The Challenge of Thinking Historically

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Alejandro Reyes Arias, Latin American Studies

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2005

Problem: The course I was teaching was an introduction to Latin America, covering five hundred years of history, culture, gender, politics, etc. Because of the vastness of the subject matter, both in terms of time and space, the greatest difficulty the students seemed to have was internalizing the differences in geographic and, especially, historical contexts. As a result, it was very difficult for them to understand the different mindsets that permeated each of the various epochs discussed, and they tended to view them through contemporary eyes. This resulted in views that were dualistic and that failed to see the subtleties and the play of ideologies that informed each of the historical periods covered. The challenge was to get them to think contextually and to help them avoid making a priori judgments from the perspective of their own values.

Teaching Method: I divided the class in small groups, each of which would represent a different historical character: a conquistador in Cortez’s army, Bartolomé de las Casas, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Domingo Sarmiento, a 19th-century runaway slave in Brazil , José Marti, José Vasconcelos, Subcomandante Marcos. The various characters had been kidnapped from their contexts and transported to Berkeley in 2004 to participate in a Conference on Latin America, to debate the future of the continent and to discuss issues of race, identity, gender, economy, sovereignty, nationhood, culture, etc. All of them had enjoyed a few-hour session with our course professor, who had given them an overview of everything that had happened in Latin America since their time. With that information, yet obviously carrying with them their own views, ideologies, and knowledge, they would debate the issues above; I would serve as the conference moderator. I started by asking questions about specific historic events covered in the course, which would provoke different reactions. It did not take long for the debate to become very lively. It was challenging to act as moderator, by directing the conversation to different topics likely to challenge them ideologically and by not letting the more vocal students monopolize the discussion. At first, the students tended to respond in ways that lacked depth and were too stereotypical (e.g., the “evil” conquistador, the meek slave), and had considerable difficulty enacting more contradictory characters such as Vasconcelos. It was also difficult for them to situate themselves within a particular context without letting their own values and ideas interfere. I constantly tried to push them to think in more complex ways by confronting them with difficult questions. I would also occasionally shift my role from moderator to GSI, to bring in more contextual information or to have us reflect on a particular point of view, and we would have a brief debate as students and GSI before going back to our roles. These small interventions contributed greatly to enriching the discussion and bringing complexity to it, by giving the students a chance to critique each other in their interpretation of their respective roles. The time flew and everyone enjoyed the exercise.

Assessment and Results: The point of the exercise was not only to contextualize the various characters enacted but, more importantly, to learn to think in a historical manner. During the next weeks, I would evaluate this skill (and reinforce it) by constantly questioning new learning in terms of its broader context. I noticed a significant change in both their ability to discern historical contexts and their understanding of the importance of thinking historically and avoiding their own biases.