Reflections on teaching Politics of Central America

I considered myself pretty luck to have the chance to teach an entire course on Central America this semester. The course did not disappoint; every space on the roster filled, and twice a week I shared a classroom with a great group of students. Their questions and perspectives on the course material kept me on my toes, and I learned a ton over the course of the semester (I think the students might even have done the same).

There are probably semesters in which Central America never makes the news in the U.S., but this was certainly not one of those semesters. As the course commenced, the Ortega government in Nicaragua was cracking down on protests, and looking more and more like the regime that Ortega had once overthrown. The trial for the alleged assassins of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres started and then stopped and then resumed in the weeks surrounding our class on activism by indigenous women, including Cáceres. Right after our class on corruption and impunity in Guatemala, the Guatemalan president announced that the country’s commission on impunity would shut down next year. The migrant caravan that started in Honduras made headlines throughout the second half of the semester, covering the weeks in which the course explored security, crime, and migration. We had quite a bit to talk about.

Having said all of this, I think I would revise the course in a few ways, if given the chance to teach it again.

First, the students wanted to know a great deal more about U.S. intervention in Central America. I certainly expected that we wouldn’t be able to talk about the region without addressing U.S. involvement, but I think I fell into the political science trap of too often taking each country as a discrete little unit. I was also self-conscious about not being American, and thus not wanting to appear to be trashing the U.S. too often. As it turns out, the students had plenty of criticisms of their own, and an endless supply of questions.

Second, I wanted to give due attention to Central America, and so deliberately did not focus much on broader Latin American context. I think I missed a trick here; although it was great to dive deep into the seven countries of the region, there are too many important connections to ignore. Talking about revolutionary movements in Guatemala or Nicaragua is almost impossible without addressing the influence and inspiration of the Cuban Revolution. And poor Belize often ended up isolated or an afterthought, where attention to the Caribbean would have situated the country as very much a part of the constellation of ex-British colonies.

Third, the lightning talks. What to make of the lightning talks? As a minor (but mandatory) course assignment, I had students give a very short talk: 3 minutes with one slide on the projector, then one question from the class. On one hand, students seemed very reluctant to sign up for these. On the other hand, they did a great job with the talks. Much better than my first attempts to model a lightning talk. So would I use these again? I prefer assignments that give students some latitude in how they participate within the classroom. Then again, I think lightning talks involve mastering really difficult skills (that more professors should try to learn). I am inclined towards making lightning talks one of several options that students can choose for assignments, in future courses.

One final thought: this course allowed me to draw upon a lot of fantastic recent reporting and scholarship on Central America. One particularly powerful example of this work was the very last reading for the course: Alice Driver’s The Road to Asylum. This article got students speaking that had barely ventured a word all semester, and brought some students to tears (it even brought students to tell me that it brought them to tears). I wanted this to be our final reading precisely because it is such an affecting read, and because it captures an essential thread of the course: the bravery and beauty of the people of Central America, in the face of almost impossible hardship.