Teaching borderlands history to college undergraduates is no easy task. For starters, college students are used to history classes that are usually organized topically or geographically – the British Empire, the American Revolutionary Era, or, and in my humble opinion perhaps best of all, TEXAS history.
But in, all seriousness, borderlands history is different. There’s definitely a geographical element, but the field is also conceptual. But before we discuss strategies related to teaching the field to students, I think it’s equally important to discuss how borderlands historians can frame undergraduate classes. As I see it, there are many different (and equally valid) ways to do it. Here’s mine.
There was already a borderlands class in the course catalog when I arrived at West Texas A&M University last August (go Buffs!), although it hadn’t been taught in awhile. Its official title was “HIST 3366 – U.S.-Mexico Border Region.” This title, which denoted an entirely “regional” focus on the United States and Mexico, bothered me. Since borderlands history, at its broadest, is about studying interactions between social groups, empires, and nation states, I personally find a focus on the U.S.-Mexico border “region” to be a little too limiting. But that’s just me. In order to be able to expose my future students to some of the latest scholarship in the field, I filed the necessary paperwork to change the course title to “HIST 3366 – North American Borderlands History.” That way, I can advertise the course for what it will be in the future: first, one that focuses on borderlands in North America prior to the drawing of modern international borders; and, second, one that discusses the histories of the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada borders, their surrounding environs, and compares them.
None of this is to say that teaching courses that focus solely on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, the U.S.-Canada borderlands, or even the more established practice of courses on Spanish borderlands history, are wrong. A continent-wide approach that makes at least some attempts at comparative history is simply my own personal preference, but that doesn’t necessarily make my approach right or even better (of course).
One of the things that I discovered as a new faculty member is that filing a change to an existing course in the university’s curriculum takes FOREVER. So, if I wanted to teach borderlands history during my first year at WT, it would have to be under the designation of “U.S.-Mexico borderlands history.” I decided to do it, and the class had its first meeting this past Tuesday.
I’m quite pleased with how the course syllabus came together. In fact, I’d say that there are really only two differences between this course and one that would utilize a continental approach: one, I’m not using any monographs on the U.S.-Canada borderlands; and, two, there is some material from my main course text that I can’t utilize.
Speaking of books, I’ll wrap this post up with my reading list for the course this semester:
1. Pekka Hämäläinen and Benjamin H. Johnson, Major Problems in the History of North American Borderlands
This is my core text, and I’m elated that this was published last year. It’s full of terrific documents and essays. I like to steer a lot of class discussion toward the documents themselves. I’ve assigned about 8-12 pages of reading for most class meetings (aside from meetings in which we’ll be discussing monographs). Plus, assigning this book will give my friend and dissertation advisor (Ben Johnson) a dollar or two in royalties.
2. Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire
Each of the monographs (and the novel) will be discussed over the course of one week’s worth of class time (that’s two class meetings – this is a T,TH course). The Comanche Empire probably isn’t the easiest book in the world, but, a colleague of mine used it in a Native American History course and told me that his students responded to it well. Also, it’s such an influential book that I can’t imagine teaching any borderlands history course without it.
3. Jerry Thompson, Cortina: Defending the Mexican Name in Texas
I always try to assign at least one good “content” book in any upper-division class that I teach. This time, it’s Thompson’s biography of Cortina. I’ve not actually read this book cover-to-cover, but I’ve cited it several times in my own work. It’s beautifully written, and Cortina is an important figure in South Texas border history. Plus, I need a deeper understanding of Cortina’s life for one of my current projects, so this is the perfect time for me to read the book and spend some time discussing it with students.
4. Kelly Lytle Hernández, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol
I have to admit that I’m not sure how well this one will go over with undergraduates. It’s a wonderful book full of terrific insights about the Border Patrol, but it’s also complex, and I think it’s most fully appreciated by people who already have a fairly strong grounding in borderlands history/historiography. I guess we’ll see how it goes.
5. Luis Alberto Urrea, Into the Beautiful North
I always try to assign a “fun” book in any upper-division undergraduate course; Urrea’s novel is that book for HIST 3366. We’ll read it toward the end of the semester. It’s not that Urrea is a good writer – he’s GIFTED, and I’d go as far as saying he’s one of the best writers alive. This is probably my favorite Urrea novel; it’s about a group of young girls from a fictitious Mexican town who cross the border illegally to seek out Mexican men in the United States to protect their town from a drug cartel. This book is an absolute page-turner and I’d recommend it to anyone.
I think that’s enough for now. I’d love to hear from any of you in the comments section—what have you done in your courses that’s worked for you? Or, if you plan to teach borderlands history in the future, what are you planning to do in your courses?
This is the first of several posts I’ll be doing this semester on teaching borderlands history. Let’s start a dialogue, and learn and grow as teachers and scholars together…
West Texas A&M University