Using tools for self-reflection, this border-studies expert helps Arizona students examine their beliefs about the Southern border of the U.S.
Assistant Professor of Border Studies, The University of Arizona
PhD and MA in Literature (Cultural Studies), BA in English Literature and Spanish
“I’m in the Spanish and Portuguese department, but I don’t teach language,” says Anita Huizar-Hernández, PhD. Though her class is taught entirely in Spanish, her field of expertise is Border Studies, which explores the physical and metaphoric contact zones between countries, drawing from the social sciences and humanities.
“I teach literature and cultural studies,” she says, in summary. “I examine how narratives—both real and imagined—have shaped the landscape of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, particularly in Arizona, in terms of culture, politics, and economics.”
In a class called Los Arizonenses: Issues in Mexican and Mexican-American Culture, she guides students “to explore the past, present, and future of Arizona through media and expressive culture, such as maps, music, newspapers, short stories, films, photographs, oral histories, novels—a wide variety of texts.” Its goal? “To investigate how different communities within the state portray themselves and [to] compare those portrayals with the official history of the state,” she says.
Huizar-Hernández, however, has a loftier goal: to challenge (and change) the biases of her students. “There can be contentious moments [in class],” admits Huizar-Hernández. “But by the end [of the semester], most [students] can see a change in themselves,” she notes. “Their personal relationships with Arizona change. They feel ownership that they haven’t experienced before.”
She hopes her students will, ultimately, use what they learn to build metaphoric bridges, ones that link the very real human beings who live, work, laugh, and love on either side of the divide. In her class, it begins with a clever assessment of their current state of mind.
Challenge: Controversial topics, cultural biases
A Story of Border Deception and Intrigue
Huizar-Hernández is so passionate about the culture of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, particularly in Arizona, that she wrote her dissertation about it. She has subsequently written a book, Forging Arizona: A History of the Peralta Land Grant and Racial Identity in the West (Rutgers University Press, 2019), which centers on a bizarre court case from the 19th century. It highlights the jaw-dropping lengths to which people have gone to secure a land grant in the state. (Spoiler alert: Falsifying documents and fabricating people were part of the scheme!)
Like many educators, Huizar-Hernández wants her students to experience an aha! moment—an insight that changes their worldview or, at minimum, deepens their level of understanding. Huizar-Hernández’s SPAN 433 class provides the perfect platform. But to accomplish this, Huizar-Hernández looked at several pedagogical problems.
“One of them was what to do with the first day of class,” she relates. “When I teach in the fall, it’s usually very hot. The students are sweaty—hostile, sometimes. Some professors just hand them the syllabus and let them go early. I was trying to decide what is the best way to introduce a class. What information do they need to have, and what’s the mindset I want to start cultivating?”
Also, her course covers a number of controversial topics. She wanted to gauge where students stood, culturally and politically, on the first day. This would help her anticipate the tone of future discussion and frame the material in a way that would be most productive. “It’s hard to know what students are bringing to the class,” she explains. “Sometimes students can turn off when they are confronted with material that conflicts with their own beliefs.”
Lastly, for many students, the 16-week course can go by in a blur. Huizar-Hernández wanted to provide an opportunity for them to take a breath and reflect on the class experience and what they have actually learned.
She wanted to create an exercise that would address these first-and-last-day issues in a way that helped students get to that final aha!
Innovation: Creating a mirror exercise using word clouds
“[Los Arizonenses] explores the past, present, and future of Arizona through media and expressive culture—maps, music, newspapers, short stories, films, photographs, oral histories, novels, a wide variety of texts. It’s not a history course; it’s a cultural studies course. Its goal is to investigate how different communities within the state portray themselves and [to] compare those portrayals with the official history of the state.”— Anita Huizar-Hernández, PhD
Huizar-Hernández’s word-cloud exercise is part of a general teaching strategy she refers to as mirroring. That is, she bookends the class with two similar (mirrored) exercises. The first one shows her where students are, and the second shows students how far they have come.
