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What do you think about Julia Sweig’s Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know?

By Paul Ryer, Notes & Queries, Seminars & talks, Syllabi & pedagogy No Comments »

Sweig cover photoRecently, the Cuban Research Institute posted an announcement for a forthcoming book presentation (full text here) of Julia Sweig’s new book, Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, Oxford, 2009.  On first inspection, the book seems accessible to undergraduates and fairly balanced, albeit from a North American perspective.  It is structured in a question & response format which betrays the journalistic underpinnings of the approach, and political (or politicised) topics predominate.

My question for colleagues is: what do you think of the book?  I ask because, for years I have used Jules Benjamin’s The United States and the Origins of the Cuban Revolution: An Empire of Liberty in an Age of National Liberation (Princeton, 1992) to help frame the events and politics of the early revolutionary years, but it is now almost 20 years old.  Although I’ve been looking, still have not found a text that comes close to Benjamin for lucidity, detail, dialogism, and an awareness of wider structural forces/context.  (Indeed, IMO Benjamin’s book should be required reading not just in Cuban studies, but for anyone (e.g. politicians) who has trouble understanding nationalistic responses to projections of U.S. power anywhere).  In any case, I am afraid Sweig may be sufficiently accessible to students, and cover both the early and more recent events of the Revolution, but not nearly as well grounded as Benjamin.  Does anyone have an opinion about either of these texts, or have a suggestion about comparable others worth teaching?

“Three Bags Full” by Hermer & May, 1941

By Paul Ryer, Consumption & material culture, History, Syllabi & pedagogy, Tourism No Comments »

Given that many of us earn our keep, at least in part, by teaching Anglophone undergraduate students about Cuba, I thought it would be of interest to share teaching successes.  So, please, if you have a good pedagogical strategy or reading you’re willing to share, post or send it to me to post.

Personally, I have had great luck with this short reading: “Three Bags Full,” by Consuelo Hermer & Marjorie May, Random House, NY, 1941, ch. 2.  (Unfortunately, had to lower the scan quality a bit to fit into ethnocuba’s media library; it is also available under the title “What to Wear” in the out of print book Havana: Tales of the City, ed. by Miller & Clark, 1996).

Taken from a 1941 travel guide for North American tourists, I’ve found that students–aside from the occasional one who takes the reading as a literal prescription of current Cuban fashion–not only are relieved to read something on the lighter side, but that ultimately the piece leads them to raise their own questions about the nature of US influence on pre-revolutionary Cuban culture.  For many undergraduates, then, this article moves indigestible concepts like “hegemony,” “colonialism” and “imperialism” into realms of couture, daily life, tourism, etc, in a way that follows the old dictum: “show, don’t tell.”   If you do try it, let me know how it works with your own students.

Call for Syllabii

By Paul Ryer, Syllabi & pedagogy 3 Comments »

Thanks to Kaifa for this syllabus.  Surely many of us teach courses or sections of courses about Cuba.  Please, please take a moment to upload any appropriate syllabus, or send it in an email attachment to etnocuba@gmail.com.  Or, if you find it helpful to compare syllabi and have found a particular reading or two to be especially effective pedagogically, please at least take a moment to add a brief comment to this post!

Here is the syllabus from a course I taught last year on revolutionary Cuba.  It was an upper-level undergraduate course at Mt. Holyoke College, so I was able to expect a fair amount of reading, but no previous knowledge of any sort.  I would love to see Ethnocuba become a forum for sharing syllabi and discussion of what has worked in different contexts, as well as what could have gone better…  Indeed, there were a couple of articles on this syllabus which were especially productive even though they were not well known, while there were a couple of books I likely won’t use again.  Anyone up for a discussion, or willing to post their own syllabi?  Always great to learn about resources that work, pedagogically…

–PR

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