Roundtable 2010: New approaches to teaching the Latin American History survey

The CLAH Teaching and Teaching Materials Committee round table for the January 2010 conference examined new approaches to teaching the Latin American History survey. The roundtable emerged out of a discussion on H-Latam about ‘marketing’ our courses to attract students. We asked panelists to talk not only about how they are ‘re-marketing’ their courses but also how they are ‘re-imagining’ how the surveys should be taught. As always, the Teaching Committee looked for innovative ways in which instructors are structuring their courses. In particular how effective are these new structures compared to traditional country-study approaches? What teaching materials (texts, books, readers, document collections, etc.) work best in these courses? What are the pitfalls of these new methods? How do instructors justify including certain countries and topics in these new approaches while leaving out other countries and topics?

Seth Meisel from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater began the conversation with a presentation of a project in which Latin American faculty at two University of Wisconsin campuses (Eau Claire and Whitewater) developed shared curricular resources for introduction to Latin American studies classes. Meisel discussed pedagogical and mechanical issues in sharing modules. Their goal is not to create the basis for an online class, but to create materials that other instructors can use as a basis for building their own classes. Audience members asked about possibility of external access to this collection, and debated the possibility of expanding the database into a broader project.

Joshua Rosenthal from Western Connecticut State University began his discussion with the pedagogical question of what he would like students to learn in his classes. This was not a question he had seriously thought about when he first started teaching, and reflection on that issue led him to rethink how to structure his classes. In particular, it led to questions about how to make his classes relevant to students who might not otherwise have an interest in Latin America. In particular, he discussed his commodity course “From Salt to Cocaine” that he approached with the strategy of pretending to pander to student interests but then smack them with serious readings and discussions.

Sharon Bailey Glasco of Linfield College discussed challenges she faces in teaching the Latin American survey at a small liberal arts institution. In particular, she interrogated themes of modernity, and how to make Latin America relevant to her students.

After listening to three professors discuss their classroom strategies, we moved to three more brief presentations from people who have recently published books for use in the survey.

Erin O’Connor from Bridgewater State College began the second part of the discussion with a description of the forthcoming primary source reader Documenting Latin America that she has edited with Leo Garofalo. The reader emerged out of a common frustration at a lack of good primary source documents to use in the classroom, and an accompanying desire to move beyond secondary sources including textbooks, articles, and monographs. O’Connor emphasized that the availability of these new types of sources can strengthen our pedagogical approaches to the material.

Mark Wasserman of Rutgers University, the author of several textbooks including Latin America and Its People whose co-author Cheryl Martin was in the audience, described what he saw as the key factors necessary to write a successful text. It was important to write clearly, have a strong argument, focus on the most important topics, and to include information from everyday life. Wasserman said he aimed for a synthesis of the material rather than an comprehensive and encyclopedic text. This hopefully should keep the yawns to a minimum.

Finally, Leo Garofalo of Connecticut College presented another document reader Afro-Latino Voices that is structured to bring narratives of African-descendant people into classes on the early modern Ibero-Atlantic world. Garofalo described how this collection builds on, expands, and complements earlier publications that include African-descendant voices. This reader presents the narratives in the original Spanish or Portuguese language with English translations in an attempt to provide the students with a richer and broader experience.

After these initial brief and focused ideas, we opened the roundtable up to a broader and wide ranging discussion with the audience. As always, the result was a rich and thoughtful dialogue. One of the issues we debated was whether we should strive to make the Latin American survey accessible to students in the United States by emphasizing the role of the United States in this history, or whether we should look at Latin America on its own terms. Wasserman noted a move away from a focus in the surveys on Unites States-Latin American relations, and O’Connor emphasized that their reader sought to depict this history from the perspective of Latin America.