Not Like the Movies: Experiencing the South American Academy

CLAH Newsletter, vol. 41, no. 1 (Spring 2005)


Not Like the Movies: Experiencing

the South American Academy

By Andy Daitsman-Villalobos

Department of History

College of the Holy Cross

Worcester, MA

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On a recent trip back

to Chile, my wife was telling her friends about teaching high

school in suburban upstate New York. "It was just like

the movies," she said, as she described her first day with

a room of tenth graders, and her friends nodded knowingly in

recognition. Chilean classrooms do resemble those in the US,

but some of the similarities are only superficial. The images

prevalent in popular culture provided my wife with critical

signposts to orient her as she negotiated the at times substantial


The reality of a globally

hegemonic culture industry based in Hollywood meant I didn’t

have a similar edge the first time I entered a classroom at

the University of Talca, the well-regarded public university

in south-central Chile where I taught Latin American and World

History between 1998 and 2000. Popular culture flows tend to

be uni-directional and, while channel surfers in Santiago can

easily find dubbed episodes of Boston Public, those in Hartford

or Berkeley have no access to similar images of Chilean private

or public education. I wasn’t totally unprepared to teach in

Chile: I had done my dissertation research there in the late

1980s and had team-taught a graduate seminar at the University

of Chile in 1989, in addition to my four years experience as

a visiting professor in the US in the mid-1990s.

The University of Talca

has no history department and my position was in the Institute

of Humanistic Studies, a unit whose mission is to provide humanities

"breadth" for students in the University’s professional

departments (law, dentistry, business administration, forestry,

etc.) The most challenging part of the job was working with

relatively large numbers of students who had little preparation

and often only a minimal interest in the subject matter. My

teaching load varied from three to four courses a term, and

class sizes fluctuated between forty and fifty students per

course (there were a couple of terms where I was teaching two

hundred students a semester, with no assistants to help with

grading or administrative tasks). For most of the students,

my course was little more than a requirement they had to get

out of the way so they could get back to the real work of the

demanding course loads in their professional majors (up to five

or six courses a semester, in some cases with few or no electives).

Under explicit instructions from my director, I designed my

courses with only minimal reading content: on average 100 pages

of reading per term. I was surprised while grading exams to

learn some students did not take the time to read even that

scant amount.

The extremely light reading load implied substantial changes

in how I could teach my courses. In the US, like most of my

colleagues, I usually assign an average of 80-100 pages a week,

mostly monographic books and articles, along with an occasional

textbook or novel. My lectures are designed to supplement and

add color to what I consider the real work of mid-level and

even introductory history courses, in which the students grapple

with and attempt to make sense of concrete examples of the historian’s

craft. Writing assignments usually include two short essays

commenting on the readings and a mid-term and a final that ask

students to synthesize readings and lectures; in intermediate

and advanced courses I may assign a research paper in place

of the short essays. With the Talca students reading an article

per month, I had to convert my lectures into the courses’ principal

pedagogical vehicles. The papers in the US gave way in Chile

to two mid-term exams and a final, which the students could

pass fairly easily by demonstrating their familiarity with the

content of the lectures. As in the US, I reserved a substantial

portion of the grade, more than 10% generally, for participation

in classroom discussion, but my Chilean students’ motivation

level was fairly low.

I had problems communicating with the students at first, based

more on cultural factors than linguistic ones–the one student

in my first term in Talca whose accent I never did figure out

was pretty clearly an exception.That lack of comprehension led to my most embarrassing moment in Talca, when I simply couldn't understand the question this student had about the final exam, during the exam itself!  Finally, I asked him to write down his question, and once I understood his problem cleared up the confusion quickly.

Upon reflection, I came to realize I didn’t understand the codes

of authority that operate in Chilean classrooms, at the same

time both more flexible and more rigid than those at work in

the US. Chilean society in general is governed by strict sets

of formal rules,The Christian Democratic Party committed a minor clerical error in July while registering its candidates for this year's congressional elections, and it required an act of congress to avoid their exclusion from the electoral process.  Currently, the Christian Democrats are Chile's largest political party in terms of militants, congressional representation, and, by a slight margin, in public opinion polls.

a fact which in the academic environment restricts the autonomy

professors can exercise in their relations with their students

and with their respective institutions more broadly. For example,

a professor at the University of Talca may not, under any circumstances,

admit a student into a class once the formal "add"

period has ended – even if the student has been attending the

class since the first day and had made good-faith efforts to

enroll when it was still possible. Even the most rigid system,

however, contains loopholes, and students are generally aware

of how both they and professors can bend the rules. When the

professor doesn’t appreciate those boundaries, the opportunities

for confusion are fairly extensive.

Students in Talca did not attempt to go over my head, but they

did try to negotiate the student-teacher relationship in ways

I did not expect and at times found inappropriate. Exams were

the biggest point of misunderstanding. Students in the US, in

my experience, see any exam as a major event, involving a fair

amount of stress and assiduous preparation. Rarely have my students

in the US missed an exam, and almost never have they done so

without either notifying me in advance or providing me with

some kind of excuse at the earliest opportunity after the exam

date. Those who do neither, I assume, have dropped the course.

In Chile, however, it was common for my students to miss exams,

and many students did not approach me for two or more weeks

after the exam had been administered. Some students believed,

without ever consulting with me and despite a written university

policy against the practice, that I would simply assign them

a grade for the exam based on their average grade in the course.

Naturally, I was frustrated and at times even angered by what

I took as an open assault on my professorial authority, although

eventually I learned to accept the students’ expectations and

incorporate them into my teaching style. (Not that I let them

get away without taking exams; rather, I developed a policy

of strict deadlines for providing a written excuse for missing

an exam and for completing the make-up, communicated that policy

to the students in the syllabus and during class time, and failed

students who missed the deadlines. Eventually, word got around

and I had fewer problems.)

The funny part about my reaction is that my teaching in the

US has always relied heavily on questioning in subtle ways the

authority inherent in the classroom environment. That is, by

subverting the role of the professor, I have sought to provoke

my students to think for themselves and to challenge the interpretations

and conclusions I offer them from the lectern. When I tried

to implement that style in Chile, at least at first, I wound

up unable to communicate with the students. I was simply ignorant

about the real extent of my authority: my intentional "subversions"

at times undermined "authority" that I didn’t actually

have, while my unintentional gaffes and missteps (for example,

by overreacting to perceived challenges to that nonexistent

authority) challenged my power in more substantial ways than

I would ever have intended. It was only towards the end of my

second year in Talca that I began to feel comfortable in the

classroom, and not until the beginning of the third that I was

able to develop a relaxed and fluid conversation with the students.

In various ways my experience in Talca can’t be generalized.

I entered the university as a junior member of the regular faculty,

fighting for tenure in the same way my Chilean colleagues were

(and I was, in fact, offered tenure before finally deciding

to return to the US). Students’ expectations of me, therefore,

resembled their expectations of their other professors. I also

taught in a university without a history department, which meant

my students had relatively weak prior knowledge of historical

discourse. Most CLAH members reading this who someday teach

in Latin America will probably do so under rather different

circumstances: while on leave from a tenured position in the

US and visiting a university with an established history department.

Students’ expectation and preparation levels would clearly be

different under those circumstances. Nevertheless, anyone who

spends an extended period of time in the Latin American academy

will eventually have to face the same facts I confronted while

in Talca, that the unstated rules and codes of behavior there

are different than in the US, and that each of us has to work

out our own ways of negotiating those differences.