Things my teachers taught me…..

visit to an elementary school in la habana


I am going to take advantage of these final days in the States to provide some more foundational information on myself, my academic background and my interest and experiences in Cuba.  I am compelled to start this process with a post on my most memorable teachers, as I anticipate I will refer to them often throughout this blog.  In no particular hierarchical order, here I go:

“Be passionate about what you do”
Linda Janus, William Fremd High School

I think it is a safe assumption that most adults in general, but certainly most academics, have one specific teacher from their childhood they remember fondly, who made a lasting impression in some way.  Linda Janus, my junior year US History teacher, was mine.  I was in her classroom when our principal came on the PA to announce the 9/11 attacks, and the only time I ever saw a room full of teenagers actually INTERESTED in history.  Mrs Janus certainly had a gift as a teacher, her spirit was contagious and she was widely liked, but none could doubt her true passion for the subject as she referred to President Lincoln as “Abey Baby” and prattled on and on with stories and facts about our nation’s history.  Back then, I was set on my life path to become a lawyer and take on the world, but I remember thinking how lucky she was to be doing something she so clearly loved! Four years later as I stayed up nights debating whether I should be filling out applications for Law School or graduate school for history, my mind drifted often to the days in her classroom.

”Never underestimate the power of storytelling”
Professor Jonathan Brown, University of Texas at Austin

I hope not to offend Professor Brown that this is the lesson I chose to include for him.  After all, he and Dr Frank Guridy are the men responsible for my Cuba obsession and the subsequent destruction of all my life plans involving law school.  I kid, of course, as I could not be happier with my career choice and LOVE what I do!!  But I digress…

Besides his fantastic wit and dynamic teaching style, my fondest memories of the courses I took with Dr Brown while at UT were the stories he told, particularly in his Cuban Revolution course.  Nearly 5 years later I still vividly remember most, and “borrow” them often in my own lectures.  I have noticed how quickly you can regain the attention of an audience by simply shifting from “lecture” to anecdote. It has been a highly effective tool for teaching, and I am personally grateful for the wealth of details I learned from these stories.

”Keep an open mind”
Dr Chris Bell, University of Texas at Austin

I would honestly be surprised if Chris even remembers me… but I also doubt any of his students could so easily forget him.  I took one Geology course with Dr Bell my junior year of undergrad.  While I had a difficult time masquerading as a scientist, I found Geology incredibly fascinating.  Yet many things I learned from Chris were not particularly science-based.  (As I side note, I find it difficult to this day to refer to professors by their first names, yet Dr Bell insisted on the first day of class that we call him Chris.)  As extra credit questions on our Geology exams, he would include US geography map quizzes, remarking on how limited the geographic knowledge of most US students is, a theory strengthened at mid-term when one UT student correctly identified the state in which he attended school but labeled it “Texis”.  It was clear, however, that Chris did not feel confined by his discipline, and allowed any variety of topics to be discussed and debated throughout the course.  I particularly remember a lecture in which he discussed “collectors bias”, a geological idea referring to the fact that samples analyzed are inherently biased as they are samples from one geographic location as opposed to another, depending on where the specific geologist took his or her sample that day.  In the spirit of cross-disciplinary cooperation, I frequently use the term in referring to gathering evidence or researching in my own field.

”Question everything”
Professor Louis A Pérez, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

After finishing my graduate program, I think that the old adage “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear,” should be abolished.  It is my philosophy, as I shared just yesterday with my godsister as she sat reading her AP Colonial US History textbook, that you must question EVERYTHING.

In addition to Professors Brown and Guridy at UT, Dr Pérez at UNC is responsible for my fascination with Cuban history and all things Cuban.  In all likelihood, there is not a Cuba scholar in the country who is not familiar with his work.  I consider myself very fortunate to have studied under him while in North Carolina.  These courses had the most intense/aggressive/intimidating syllabi I have seen to this day, and I lost many nights of sleep attempting to complete the reading assignments and papers, only to go to class and leave thinking I had done everything wrong!  I would develop clever approaches to the material and try to come up with critical theories and angles only to have him immediately pose a hypothetical question that knocked it right down.  This was even more true when reading sources that seemed clear and straightforward to me, as Dr Pérez insisted that if you are reading something and believe it is an unbiased author, that only means that you and the author share the same biases and therefore you need to question it more and force yourself to recognize your own personal biases.  While incredibly frustrating at first, I also find it refreshing as a historian to be able to say that no matter how many times you have examined a source, an idea, a time period, there is always something you have not considered.  There is always a way to look at what you thought was right and tear it to shreds.  (Quite possibly I am making this into a positive to avoid breaking down in tears every time I take on a new project and realize it is futile to try to cross every t, dot every i, because I will always miss something…and I pray Dr Pérez never reviews one of my books…..)

”Always strive to improve your writing”
Professor Nancy Mitchell, North Carolina State University

There were several times throughout my MA Thesis draft process that I wondered what I was thinking when I asked Dr Mitchell to be on my committee.  After 2 years and as many US Foreign Policy seminars with her at NCSU I knew her greatest academic passions- besides Vance and Brzezinski- were Cold War policy and PERFECT writing.  I will reluctantly share my experience from a Halloween party two years ago where I spent half the evening on the verge of tears or borderline hysteria over a paper re-write: I wrote what I believed was a good draft of an article on President Carter and the exile community in Miami and sent it to Dr Mitchell for review.  The track changes that came back in the Word document overwhelmed the body of the paper itself.  I felt so defeated I began to question whether I even belonged in academia, as I was clearly a poor excuse for a writer (an integral element in the life of a historian).  Yet, once I calmed down and really looked over her comments I was able to make the appropriate changes and submitted a great paper! (if I do say so myself…)  It later became my first published article and my writing sample for PhD applications.  This learning process did not exempt me from similar instances as I submitted draft after draft of thesis chapters the following year, but again, the end result was worth the sleepless nights.

