Histories of the US/Mexico Border

just one example of Neatline and Omeka map showing the history of the border

Every history course I teach ends up feeling timely for some reason or another and yet I don’t think I’ve ever taught a timelier course than my history of the US/Mexico Border. In this post, I’m going to talk about what I tried to do and what I think worked well. Future posts will address specific assignments, technologies, and the things I will change next time I teach this class. This is a course I could go on tinkering with forever.


The basic structure of the course consists of two parts: history and practice. The readings mostly follow a chronological progression while moving somewhat westward across the border region, but they also oscillate between the Southwest Border and the US/Midwest.

Historical Learning Objectives

  1. To recognize that the way we now see the US/Mexico Border does not reflect the way the border has always been, and that in the process of getting to now there were moments when the border could have looked very different.
  2. To understand how the settling of the US West and the Mexican north were both processes of settler colonialism in which a number of different imperial ideologies of race and gender lived together (and continue to live together) uneasily. Corollary: Racism does not always work the same way in all places, but racist ideologies in one part of the country tend to migrate.
  3. To recognize the importance of Mexican history, Mexican-Americans, and particularly the Mexican revolution, in the history of the United States.
  4. To learn how borders work. What is a border, and how is this different than a borderland or a bordered land? How are both kinds of entities constructed across time and space? Is there always a clear distinction between the two? What kinds of community do they produce, and what kinds of exclusionary practices help maintain borders? [note that I am not doing a great deal of theorizing about borderlands in this class, because I think this is something other disciplines can do better, but I do like students to get familiar with these concepts.
  5. To understand that borders create border crossings inherently.
  6. To understand particularly how the industry of border policing grew out of this history of empire and forced labor, and now generates its own militarized momentum.
  7. To consider how the processes that built and maintain the border have effects on the rest of the United States, using the northern Midwest as a case study.

Contemporary Learning Objectives

  1. To apply the historical lessons from the class to here and now in whatever way students feel motivated to ask questions.
  2. To understand how maps code information and make social and historical arguments.
  3. To begin to use quantitative and qualitative research to answer social questions.
  4. To gain exposure to software that scholars and businesses use to ask and answer demographic questions, and to think about the kinds of borders that these tools help create.
  5. To think critically about how the Northfield and Carleton communities are constructed and to do some research into the distribution of power, wealth, and access in these communities.
  6. To learn about the migrant communities that live here, with an emphasis on Latinx communities.
  7. To ask students to consider how to create useful knowledge that can be applied in their communities.

Is this a tall order?

Absolutely. Doing this in 10 weeks is a phenomenally difficult task. Of course not all of these learning objectives can be achieved to the same degree. You will note that many of the learning objectives are intentionally about starting points in the conversation, not mastery of a subject. And yet I think this is one of the strengths of the course. I gave students a lot of different ways to engage with the material intellectually and practically, as you will see in future posts.

Number 1 bit of advice: Sacrifice readings and discussions if you need to. I never regretted “sacrificing” discussion time of academic readings for other kinds of class work because the students really learned a lot from these moments.

Number 2: Bring in Experts. Thanks to the Mellon Public Works grant I received, I was able to bring in a visiting scholar of Latinx communities in the Midwest, Dr. Sergio González to talk about his research and his experiences as a scholar. I also brought in a local city council member to talk to students about local issues. Thanks to a fortuitous bit of timing, the college also brought two alumni who work as immigration attorneys to campus during the term and I had them come talk about the work they do and give career advice to students in the class. I also brought students to the Perlman Teaching Museum to look at their special collections.

Number 3: Bring in the Highly Trained Professionals! I could not have done this class without the experts helping me. I am not as proficient in ArcGIS as the professionals hired to teach and use these tools on campus and I do not keep up to date with the latest timeline or data mapping software. If there are people on campus that do this as their job, bring them in, either before or during class. Before term started, Academic Technology Professionals and Reference Librarians helped me design the class and choose the tools we would later use. MOST CRITICALLY, the Mellon grant also allowed me to hire a student technology associate as a teaching assistant on the course. This student did not have familiarity with the academic course content but was familiar with mapping racial and economic divisions from her own research. She did not attend my class but worked during the term to create technology tutorials, did on-call troubleshooting and also held one-on-one consulting sessions with groups and individuals as the project came due.

Students really thrived. The class of twenty often felt like it had the most space and room for play in discussion and workshops of anything I was teaching at the time. I think part of this was due to the enthusiasm of the students and the particular alchemical mix of the term in which I taught this. However, I think it also had to do with the way I framed the course and offered space for students to engage with new ideas and new technologies.

Some Logistics:

The course met Mondays, Wednesdays, and a shorter Friday period, and most Wednesdays we ended up doing some kind of practical exercise, inviting visiting expert, or doing group work. This structure in particular gave students a lot of time to interact with each other rather than me, and broke up the rhythm of discussion in productive ways.

Outside of class, students completed weekly journals that allowed them to engage more privately with concerns or personal reflections on the course. This let me keep track of individual students and allowed students to practice different kinds of writing and thinking before sharing ideas publicly.

Group projects were due at the end of the term but we started doing group work almost from the beginning with discussions and brainstorming of ideas for research. Group work began with a charter the students had to complete by week 3. See the group charter I used here. I will be discussing this in greater detail in the next post.

The course had a midterm that asked students to contextualized one of the readings or passages from the readings in a historical map with background information. Students used Omeka and Neatline to place their historical vignette in space and time. This integration of spatial and temporal thinking was a fairly brief assignment (easy to grade) but helped link the first half of the course with the second, more contemporary and practical half.

Finally, and this is something I will write about more extensively in the future, I gave students as many ways to engage in the course as possible. Some students love talking, some only express themselves in office hours, some really responded to mapping, some really preferred more traditional academic work. Group work with clear delegation of roles helped students find their best fit for the final project and also allowed groups with different levels of interest or experience to coexist. I had a group that spoke Spanish and wanted to do interviews and site visits to places in the community, but didn’t spend as much time on their maps. Others really delved into census data and used Tableau to map their data extensively. Both projects worked really well in the context of the course.

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