Teaching the Latin American Survey: Lessons from the Liberal Arts Institution

Sharon Bailey Glasco

Associate Professor of Latin American and World History

Linfield College

New Approaches, New Texts: The Latin American History Surveys,

A Roundtable Discussion

American Historical Association, Annual Meeting, San Diego, California,

January 10, 2010

As graduate students we are trained at large research universities, and if we are lucky enough, gain some experience teaching the LA survey before we land a tenure-track position. Approaches to and models of the LA survey at that stage of one’s career are most likely influenced by our mentors and professors, but also the student population, where large classes sizes in introductory surveys tend to be the norm. However, many of us do not end up in that environment and must make a transition of some kind. For myself, I found that the manner in which I was trained (the classic, country study approach with an emphasis on economic history) did not work well for my particular student population at the institution which hired me, but it also did not work well for me, as an instructor. I teach at a small, liberal arts college of roughly 1700 students. I am the only Latin American historian in my department, and so all the Latin American curriculum falls to me. Generally, the student population in my survey courses is a combination of history majors and students fulfilling general education requirements (more the latter rather than the former). For the majority of my students (even majors), this is the only engagement with the history of Latin America they will have, and so it is important for me to present a history of the region that they can somehow find meaningful or relevant.1 On the flip side, I enjoy relatively small class sizes (capped at 25; more often 15-20 students), which gives me some freedoms that my colleagues with large survey courses might not enjoy. None of these characteristics of my current institution/student body typified the actual training I received in graduate school. Besides challenges connected to particular student populations, we all know that the scope of teaching the modern survey can be daunting – what is it that unites the region, if anything? Is it language? Religion? Cultural traditions? Political institutions? Economic systems? In some ways, I have found that the hallmark of the modern period – the modern nation state (as a political entity), does not necessarily illuminate this question very well.

These challenges necessarily push us to consider different ways of teaching the survey – ways that meet the needs and interests of our particular student population, but also draw on our individual strengths as teachers.2 Today I will reflect upon the challenges I have had in mediating both the pros and cons of a liberal arts environment, and highlight the success I have experienced with a thematic and comparative approach to the history of modern Latin America (in contrast to the traditional country study approach).3

My approach to the modern survey begins with a big question(s), or thesis, which frames the entire class. Just as we emphasize historical arguments in our research and writing (and push our students as they develop their writing and critical thinking skills), we should do the same in the construction of the survey. Ultimately, what are the core arguments that hold our courses together? For me, it is this: What is modern? How is it defined, and who is defining it? For what purpose? What are the historical consequences of the struggle to define modernity? Within this broad question I present an ongoing tension about the process of modernization and development: which world view eventually triumphs in Latin America: an Enlightened vision that is based on rationality, secularism (e.g. political, economic, and social institutions based not in religion/religious justifications), and value of the individual; or a non-Enlightened vision of the world, where ideas about hierarchy and deference to authority structure political, economic, and social systems, and corporate bodies (the church, military, community interests, traditional family structures) take priority over individual needs and liberties.  Another way I sometimes frame this is the struggle between modernity (enlightened) vs. tradition (non-enlightened).4 This dichotomy itself offers interesting discussions throughout the semester, as students work to question it, challenge it, and contextualize it within the realities of modern Latin American history. All of the course materials (lectures, readings, films, activities) somehow connect back to these questions (some more directly than others). I begin the student’s journey with this question by reading and discussing D.F. Sarmiento’s Facundo: Or Civilization vs. Barbarism. Sarmiento’s work helps to introduce students to a number of relevant themes that they will engage during the semester in their quest to understand the nature of modernity in Latin America:

Political & Economic “modernity”

Gender, Race, and Class (does everyone experience modernity in the same way?)

Aesthetic (what does modernity look like in a material sense?)

Urban vs. Rural dynamics in defining modernity

Role of Outsiders (primarily the US – but also Europe; how is LA modernity defined by outside influences vs. internal forces)

Specific histories and case studies within the above also, at times, lend itself to a comparative approach to the question of modernity, by emphasizing unique regional differences. This thematic and comparative approach stems from a separate part of my professional interests – that of World History. While not the same scope, in many ways the broad nature of teaching World History (across time and space) offers us some excellent models in which to approach the modern Latin American survey: