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In this course, students delve into the exploration of addiction by closely examining the portrayal of alcohol in literature.

Unconventional Courses is a sporadic series by The Conversation U.S., spotlighting innovative approaches to education.

Course Title: Alcohol in American Literature

What sparked the concept for the course? The idea for this course originated while I was crafting a chapter on the temperance movement in American literature for my doctoral dissertation. Subsequently immersing myself in fiction and poetry centered on alcohol and the anti-alcohol movement, I found it intriguing to design a class that explored American literature through the thematic lens of alcohol.

Given that alcohol impacts people universally, irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or class, a rich array of literature addressing the effects of alcohol from various perspectives is readily available.

What is the course’s focus? I collaborate with a medical doctor who instructs a course on the biology of addiction. In the biology course, students delve into the biological and physiological impacts of addiction-related diseases, substance use and abuse, dependency, and recovery.

John Carroll University’s core curriculum mandates students to enroll in paired courses from distinct departments that are interconnected. A colleague teaching biology proposed the idea of linking my alcohol class with her addiction class. Consequently, students must enroll in both courses simultaneously. This interdisciplinary approach provides students with both a scientific and literary comprehension of addiction.

The syllabus encompasses fiction, poetry, and drama addressing various aspects of alcohol and addictive substances—celebrating them, grappling with them, and even prohibiting and regulating them. Students compare literary representations of substance and alcohol abuse with medical descriptions and their consequences. For instance, when studying Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story “Cat Person,” we analyze the role of alcohol in reducing inhibitions during casual dating.

What is a crucial lesson from the course? The primary objective is for students to gain a nuanced understanding of how alcohol influences literature. They explore how some authors depict alcoholism as exacerbating the marginalization of minority groups. In Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” characters who are members of the Spokane Tribe of Indians face challenges such as unemployment, intergenerational trauma, poverty, and a pervasive addiction to alcohol.

For their final project, students are required to pitch a movie with a compelling plot and relatable characters, grounded in a profound comprehension of the science of disease and addiction.

What materials are featured in the course?

  • “Night of the Living Rez” by Morgan Talty, delving into addiction and poverty among the Penobscot Nation.
  • “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway, a classic novel set in 1920s Paris depicting a group of heavy-drinking American expatriates coping with the aftermath of World War I.
  • A visit to Karamu House, the oldest continuously operating African American theater in the U.S., to watch a performance of Lynn Nottage’s acclaimed play “Clyde’s,” set in a truck stop sandwich shop employing recently incarcerated individuals.

What will the course equip students to do? Students will be better positioned to advocate for their personal health and that of others by comprehending how addictive substances impact the mind and body. Particularly beneficial for pre-health students, the course offers a comprehensive introduction to medical aspects related to addiction and how American authors have historically portrayed alcohol.

For instance, Frances Watkins Harper’s “The Two Offers,” penned in the 1850s and believed to be the first short story published by an African American woman, serves as a temperance narrative urging young women to avoid marrying a drunkard. This story underscores the antebellum Black community’s concerns about sobriety, domestic well-being, and freedom.

The course refines students’ critical reading and writing skills while challenging them to contemplate the role of alcohol, substance abuse, sobriety, and recovery in their lives and American culture.

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