The initial premise is straightforward: On the first day of class, Huizar-Hernández submits a questionnaire, with inquiries designed to elicit students’ impressions of Arizona’s culture and the issues its citizens face. She then inputs the students’ responses into the online program Wordle to construct a word cloud. This provides a visual representation of the class’s answers, with the most frequently occurring words shown in larger type (so the common themes visibly stand out).
This word-cloud exercise addresses her objective of “understanding student attitudes” from the semester’s outset. But it has a different purpose at the end of the semester.
During the last week of class, Huizar-Hernández surprises students by having them repeat the exercise. Then they compare the two word clouds. Students can easily see which ideas were top of mind at the course’s inception and which concepts now predominate after weeks of study.
The result is visible proof—in so many words—that the class has experienced a change of heart and mind.
Frequency: Two 75-minute class meetings per week or three 50-minute class meetings per week for 16 weeks
Class size: 28
Course description: Study of the culture, history, literature, and oral tradition (corridos, legends) of the Mexican and Mexican American.
SPAN 433 Los Arizonenses: Issues in Mexican and Mexican-American CultureSee materials
Lesson: Mirroring and the “word cloud” revelation
For an educator seeking to adopt a similar approach, Huizar-Hernández offers these suggestions:
Craft the questions carefully
While a brief questionnaire may seem simple to create, Huizar-Hernández put a lot of thought into hers, so it would achieve multiple objectives.
For instance, a word cloud works best with single words, not phrases, so Huizar-Hernández’s prompts are designed to elicit one-word answers. She also made sure that her queries targeted the main themes of the class—and, because the class is taught entirely in Spanish, she asks for the answers in Spanish as well.
The queries she decided upon are:
- ¿Cuáles son las primeras tres palabras que vienen a la mente cuando oyes la frase “la historia de Arizona”? What are the first three words that come to mind when you hear the phrase “Arizona history”?
- ¿Cuáles son las primeras tres palabras que vienen a la mente cuando oyes la frase “Arizona hoy en día”? What are the first three words that come to mind when you hear the phrase “Arizona today”?
- ¿Cuáles son las primeras tres palabras que vienen a la mente cuando oyes la frase “la comunidad arizonense”? What are the first three words that come to mind when you hear the phrase “the Arizona community”?
She advises considering your own objectives carefully beforehand—being open to adjusting the questions in future semesters, if needed.
Be a bit mysterious
Huizar-Hernández does not tell students how she will be using their answers to the questionnaire. She does not elaborate, even when students seem confused by the phrase “the Arizona community” or by the exercise in general. “I just ask them to list whatever words come to mind,” she explains.
She also advises keeping the students’ responses anonymous. In fact, even she does not know which students are connected with which terms. This allows students to be more honest and objective.
Review the responses
Huizar-Hernández uses the word-cloud graphic to guide her approach to instruction for the remainder of the semester.
“The word clouds are really interesting,” Huizar-Hernández says. “I can see whether the students are all over the place or whether certain concepts are really jumping out at them. The words tell me what angle students are coming to the material from.”
Regarding Arizona history, students typically will use words like “desert,” “empty,” and “cowboy.” “Very rarely do they use words like ‘Mexican’ or ‘Spanish,’ even though Arizona used to be Mexico,” Huizar-Hernández notes. “Even more rarely do they say ‘Native American,’ and they almost never name specific tribal nations like ‘Navajo.’ That gives me a sense of what narrative they have internalized about Arizona’s past.”
When she asks about Arizona in the present, she can sense the students’ political leanings. Sometimes, the recurrent terms are “neutral”—words like “multicultural” or “diverse.” However, she has noticed that the current media stories affect these responses. “Sometimes students use words like ‘tense,’ ‘politics,’ or ‘immigration.’ Or ‘racist’—I’ve gotten that one before.” And students share their impressions of the physical environment, too. Word choices such as “big,” “freeways,” or “modern” pop up often.
Sometimes students will not have a lot of words in common, she notes, making the dominant terms harder to discern. Other words are a given. “They always will say caliente [hot],” Huizar-Hernández observes.
