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.

Teaching Politics of Central America

At the start of the year, before I left New York to conduct field work, I bagged a rather excellent teaching assignment for the fall semester. A long-forgotten course listing, entitled ‘Politics and Government of Central America,’ was collecting cobwebs in the Hunter College catalogue. I would have the chance to dust it off – if any students actually signed up.

I can’t imagine that many universities offer a course just on Central America, and specifically on the politics of the region. This is certainly one of the benefits of teaching at a big public university; the diversity of the staff and students translates into a call for diversity of curricula.

Having said all of this, almost as soon as I received the course assignment, I started to wonder how I could possibly put together a whole syllabus on the tiny region. My impulse was to take a looser definition of Central America, and to sneak some Mexico, Cuba, and other corners of the Caribbean into the course. The more I thought about it, however, the more this felt like cheating. Central America itself – that twisted isthmus linking north to south – gets only patchy academic attention as it is. If I truly considered myself lucky to be teaching the course, I could at least honour that by giving all due attention to the region itself.

This proved easier said than done. Of the scant academic attention that Central America does receive, most of that – especially in political science – is hogged by Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua (with Honduras often thrown in, but rarely the focus). Costa Rica and Panama get shunted to the side as relative regional outliers. Belize is often forgotten completely.

Most of the scholarly work on Central America that I already knew focuses on conflict and war in the 80s, or on organized crime in recent years, so these became the bookends to the syllabus. The course covers the period from the Nicaraguan Revolution (1979) to today. The focus is going to be on processes of transition away from authoritarianism and towards democracy, and the many, many difficulties of such transition.

In my course on Terrorism, I dedicate a week to the place of women in armed groups. That feels appropriate there, given the glaring absence of attention to gender in so much scholarship (perhaps the worst offender is Gurr’s book ‘Why Men Rebel,’ which just takes it as a given that the men do the rebelling). For the Central America course, however, it would have felt rather tokenistic to have a single week on women and/or gender. I have endeavoured instead to make sure women authors and voices are included throughout, and that there will be regular chances to discuss gender.

I have also tried to include a lot of perspectives from on the ground in Central America, rather than just from that often aloof political scientist vantage point. In some cases this means that we read the accounts of participants, and it means I have another pretext for talking about Rigoberta Menchu. I wonder, however, if my proclivity to read up-close anthropological and journalistic accounts may have skewed the syllabus a little too far towards the perspective of international visitors, and away from local voices. Some of the first names that I wanted to include were Jon Lee Anderson and Salman Rushdie. I resisted the urge to include Joan Didion on Salvador, but a Martha Gellhorn essay appears in a case study of Panama. Excellent and illuminating authors, but all with the great privilege of some distance. At least Anderson can make a strong claim to being genuinely embedded in the region; I don’t think Rushdie, Didion or Gellhorn could claim any such thing.

As always, the finished syllabus feels a little too provisional. I have to tamp down the feeling that some crucial texts are missing. What I plan ahead of time is only something of a frame for the actual content of the course anyway. I don’t get to determine the real content ahead of time; that only comes out when me and 34 students are in a room together (yep, students signed up).

Teaching terrorism

This semester I am teaching a course on Terrorism at Hunter College. It’s about as close to an ideal course topic as I can get (given that The Coffee and Doughnuts of New York City isn’t a widely recognised political science topic), and it made for an interesting end to the summer, as I put together a syllabus.

When I was first assigned the course, it was called ‘Terrorism and National Conflict’ – an old course listing, that I could dust off and revise. I was told that I needed to make sure the course didn’t overlap too much with other courses, including an International Relations course on Terrorism that the department offers. I took this as a chance to put together a course that was less focused on a terrorism/counter-terrorism, here-is-a-problem-how-do-we-solve-it perspective, and more focused on questioning some of the assumptions about how we define and categorise terrorism. A comparative, constructivist kind of approach to teaching terrorism.

Designing a course around a concept that you’re simultaneously trying to deconstruct has its challenges. The first couple of classes of the course will focus on picking apart our assumptions about who and what terrorism is, but most of the course is going to be dedicated to trying to reconstruct some semblance of scholarly knowledge. If we should be suspicious of the way that some people and groups are labelled as terrorist, then upon what can we ground the study of terrorism?

A partial answer might come by giving attention to those directly involved in terror and violence. Towards this end, I have dedicated one class to looking at justifications for violence, and a few classes to looking at why individuals participate in violence. Perhaps more importantly, I have included some first-person narratives from those most closely connected to violence, such as Che Guevara’s reflections of the inauspicious beginning of the Cuban Revolution, and Rigoberta Menchú’s account of state terror in Guatemala.

I finished up the syllabus for this course at about the same time as the protests in Charlottesville, during which a member of a white supremacist group ran down protestors, killing one and injuring more. After the attack, a huge amount of debate focused on whether the act would or should be called terrorism. Here was the kind of contention over interpretation and naming, that I was trying to examine in this course, but here also was a further challenge: having focused on the idea of deconstructing terrorism as a stable category, I now faced a situation in which I felt the use of the label was warranted. Was I still prepared to stand by the syllabus, and my whole approach to the topic of terrorism? I’m going to try, but I am also going to bring my uncertainty about this to the class discussions. If anything, I think this uncertainty means that we have a topic to which it is worth dedicating a semester.