Making the Most of Media in Teaching Latin America

Teaching and Teaching Materials Committee Meeting: Making the Most of Media in Teaching Latin America
CLAH Annual Meeting, Saturday, January 3, 2009
2009 Chair: Kirk Shaffer, Penn State University—Berks College
2009 Secretary: Marc Becker, Truman State University

This year’s roundtable included three presenters and a lively—even at times provocative—audience to discuss methods to incorporate technology and new media into the Latin American History classroom. The organizers aimed to address a series of both theoretical and practical questions, including what resources work best in the classroom? How do we get students to use media to think analytically and historically about Latin America? And, how do we help students evaluate the high-tech media available to them so that they will use valuable and reputable sources while recognizing and avoiding sources that are not substantive? To this end, Julia Rodríguez (University of New Hampshire) and Cameron Strang (University of Texas, Austin) spoke on UNH’s National Science Foundation-funded database on the history of science in Latin America and the Caribbean. Kristina Boylan (SUNY Institute of Technology) offered exercises in helping students evaluate the validity, bias and utility of web sites for student projects. Marc Becker (Truman State University) rounded out the presentations by discussing collaborative projects that produce print-on-demand books.

UNH’s database (located at allows teachers and students to explore science in its social and historical contexts throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Sources can be searched by “topic,” “type,” or by a keyword search. Currently the site hosts some 230 sources on nearly thirty broadly defined topics arranged chronologically. Topics range widely from “Healers and Indigenous Medicine” to “Early Colonial Science,” “Darwin and Latin America” to “Panama Canal” and “Eugenics.” Of particular use is that each source appears, can be zoomed into for further clarity, and includes a brief discussion of the item. While the creators originally aimed to bridge the fields of history and science, the database’s richness of documents and images can be utilized for lectures or student presentations on topics that range from the “Columbian Exchange” to “Public Health and Disease in the Twentieth Century.” Because primary source documents are included in the database, students and researchers alike will find the basis for conducting primary source research.

As most of us know, the web is a blessing for our own teaching and research interests, and can—utilized correctly—be so for student research as well. One of the perennial questions, though, is how to help this supposedly tech-savvy generation know what is and isn’t a useful web site. Kristina Boylan discussed her regular use of a comparative web site review paper to help students evaluate source validity, bias, and authority. As Boylan noted, students tend to see most web sites as “flat,” i.e., one web page is the same and as good as another—the professionally developed database is equal to the eighth grade class project on a topic. Thus, in this project, students are required to find a combination of relevant monographs and/or scholarly articles (the use of additional websites is permitted, though limits are set) on the same topic as their chosen websites and evaluate them along the following criteria: Is the author identifiable? Is the site sponsored? Who owns it? How well does the site cover the topic? Is there source documentation? Does the site present itself as an end point or suggest links and sources for further study? How accurate and useful is the site?

So, then, what happens to those research papers that students produce at semester’s end after you’ve taken the time to teach students how to use databases and evaluate electronic media? Do the papers sit in the professor’s desk drawer and filing cabinet? Is there no larger pay-off? And if there is no pay-off, i.e., if students see the paper as merely a means to an end grade, then do they really buy in to the project and develop a sense of ownership? These questions have led Marc Becker to develop end-of-semester research projects and papers that then become part of a print-on-demand book. After years of having students develop their own web sites and other projects for the term’s end, Becker looked for a new means to produce something that was tactile (as opposed to the etherealness of the web) and that would be a lasting document of student’s efforts. Recently, he has begun experimenting with students producing print-on-demand (POD) books that have taken different formats. In one course, students conducted and transcribed oral interviews of migrant workers. Students worked collaboratively to produce a POD book that required them to think collectively about whether or not to include names of sources, voice and perspective. The latest project requires students to submit end of term research papers that are then collated and published as an edited collection.

Several issues emerged in the discussion. All presenters acknowledged the support of their colleagues and administrators for their efforts. The perennial problem of plagiarism arose, linked to questions of how to get students to take ownership of their work. It was suggested that a project like Becker’s—where student work would enter the public domain and thus become visible to other researchers and potential employers—could encourage students to be more responsible with what they submit. Related to the issue of student ownership is the task of encouraging students to take on a sense of authority. As Broylan noted, even when students find obvious errors and bias in their web sites, they still tend to be “polite” toward the offending sites. Is this a cultural or class dynamic playing itself out in the classroom? Or, is it students simply not having the confidence in their own ability to pass informed judgment? Finally, much of the post-presentation discussion centered on the use and utility of collaborative projects in which groups or an entire class work together and receive the same grade. While some recognized the value of teaching students how to work together in a joint project—not unlike they may encounter in their post-graduation environments—others were reluctant to buy into the concept. Fears emerged about the “free rider” or “leech” effect in which student participation would be unequal while everyone would receive the same grade. No consensus was reached.

Julia Rodriguez, “Teaching with the Sources: Presenting a New Interactive Database in the History of Science in Latin America and the Caribbean

Kristina A. Boylan, “Just Use the Web?!?  Observations on Students’ (Un)Critical Readings of Internet Sources

Marc Becker, “Increasing Student Commitment By Making a Print-On-Demand Book as a Class Project