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Building Intellectual Community: The 2009 Latin American and Caribbean History Graduate Student Workshop

June 1, 2009

The Latin American and Caribbean History Graduate Student Workshop, held on April 3, 2009, provided a supportive and intellectually rigorous forum for advanced graduate students to share their original research with faculty members and fellow graduate students. The workshop—first held in 2005 and funded by the History Department’s Colloquium and Speakers Committee since 2008—pairs two graduate students, an advanced ABD (All But Dissertation) and a more junior one, who each present a dissertation chapter or primary-source–based research paper for collective discussion by all the workshop attendees. This year’s workshop featured two papers that explored the relationship among military service, nationalism, and citizenship in early twentieth century Bolivia and the British Caribbean.

  • In “Deserters, Traitors, and Izquerdistas: How the ‘Bad Sons of Bolivia’ Strengthened the State,” Liz Shesko examined the chronic problems of desertion and draft evasion in Bolivia from the introduction of obligatory military service in 1907 until the eve of the revolution in 1952. Drawing on court martial records and government correspondence, Liz argued that experience of mass mobilization and the popularization of a patriotic discourse changed Bolivians’ attitudes about citizenship, military service, and the idea of the nation.
  • Reena Goldthree’s paper, “Fighting for King and Country: Imperial Patriotism, Manhood, and the Making of the British West Indies Regiment,” chronicled the fevered campaign to recruit volunteers from Britain’s Caribbean colonies to serve in the First World War. In her paper, Reena explored how a disparate group of local military officials, colonial bureaucrats, political reformers, and patriotic women activists employed a shared discourse of imperial loyalty, mutual obligation, and manhood to recruit nearly 16,000 men for the newly-formed British West Indies Regiment.

The Latin American Labor History Conference, held annually at Duke since 1993, served as a model for the type of interactive and discussion-centered event that the organizers of the Latin American and Caribbean History Graduate Student Workshop aimed to create. Presenters at traditional academic conferences offer a lengthy oral overview of their research. At the Latin American and Caribbean History Graduate Student Workshop, each of the two presenters begins the workshop by offering a reading and comment on the other presenter’s paper. Then, all graduate student attendees are invited to comment on the two papers. The attending faculty members join the general discussion only after the students have shared their feedback, insuring maximum peer interaction.

The workshop highlights the importance of building and sustaining intellectual community through group functions outside the classroom. It can be quite frightening to share your original research with fellow students and faculty. Therefore, relationships rooted in mutual respect and sustained collaboration are a key to the success of the workshop. Duke’s Department of History has implemented several practices that develop and strengthen these crucial scholarly relationships. Since 2006, the department has sponsored an annual workshop that features research presentations by faculty members and graduate students on a common theme. The annual workshop fosters collaboration and scholarly engagement across geographical, chronological, and methodological boundaries. It also creates an environment in which students and faculty learn to discuss their research interests and current projects as peers. Other opportunities offered by the department include monthly lunchtime colloquia and first Friday social events.

The current cohort of twelve Latin Americanist graduate students and five faculty members has developed a strong sense of collegiality and deep investment in each member’s personal and scholarly development. As a result, students and faculty eagerly participate in events, like the workshop, that highlight current peer research, and they come prepared to offer constructive feedback. Indeed, two colleagues who are currently conducting dissertation research in Argentina and Chile contributed in-depth feedback via e-mail, which Professor French read aloud during the discussion portion of the workshop. It is also important to note that professors and graduate students who work on Africa, Canada, the British Empire, and the United States also attended the workshop, and offered their much-valued perspectives.

The Latin American and Caribbean History Graduate Student Workshop demonstrates the numerous benefits of sharing work-in-progress with colleagues at different points in their career trajectories and with varied research interests. The workshop also serves as an important reminder that useful feedback can come from many different sources, and that research and writing are enhanced by regular dialogue with peers. Presenters Shesko and Goldthree share these thoughts on their workshop experience:

“Attending events like the Latin American and Caribbean History Graduate Student Workshop since my first year of graduate school have provided me with valuable models of scholarly engagement and historical writing. As a presenter in the 2009 workshop, I benefitted from putting my ideas about my initial research on paper and receiving feedback from graduate students and professors from a variety of backgrounds. Hearing attendees’ ideas at this early stage has allowed me to incorporate them into the design of the larger project before I head into the field to complete my dissertation research.”
- Liz Shesko

“It is vital that graduate students at all stages in their doctoral work have the opportunity to share their written work with peers. It is equally important that graduate students learn how to offer detailed, constructive feedback on their peers’ scholarship in preparation for their future roles as teachers. I believe that graduate students in a wide variety of fields could fruitfully employ the discussion-centered workshop structure of the Latin American and Caribbean History Graduate Student Workshop to accomplish both of these aims.”
- Reena Goldthree

—John French, Reena Goldthree, Bryan Pitts, Elizabeth Shesko