Teaching Area Studies in Various Disciplines

25 April 2022

We all teach Latin American Studies and participated in a teaching circle this winter, focusing on best practices for teaching Latin American content or other area studies in courses in different disciplines.  Our Winter 2022 courses were America’s Music, Archaeology of the Americas, Economy of Latin America, and Music of Latin America.

What We Did

We each observed and debriefed two sessions of our colleagues’ classes in the Winter 2022 term, as well as viewing their course Moodle pages. Our goal was to observe how each of our colleagues integrated information about Latin American politics and history into their lesson plans.

Rectifying Blind Spots

We were all curious about how much background information on Latin American history and politics we needed to provide our students when introducing topics in our courses. For example, if Sarah L. taught a course on Chilean music of the 1970s, how much background on Pinochet’s military dictatorship of Chile during that period should she include? If Sarah K. taught a class on Inca archaeological remains from the 15th century, should she also include information on later Inca revival movements and indigenous rebellions in the 18th century? Should Victor include information about the colonial mita labor tax system in his Economy of Latin America class? How far back in time should he go when teaching about the economies of Latin America?

Class Observations and New Perspectives

Incorporating Modern Latin American Examples (Sarah K.)

When Sarah L. and Victor visited my course, ARCN 111: Archaeology of the Americas, they both commented on how I was able to link course themes in archaeology (climate change, gender, inequality) with modern examples. However, they noticed many of the modern examples I provided were from the United States, not from Latin America. They helped identify this as a blind spot in my teaching, and Victor gave me a modern Latin American example from his economics course to incorporate into my class on domestication, where we traced the origin of maize (corn) agriculture to Mexico 7,000 years ago. We discussed how the domestication of maize took thousands of years, and how the US has only recently developed a corn monoculture. Victor suggested adding the example of how bananas have become a monoculture in Latin America, even though they were first domesticated in SE Asia 6,000 years ago. Countries like Honduras and Guatemala have been described as Banana Republics due to their economic reliance on the export of one (limited resource) product and the associated implications to their political landscapes.  

Incorporating Early Latin American Examples and Blurring Nation-State Divides (Sarah L.) 

While observing Sarah K’s class on Archaeology of the Americas, I noticed that she did a fantastic job of including modern connections that made it easier for students to relate to topics much earlier in history. I realized that although most of my course topics deal with musics of the last 150 years, I rarely incorporate historical context earlier than that. Towards the end of the term, I used my observations of Sarah K’s classes as a model and incorporated more pre-colonial context into the course. I found that after explaining earlier historical events in Latin America that paralleled similar colonial legacies of the US, it helped students to better understand why certain musics and cultural practices from today are shared across nation-state boundaries (due to pre-colonial and early colonial influences). 

 Along the same lines, I was struck by Victor’s class in the way that he talked broadly about Latin American economic trends (dollarization, inflation, and economic recovery plans) while not focusing on any one particular Latin American country each day/week. I have always approached teaching regional musics by country, but due to shared pre-colonial and colonial histories, there is a lot of overlap from one country to another. My observations of Victor’s class made me consider re-organizing my course in the future to include common Latin American music features together (for instance, Afro-diasporic religious traditions across the Caribbean and Latin America) instead of keeping nation-state boundaries at the forefront of the course organization. This could allow students unfamiliar with Latin America to leave with a broader conceptualization of common music features, instruments, and social contexts in the region while placing less emphasis on exactly which country claims particular musics as their own. 

Incorporating Modern Examples from Different Parts of the World (Victor)

I thank Sarah K. and Sarah L. for stressing the benefits of linking historical issues in Latin America to current matters worldwide. Despite my belief that the economic history of Latin America is fascinating in itself, students feel much more engaged when they realize the acquired knowledge is neither limited to the past nor the region.

 For instance, my course inevitably covers a series of economic crises, providing many examples of what happens to a country when people grow suspicious of the liquidity of their banks’ assets or the value of their local currency. These examples help students understand the current consequences of economic sanctions on Russia in 2022, such as the risk of bank runs.

Similarly, current issues regarding national identity and social integration policies around the world can precede discussions on different immigrant integration policies implemented in Latin American countries throughout their history. These immigrant integration policies also had significant implications for the current demographics of the region. They gave rise to challenges regarding the implementation of affirmative action that we can contrast against those present in the US.

Concluding Best Practices

  • For early historical periods, include modern examples from both the US and the region in question→ This allows students to see how the issues discussed are relevant to their own lives and to make more personal connections to those studied. 
  • For modern topics, include historical examples from a variety of time periods, including pre-colonial and colonial history→ This gives students the opportunity to see how influences from before colonization still have an effect on the lived experiences of those in the region today. 
  • Focus on important trends and takeaways from the region rather than strictly a country-by-country comparison→ This approach gives students the tools to compare topics, issues, and lived experiences from one country to another without imposing the idea that each country lives in a vacuum from those around them. 
  • When relevant, incorporate parallel current event examples from outside of the region of study→ This can give students more context and understanding for what is occurring in real time in other parts of the world, while also putting the region of study into a global perspective.