600,000 dead (and numerous other victims), followed this pattern. Despite emerging relatively unscathed in terms of viral transmission campus-wide, individual students really struggled this term. I taught this semester remotely, and saw students variously at home, in their dorm rooms, or in another campus space. But I only saw about 2/3 of my students for any prolonged period in the course, more students dropped the course, and even withdrew from college than at any other time in my career, and still more simply disappeared at one point or another, remaining on the rolls. All told, 39 of 60 enrolled students will make it through the class (65%).

The students who were engaged with the course for at least most of the time endured their own unique challenges and struggles. I found myself on more than one occasion faced with students in varying degrees of personal/familial/academic turmoil, and I couldn’t help but notice how often they mentioned the unwillingness of many of their other professors to make simple (or maybe not so simple) adjustments to take into account the circumstances of holding hybrid/remote/in-person classes, not having social lives (or having them clandestinely), and of being consumed by the various pressures. I’ve found a great deal of inspiration from the work of harm reduction advocates in drug therapy, shared by scholars in a diverse range of fields at professional conferences (in person, and increasingly virtual), and of course here at Points, and I found myself applying them on multiple occasions during this term.

I had to make adjustments on the fly. After an ambitious schedule of recording lectures slowly unraveled due to my technical incompetence (the production on my last full lecture was pretty bad), I decided to rely on documentaries for the content supplemented by a weekly discussion. This allowed me to shift focus on the guided research project. I made these decisions based on feedback from students who grew increasingly overwhelmed by the circumstances and began to fall behind in the course.

The projects were designed to have students present an argument about some aspect of public health or public safety history using primary sources placed in a general historical context. The first half of the course was designed to explore potential topics and find primary and secondary sources, while the second half was intended to work with the evidence to develop and refine a very basic historical argument. Some of the research questions were, “How did political cartoonists portray immigrants in the 1890s as vectors of infectious disease?,” “How did personal hygiene companies market their products to consumers in the 1920s?” and “What role did gender and gender roles play in the Reefer Madness era?”

We started with a basic outline as a conceptual framework that students carried forward from assignment to assignment. Starting with this basic framework (and structure), each assignment developed and built upon the previous one until students emerged with a final product of a paper or a recorded Powerpoint presentation (in the 1500-2000 word range).

I found some issues with my own design. First, my emphasis on using primary source research required a significant amount of reinforcement and emphasis I had planned for a later stage than was needed. I also underestimated the pushback I would get on requiring multiple revisions of the same work, many of which included abandoning projects that didn’t work, cutting out significant sections of drafts, and figuring out how to make claims using evidence, continuing to adjust research focus based on the evidence.

This last issue was the biggest. It was difficult, not merely to get students to think in terms of evidence-based claims (they tended to adopt and stick with a claim, struggling more than necessary to find confirming evidence), but to think of the process of learning and discovery as anything other than a waste of time, and in light of the circumstances of the term just added to that anxiety. To avoid losing more students to frustration (in the absence of in-person contact that usually deals with these issues), I had to make more adjustments. And so I eliminated due dates and late penalties, opened Zoom office hours substantially (to four hours per week day divided into 10 minute meeting segments), and, as we reach the end of the term, significantly loosening my incomplete requirements to extend the term for a handful of students.

Now, this is only anecdotal evidence, but I think that my adjustments saved a higher number of washouts. But more importantly it led to significantly better work. Freed from the somewhat arbitrary convention of due dates (especially in an a-synchronous remote class) and the associated pressures, my students were free to produce surprisingly sophisticated arguments in well-polished presentations that continued to develop and get better as time went on.

In the next term, I’ll be ditching the “lecture” material entirely, and focus my entire spring offering (hopefully the last in this Covid-format?) on the research project making tweaks to the process based on feedback from this term. I am excited to be reading Sarah Baranauskas’s series on teaching for even more insight. I’d also be interested in creating a forum for teaching to have a more sustained conversation about these topics. (If you want to talk to me directly about this, email


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