Skip to content

Gran Baile! And a Conference Too…

First things first: We are having a Dance/Gran Baile on Saturday night (2/19) at the Cla-Zel with a band from Cleveland (Sammy de León y su orquesta), and the event is open to the community. Feel free to invite friends and help us this thing go viral by posting on facebook, blogs, tweeting, chirping, shouting, emailing, etc.

This is part of the 10th Ohio Latin Americanist Conference, organized by the ICS Latin American and Latino/a Studies Cluster. More than 100 scholars will present their work All events except the Luncheon are open to the public and students. Don’t hesitate to direct students to any panel or the Friday night documentary (excellent to discuss immigration debates!) or the conference in general.
The webpage is and it has the most updated information.

Powerpoint in the history classroom

Last night I gave a short talk on how I integrate GIS in my history research. It was in Ruth Herndon’s Historians in Academia graduate class.  Hugo Evans led a terrific discussion on the use of technology in teaching, research, and the profession in general. The last point of the meeting was on the use and abuse of powerpoint (right after my powerpoint-based presentation). Hugo rightly pointed to the pitfalls of powerpoint presentations and the vocal proposals to ditch the slide metaphor entirely.

Interestingly, a number of graduate students were in favor of  using the blackboard, or showed interest in emerging presentation technologies such as prezi or devices that capture handwriting and project it on the screen, as a way to circumvent the loathed slide. This is in line with broader criticism of Powerpoint for being “slide-constrained” and “lineal” (see, not suitable for kinetic learners (is that static?), and conducive to passive (instead of active) learning.

More guided by a spirit of debate than the apology of a proprietary technology owned by our most beloved software corporation, I present here a few points in favor of using powerpoint, and learning how to make an effective use of it, instead of reinventing the wheel.

1) In Five Principles to Avoid Powerpoint Overload, Atkinson equates powerpoint presentations with storytelling. He recommends a story-board approach to Powerpoint, understanding each slide as stages in an argument (the slide as the basic unit of meaning, a sort of topic paragraph), rather than discrete units full of information (all you can dump in the blank space of a slide). I like this idea. Stories are a good way of communicating problems. Slides are linear expositions, sure, but so do narratives. and while we must be conscious of their limits and push the boundaries, they are still an effective way of communication. Most of historical writing, in that sense, is as linear as a powerpoint presentation.

2) offers an alternative form of presentation: a canvas that you can zoom in and out at will. The problem of Prezi is that metaphors work  *only* if we’re used to the metaphor. I like the poster format, and for presentations like we had yesterday, they work. Inscribing hieroglyphs on walls are also a terrific way of communication, I can count a lot of interesting teaching and learning properties, but both  teacher and students have to share the same conceptual matrix for understanding for learning to be effective. For good or bad, we are more used to slides or to blackboards (everything displayed at the same time)  than to zooming things.

3) A lot of the criticism against powerpoint is based on the effectiveness of capturing the attention of the audience in just one presentation. But a course is a different beast. It’s a course, something that happens over time in repeated sessions.  You’re not teaching today and want to make impression today. You want to cement practices and structures of acquisition of knowledge, and this happens over time. Using powerpoint today, prezi next week, a webcam of your handwriting three weeks later, then chalkboard is bad practice. (I’ve done that, so I’m talking from experience.) You’re not trying to make the best impression today for having the audience buy your product.

4) I sympathize with the vintage quality of the blackboard. But let’s be mindful of accessibility. If powerpoints use good contrast and large-size fonts, powerpoints are way more accessible than black(white)board with all the contrast, lighting and handscript issues associated to it. To put it in another way: blackboards encourage active learning in the first row, kinetic involvement in the middle rows, and what’s the heck is going on over there at the end of the classroom.

5) And just for the sake of being polemic, let me defend the use of text… Text in a powerpoint must be scant. Yes. But there’s a case for using a bit more text at some points (provided that the accessibility and the slide-as-an-argument conditions are met). Having “subtitles” to your presentation is not too bad from an accessibility point of view. (Being a non-native speaker perhaps makes me extra-aware of accessibility issues related to oral presentations.)

