Teaching Borderlands History to College Undergraduates: Part Two – What’s Worked and What Hasn’t

Any good teacher worth his or her salt will tell you that no class is perfect. Some things can seem like good ideas in advance, but when you finally try them out in class, they just don’t work. Conversely, however, one always experiences certain unexpected victories over the course of a long semester.

In this post, I’d like to look back on the first half of the spring semester. There are certain things that have worked well in my class on the U.S.-Mexico border, while others have left a little something to be desired. What follows is by no means a comprehensive report on how the class is going (although it is in truth one of the best classes I’ve ever taught), but more of a reflection on a few things that I think are worth mentioning.

The Comanche Empire

I must admit that I got a number of strange looks when I told friends and colleagues that I’d be assigning Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire, especially given that I put it on the syllabus relatively early in the semester (we discussed it during the third week of the semester, if memory serves). Some people questioned whether undergraduates would understand the book, as its arguments are complex; others thought that the book was simply too long to have undergraduates read. So, when I arrived in class for the first of our two discussions over the book, I was admittedly a little nervous.

I should preface this by saying that I always tell my students in upper-division courses to “memo read” books rather than read them like they’re novels (unless, of course, the book in question actually happens to be a novel). This, I’ve found, usually allays whatever fears students have in terms of handling the reading load. Also, knowing that I don’t expect them to read every single word on every single page relaxes them for class discussion (at least, I think it does); if they don’t feel guilty about NOT having absorbed every little thing from the book, then at least they’ll still be confident that they have something to contribute to class discussion. It also helps that this particular group that I have this semester is especially talkative. Class discussions have been quite fruitful.

Anyway, back to Hämäläinen. As I walked into class that first day we were to discuss the book, two of the students instantly told me they were frustrated. “Oh boy, here we go,” I thought. Much to my delight, however, they weren’t frustrated with the book itself; they were frustrated that they HAD TO “memo read” it to get the reading assignment done! In other words, these two particular students liked the book so much that they wished they could’ve spent even more time than they did on it. What a terrific complaint for me to get! We spent the following two days on the book, and the general consensus was (of course) that it’s fantastic. I’m quite certain that I’ll use The Comanche Empire again.

Cortina

I assumed before the semester started that the students would absolutely love Jerry Thompson’s biography on Juan Cortina. And hey, what’s not to love? It’s a fantastic story, and Thompson is an incredibly elegant writer. I assigned Cortina mainly because of its content and readability. Juan Cortina’s story embodies some of the most important elements of nineteenth-century Texas-Mexico borderlands history, including Anglo racism against ethnic Mexicans, Tejano land loss, and the wanton cruelty of the Texas Rangers in the nineteenth century. Placing Juan Cortina’s story alongside a fine essay by Miguel González from Bridging National Borders (which argues that Anglo-Mexican cooperation in building the Texas-Mexico borderlands in the late nineteenth century needs to be highlighted above conflict – I didn’t actually assign the essay, but merely summarized for the class during our discussion of Thompson’s book) provided for some really nice discussion about the messiness of life along the border in Texas after 1848. Social conflict AND cooperation, we decided as a group, will together always coexist in modern borderlands settings.

But, I digress. As useful and important as Cortina’s story is, I’m now of the mind that spending two whole days on it was a bit of overkill. Also, much to my surprise, a number of the students said that they preferred The Comanche Empire over Cortina, because the former is more argument driven than the latter. There were a number of students, however, who preferred Thompson’s book because of its general readability.

I don’t think I’ll use Cortina the next time I teach this class, although that doesn’t mean that I’ll never use it again. I’ve probably cited the book a dozen times in my own work. But, I’d like to give the students something that focuses on a late-nineteenth century border region a bit more broadly and analytically. Elliot Young’s book on Catarino Garza comes to mind, as do several others that might fit geographically and temporally. The possibilities are numerous.

Adelman, Aron, and Borderlands Historiography

Probably the biggest disappointment so far this semester was our class discussion on Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron’s now-famous article on borderlands history in a 1999 edition of the American Historical Review. This article is somewhat of a classic in modern borderlands historiography, so I thought it would be a nice lead-in to some of the questions that modern borderlands historians tend to ask. Although I, personally, have never had a huge fondness for this article, I figured it was worth having the students read it and discuss it in class.

Boy was I wrong. The students hated it and found it incredibly unclear. One of the students very insightfully pointed out that Adelman and Aron’s model for understanding the creation of modern borders seemed to neglect the existence of Indian historical agency. When I informed the student that a prominent historian—none other than Pekka Hämäläinen!—had made the exact same argument in the AHR forum that followed the article (which I didn’t assign), he was understandably very pleased.

I wound up walking the students through the Adelman and Aron article rather than leading a discussion on it, which wasn’t terribly fruitful. Next time, instead of using A&A, what I plan do is assign Ben Johnson and Andy Graybill’s introduction to Bridging National Borders along with Elliott Young and Sam Truett’s introduction to Continental Crossroads. I didn’t assign either essay this time (I honestly don’t remember why), but I did utilize both for class during the first week in order to sketch the larger structure of borderlands historiography for the students. Both articles paired together provide a nice overview of how borderlands history has evolved and changed over the years.

In closing, I’d be fascinated to hear from other borderlands historians. What have you done in your classes that’s worked well? What hasn’t worked well? Have you had experiences that were similar to mine? What books have worked well, and which ones haven’t?

This is the second post in a three-part series on teaching borderlands history to college undergraduates. In the third and final post, I’ll compare and contrast the benefits of teaching North American borderlands history versus focusing solely on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Tim Bowman
West Texas A&M University

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2 thoughts on “Teaching Borderlands History to College Undergraduates: Part Two – What’s Worked and What Hasn’t

  1. I tweek classes every semester depending on what works and what doesn’t. However, some things that do work for some classes don’t work for others, and vice versa. So don’t discard a book just because it did not work once.

  2. Tim Bowman

    Excellent advice and very true, thanks Jean. I might assign it again in the future, but I also might just use the book for content in borderlands hist, Texas hist, etc. I definitely won’t be discarding it!

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