Dr. Manuella Meyer, assistant professor of history, is teaching one of 30 seminars offered this fall through a new academic initiative focused on first-year students. First-year seminars introduce students to academic inquiry through exploration of specific questions and topics. In Meyer's interdisciplinary seminar, Contested Terrain: U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, students examine the border as a geographical site of cultural contact.
Meyer, a historian of Latin America and the Caribbean, counts among her areas of research the production of space, including the ways spaces are imbued with meaning and narrative.
How does an interdisciplinary approach aid in understanding the borderlands?
The region that is today the Mexico-U.S. border has been a site of cultural contact, national rivalry and economic transformation for more than four centuries. The geopolitical boundary between the two nations constitutes a paradoxical sort of place, one where our usual coordinates of navigation no longer work. It is a hybrid and liminal space that allows new identities to emerge, identities that forge wholly new subjectivities that are increasingly less bound by political geography. Fully appreciating the complexity and richness of the borderlands requires the diverse tools of an interdisciplinary approach.
Why the title "Contested Terrain"?
The region’s unique past has made the U.S.-Mexico borderlands the subject of wide-ranging popular and scholarly treatment, especially focusing on enduring political strife, the blending of cultures, economic exchange, and environmental interdependence. The enduring complications of the geo-political boundary and socio-cultural space have also generated persistent debate about barriers that are continually crossed or transgressed, unable to restrict goods, constituencies, and identities. The title "Contested Terrain" captures the various conflicts and contradictions espoused not only by U.S. and Mexican state interests but also by everyday Americans, Mexicans, and lesser-known actors.
How have your students responded to the seminar?
This class is a great group of motivated and talented students. It is a course that encourages students to grapple with challenging texts that provide multi-layered understandings of the border. Given that the course is a first-year seminar, we focus a great deal on critical writing skills through in-class writing assignments in addition to formal essays. Their reading and writing skills have improved tremendously over the course of the semester. My students are engaged with course materials. Often sending me pertinent news articles, they are able to make connections between class discussions and articles by asking tough questions.
One of the most difficult tasks the seminar asks of students is to abandon or put aside certain stereotypes. Given that issues such as undocumented immigration and the "drug war" are regularly referenced in popular media discussions about the border, it is very easy for all of us to use vague and imprecise language that does not capture the full complexity of such issues or to fall into a given political perspective before engaging in serious critical thinking.
For example, one might employ the word "us" in order to talk about the U.S. and by extension Americans and a "them" to reference Mexico, and as such, Mexicans. However, it is important to recognize that not all residents of the U.S. are American citizens and that those who cross the U.S.-Mexico border are not all undocumented. In addition, those that are undocumented are not all Mexicans. So, discussions about the border require a critical re-examination of language and terms that can allow for a multiplicity of perspectives.
It is my goal that students gain a broadened perspective on the Mexico-U.S. border and an awareness of the ways border politics can be enacted locally — in Richmond, Va. for example — as well as internationally.
Recommend one item from the syllabus.
If I had to pick one, I would recommend anthropologist Lynn Stephen's "Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon." Her ethnography chronicles the lives of Mixtec and Zapotec indigenous peoples who live in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico but leave for extended periods of time to work in California and Oregon. It is an intriguing study about how these migrants not only cross national borders but racial, ethnic, and cultural boundaries within Mexico and the U.S. respectively.