Pedagogy Notes: Teaching North American Borderlands History Online

This is the third and final installment in our summer pedagogy series. We invite you to join the discussion in our comments section at the bottom of the post.

This past summer, I taught an upper-division/graduate readings course on North American Borderlands History online for Western New Mexico University. Teaching history online presents unique opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, digital tools as simple as LMS assignment submission systems and email provide direct lines of communication with students that don’t always exist as readily in face-to-face settings where assignment feedback can often be somewhat one sided. The challenge is that although I have more direct and interactive means of discussing assignments and course concepts with students in the online classroom, they often fail to engage those opportunities.

In order to make online teaching feel less like a correspondence course, I assign Twitter, blogging, and an online timeline platform at to engage students in unique assignments that require them to use their skills of critically analyzing and discussing the monographs, articles, and primary sources that we are working on as a class.

I provide this background to help you get a sense of the type of “virtual classroom” that we built in our North American Borderlands class. This past summer, we worked through several monographs, an anthology, and assorted articles at the intersection where traditional analog historical publications and the digital world meet. As an additional challenge/opportunity, only three students enrolled in the class so we constructed a very tight learning community. Our course hashtag was #Hist480.

The first week of the course covered the usual syllabus review, introduction to course tools, and personal discussions, along with the requirement of creating a blog post that addressed what types of things come to each student’s mind when he/she hears the term “North American Borderlands.” That activity provided an excellent jumping off point for the rest of the class. During the second week, we read several articles (you can see which ones if you follow the link to the syllabus above) that provide historiographical overviews of how scholars have conceptualized and written about frontiers and borderlands. Above all, I worked to help students think about borderlands history as a conceptual field that is applied to different geographic sites–in our case the Canada-U.S. and the Mexico-U.S. borders.

Next we read Rebecca Jager’s Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea: Indian Women as Cultural Intermediaries and National Symbols as a means of discussing scholarship on gender in the post-contact frontiers. Students were fascinated with the ways in which the study of mythologized indigenous women illustrates the types of cultural barriers and accommodations that define the early colonial period.

To consider the ways in which armed conflicts over territory and resources defined the boundaries of nascent nation-states in the mid-nineteenth century, we read John Little’s Loyalties in Conflict: A Canadian Borderland in War and Rebellion, 1812-1840 and Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War. Taken together, the books helped students consider the ways in which the War of 1812, the Rebellions of 1837-1838, the Comanche Wars, and the U.S.-Mexico War defined the territorial, political, racial, and political limits of the respective Canada-U.S. and Mexico-U.S. borders by the mid-nineteenth century. One common critique of Little’s analysis is that he dismisses the role of indigenous peoples in the border between Vermont and Eastern Townships in his analysis, a stark contrast with DeLay’s direct evaluation of Indian conflicts’ impact on the U.S.-Mexico War.

After taking a week to work on topics and bibliographies for the Final Project, we then turned to twentieth century issues of migration and the drug trade from a continental perspective. Bill Ong Hing’s Ethical Borders: NAFTA, Globalization, and Mexican Migration gave us a glimpse of the former and Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace’s A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War” introduced the latter. Examining the role of both the northern and southern borders relative to the legal history of migration restrictionism and drug trafficking helped us to contrast the types of arrangements that Canada is able to make with the United States versus those made with Mexico in which U.S. policies have tended toward the militarization and criminalization of more and more activities along the southern border.

Our lone grad student also read Andrew Graybill’s Policing the Great Plains and Joshua Reid’s The Sea is My Country. Upon completion of Graybill’s work, she reported that it was one of her two favorite reads in graduate school (the other being Truett’s Fugitive Landscapes). Through sophisticated, yet readable prose Graybill provides an example of a truly transnational approach to the study of North American Borderlands History. Much of what we did was comparative by necessity; we examined treatments of the Canada-U.S. border and then compared them to a similar type of work that deals with the Mexico-U.S. border. Graybill, on the other hand, wrote a history that connects both borders through analysis of two of the most iconic police forces in North America: the Texas Rangers and the Canadian Royal Mounted Police. Discussions and debates about the archival difficulties of completing transnational work of a continental scope abound in other forums, but it is worth noting here that Graybill’s work stood out in our class for this reason. We also highly recommend Reid’s work. His history of the Makah people along the Pacific coast of present-day Washington and British Columbia provides a crisp analysis of how borderlands themes of contact, conflict, resistance, and accommodations have functioned in contexts geographically removed from the Canada-U.S. and Mexico-U.S. border zones.

All in all, the class was engaging and students responded favorably to comparisons of the two North American borders. Especially in the Southwest (students were from southern New Mexico and west Texas), virtually all discussion of borders focuses on the line between Mexico and the United States. As we read the various monographs mentioned above, we also read selections from Johnson and Graybill’s Bridging National Boundaries in North America. That volume really helped to tie together the comparisons that we made of the two borders, and it also provided alternate perspectives. Michel Hogue’s chapter on the creation of métis borderlands was a helpful supplement for our analysis of Little’s work, for example.

This time around, the course was offered in an eight-week format. That meant that we hurriedly worked through all of the monographs and articles. Next time around, hopefully we’ll have at least 10 or 12 weeks so that we can also consider works from the period between 1848 and 1930. Hogue’s Métis and the Medicine Line and Rachel St. John’s Line in the Sand are high on my list of candidates.

As Tim and Mike mentioned before me in the first two installments of this series, I would love to hear your feedback and ideas–particularly on the pedagogy of teaching borderlands history online.
Joanna May’s StoryMap JS Final Project, “Sacajawea, A Cultural Intermediary” (shared with permission)

Categories: Essay Series, Teaching/Professional Development | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Pedagogy Notes: Teaching North American Borderlands History Online

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

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