Teaching Borderlands History to Undergraduates, Part One: Framing Your Course

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…

Tim Bowman
West Texas A&M University

Categories: Uncategorized | 15 Comments

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15 thoughts on “Teaching Borderlands History to Undergraduates, Part One: Framing Your Course

  1. Print out all your posts and comments and put them in your tenure file.

  2. Have you assigned Hämäläinen before for undergrads? I did once and a number of students really ate it up. However, it was a bit dense for much of the class.

  3. Tim Bowman

    Brenden: Yes, I’ve also used it once, and the students really liked it. The trick that I use to make reading assignments like that one seem less daunting is to tell the class to “prepare, gut, and skim,” rather than read the thing like a novel. That advice usually goes over well. It’s coming up fast, so I’ll let you know how it goes.

    Jean: I never would’ve thought to do that. Thank you!

  4. Great post, Tim. I like these readings a lot and agree with you completely on Urrea.

    In terms of designing an upper-level Borderlands history course, I was in a similar situation at Colorado State University-Pueblo this past spring. The course on the books is titled “Borderlands,” but the description does specify U.S.-Mexico. I thought a lot about continental, hemispheric, or comparative approaches, but ultimately settled on exploring the concepts/approaches of borderlands history through a focus on “Southwestern North America.” Because I still wanted the students to think beyond U.S.-Mexico borderland history, I assigned a capstone project that had students pick a specific theme/topic through which to research another borderland region and compare it to the U.S.-Mexico region. They developed this project over the course of the semester through peer group workshops of topic ideas, a rough draft, meeting with me, and then the final draft at the end of the semester. In the end there were some great papers exploring issues like human trafficking, schooling, border enforcement, the environment, and indigenous rights by comparing the U.S.-Mexico border to U.S.-Canada, Spain-North Africa, China-Tibet, U.S.-Navajo Nation, West Germany-East Germany, and other borderlands (including some non-national pre-19th century examples).

    In terms of readings, I began with some pieces that helped foster a discussion of “borderlands” as a concept [Limerick’s chapter “America the Borderland,” Selections from Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera, Baud and Schendel’s article on Comparative Borderlands]. The rest of the semester then represented a mix of primary source and secondary source readings: The Cabeza de Vaca narrative (which they wrote an essay on), Chavez’s U.S.-Mexico War reader, the concise version of Weber’s Spanish Frontier, essays by Juliana Barr and Pekka Hamalainen…and for the 19th/20th centuries, a couple of monographs: Rachel St. John’s A Line in the Sand (which the students found very readable and I found easy to integrate with the topics I wanted to cover day to day) and Leslie Salzinger’s Genders in Production (which is a book I love but too many of my students found impenetrable…whoops, what was I thinking.)

    In the end I feel like it worked well to explore borderlands as a concept and approach by focusing in class on a specific region while having students develop a global comparison through a capstone project. At the same time, I see lots of benefits to alternative approaches (North American Borderlands, Latin American Borderlands, Comparative North/South American Borderlands, etc.), and might try that out next time. Look forward to hearing more about what other people are doing in their classes!


  5. Paul,

    I approached it a bit more broadly as well – a hybrid of regional and thematic approaches. https://borderlandshistory.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/borderlands-seminar-reading-list/

  6. Thanks for the link, Brenden–lots of great ideas in terms of approach and readings for me to think about for next time. (If only they’d let me offer this class every semester instead of every other two or three years!)

  7. Tim Bowman

    Paul, thanks very much for your feedback. I really like your idea for a capstone project, and might have to steal that one in the future. That’s a really nice way to get them to think more broadly.

    Also, in terms of the readings, I’m fairly certain that I’ll be using Rachel St. John’s book at some point. It’s really terrific and very readable, and covers quite a bit of ground. I should also add that I think I’ll use Truett and Young’s intro. to Continental Crossroads as an historiographical overview for the SW stuff the next time I offer this course. It’s great, really clear, and would probably work very nicely paired with Johnson and Graybill’s introduction to Bridging National Borders, in terms of getting the students to think about borderlands history in a continental context.

  8. Jennifer Seman

    I think this list is really great Tim, and thank-you for sharing with us. I look forward to your future posts as the course progresses.

    I think another good choice for fiction would be the Carlos Fuentes collection of short stories about the U.S.-Mexico border, The Crystal Frontier. Each story is about an encounter across the border, and the stories cover all the topics we think about when we think of the U.S.-Mexico border: drug cartels, maquiladoras, illegal crossings. Fuentes is one of my favorite writers and I think this collection would be engaging and inspiring for both undergrads and graduate students to consider along with historical monographs.

  9. Tim Bowman

    Jenny, thanks! I’ve actually never ready any of his stuff, but I remember you mentioning him once at SMU. I may have to put the Crystal Frontier on my summer reading list. Sounds like it would be a great addition to the syllabus next time around.

  10. Dear All: Forgive my ruthless self-promotion. This isn’t close to the level of Fuentes, but here is a link to the Major Problems volume that Tim uses; there is a button to request an exam copy as well.


  11. Tim,

    You’ve been so inundated with posts that I’m not sure that I have much to add. I’ve taught a Comparative Frontiers and Borderlands Summer seminar to M.A. students at SFA. I took a hemispheric approach to borderlands history using the colonial U.S.-Mexico borderlands as a base and working outwards. The students liked Hamalainen’s The Comanche Empire the best of everything that I assigned.

  12. Julia Reed

    I LOVED Into the Beautiful North. Several of his books really speak to me, but that one did the most. I was literally laughing on one page and teary-eyed on the next. That is great that your students are reading it. I recently recommended it to a patron at the library who was specifically looking for novels about the Mexico-Texas immigration experience.

  13. Kimberley Knowles-Yanez

    Very interesting reading list. Is this a history majors class or a general education class? What requirement does it fill, and for which majors?

  14. Tim Bowman

    Julia – Nice to “see” you on here, and thanks for reading! I’m glad to know that you connected with the novel, and I hope some of my students do, as well (I have a few native borderlanders in the class). Isn’t he great? I saw him speak at the Dallas Institute for Humanities several years ago, and he’s as captivating a storyteller in person as he is in print. He also strikes me as a genuinely warm human being who loves people. I’m a big fan (although his latest, Queen of American wasn’t his best, in my humble opinion).

    Kimberley – Thanks for your comment. This is an upper-division history course, but interestingly enough the class is filled with mostly non-majors. There are sixteen students, of which only five or six are history majors. Personally, I like using novels in history classes when I can get away with it. Nothing better than an incredibly well-told story to get students’ minds working (hence the inclusion of Urrea’s novel).

    I should add that I’d initially planned to use The Devil’s Highway, but a colleague is using it this semester, so I settled on Into the Beautiful North, instead. I think I’ll wind up being glad it worked out that way…

  15. Pingback: Borderlands History Blog Turns 1 « Borderlands History

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