Borders and traffic: comparative perspectives on teaching the Americas

Date: 17 October, 2008
Location: Council Chamber, Singleton Abbey, Swansea University
Event type: Seminar

Location map | Event report

students in class

The study of the Americas in UK higher education is often focused either on North America (usually the USA) or Latin America (usually through the study of Spanish). This partial focus not only leads to a neglect of either North or South America, but often leads to the exclusion of certain geographical areas of the Americas including Canada, Brazil and the Caribbean, as well as certain disciplines. This workshop, organised jointly by the Subject Centre, Swansea University's Department of American Studies and the Centre for Latin American Studies at Swansea (CLASS), aims to explore current practice and potential opportunities for comparative and interdisciplinary teaching across the Americas at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Seminar fee

There is no charge to attend for employees and postgraduate students of publicly funded UK educational institutions. The fee for employees and postgraduate students of private institutions/organisations and non-UK institutions is £40.
Lunch will be provided. We reserve the right to charge a £50.00 non-attendance fee.

Travel bursary

A travel bursary is available for this event.  Deadline for receiving applications : Wednesday 17 September 2008.

Provisional programme for 17 October 2008
Time Session
10.30 - 11.00

Registration and coffee

11.00 - 11.10

Welcome and housekeeping

11.10 - 11.30

Comparative American Studies: The State of the Field
James Dunkerley, Queen Mary, University of London

11.30 - 12.30

Approaches to studying the Americas

Where do we start in teaching students about the Americas? (e.g. their pre-existing knowledge, assumptions, points in history, European contacts).

What is or could be gained from studying the Americas as a whole, as opposed to focusing either on North or South? To what extent does a comparative teaching environment already exist and what, if any, are the challenges involved?

What disciplinary, thematic or geographical (e.g. Canada, Caribbean, Brazil) gaps tend to exist in teaching about the Americas? Leading to: how interdisciplinary and hemispheric is the teaching of the Americas?

How do we introduce non-language specialists to the study of Spanish, Portuguese and French-speaking America?

R J Ellis, University of Birmingham

Caroline Williams, University of Bristol

12.30 - 13.30


13.30 - 14.20

Race and ethnic communities

A discussion of how students are introduced to race/ethnicity in their study of the Americas and to what extent these are taught with reference to the broader hemispheric context. Comparative approaches will be discussed, as well as the points of difference and/or comparison between teaching race and ethnicity in American and Latin American Studies.

Kate Quinn, Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London 

David Stirrup, University of Kent

14.20 - 15.10

Cultural traffic across borders

This session will consider the different types of cultural exchanges which take place across the Americas and how study of these exchanges can be used to improve student understanding key concepts such as globalisation, modernization, nationalism, transationalism, hegemony and hybridity.

Peter Hulme, University of Essex

Alan Rice, University of Central Lancashire

15.10 - 15.30


15.30 - 16.20

Comparative Politics

This session will discuss teaching practice in relation to US and Latin American/ Canadian/ Caribbean politics and the relations between them.

Dave Bewley-Taylor, Swansea University

Lucy Taylor, Aberystwyth University

16.20 - 17.00

Roundtable discussion: Current practice and future directions for teaching Comparative American Studies

Chair: James Dunkerley, Queen Mary, University of London

Event Report

by John Canning, Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

James Dunkerley, former Head of the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University London, opened the day by observing that the Swansea situation of having both an American Studies Department and a Spanish/ Modern Languages department with a Latin American component was not untypical in UK Higher Education Institutions. In his overview of the state of Comparative American Studies in the UK, Professor Dunkerley outlined several factors impacting on the provision of teaching across the Americas. These factors include sentiments of anti-Americanism, the high demands of multidisciplinary teaching (and research), the ‘assault’ on area studies programmes and institutions, and information overload.

Approaches to studying the Americas

Dick Ellis, Head of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham explored ideas surrounding ‘Old American Studies’ and 'New American Studies', and the problem of America meaning the USA and the connection of the Americas to other parts of the world. Professor Ellis explored several ideas including Atlantic Studies (e.g. the work of David Armitage), which although attractive exclude the important influence of Japan and the Pacific Rim on the Americas. Whilst desiring not to view the United States in isolation, Professor Ellis noted the dangers of an internationalised American studies becoming a new form of imperialism. He concluded his paper by calling for a standpoint comparative network approach to American Studies. This could including thinking about a place, for example Guantanamo Bay and how it ‘borders’ Iraq, the US, Cuba and the politics of the Middle East.

Caroline Williams, from the University of Bristol’s Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, noted that a majority of students studying Spanish and/or Portuguese were doing joint degrees with other language or humanities subjects, though about 50% of students studied for at least one semester in Latin America. Dr Williams also explored the idea of the Atlantic through her work on pre-Columbian and early European contact history. In terms of the thinking about connections with North America there are very few Americanists in the faculty as a whole, though the MA course “History, Empires, Cultures and Peoples” offers a multidisciplinary exploration of Latin America in a broad colonial context.

