5 Questions with Dr. Mark Smith

Today we are pleased to present the next in our series of interviews with American Studies faculty and affiliate faculty members: 5 Questions. We recently sat down with Dr. Mark Smith, whose research interests include the history of social science and the cultural history of alcohol and drugs.


1. What was your favorite project to work on and why?

I’m sure my answer’s going to be a little bit different from the other people who I think would talk about their research projects, but I think I’d really like to talk about the teaching that I’ve done around the issue of alcohol and drugs, which is something I just chanced into. In fact, I started working at a drug and alcohol treatment center, and I realized that there was a lack of historical and sociological background to see where that stood, particularly where it stood in the issue of cultural history. And what I’ve done is I’ve been able to give a series of classes to different people that deal with the issue of drugs in various permutations. Someone once told me that in scholarship, the question is whether you do more and more about less and less, that is, your focus becomes wider and wider; or whether you do more about less and less. The second is clearly what you do when you write books. Teaching gives the opportunity to do the former. I’ve taught three classes. I taught the original class, a seminar in the American cultural history of alcohol and drugs, and I’ve taught that primarily as an upper division undergraduate class. And I’ve also taught an upper division class for Plan 2 which treats the issue from a public policy standpoint, and now I’m teaching an undergraduate class on alcohol and drugs from an international standpoint, pointing out the fact that alcohol has been handled differently in places like Sweden and Finland and Africa.

2. How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations in academia and beyond?

You know, if you asked me ten years ago, I’d have a very clear answer for that. I deal in cultural history; I believe that I was the second person who taught both parts of the cultural history survey. My perspective is always to provide a general overview on the issues involved. I’ve always done that, that’s always been my interest. I was one of the first people to teach Introduction to American Studies. But my feeling is not to plunge myself into a topic- and maybe not even come out- my interest is providing a background so that people in important contemporary fields like Gender Studies or Queer Studies can have background and context. To that extent, I think I’m very much rooted not only in these issues that are coming up today, but those issues that have come up in the past and hopefully the future as well.

3. What projects or people have inspired your work?

Within alcohol studies, probably the best books that I know are W. J. Rorabaugh’s The Alcoholic Republic, and then recently, on Prohibition, Daniel Okrent came up with a book called The Last Call. I think those have really been useful. Clearly, Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, about Vietnam, and Frances FitzGerald’s book Fire in the Lake have been books that really had a lot to do with my understanding of the kind of world that I had grown up in. More recently, George Chauncey’s Gay New York, a work that you might think would be narrowly focused but instead tells you a lot more than you think it ever could. There are many amazing works on slavery, but the one that first opened my eyes at a very unprogressive time was Kenneth Stampp’s Peculiar Institution.  And then sometimes there are books where you think you’re not going to be interested in the topic at all and you’re surprised. There’s a man who died much too young by the name of Roland Marchand who wrote a book called Advertising the American Dream. This is one of the big books, ambitious books, books that you just look at and go, “Wow, this is amazing!” and you’re reading them and you’re taking notes and you do that for two whole days. I think that’s why a lot of graduate students have a “fear and loathing,” to use Hunter Thompson, in reference to the whole concept of the comprehensive exam fields. And to me, maybe that was my greatest scholarly experience in a way. Not only because you have a sense of accomplishment, but because you wind up reading books that you would never read. If you were just interested in alcohol and drugs, you would never read Marchand’s book. And that’s just a sampling of the books that have influenced me.

4. What is your scholarly background and how does it motivate your teaching and research?

As an undergraduate, I couldn’t make up my mind whether I’d major in English or History and the initial line for History was a lot shorter and that was the only reason I signed up for that. I think I took more classes in English than I did in History – I also took a lot of Political Science classes and Sociology classes and when I was a Sophomore, one of my friends said, “You know, you’re really doing American Studies.” I had never even heard of American Studies, and my school did not have an American Studies program. So I finished my degree in History but I continued to take all those things, and while it was exciting to put all of these things together, I didn’t feel that I was finished yet, which led me to the University of Texas as an American Studies graduate student. And at least for the first year or two, I still didn’t know what American Studies was, but I continued to follow this path. I came down here thinking I was going to work on the novels of the Gilded Age, which strikes me as the most boring thing that I’ve ever heard of today. So as I was trying to find something that was new and hadn’t been done, I wrote my Master’s thesis and dissertation on the history of social science because that was interesting to me and it was a gap in the scholarship. In my post-graduate years, I taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio for four years – and even when I was teaching Introductory History, which is required in Texas, I taught from a cultural history standpoint, and I was trying to talk about how one has to look at history from the position of what people think and how they then act, or how people think and how they consequently behave. I think that’s really important to me – that is the most important question for me – which is the concept of behavior and probably even more of people’s intellectual constructs. That’s been the most important thing for my own work and also for the kind of work that I try to teach on both an undergraduate and graduate level.

5. What projects are you excited about working on in the future?

I’ve got this book that I have been fussing with – and really that’s the word, fussing with it – I haven’t made the progress that I’ve wanted to but I feel that I’ve cleared my path so that I can work on it. It’s a comparative public policy study of the United States and Finland, because they are the only two countries that have ever had national prohibition in the Western world – in the Middle East, of course, it’s different. But they occurred at the same time- Finland started a year earlier and quit a year earlier than the United States. There’s a lot of similarities between the propaganda that was sent to Finland from the United States, and I think it’s very interesting –  there’s a lot of similarities, but there’s a lot of differences, too. The gangsters are all the same and that type of stuff. So I’ve been working on this and my problem has been that I don’t read Finnish and I haven’t been able to find someone who’s willing to do that type of work for me, although I think I’ve come up with someone recently. So that is the project that I’m really looking forward to. What I may do is to point out another society which, at the same time, went a completely different way, a way that Finland would later copy completely and the United States would copy to a certain degree, and that’s Sweden, which took a regulatory model rather than one of coercion – “you just can’t do it” in legalese. That’s the project I would like to do and hopefully will be able to start in the Spring.

Bonus question – in one sentence, what is American Studies to you?

What people think and how they act; how they act, and consequently what they think.

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