Pedagogy Notes: On Recent Books and Teaching

As many of our readers are planning for next semester’s classes this summer, we’ve decided to launch a new summer series for ideas on teaching Borderlands history and historiography. Tim is starting us out with this article today, and we hope to have additional essays on the subject as the month continues. You’re also welcome to share your own experiences or insights on Borderlands pedagogy in the comments section at the bottom of this post. -Mike

One of the most rewarding aspects of working in Borderlands history is that that the field is ever-evolving; this, however, can also be something of a problem. Given the tremendous numbers of exciting new books and articles that are published on an annual basis, it can be difficult for any historian to stay on top of all of the new contributions that scholars make to the field. One solution that I have found (and I’m certainly not alone in this) is that it is often useful to put articles and monographs on my syllabi before I have actually read them. This, of course, is inherently dangerous—what if the book or article in question doesn’t translate well to the classroom, or, what if you find the material less than satisfactory but still have to figure out a way to teach it? Inevitably, this will happen from time to time.

Having now taught both graduate and under-graduate level seminars on Borderlands history within the last year, I wanted to take the time reflect on a handful of new monographs that I have used in the classroom and to reflect a little bit on the pedagogical value of said books. Given the premium placed on space in a short blog post, I will restrict my discussion to those works that have been published since early 2015 in particular, which is somewhat problematical given the field’s constant vitality (I should also note that this list is obviously not an exhaustive one—there are many new monographs aside from the few that I will discuss here that are absolutely worth reading or assigning to students).[1] Nonetheless, the field saw a number of exciting new works in 2015 that Borderlands scholars might want to consider adding to their syllabi in the near future.

One book that I have had great recent success with is Andrew Torget’s, Seeds of Empire.[2] Torget’s book is, quite simply, a necessity for people interested in the easternmost edges of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands; given that it recounts some of the most iconic moments in early-nineteenth century Texas history, I would strongly encourage Borderlands historians who teach in Texas, in particular, to consider adopting this book. To quote Torget, Seeds of Empire shows how

[p]owerful economic and political forces swirling the north Atlantic crashed into one another…swept across the continent, and transformed Mexico’s northern borderlands into the western edge of the U.S. South…That process would, in time, redistribute power on the continent as it remade the border between the United States and Mexico, leaving both countries with enduring tensions that reverberate to this day.[3]

Importantly, these forces in question—U.S. expansion, the slavery complex, and the transatlantic cotton economy—not only shaped the eventual establishment of the U.S.-Mexico borderline, but Torget’s highlighting of these economic and political factors shows how the deployment of Borderlands analysis can fundamentally alter certain long-existing historiographical notions; in this case, Torget provides a fresh interpretation of events such as the Texas Revolution, Texas annexation and the U.S.-Mexico War, sweeping away longstanding historiographical debates such as the oftentimes anachronistic and downright silly explanations that previous generations of historians have provided for events such as the Texas Revolution.[4] Seeds of Empire thus provides a clear and compelling example of the promise of Borderlands analysis to undergraduate and graduate students alike, replete with historical events and phenomena that students will easily grasp, if they are not already entirely familiar with them (this, again, is particularly likely at Texas-based institutions, for obvious reasons).

If Seeds of Empire can successfully help students to see the usefulness of Borderlands history, other books published since 2015 highlight borderlands phenomena that have been mostly overlooked in the literature up to this point. For example, Borderlands historians have of late begun to pose a number of questions related to state power and borderlands political economies. To that end, another monograph published in 2015 that clearly and nicely illustrates the promise of Borderlands history for students is George Díaz’s, Border Contraband. Díaz’s study of smuggling in the Texas-Mexico borderlands highlights relations between the state and the local: “when governments regulated and prohibited trade on their borders,” the author writes, people consequently “subverted state and federal laws through smuggling.”[5] Furthermore, the definition of what governments consider illegal oftentimes runs in counterdistinction to what borderlanders consider wrong, thus creating a moral economy that in reality can only exist at the margins of modern nation states.

Border Contraband serves as an excellent conversation starter about the nature of the relationship between the federal government and borderlanders, along with providing a clear focus on the lived experiences of the latter. Also, this book works well in the classroom because the subject matter is, put simply, cool. A well constructed and readable book on a cool subject like smuggling will have no difficulty in piquing the interests of students in a classroom setting (this was certainly the case in my own personal experience).