6) There are ways add kinetic and active-learning properties to the hated slide. First and foremost, the presenter has to  interact with the presentation (such as Al Gore). Using hands, gestures, knocking on those hard screens we use, etc., is not the same as the kinetic joy of the chalk on the blackboard, but it’s not that bad either. You can also try beforehand if you can erase your marker from the screen (if it’s a hard screen), and interact with the presentation using a marker. Or have students go to the screen and make marks on the screen.

Powerpoint as software is bad in that it defaults to bullet points, uses small text, and encourages flashiness over conceptual substance. Bad software generates bad habits. And that’s a terrible combination when there’s no critical awareness of the work we do and the limitations of the metaphors (or theories) we employ.

But we can work within the slide presentation framework, improve it, and use it to foster learning in our history classes. Because, essentially, we can think of powerpoint presentations as a support to narrative, and if there’s something to be proud of of our profession is how we learned from flawed approaches to narrative and how we learned to to deal with them. Especially in history classes, in which narrative and story telling plays a central role, there’s a case to use powerpoint presentations and improve on them to make them good tools of learning.

Interesting links on Haiti

In my Modern Latin America class I am paying a lot of attention to the unfolding of the Haiti crisis. I do so primarily because of the magnitude of the tragedy, which we cannot ignore. It also illustrates well some of the key problems in the history of Latin American societies, such as state building, economic development, the social origins of natural disasters, “bouncing back” from disasters and civil wars. In any case, in the last few days I came across two interesting blog posts that I want to share.

Sachs’ piece on Project Syndicate focuses on the long reconstruction. I think he’s right on in pointing to small-scale peasant agriculture as a key sector to target in reconstruction. Agricultural development is also an area in which humanitarian organizations such as Oxfam have more expertise and strength. It may seem odd to propose on agriculture as a reconstruction strategy for victims who were primarily in the capital city. But as Sachs point out the economy will be very simple during the reconstruction stage and agriculture can become the fall back option for many displaced Haitians. I would add that agricultural development is the traditional strength of international humanitarian organizations (see this very interesting post by Duncan) and probably requires less coordination effort than urban reconstruction.

A recent post by Duncanin From Poverty to Power points out the importance of politics and civil society in reconstruction, relying on the parallel of Mexico’s 1985 earthquake. I think it is an apt parallel, in that (despite the differences) the earthquake prompted the emergence of vibrant grass-root organizations that have played a central role in the democratization of Mexico. This is not to point out what may happen, but instead how power relations can shift dramatically under these conditions. Duncan’s emphasis on strengthening the state is also right on, in my opinion:

In Oxfam’s experience, only state capacity, regulation, and a large degree of state provision, can guarantee universal access over the long term, but this lesson can easily be lost in the pressure of short term financial horizons and the ‘just do something’ urgency following a disaster.

History 3010: Modern Latin America (Syllabus)

Here’s the Syllabus of my Modern Latin America course (History 3010). Enjoy!

Guerrero, the genesis of crime

Here’s a translation of selected excerpts of Julio Guerrero, La Génesis del Crimen (1901), which I am using in History 3010: Modern Latin America. Credit is due to Liz Becker, an M.A. student in History and Spanish in BGSU, for the translation.

The original version, in Spanish, can be retrieved from

“The Political Economy of Hunger in Bourbon Mexico”

I’m happy to announce that I was awarded a National Endowments of the Humanities’ Fellowship. The purpose is to conclude my monograph during the year 2010-11.

I would like to thank my students, undergraduate and graduate. I drafted the proposal while teaching Famine and the Origins of the Modern World, and Modern Mexico. Both classes are closely related to the subject of my project and prompted me to always keep an eye on the big picture and down to earth. Thanks also to my department, FRC and the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society (ICS) (including our Latin American and Latino/a Studies Cluster) for supporting my research and providing a vibrant intellectual atmosphere at BGSU.

Preliminary Syllabus for Modern Latin America

I have enclosed in this posting a preliminary organization of classes and readings: 3010 preliminary syllabus.

