Joshua M. Rosenthal, Notes for CLAH Teaching Roundtable

I switched jobs a few years ago, moving, in essence, from one teaching college to another, though they are institutions with vastly different feels. I was, for many reasons, enormously dissatisfied with the first school, in part because my teaching had never gone that well. The move proved an opportunity for personal reinvention in many areas including teaching. For example, I had never asked myself what I wanted my students to know when they finished one of my classes. This was not out of malice, it had never occurred to me to ask the question.

As there were no courses on Latin American history in the catalogue at Western Connecticut State University, the task of moving courses through committees forced me to think concretely about what I was trying to do. I began with the surveys – Colonial and Modern – and followed my inclinations in reshaping them in ways both minor – new titles hoping to attract students – and major – class discussions on primary sources, papers; no lectures, no tests. This approach has its ups and downs; but it has freed me from teaching under the shadow of the master narrative. Though we are less encumbered by master narratives than our colleagues who teach U.S. history (from the outside the weight looks crushing) it still limits us.

There was a domino effect set in motion by ditching the master narrative, which played into how I developed other courses at WestConn. It opened up space that let me develop a commodity course, an idea I had played with for a while for various reasons. My dissertation focuses on a salt works. I taught World History for five years and had gravitated to discussions of silver flows and the like. My traditional Latin Americanist preparation had given me a base of knowledge stretching from the precious metals of the Conquest, through sugar, coffee, and the twentieth-century oil industry. (Here I think of Galeano, C.L.R. James & Mintz, Bakewell, Schwartz, etc.) Also, I’ve always liked material history; a past you can imagine in your hands. Commodities fit the bill.

My only real hesitation had to do with how I try to introduce my students to the history of Latin America. One of the prime frustrations in teaching Latin American history in the U.S. is how our students can be so ignorant of the very existence of the rest of the hemisphere when it is perfectly clear, to us at least, that the history of the United States is so inextricably bound to that of Latin America. Representations are an important and charged issue. While I don’t gloss over the more dire aspect of this history I am leery of sensationalism. I have generally discouraged the numerous students who wanted to write on cocaine and the cocaine trade (“Can I write my paper on Blow/Scarface,” is a request I always refused). But as part of my reinvention I decided that this was silly, meaning I got over myself and pulled the course together

I hoped that the class title, “From Salt to Cocaine,” (borrowed from the edited collection From Silver to Cocaine edited by Topic, Frank, and Marichal but refashioned to reflect my own interest) would attract more students. I’m pretty sure that this was the case for philosophical student who spent most of the semester arguing for conspiracy theories and drug legalization had been caught this way. The course ran for the first time this past fall. Despite a few ups and downs (an ongoing discussion on use value versus exchange value went awry during a presentation on silver and never really recovered) I had as much fun – intellectual and otherwise – as I have teaching a course in years. I can’t speak definitively for my students, but my impression is that they enjoyed it as well.

A number of things distinguished this course from my normal surveys. First, we opened with several weeks of reading geared toward theory (Taussig, Appadurai, and Galeano for dependency/world systems theory). While I generally teach with race/class/gender/honor in mind, I rarely introduce this as an explicitly theoretical discussion with students. I present artifacts like Casta paintings as objects to be analyzed; but in as low key, grounded a fashion as possible. I know for many having an explicit theoretical perspective inform a course is standard, but I was surprised by how interesting this discussion was. It should be clear, some of my students never controlled the theory in question, but it was still fun. Some of the other benefits:

  1. The ongoing publication of high quality commodity history. Though there is tradition of studies that incorporate commodities in Latin American historiography, the last few years have seen enough commodity publications to support a course like this. Whether Kurlansky’s popular works or recent monographs such as Paul Gootenberg’s book on Coca and Cocaine there are a wealth of new studies to use.
  2. The nature of commodity history bleeds into other approaches. While almost any course can have an interdisciplinary character, commodity studies bleeds almost inevitably into environmental history and globalization. I have been pushed to engage with these fields because of this course (Two examples Myrna Santiago’s The Ecology of Oil and Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat).
  3. Contact with others teaching commodity history. Teaching the course pushed me to contact other people who teach commodity history, which has been fun. Granted talking with Ted Melillo, who teaches at Amherst College, about what we are seeking to achieve in out classes can be disorienting. The points that I am trying to get my students to comprehend tend to be his points of departure, but I enjoy these discussions enormously. I am learning more teaching this course than I usually do; probably true with any new course but it doesn’t feel like an obligation.
  4. A material/tangible approach. I believe that students who feel at a loss with history simply have a poorly developed historical imagination. Master narratives are one approach, but discussing the material world – if combined with a geographic orientation – is a way to offer these students building blocks for conceptualizing the past as a place that was real. You can always begin this discussion by considering the objects in the room, particularly their clothes the majority of which are cotton; other examples abound. I have never lost my fascination with Braudel’s poetic geography of textiles.
  5. Careerism. My impression is that faculty and administrators like the course, how it sounds and what it represents.

Before I end let me address one point. The course I teach, and the syllabi from Commodity courses I have seen, are upper level courses rather than, technically, surveys. Leaving aside the fact that many of our students need to be introduced to Latin America no matter the purported course level, I think a commodity approach could work well in introductory surveys. If I recall correctly this panel was inspired by a discussion of “marketing” courses on h-latam. My inclusion of Cocaine in the title of my course was purely an attempt to attract more students (though I did have them read Gootenberg’s book once in the class). If I have any advice on teaching and course design it would be to throw off master narratives – or at least escape them for a while – and, if you are like me, get over yourself, pretend to give students what they want, and then smack them with more reading.