The Rhetoric of Drugs

From depictions of drug use and addiction in television and film to newspaper and magazine articles reporting on the opioid epidemic, our culture is beset by conflicting representations of the drug as both pharmaceutical and recreational, legal and illegal. Contemporary debates about the benefits and side effects of caffeine, the legalization of cannabis, and alcohol abuse also ask us to question our assumptions about potentially beneficial and potentially harmful effects of familiar substances. In light of the proliferation of drugs in our culture, how can we understand them in relation to the shifting social and political contexts that define them? What is a drug and who decides?

This first-year writing course asks students to read and write about representations of drugs in multiple genres and forms using various compositional modes. Students will encounter print, visual, oral, spatial and gestural texts and develop critical thinking and reading skills that help them analyze how different rhetorical situations produce different ideas about what defines a drug. By learning to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the texts and ideas they encounter about drugs and culture, students will develop their writing skills and situate their written arguments in broader public and scholarly conversations by citing and summarizing the sources from which they draw. Over the course of the semester students will come to understand the written, oral, visual, electronic, and non-verbal work they do as part of a writing process that requires them to research, draft, revise, edit, and reflect on the practice of writing over time. Each assignment in the course will include a draft, revision, and reflection element, encouraging students to see their written work and daily writing assignments as part of a long-term process that will culminate in a final project. The final project asks students to develop a poster campaign, event, poster session, or podcast that effectively communicates knowledge about drugs and culture that they have developed over the semester for a broader public. 

Drug Policy Alliance PSA 2017. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Students learn to respond to issues in drugs and culture using multiple modes of communication, from written essays, infographics, and public presentations, to PSA video projects. Each assignment helps students learn a different form of professional writing at the same time they synthesize important ideas from class.

Oxycodon im Sicherheitsblister. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Critical Thinking

Students learn from class readings about the history of the War on Drugs in relation to popular representations. Additionally, they think through drug policy and the role of pharmaceutical companies in the opioid crisis.

Papyrus of Plato’s Phaedrus. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Poison and Cure

Students study the dynamic tension between poison and cure that characterizes all drugs. By considering this relationship’s origins in Plato’s Phaedrus, students learn about the rhetorical relationship between drugs and writing.

Learning Objectives

  1. Rhetorical Awareness. Students compose texts in multiple genres, using multiple modes with attention to rhetorical situations.
  2. Critical Thinking and Reading Resulting in Writing. As they undertake scholarly inquiry and produce their own arguments, students summarize, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the ideas of others.
  3. Process. Students understand and practice writing as a process, recursively implementing strategies of research, drafting, revision, editing, and reflection.
  4. Poison and Cure. Students build a critical and nuanced understanding of the conflicting messages about drugs in our culture, and how these messages contribute to drug abuse and addiction.
  5. Multimodality. Students develop competence in major communication modalities (Written, Oral, Visual, Electronic, and Nonverbal) and understand that modalities work synergistically. 
  6. Collaboration. Students learn to be productive in communities of practice—for example, as readers and critics, as team 

Required Texts

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010.

Davenport-Hines, Richard. The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics. W.W. Norton,    2002.

De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Ed. Joel Faflak. Broadview Editions, 2009.

Hari, Johann. Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Bloomsbury, 2015.

Pollan, Michael. How to Change Your Mind. What the New Science of Psychdelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Random House, 2017.

Schwartz, Alan. ADHD Nation: Children, Doctors, Big Pharma, and the Making of an American Epidemic. Scribner, 2016.

Siegel Watkins, Elizabeth and Tone, Andrea. Medicating Modern America: Prescription Drugs in History. New York University Press, 2007.

Wilson, Elizabeth A. Gut Feminism. Duke University Press, 2015.