All the references to chapters are from Tulio Halperín Donghi’s Contemporary History of Latin America (CHLA), available through the bookstore. If interested on why I chose this book (originally written in the 1960s and revised c. 1992), see my previous posting. All the other readings are available through Ohiolink or will be placed in the e-Reserves.

The logic is quite simple. There are three units: the first on independence and neocolonialism (1800-1930), the second on the quest for autonomy and the incorporation of new political actors (1930-present), the third is an research group project on a topic of your choice, based  on your own independent research.

The first two units are organized around CHLA: on Tuesdays we cover a CHLA chapter, on Thursdays we discuss a journal article paired with a primary source. As we approach the end of the term, the reading assignments decline so you have more time to prepare your group project. Assessment of these units is based on three components: participation; weekly, one-page primary source analysis; and a midterm and final exam.

Unit #3 is a group project that runs throughout the class. The goal is to prepare a professional, well-informed product on contemporary Latin America that is up to standards, is useful for your career goals, and incorporates historical thinking. The product is related to your career ambitions and interests. Groups are required to prepare preliminary reports on week 4 and 9, deliver a short presentation in week 14, and turn in a 10-page report or equivalent in week 16. Project options range from reports on foreign relations, investment opportunities, social and environmental conditions, to the preparation of a documentary or an on-line exhibition of visual and textual material. Reports are addressed to a well-defined audience (e.g. a senator in the foreign relations committee, an NGO, an international organization) and presents an in-depth analysis based on research, and gives the audience certain possible courses of action (the senator should support XYZ because of ABC). Documentaries and exhibitions are tailored to the general public, contain a clear message and have similar research requirements. Assessment is based on the final product and the presentation.

In total the reading load is equivalent to four books, which is the standard for 300-level History classes: CHLA, 10 journal articles or book chapters, 10 short primary sources,and the equivalent of one book (or five journal articles) per group member for the final project.

I’m all ears for comments, suggestions or questions.

Modern Latin America (Hist310): your thoughts?

Next Spring I will teach a new edition of History 310 (3100!): Modern Latin America, which covers, umm, Latin America from independence to the present day. Yes, the entire region, 20+ countries, complex histories, in one class. Believe it or not, it works.

As I plan the class, I wanted to sound opinions on two matters: the textbook and reading assignments.

The textbook

My intention is to use Halperín Donghi’s A Contemporary History of Latin America (link and preview here). The author is one of the most important Argentine historians, and besides the big name he’s insightful and amazingly learned. It was originally written in the sixties, when many thought that “Hope was on the way” hand by hand with the Cuban revolution and other popular movements criss-crossing the region. The author revised it for a 1992 edition with a much more sober outlook on where the region was heading. That is, beyond being a well informed book, it is also a product of its times, which works well in a class on —history.

The textbook, however, is tough. Halperín is known for packing complex ideas in one huge sentence with tons of subordinates. It was also thought primarily for a relatively informed Latin American audience who would know some of the basics. The translator and editor, historian John Chasteen, made a terrific work of making the text accessible as a survey textbook without betraying the original insights.

You can tell, I’m very fond of this text. But if you think it’s a bad choice, please don’t hesitate to post your comments and let me know why you advice against (or favor) using it.

Reading Assignments

My preference, given the times and the scope of the class, is to assign readings from academic journals accessible online through your library account. That has the benefit that students do not spend outrageous amounts on books, but on the other hand it makes assignments more confusing and is clinically proven that leads to schyzophrenia. Also, some articles are more accessible than others. Some articles deal with state building, others with women’s rights, other with soccer and society, Samba, etc etc etc.

I’m still pondering whether I will assign the textbook and three books, or the textbook, one book and articles. Your thoughts on this issue would be greatly appreciated.


“The house is in order”

I can’t think of a better homage to Raul Alfonsin than just remembering that Easter day in Argentina. Tanks were passing by a few blocks from my house, but all the attention was in what was going on in la plaza de mayo. 

For a good recount of the holy week of 1987, see

The global slump

It’s 1930 time: Krugman has an interesting post citing a recent paper by Eichengreen and O’Rourke comparing the present-day global slump with 1930. And they find it’s worse.

Skip to toolbar