Teaching race

Kate Quinn, Institute for the Study of the Americas, examined differences to do with the idea of race within the Americas and how the Americas represent a context within which to teach students about the idea of race as a social construct. For example, Barack Obama is perceived as black in the United States, but in Jamaica he would be perceived as part of the brown elite. In terms of inter-country understandings about race, there has been an Americanisation of racial concepts in Brazil with affirmative action policies and health campaigns aimed at Afro-Brazilian people. The study of individuals such as Marcus Garvey is also instructive in exploring race in a comparative American perspective.

Dave Stirrup, University of Kent, explored ideas of borders as literal and metaphorical which contain and withhold and how we can think beyond the idea of the border. He noted the relative neglect of the US-Canadian border in contrast to the US-Mexican border. He illustrated this with reference to the westward migration of the Anishinaabe peoples and the Blackfeet tribe who live on both sides of the Alberta-Montana border .

Cultural Traffic

Peter Hulme, University of Essex, started his paper by challenging the idea of North and Latin America (which begins at the Mexican border) and the idea of hemispheric American Studies (the Western hemisphere, he noted, includes Swansea but not Colchester). He observed that it is interesting that the United Nation’s Northern American macroregion is the only one which is not subdivided into sub-regions. In his teaching Professor Hulme makes extensive use of maps to illustrate these points as well as Arthur Bird’s 1899 book Looking Forward which predicted the US sovereignty over the whole of the Americas. Taking the Caribbean as a the ‘bit in the middle’ can produce some imaginative thinking, for example Charles Wagner’s culture spheres, Euro-America, Indo-America and Plantation America. Focusing attention on individual places can enable students to focus upon a wider variety of topics. A study of Guantanamo Bay could involve studying Columbus who landed there in 1493, the British in the nineteenth century and the study of US author Stephen Crane who went there to observe the US Marines during the Spanish-American War.

Alan Rice, University of Central Lancashire, focused on the idea of the Black Atlantic, looking at African-American folk tales and ships as modes of cultural production (instead of merely transportation). These can be explored pedagogically through thinking about the ‘pastlessness’ of the West Indies and notions of freedom that exist through transatlantic narratives, but which did not exist on the plantations. Memorials also offer a useful focus for teaching about colonialism. The Memorial Gates in London, which commemorate the contribution of the peoples of Africa, India and the Caribbean to the First and Second World Wars, is a national rather than a black memorial.

Comparative Politics

David Bewley-Taylor, University of Swansea, presented a case study of a final year module on US drugs policy. A focus on drugs policy is a useful way to engage with ideas of flows across cultures and borders. The drugs trade can be thought of as a multinational corporation and its study straddles disciplinary, national and cultural boundaries. For the module students undertake a 4000 word research paper and a 12 minute presentation. The first federal drug legislation was the 1914 Harrison Act, passed in the context of the US acquisition of the Philippines, and the China opium trade still forms the bedrock of the US ‘War on Drugs’. The War on Drugs situates drug problems in other countries in transition producer states and upon certain ethnic minority groups. This impacts on US relations with these countries including Canada, Columbia and Bolivia. Dr Bewley-Taylor uses the films Maria Full of Grace and Traffic to illustrate some of these issues. Other issues explored in the course include the ‘normalisation’ of the drugs trade in Northern Mexico, and songs and folklore text. Admitted limitations to the course are language issues (American Studies students rather than students of Spanish/ Latin American Studies) and coverage (the Caribbean does not figure strongly).

Lucy Taylor, University of Aberystwyth, explored the depiction of Latin America in textbooks aimed at students of international relations (Dr Taylor is the only Latin Americanist in an International Relations department). She views teaching as a political act and the exercise demonstrates what is considered ‘core’ in IR and what is periphery. Where it is mentioned Latin America is explored a place of economic crisis, corruption and drugs - it is depicted as a dangerous and delinquent place. Moreover, in an arena of the power politics of the UK, USA, USSR, UN, UNAID and the IMF. Argentina is only mentioned in the context of the Falklands War, and Grenada and Panama only in the context of US intervention. Latin America is portrayed as immature, weak and passive by both pro-US and anti-US writers in which the people need saving from either themselves (e.g. Chile 1973) or from the United States. It is a region to which things are ‘done’. It is irrelevant, decontexualised and regarded as a Third World country which serves a ‘pot of evidence for theory’. International history texts give a more comprehensive treatment to Latin America by exploring colonialisation, slavery, racism and indigenous peoples. However, there is a strong focus on the twentieth century and the Cold War, and portrayals of Latin America are often unsavoury. Whilst academics are not strongly encouraged to write textbooks, textbooks do give a strong indication about what is considered ‘core’ and make a contribution to learning about the core US.

At the end of the day James Dunkerley chaired a round table discussion in which participants picked up on several themes from the day. The role of modern languages in American Studies was discussed and views varied as to whether compulsory language study would attract or deter students. Picking up on Lucy Taylor’s paper another discussion concerned the status of courses in Latin America in disciplinary contexts (e.g. politics, geography) where Latin America is often perceived as too specific or is put into modules on the “third world”. The idea of the Caribbean as part of the Americas was also discussed.