Assessing academic history through the study of Cabeza de Vaca.

For nearly ten years Cabeza de Vaca wandered across the North American continent, surviving as a slave to various Indians and then as a trader and spiritual healer. His story is filled with action, drama, and mystery, and provides a gripping narrative of seemingly impossible escapes. My task this fall was to get my survey students to understand the story of Cabeza de Vaca as more than a thrilling adventure, but also as a laboratory for critical analysis of the cultural collisions that characterized the European invasion of North America. 
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I encourage my survey students to reflect on different methods of presenting historical knowledge. In three assignments, the students evaluate works of academic history, public history, and popular history. We began the series with an evaluation of academic history through an assignment I stole from Rebecca Goetz, who those of us in the historical blogosphere will recognize as Historianess. I’m extremely grateful for her generosity in sharing this outstanding assignment. I like it for several reasons: One, it shifts students’ focus away from the eastern seaboard, bringing early America right into into the backyard of my Houston, Texas classroom. Two, reading both a primary and secondary source so intimately entwined demystifies the process of writing history, revealing how historians draw arguments from sources and make countless decisions along the way. Three, it invites students to reflect how their interpretations differ from another historian’s. 
The assignment asks the student to read Cabeza de Vaca’s Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, the account of his voyage across the North American continent, and then to read Andrés Reséndez’s A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca (Basic Books, 2009). The prompt I offered reads as follows (again, borrowed from Becky): 

In between 1,000 to 1,500 words, assess Andrés Reséndez’s A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca in light of your reading of Cabeza de Vaca’s Chronicle. You may pick one of two issues to focus your essay.
Option 1:  The transformation of Cabeza de Vaca and his companions from slaves to medicine men is a process both Cabeza de Vaca and Reséndez spend a great deal of time discussing. Carefully reread the portions of Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative that deal with the four castaways’ healing abilities, and carefully reread Reséndez’s interpretation of them. Do you agree with Reséndez’s conclusions? Are there alternative interpretations you would like to suggest? In the end, how should historians approach and analyze what primary sources depict as supernatural occurrences or manifestations of the divine?
Option 2:  Andrés Reséndez’s central argument for his book is that the castaways’ “journey thus amounts to a fork in the path of exploration and conquest, a road that, if taken, could have transformed the brutal process by which Europeans overtook the land and riches of America.”  Indeed, Reséndez focuses much of the last chapters of his book on Cabeza de Vaca’s commitment to what we might term a more humane colonialism. Carefully reread the portions of Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative where he discusses his goals as well as his general descriptions of the Indians he encountered. Do you think that Reséndez’s assessment of Cabeza de Vaca’s commitment to a kinder, gentler conquest is correct?

The essays were quite good, but we wanted to continue the conversation, so I asked Andrés Reséndez to Skype with our class so students could ask him additional questions about why he made many of his authorial decisions. Andrés is a remarkable scholar and clearly a skilled teacher as he fielded the students’ questions with enthusiasm and grace. The highlight of the day came when a freshman student exulted, “I really appreciated his point about history being a conversation with the past and the present. That makes so much sense and is much more interesting than what I thought history was in high school.” I think I just might manage to convince him to add a history double major to his engineering degree! 
The assignment taught me an important lesson as well. I have long believed that students are capable of so much more than is usually asked of them. Asking these students, many of them in their first semester of college, to immerse themselves in a fairly difficult primary source and then to engage in critical conversation with an outstanding historian made me a bit nervous, but their excellent performance has encouraged me to raise my standards. 
The students enjoyed the assignment and are looking forward to comparing this academic work with a public history exhibit and a popular historical film. Stay tuned for more as the semester progresses.  

3 thoughts on “Assessing academic history through the study of Cabeza de Vaca.

  1. Ben, this is a great post, and a wonderful assignment — so my thanks to Rebecca as well.

    The nice thing about teaching freshmen is that they don’t have settled expectations about what a college history class is going to be like. For all they know, all college history is taught the way you teach it!

  2. Reading primary and secondary sources in tandem sounds like a great way to introduce students to the production of history, but I was especially intrigued by one of the advantages you only mentioned in passing: shifting attention away from the eastern seaboard. I’d be curious to read in future posts how you balance geography in early American history. Does the sixteenth-century Southwest deserve equal attention with the Eastern Seaboard? How are these decisions made? Regardless, this exercise seems like a step in the right direction.

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