Syllabus for “Introduction to Latin American Studies.”

Every year I teach an “Introduction to Latin American Studies” course at PSU, which is designed to meet the needs of both International Studies majors and General Education students. Because of the learning objectives for our general education program, I include assignments that focus on group work and oral communication. But the general structure of the syllabus may be helpful for others about to teach the class. If you are interested in Brazil, you might also want to see my own book on military terror in that country. Shawn Smallman, Portland State University:

Global Perspectives, Latin America

University Studies, UNST 233/INTL 240

   Tuesday, Thursday: 11:00-12:15

  Cramer Hall, 228

Professor Smallman

Rm. 345, East Hall

Phone: 503-725-XXXX

E-mail: XXXX


Office Hours: Monday, Wednesday, 9:00 am to 10:00 am. Other times are available by appointment.




With Latinos/as now the largest minority group in the United States, and Brazil’s economy larger than Britain’s, Latin America is attracting considerable attention in the United States.  While its people struggle to preserve the region’s artistic, literary and cultural heritage, Latin America also is experiencing rapid political and economic change. This class explores the rich diversity of peoples, histories and cultures that together define Latin America.  This class will also give you a foundation from which to choose classes in the Global Studies cluster, if you decide to pursue it.  Bienvenidos! Sejam Bemvindo!




The course texts are available in paperback at the Portland State University Bookstore.


Charles C. Mann, 1491

Shawn Miller, Environmental History of Latin America


To save funds, students may wish to obtain these books from the PSU library or a branch of the Multnomah County Library.  PSU students also have borrowing privileges at other universities in the Portland area, such as Reed College.


Mentor Session:

All students, whether they are taking this class under the UNST or the INTL prefix, are also required to register and participate in the class’s mentor session, which is an integral part of the course.


Basis for Grade:


Group Music/Art Report (25%):

Students will break into groups of three to four in order to collectively present a report on a particular form of Latin American music or art. If they choose to focus on music they might examine samba, tango, mambo, cumbia, merengue, mariachi, tejano, forro, corridos, ranchera, etc. If they choose to study art, they might discuss either a style (the muralists, surrealism) or an artist (Remedios Varo, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, etc).  For students who choose to focus on music, they will first research a musical style, and provide a brief history and description of this form. They will then provide a brief review of two albums or live performances. What makes this particular album or performance interesting?  How does this album/performance fit into the larger context of the style?  How does this particular form of music capture/reflect an aspect of Latin America’s culture or history?  After a ten minute oral report, students will then play one or two selections from the album for the class.  Students may choose to purchase the albums for this assignment, but the Multnomah County Library has many CDs of Latin music, and local music libraries are also a good resource.  A great deal of music is also legally available online. For students presenting on an art style or an artist, they will be expected to place the art in a broader social context in Latin America, and provide a brief history of the work. They will then need to present key pieces to the audience with a commentary. There is a strict time limit of fifteen minutes for all presentations.


Participation (25%):

Students’ participation is essential to both their experience of the course, and the success of the class as a whole.  Participation does not mean just speaking in class.  It means doing the assigned reading, participating enthusiastically in small group exercises, and listening to fellow students with respect. Participation in mentor session will be the major component of this grade. Please note that all students must enroll and attend a mentor session, whether or not they are taking the course for University Studies.


Book Review (25%), due week five.

Students will write a five-page book review of one of the assigned readings for the course. The paper will be double spaced, with one-inch margins, no font-size larger than thirteen, and no spaces between paragraphs. Each paper must have a separate title page, with the student’s name, the professor’s name, the title of the assignment, and the date. The papers will be uploaded to Dropbox.


A book review is not a summary of the work, although you will have to provide a brief description of the book for the reader.  Instead, the key question any book review asks is what is the author trying to do, and how well do they do it?  The book review then analyzes interesting questions raised in the work, problems with the book, ties to other issues raised in the course, etc. . .


Response paper (25%), due at 5pm on Monday, December 3rd, of exam week:

Students will write a response paper to a question that will be posted to D2L at the start of week ten. The question will be based on both the lecture and the reading. The paper must be uploaded electronically to D2L.


University Studies: Many students will be taking this course as a University Studies class, to fulfill their general education requirements.  “Introduction to Latin American Studies” is one of the general education courses you may choose to take following Freshman Inquiry.  If you transferred to PSU as a sophomore this may be your first University Studies course.  Introduction to Latin American Studies is followed by a number of other courses, in a cluster called “Global Perspectives.” If you decide to continue into this cluster, you would choose three courses within the cluster, after completing this course. Of the several University Studies general education goals, we will focus on extending your communication skills, both written and oral, the diversity of the human experience as well as critical thinking.


Late policy: late assignments will be penalized (except in case of verifiable illness or family emergency) three percent for each day that they are late, including weekends, up to a maximum of thirty percent of the final grade. This applies to both group presentations and papers.



Plagiarism is the submission of another’s work as your own, or the submission of the same work in two separate classes. It is also a serious academic crime. Any instance of plagiarism will result in an automatic “O” for that assignment. If you have questions about what is plagiarism, please ask either your mentor or I.




True academic inquiry must proceed at its own pace.  Accordingly, the order of these topics may be changed, and we may not cover all of them. But we will begin by discussing Latin American culture and art, followed by key aspects of Latin American society, including social change and revolution, before finishing with an examination of the region’s ties to the United States.


Week One, September 24th-28th:


Introduction to the course.  Latin America Quiz.  Map exercise.


The literature of Latin America


Week Two: October 1st-5th


Film: Music in Latin America.


Class Discussion: Mann, pp. 193-227 (chapter six); 228-270 (chapter seven), 273-279, 300-314 (selections of chapter eight).


Week Three: October 8th-12th


Mexican Art: Frida Kahlo


Exoticism: the Problems of Understanding another Culture.


Week Four, October 15th-19th:


The group music and art presentations will begin today, with two to three presentations a day until complete.


Religion and the Church


Week Five, October 22nd-26th:


The group presentations will be completed this week.


Slavery and Race.


Week Six, October 29th-November 2nd:


Populism and the Perons.


Class Discussion: Miller, Environmental History of Latin America. Entire work.


Week Seven, November 5th-9th:


The Mexican Revolution


The Cuban Revolution


Week Eight, November 12th-16th


Venezuela: The Rise of Hugo Chavez and the Latin American left.


Mann, 1491: chapters three (pp. 68-106), four (107-148) and eight (315-349)


Week Nine, November 19th-23rd (note that Thursday is a holiday):


Foreign Influence: Panama and the U.S.


There is no class on November 22nd, because of Thanksgiving.


Week Ten, November 26-30th:


Brasilia: the Making of the Brazilian capital.


Contemporary Events.


The Response Paper is due by 5pm on Monday, December 3rd, at the start of exam week. The papers must be uploaded electronically to Dropbox in D2L.


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