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Three Professors Complete ‘Bridging Historias’ Project to Add Hispanic/Latino History and Culture to College Curriculum


West Windsor, N.J.Since Fall 2013, three Mercer County Community College (MCCC) professors have been pursuing ways to enrich the curriculum in their respective disciplines with new lessons about the Latino/Latina experience in America.  As part of “Bridging Historias,” a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Professors Gianna Durso-Finley (Sociology), Craig Coenen (History), and Daniel D’Arpa (Spanish) attended six full-day seminars at the City University of New York (CUNY) with colleagues from more than 30 community colleges from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

The professors say they got an opportunity to hear from leading experts, collaborate with instructors at other schools, and do lots of homework that will pay off with concrete results in the classroom.

“Bridging Historias” culminated in a final conference at the CUNY Graduate Center on May 8.  Participants presented new teaching materials and shared ideas one last time.  Durso-Finley and D’Arpa participated in a poster session, with Durso-Finley presenting a poster drawn from a new lesson in her Introduction to Sociology class using census data to explore New Jersey's Hispanic populations, while D’Arpa’s poster focused on a proposed curriculum for a course on Hispanic/Latino culture and film.  Coenen participated in a panel discussion entitled “Using Primary Documents and Film to Teach Latino/a History and Culture.”

According to Durso-Finley, the seminars in 2013 were led by the CUNY team, which offered sample lessons and suggested readings.  As time went on, the heavy lifting shifted to the community college participants.

“The community college faculty began doing presentations about lessons they were working on and demonstrated them for each other,” she said.  “The ideas ranged from a single lesson within a course to infusing an entire course with Latino material.  Some colleges are creating whole new majors in Hispanic studies as a result of this project.”

Durso-Finley created a weeklong lesson using census data to look at Hispanic migration patterns in New Jersey.  “We looked at the data in terms of gender makeup, access to jobs, and education issues.”  Using Mercer County as their base, students selected a second New Jersey county and compared the data.  “They learned quantitative and research skills as they considered why different patterns emerged between their two counties.”

Coenen’s lesson focuses on Cuba and Latin America.  “We looked at primary sources related to the history of Cuba and Latin America around 1850, a period when the United States was struggling with slavery.  One approach American politicians considered was to annex Cuba and continue slavery there.  “It was not feasible, but it was taken quite seriously at the time,” Coenen said.

He estimates that in the two U.S. History courses offered at Mercer (HIS 105 and HIS 106), there are numerous lessons that would benefit from the addition of Hispanic and Latin American history.

D’Arpa, MCCC Coordinator of World Languages, had a specific curriculum goal in mind from early on.  “My objective was to modify and update the curriculum for MCCC’s Hispanic Culture course (SPA 110), which has not been offered in recent years. The past course was a survey of all aspects of culture for several Spanish language countries.  I plan to narrowly focus the course on Latinos in America that will blend some aspects of sociology along with films that capture the Latino experience,” he said.

D’Arpa believes that students will find this type of enrichment relevant.  “We will facilitate opportunities for Mercer students to appreciate Hispanics’ contributions to our country's history and current culture.  I have gotten personal satisfaction from this project because I am Hispanic and it gave me a chance to connect with peers on topics that are part of my personal history and identity,” he said.

Durso-Finley added, “The message we heard is that it’s key to incorporate Latino/Latina history and culture into our curriculum because it is such a huge part of the American experience.”

Said Dean of Liberal Arts Robin Schore, who served as Mercer’s administrative sponsor for the project, “Having attended several Bridging Historias sessions, I was impressed by the richness of the scholarly presentations, not to mention the commitment and creativity of Professors Coenen, D'Arpa and Durso-Finley.   They did Mercer proud."

Professor of Sociology Gianna Durso-Finley displays a poster about her new lesson in New Jersey's Hispanic population during Bridging Historias' final conference.
Daniel D'Arpa discusses his new curriculum for MCCC's Hispanic Culture course during a poster session.
Professor Craig Coenen discusses a history lesson in which his students used primary source materials.
The May conference featured keynote speaker Vicki Ruiz, of the University of California, Irvine, whose talk was entitled “Why Latino History Matters.”
From left, Professors D'Arpa, Coenen and Durso-Finley explored online activities during the project's demonstration lessons phase last year.

CUNY will be publishing a compilation of all the lesson plans developed by participants that will be available for distribution – in English and political science, as well as history and sociology.

Coenen, D’Arpa and Durso-Finley say their next step will be the introduction of their newfound perspectives and ideas at Mercer.  The three plan to host a workshop for faculty members across the disciplines during pre-class week in August.  “Our goal is to continue the conversation around the college,” said D’Arpa, who notes that this focus is in keeping with Mercer’s commitment to diversity and global education.

Coenen adds that this project is just the start.  “You can look at the struggles of other immigrant groups too.  Many groups are underappreciated and under-represented.  Each one ties into our country’s narrative.”

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