By Waldy Diez and Collin Brennan (USA Today College) – The first day of class is usually filled with a few awkward silences, the professor going over the syllabus in excruciating detail and maybe a cliché icebreaker or two.
Dr. Seth Blumenthal, a lecturer in Boston University’s arts and sciences writing program, breaks the ice with one question for his students: What is your personal and generation’s stance on legalizing marijuana?
“[They] analyze Gallup poll results that show that almost 70% of their generation supports the legalization of marijuana and then I ask them why that is the case,” Blumenthal says.
The course is called “Marijuana in American History” and it centers on the role marijuana should play in society.
“I am always looking for the most controversial topics,” Blumenthal says. “This was a fascinating issue that, in a lot of ways, gives us a window into society’s larger anxieties.”
Blumenthal has taught the class for four straight semesters and will dive into it again in the spring of 2015. He says it has been a “huge success” with students and challenges them to complicate the nature of their conversations about the contentious plant.
“They are not afraid to talk about marijuana,” Blumenthal says. “The issue becomes talking about it in a scholarly way to dig beneath the surface on an issue that is sort of ‘giggle-worthy’ and think about where the deepest controversies lay.”
Whether its analyzing a public service announcement of David Hasselhoff telling kids not to smoke weed or watching then-president Richard Nixon warn against the dangers of marijuana, Blumenthal wants his students to examine how America’s perception on marijuana has developed over time through an academic lens.
“I give them the raw material, the actual evidence, bring in academic reading to contextualize the issue and let them figure out what it all means,” he says.
By examining a modern “youth issue,” Blumenthal says he has found students recognize the importance of history as a subject, a major that has taken a serious dive in academic enrollment over the years.
“It’s not your parent’s history class,” Blumenthal says. “History [as a subject] really needs to rethink itself, in light of diminishing enrollments, and I think these are the types of topics we can really sink our teeth into and reinvigorate a debate about what role history plays in the larger conversation.”
One of the biggest revelations he says his students find is that the class is not just “talking about weed and writing papers,” but a demanding course that involves a lot of research and critical reflection on their own personal values.
“A lot of the time, [a student’s stance of marijuana] represents their own values and their values on to the topic shift overtime,” Blumenthal says. “In some cases, they learn to support their initial argument, but usually their impression has really changed with new knowledge of what is really happening.”
Blumenthal noted the class, despite its success and popularity, is not without its critics.
“There are a lot of people who roll their eyes when they hear that I teach this class and that is to be expected,” Blumenthal says.
Nonetheless, he believes students and the academic world are ready to talk about marijuana.
“You can’t miss the fact that this topic has been legitimized in medicine [and] in the halls of politics and economics. It only makes sense to legitimize it in academia,” Blumenthal says. “It is an interesting topic that people feel like it’s time to have a course about this.”