Point out the patterns
On the second day of class, Huizar-Hernández presents the initial word clouds to the class (one for each question), while the questionnaire is still fresh in students’ minds.
“I ask them what surprises them about the word clouds,” she says. “And I use that conversation to plant the seeds for how we’re going to deal with the impressions they have raised, especially about Arizona in the past.” Typically, students are caught off guard when they realize no one has brought up the state’s Spanish or Mexican past.
Use other mirroring exercises, too
Using TED Talks in the Classroom: "The Danger of a Single Story"
Here, an example of a TED video that Huizar-Hernández recently shared with her students. This talk is presented by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Ndichie.
The word cloud is not the only thing that Huizar-Hernández revisits at the end of the semester. For example, she uses a TED Talk in her mirroring approach, too.
“TED Talks are short, and they typically have guiding questions,” she says. After first showing the video, she uses those guiding questions over the course of the semester. “Then in the last class session, I’ll show the TED Talk again, and we discuss everything—the word cloud and the TED Talk and the guiding questions and the various texts that we read—in terms of how [students’] understanding has changed.”
Put students’ insights to practical use
Throughout the semester, Huizar-Hernández references the initial questionnaire and word clouds, right up to the final project. In this last assignment, the student interviews an individual—a family member, an acquaintance, a public figure, or anyone else who has lived in Arizona—then produces and presents a creative work based on that interview. This end product can be anything from a video to a sculpture to a poem. Students get the experience of being storytellers, and they have a chance to recognize where their own biases affect the stories they tell. With their final projects, students can address the gaps that the first-day word clouds point to, portraying marginalized communities whose stories are so often left out of dominant histories of the state.
Leave extra time for the second questionnaire
Huizar-Hernández’s final surprise for her students comes at the end of the semester, when she hands them the follow-up questionnaire. Again, she does not tell them about this questionnaire ahead of time because she feels she gets more objective results by keeping it a secret.
What she has discovered, though, is that collecting terms at the beginning of the semester takes less time than it will at the end. On day one, students do not yet know what the class is about, and coming up with three words for each question is more of a free-association exercise.
“At the end of the course, they are much more cautious about their choices,” she says. “They think, ‘Oh, I know so much now. How can I boil it down to three words?’ The words that were conspicuously missing at the beginning of the class show up at the end. Students may still be talking about diversity, but their idea of what diversity means is a lot richer.”
“There can be contentious moments [in class],” admits Huizar-Hernández. “But by the end [of the semester], most [students] can see a change in themselves,” she notes. “Their personal relationships with Arizona change. They feel ownership that they haven’t experienced before.”
“[Los Arizonenses] offers a chance for students to explore alternate visions of what the state could be,” she adds. “Most of the students are from in state, so they get something very personal from the class.”
Huizar-Hernández has been teaching the class for four years. Student responses continue to be diverse. “I have students who say they are surprised to find out that Arizona even has a history,” she says. “A lot of them tell me they never got any of this kind of Arizona history in school before.”
“Latino or Mexican-American students often say they have felt, in the past, as though they didn’t belong here, or that people have made them feel foreign,” she adds. “And now they can point to specific reasons why that’s not the case.”
Here are some of their responses to end-of-semester evaluations:
“I learned so much about the history of Arizona and I am actually surprised of how little I knew previous to this class.”
“I liked how the course focused on Arizona. I also liked how the course did not require any examinations but rather motivated us to apply what we had learned in class to essays, creative projects, as well as presentations and think critically about said information.”
“This course was interesting, unique, and engaging. It was clear how much our professor cared about the material and wanted us to enjoy class. She also organized outside trips and speakers, which is not something I had before experienced.”
“Almost every day, we did something different. I was rarely bored in class. I appreciated how we used a variety of learning techniques and had a wide range of assignments.”
“I couldn’t help but feel like I was a part of the history and a part of the struggle because [Dr. Huizar-Hernández] made it so real for us.”
Perhaps this course evaluation from a former student captures the potential impact best:
“Thank you for teaching me more about Arizona. I will go out in the world and teach others about our state.”
We have just one word for that: maravilloso (wonderful).