Teaching Points– Myrna Santiago on “Cocaine…and US Latin-American Relations”

Editor’s Note: Professor Myrna Santiago talks about her undergraduate history seminar on the cocaine-fueled drug war, the detailed syllabus of which appeared yesterday.

Myrna Santiago, St. Mary’s College

Three objectives drove the development of a course on the drug trade in Latin America.  The first was to revise a course on U.S.-Latin American relations that was on the books and I had never taught.  I wanted to change the class from a standard diplomatic history to something broader.  Saint Mary’s College has only 2500 undergraduates and all Latin American history courses are upper division without pre-requisites, so I design courses that will intrigue students not otherwise interested in either history or Latin America.  Given that the “war on drugs” takes so much air time, I figured a class that looked at U.S.-Latin American relations through the lens of the drug trade would catch students’ attention and still cover the traditional topics covered in such a class.  This resulted in 25 student class that was heavily discussion based, with mini-lectures as necessary.

The second objective was, frankly, to learn about the topic myself. News coverage by its nature tends toward snapshots of whatever happens on a given day.  There is no room for context or analysis, much less for history, in the daily media, so I was quite frustrated by what I did not know and sought to educate myself.  And, as all teachers know, there is no better crash course on a topic than having to teach it!

The third objective was to speak to students’ experience. There is no young person in the United States today who does not have some personal experience with drugs.  Illegal substances are tightly woven into the fabric of American society today, so no one escapes their influence or impact.  Yet, what we know about illegal drugs generally comes from fiction.  For young people, in particular, the source is the movies.  The number of films about drugs or with drugs in them grows every year.  Focused on telling a good story, however, the context in most films is limited to the immediate environment surrounding the main characters.  The center of the genre is the individual; the story is personal. There are assumptions about history and socio-economic and political structures but they are left unexamined.

Thus, the course set out to investigate as many aspects of the drug trade as possible in historical context.  The historical literature is small, however, as historians have started researching the topic just recently.  I selected as many history texts as possible, but the syllabus still relied heavily on other disciplines, particularly since the course focused on Colombia and Mexico, that is, very recent history.  The memoir by Pablo Escobar’s brother, The Accountant, was the main primary source, but Gabriel García Márquez’s News of a Kidnapping showed students a way of doing journalism and introduced them to a different side of the famous Colombian writer as well.

Films were part of the course, naturally.  We watched them in the chronological order of the readings, not of the films’ production.  Discussion focused on questions of representation and structural issues revealed in each film: gender, class, race, ethnicity, nationality, politics, economics.  The idea was to learn how to read film as text, but also to have fun.  I brought popcorn to the showings and asked students to compare the films to each other and to the readings.  The students always had suggestions for more films, but we could only watch so many!  Asking students to incorporate at least one film into the analytical paper reinforced the idea of paying attention to context and socio-political and economic structures.

The War on Drugs: Northern Front

The presentations I dubbed “drugs in the news or the news on drugs” intended to push students to become critical media “consumers.”  Over the course of the semester, students began to recognize subtle bias, how narrow journalistic sources tend to be, and how much is left unsaid in the coverage.  I encouraged students who read Spanish to find sources in that language and compare them to English language media.  For monolingual English speakers, I encouraged them to seek out British or Canadian news sources and compare with US coverage.  The news item presentations were very lively, with students asking more and more questions about the stories their colleagues brought to class.

The first writing assignment had several objectives. Students interviewed someone they knew whose life was affected by drugs.  This was a way for them to tell a personal story, which they love to do.  The students did a bit of interviewing, a bit of journalism, but also created a little archive of primary sources.  They had not necessarily thought about an individual story being a source, so now thought about how oral history or journalism become primary sources and the limitations and advantages of both. At the end of the semester, they had to return to the stories and use them in their analysis, thus putting them in social, political, and economic context.  As a point of discussion and to reflect on the pervasiveness of drugs in American society, I tallied the topics that came up in their papers:  how many deaths, jailings, incidents of violence, plus which drugs were involved. They could use that information, our little unscientific survey, in their analytical papers if they wanted as well.

Photography as a didactic tool.

The photographic exhibit that I organized at the library complemented the class beyond my expectations.  The images were of inmates in San Francisco jail for drug offenses, both men and women of multiple ethnicities (but only one class background).  Each photo was accompanied by a story told by the inmate, an exercise similar to the little oral histories the students had done.  The reception included two presentations.  The first was by the photographer, Robert Gumpert, who talked about the art and his views about drugs and the drug wars.  The second presentation was by a former inmate himself, now a drug counselor.  Attendance at the reception was excellent and the question-and-answer was terrific.  A select group of students went out to dinner with the artist (the counselor could not make it), so the discussion continued for the rest of the evening.

The final assignment, a group presentation on policy proposals could have been better.  The quality of the presentations was uneven.  Some groups were very creative and thoughtful, others not so much.  The classroom technology did not work well that day, so that was frustrating.  Although the students really enjoyed doing the work and presenting images, I have to think more about this assignment to improve the quality of the final product.

The class was quite demanding, but it was truly successful.  The students were really engaged.  Most came out with a much more sophisticated understanding of the complexity of the drug trade, but not every single one. Several demonstrated in their work that they still could not connect the personal/individual to the structural, something I will need to rethink next time I teach this course.

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