One important issue related to questions of agency and the state is the reciprocal relationship between border crossing, border control and the influences of state formation on people at the margins. For a nice example that works well for the U.S.-Canada borderlands, in particular, see Michel Hogue’s, The Metis and the Medicine Line.[6] The border, in Hogue’s view, actually gave life to the Metis. Hogue refers to the 49th parallel as “the medicine line” for the Metis, meaning that it was a source of strength and collective group identity for them in the face of intrusions by the Canadian and U.S. governments. Comparatively, Hogue’s book pairs nicely with Díaz’s, given that both reflect border developments in the face of state power.

Indeed, the Metis—a group consisting of people of First Nations, Native American, and Euroamerican ancestry—emerged in Canada during the nineteenth century as a people “in-between,” which fact alone makes them a fascinating study of cross-cultural interaction (one of the many facets of Borderlands history). The Metis absorbed other groups, their material goods, and crossed the 49th parallel as an expression of group agency and self determination; crossing the border also drew out contradictions in the settler colonial projects of the United States and Canada as well as their different laws, which in turn led each nation state to assert its sovereignty over the joint borderline to greater degrees during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Metis in Hogue’s study are thus somewhat reminiscent of certain actors in Richard White’s classic, The Middle Ground, but the difference here is that these people also had a clear influence over—and, in turn, found themselves influenced by—two modern nation states. As such, The Metis and the Medicine Line is filled with questions related to identity, borders, political economy and state power—in short, this book covers some of the fundamental questions of Borderlands historiography writ large. Admittedly, Hogue’s book is a slightly more challenging read than either Torget’s or Díaz’s, but the payoff in any class about borders or borderlands is, I think, readily apparent.

Fortunately, Borderlands historians continue to tackle issues that are relevant to contemporary society: few issues are more relevant and newsworthy—especially during the vicious 2016 election cycle—than Mexican immigration (if for no other reason than the cacophony of shrill voices calling for restrictions from the Donald Trump camp). John Weber’s book, From South Texas to the Nation, traces the origins of Mexican labor exploitation throughout the twentieth century. Weber’s argument is twofold: first, he argues that Anglos and ethnic Mexicans fashioned an agricultural empire in early twentieth-century South Texas; and, secondly, he argues that this agricultural empire served as a laboratory of sorts for other employers across the United States, who copied the “South Texas model of labor relations” in order to exploit workers and pad their own profit margins.

The usefulness of Weber’s construction, of course, is that it puts on full display connections between the border and Mexican immigration with which students are more than familiar. Borderlands history thus is shown to have clear and deep contemporary relevance in this particular case. Weber’s book is also a good reminder of the value of smart Borderlands history on twentieth-century topics; in my case, students responded well to the book and saw connections between scholarship and current affairs. A few of my students, in fact, were comfortable and inspired enough to speak up during class discussions about their own experiences being undocumented immigrants.

Ultimately, the greatest challenge that any Borderlands historian will face over the course of her or his career is staying on top of the literature; nonetheless, a flexible approach that incorporates as many of the latest articles and monographs as possible not only allows one to keep reading, but it also helps convey the conceptual shifts that the field constantly experiences. But most importantly, these four books illuminate some central conceptual concerns in Borderlands history that students, simply put, must understand, including but not limited to the importance of transatlantic political and social economies; community-level political or moral economies in the borderlands and their relationships to the nation state; the reciprocal relationship between border making and the foundation of individual or group identity; and finally, the borderlands as a human laboratory for racial and labor exploitation.

All of the above concepts are crucial to understanding some of the latest insights that Borderlands history has to offer. I sincerely hope that some readers will consider using these books in classes during the upcoming year (or years). I would also like to invite a little bit of dialogue here: readers who have utilized the above-mentioned books are welcome to respond in the comments section of this post about their own experiences in using them. Also, what recent titles have you used in your courses that you would recommend to others in the field? History, at its best, is a conversation—let’s have one!


[1] For just a few examples, see, Alicia M. Dewey, Pesos and Dollars: Entrepreneurs in the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1880-1940 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2014); Kornel Chang, Pacific Connections: The Making of the U.S.-Canadian Borderlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); and, Geraldo Cadava, Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[2] Andrew Torget, Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Many of these are covered in an excellent book by historian James Crisp. For more, see, James Crisp, Sleuthing the Alamo: Davy Crockett’s Last Stand and Other Mysteries of the Texas Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[5] George T. Díaz, Border Contraband: A History of Smuggling across the Rio Grande (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), 1.


Categories: Teaching/Professional Development | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Pedagogy Notes: On Recent Books and Teaching

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of July 17, 2016 | Unwritten Histories

  2. Pingback: A Year in Review: BHB in 2016 | Borderlands History

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