This article is the first in a series profiling the student forums being offered this semester. Student forums are classes proposed and taught by students with faculty support, covering topics and issues not addressed by in offered courses.
When I sat down to talk with Siddhant Issar ’12 and Robert Echeverria ’12, the founders of SOC420: Narcotic Hedonism, I was struck most by the passion and level of seriousness with which they approached the controversial subject of drug culture. However, Issar and Echeverria couldn’t help but grin when they revealed a secret about our own Olin Library.
“Olin has whole sections of books dedicated to porn and drugs, but no one really knows about them,” Echeverria said. “There are even ethnography books about people who want to become crack users and write about the experience. We drew much of our syllabus from the collection.”
While many students would dwell on the humor of such a story, Issar and Echeverria used the anecdote to present their argument for creating the forum in the first place. In their view, books on taboo subjects such as drugs should be treated with the same level of academic seriousness as any other book in Olin’s collection.
“We want to study drugs and drug culture from an academic perspective in the same way other subjects are treated,” Issar said. “Whether it’s racial segregation, prejudice, or morality, drug usage should be explored in schools because it’s so prevalent in our society.”
Last year, Issar and Echeverria formed and taught SOC420: Pornocopia, a controversial student forum exploring the cultural and ethical implications of the pornography industry. Issar and Echeverria saw the forum as their first step towards constructively studying taboo subjects that are not given the academic credence they deserve.
“We started with pornography because no one talks about it,” Issar explained. “Everyone is exposed to pornography and sexuality, particularly in colleges, and driving these subjects underground rather than talking about them openly just causes more problems.”
“There’s now a course in the sociology department on sexuality and we’re really happy that that happened,” Escheverria added. “But we wanted to be able to talk about taboo subjects such as pornography more freely, without being judged. Drug usage is another taboo subject that people don’t think is worth studying, so we decided to explore that this year.”
More specifically, Issar and Echeverria wish to study how drugs and crime become related, and why certain drugs are perceived as more culturally acceptable than others. By examining the evolution of drug culture in the United States, the duo plans to construct a critical perspective of how legal and social constructs shape popular perceptions of drug usage.
Issar and Echeverria offered many examples of the legal inconsistencies concerning drugs, but one of the most well known of these examples is the controversy surrounding legalization of marijuana.
“You can just walk into a doctor’s office in California and say you need some marijuana,” Issar said. “It can be for a reason as obscure as writer’s block, or because your back hurts from writing so much. But in other states where marijuana is illegal, the people who really need it, such as arthritis and cancer patients, can’t get it.”
Echeverria elaborated on Issar’s point by questioning alcohol’s status as a socially acceptable drug.
“A few decades ago we were all very concerned about the crack epidemic,” Escheverria said. “But we also have all these other people getting drunk and beating their wives.”
Issar similarly questioned the legitimacy of the legality of alcohol in comparison with other substances less likely to promote violent behavior.
“Alcohol makes people violent,” Issar added. “You smoke some weed and you’re chilling, you’re not trying to fight someone. But when people get drunk invariably violence happens, sexual assault happens. Just because alcohol is legal, doesn’t make it okay.”
Issar and Escheverria are also interested in the ways in which social prejudice affects perceptions of drug use.
“We want to identify ulterior motives for perceptions on drugs, and get at the root of why drug policies are the way they are,” Escheverria explained. “For example, it’s culturally acceptable for college students to experiment with drugs because we’re supposedly heading somewhere. But someone on Main Street smoking weed could be seen as a criminal.”
Despite Issar and Escheverria’s strong views on the legal and ethical implications of drug use, they are committed to creating a safe class environment where everyone can share their perspectives on substance use. In fact, they chose class readings with both positive and negative outlooks on drug culture, and they plan to select applicants with diverse opinions in order to ensure more balanced discussions.
“We don’t want to endorse any particular viewpoint,” Escheverria said. “Instead, we want to provide the opportunity for students to discover and discuss their own views given all of the complicated factors involved with drug usage.”
While Issar and Echeverria feel that this opportunity for safe, open discussion of controversial issues is the most important facet of their forum, their faculty sponsor Chair and Associate Professor of Sociology Jonathan Cutler sees the academic study of drugs as a means for illuminating various sociological issues.
“The question of drugs is an urgent one in several respects,” Cutler said. “For sociologists it’s crucial in so many domains: from the criminal justice system, to health issues, to cultural politics and the culture wars. The forum is a way of framing an issue that cuts across so many institutional domains, so it seemed like a wonderful idea.”
Cutler believes that student forums, such as Narcotic Hedonism, can explore crucial issues not covered by Wesleyan faculty.
“Faculty hiring is its own particular dynamic that does not always lead to coverage of every issue that might be of increasing urgency of students,” Cutler said. “Thus, student forums grant a sense from the grassroots where people’s attention and interest are, and can be a welcome eye-opener for faculty.”
Cutler also feels that student forums are richly educational experiences for the students who teach them.
“By creating student forums, students are taking their education into their own hands,” Cutler said. “The student forum facilitates the move from the passive receipt of a syllabus to the creation of one, which is so important for the way people think about actively engaging in their own learning.”
Towards the end of the interview, Issar and Echeverria echoed Cutler’s sentiment. Despite all their knowledge of drug culture and the history of drug usage, Issar and Echeverria emphasized how much they themselves will learn from the students they are teaching.
“At first, everyone treats us like we are professors, like we’re all-knowing, but we’re all learning together,” Echeverria said.