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The Latin Tinge

On a recent day in East Hall, students sat in the dark, watching an old, silent film. As subtitles put words to exaggerated facial expressions, Rudolph Valentino—the Johnny Depp of his day—and a handsome woman swirled through a sultry dance.The Valentino film was just one item in a class-long feast of images. Earlier in the hour, students had looked at photos of the slums of early 1900s Buenos Aires, Argentina, and of Paris, circa 1910. They’d also received, on this particular day, a primer on the history of slave and commercial ships, of immigration between Europe and Latin America and the advent of sheet music.

They were learning, of course, about the tango.

The tango? Yes, the dance that eventually became a perfectly respectable national symbol of Argentina and Latin America. A dance that also caught on like wildfire in the United States.The history of the tango is a good example of what students learn in the course, “The Latin Tinge: Latin Music in Social Context in Latin America and the U.S.” Another day, the subject might be the mambo, salsa or some other musical subject.

But they’re learning about even more than music. Created by Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, associate professor in the Department of History and the Program in American Culture, “The Latin Tinge” examines the origins, effects, life cycle and even stars of Latin music—and uses that music in turn as a springboard to explore history and culture. Students learn about the immigrants who came from Europe and, against their will, Africa, bringing with them drum and other musical traditions. They learn, in today’s class, how the working classes, black and white, developed the tango in the margins of societies that did not accept them. But the students also discover that men from the upper classes came into the slums for some tango-flavored entertainment, which changed both the dance and the social classes.

These themes of social justice, urban life, and immigration are just one taste in one class presented in Hoffnung-Garskof’s course. The students also learn about music and rhythm; that dirty dancing did not originate with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey and the surprising connections between pornography, Paris and Picasso.

The result, for Hoffnung-Garskof, is “teaching things important for history classes, but using techniques and ideas borrowed and remolded from other disciplines—for instance, art history, cultural studies, feminist and post-colonial theory, visual studies, as well as film and music.” This multi-disciplinary approach allows Hoffnung-Garskof to “unify themes from different perspectives,” he says, which he hopes will “generate new ways of thinking about things.”

But the professor does more than draw from many academic disciplines. When developing the course three years ago, Hoffnung-Garskof considered how to reach the social-networking, text-messaging, iPod-and-YouTube generation of learners. He did it by creating a website and multi-media course with the help of a grant and some technical wizardry from U-M’s digital media geniuses. The website features some 500 video, audio, archival clips that students can call up, listen to, download onto their iPods—you name it. There are old 1930s black-and-white musicals, African drum performances, obscure music recordings, maps, lists, lecture notes, power points. All available to the students with a mouse click, thanks to U-M’s sophisticated multimedia and computing resources.

Students have “listening” and “watching” assignments, says Hoffnung-Garskof, and their writing assignments are done online and shared with other classmates. This, he says, encourages a kind of cross-pollination learning, not to mention more lively class discussions.

Students also do hands-on learning. In the first unit, students learn about a range of musical influences that came to Latin America from West and Central Africa, and how Africans and their descendants developed these influences into new musical sounds and styles. At the end of the unit Hoffnung-Garskof brings actual musicians into the classroom and gives the students a chance to play a kind of African-Cuban music called rumba.

The result is one of those courses students remember all their lives. They show up for class just to see what they’d be missing. History never looked so sexy. And this historian is more than happy about it.

“I used to think of myself as an historian, but I was freed to be someone first doing an interdisciplinary project,” Hoffnung-Garskof says of the class. “I don’t have to worry that every class has an assignment that looks like a history class.”

Though he has taught courses that were somewhat interdisciplinary before, he says, “this is the first time that, rather than doing a course enriched by other disciplines, I’m actually designing a class that is at its core interdisciplinary.”

All of this sounds great, but does this approach work? Are students learning? Students say yes, and they rave about the class. Moreover, presenting the course material in various formats and with multiple tools “allows students to meet together around an issue, even with different levels of comfort with different media.” Students have access, he says, to lots of “entry points” to the same material—different ways to understand it—which constantly reinforces learning.

Even as he crosses boundaries into other disciplines, Hoffnung-Garskof still enjoys teaching the more traditional “methods of history.” He encourages students to understand archives, historical documents and other traditional facets of the discipline. If they understand their base disciplines first, they enhance their chances of learning from interdisciplinary viewpoints.That combination of hard-nosed, traditional knowledge and the freedom of crossing borders gives professors and students alike a great sense of both seriousness and freedom in their explorations. Kind of like the border-crossing, boundary-breaking evolution of that wondrous dance, the tango.

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