There are times I feel the world would be better-suited if we had more high school English teachers… as the basic writing skills of the average undergrad are abysmal, to put it mildly.  One of the first lectures I ever prepared was a 1-hour workshop on proper historical writing and the benefits of being able to formulate a coherent sentence.  Thanks to Dr Mitchell, I will always be conscious of my writing and strive for perfection.

(As a side note, I am clearly not submitting polished works of academic mastery in this blog, I will save my energy for the book….)

”Teachers can be our friends!”
Professor Richard Slatta, North Carolina State University

As a student, the things I learned from Dr Slatta are innumerable.  However, for the sake of this post I will mention that this Professor not only chaired my thesis committee, served as my academic advisor and consistently offered constructive criticisms and advice pertaining to life as a graduate student as well as my later career as a professor, but also became a valued mentor and good friend.  I am afraid I will never be able to sufficiently express my gratitude to Rich for his help over the years.  However, as a professor I will strive to follow his example with my own students, always keeping an open door and an open ear.

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Of course, there are dozens more whose names I will never forget, who have made a lasting impression on my throughout my academic career, who have helped me learn to form opinions, challenge ideas, and never be afraid to think outside the box.  To all of you I am “eternally” grateful.

Message of the Day: Thank your teachers!!!

What are the chances of me finding a Longhorns fan in Centro Habana?
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Countdown: 2 Weeks!!!!

Universidad de la Habana

After a fantastic gathering yesterday with family and friends, I am now officially at my 2 week mark before my departure to Cuba.  This means taking care of those last pesky tasks on my “To Do” list and setting up my blog page 🙂

This Blog started as an idea as a means to keep my family updated on my adventures in la habana while I am out of the country and, as so many of my ideas do, has rapidly gotten away from me.  While I recognize my focus will evolve often throughout my time on the island, here are my basics thoughts so far:

-As an academic-

Being fully aware of the silences that plague Cuban history, or more accurately all historic accounts, I hope to use this background to paint a detailed picture of my themes free from common omissions.  I will attempt to examine my surroundings from all angles, and, when I feel as if I have exhausted all possible approaches I will stand on my head or walk backwards if need be, in an effort not to miss any significant, insignificant, boring, fascinating, life-changing detail of Cuban life.

-As a “US American”-

I fully recognize that my fascination with and passion for Cuba are not shared by the majority of my fellow Americans or even my fellow academics…just as I have little interest in US Colonial, Medieval or French History (my apologies to some of my friends back home in academia!). However, it is a rare occasion that I mention that I am a Cuban Historian to friends, colleagues and strangers in the US and am not immediately bombarded with questions, unsolicited theories and opinions or personal stories about memories of the Bay of Pigs, parents honeymooning in Havana before the travel restrictions began, great-grandfathers who fought in the “Spanish-American War” (again, as I promised to avoid politics in this blog I will refrain from attacking the absence of Cuba in reference to this war in American textbooks!), or family members who were born on the island and for a myriad of personal and political reasons are now living in the United States.  Yet with all of the dialogue that has resulted from my career choice, I recognize that an overwhelming majority of the people I engage with have never and will never traveled to Cuba, for obvious reasons….*some restrictions apply*.  Indeed, barring dramatic changes on many fronts, most of my family, friends and colleagues will never witness the lush green topography of Pinar del Rio, experience the energy of Carnival in Santiago de Cuba, or feel the weight of history crashing upon them while walking the streets of Habana Vieja.  Yet I hope the words and images I share here will add dimension to the typical US understanding of the island and people I have grown to love.

-As a teacher-

Anyone who knows me well, or has talked to me for more than 10 minutes, will tell you that I will find any opportunity to begin talking your ear off about all things Cuban: how the history of the island shaped modern US foreign policy, backgrounds of the Miami community, the history behind revolutionary reforms, and the rich and romantic stories of Cuban historical actors and heroes, both past and present.  I am happy to inform, debate, speculate, anything to get people thinking about one of our closest neighbors that is so often forgotten in the American mindset.  Since for the foreseeable future I do not anticipate being able to give one of my “Cuba Lectures” via phone or Skype or over a Single Malt at a local Blues Bar (….tear 😦  ), consider this blog your “Question and Answer” Forum.  Please ask questions, comment, speculate, whatever you feel compelled to do!  Again, keep in mind this is a social/cultural-based blog, NOT political, so avoid any obvious political tangents if possible.  Also please keep all this PG, as there are children in my reader audience!!!

-As a daughter, sister, cousin, niece, aunt, godsister and friend-

I always feel like at some point all this “Cuba stuff” will just *click* for each of you, and you will maybe have some understanding of why I abandoned my Law School path and moved across the country to pursue a career in Cuban history.  If my enthusiasm has not yet convinced you, maybe the stories and images I share here will….

A Day in Marianao