College of Liberal Arts

The Best Teachers are the Best Researchers: A Q&A with Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra

Tue, Oct 30, 2018
Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra
Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra

In recognition of his work in mentoring graduate students, University of Texas at Austin history professor Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra has been presented with The Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award. This award commemorates educators that train, teach, and inspire students in a deeply meaningful and impactful way. Cañizares-Esguerra is the first to receive this award at UT Austin.

In nominating their teacher for the award, former students Kristie Flannery, Chloe Ireton, and Adrian Masters wrote:

We nominate Jorge for the Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award in order to honor Jorge’s commitment to mentoring an entire generation of top-tier scholars… They carry with them his new paradigms of historical thinking, as well as his broad vision of global history beyond the field’s conventional constrictions. …In Professor X’s words “I know of no other graduate mentor so invested in their students’ lives, no other teacher who has given so much of themselves to re-imagine what the history of the Americas could be.” As Professor Y explains, “in terms of professional recognition and remuneration, mentorship of graduate students and early career scholars is almost literally a thankless task. And that is why Dr. Cañizares- Esguerra’s unwavering commitment to his graduate students and to early career scholars in the United States, in Latin America, and elsewhere, is so impressive.

To learn more about Cañizares-Esguerra’s studies and mentorship process, read the Q&A below.

 

What sparked your initial interest in teaching history?

I learned that the very process of teaching and conveying information to some captive, yet curious, audiences leads to new knowledge and new questions. The challenge of transforming new knowledge into persuasive narratives and stories clarifies research. There is no new knowledge creation without teaching. The best teachers are the best researchers, I have no doubt about it.

What is the focus of your teaching, and what do you hope to find?

My focus is to challenge and upset deep seated assumptions. I teach Colonial Latin American history, a subject that authorizes all sorts of assumptions about Latin America, known by most students in Texas as “Mexico.” Students assume that “Mexican” colonial history — namely the Spanish conquest — created poverty, underdevelopment, racism and authoritarianism. Colonial history also helps them explain why the United States and, say, Mexico are so different. Allegedly, colonial history left the south perpetually scared. I don’t believe in any of this.

The core of my intellectual project has been to demonstrate in teaching and research the deep formative role of Latin America to the colonial history of the U.S. and to the history of Western modernity as a whole, not just slavery, globalization and capitalism. I introduce students to a region that was the cradle of modern science, abolitionism, republicanism and democracy. I completely invert their narratives and expectations.

What does your mentorship process look like?

I have no formulas or cooking recipes. Mentorship is a profoundly personal relation. Each individual mentee is as world onto themselves. For every shy mentee there is another that is extrovert and self-assured. Both will be stimulated and humbled by the challenges of professionalization and life itself. Honest communication on weakness and strengths should not be paralyzing or inebriating. The experience of failure often is as formative as the experience of success. The loss of self-confidence is just as bad as the lack of humility.

I prompt mentees into taking intellectual risks while sheltering them from making the wrong professional decisions. There are two crucial roles mentors play in someone’s junior career: mentors introduce mentees into professional networks that otherwise would take mentees decades to cultivate, and mentors guide mentees into getting peer review publications in top tier presses and journals. My responsibility is to stimulate folks into thinking big and challenging new ideas.

What was your reaction to receiving the award?

Both happiness and anger. I have taught for 15 years at UT where I have never been nominated for any teaching award because notions of teaching excellence are completely subordinated to student teaching scores that reward popularity. The evidence is overwhelming against the use of student evaluations as a measure of excellence. Hopefully this award on excellence in the mentoring of graduate students that very few U.S. historians have received (9 all together since the award was created in 1992) will prompt some discussion in our institutions of how to evaluate teaching excellence when one is not a white male without an accent.

What do you gain from mentoring students?

Each relationship is a unique, intellectual adventure of sorts. My only agenda is to bring out the best out of every student, gently but firmly pushing them into new, daring, conceptual territories that they themselves probably never thought possible. I grow excited by their success. As they dig deeper into their passions and grow confident in their skills, I am transformed myself. I learn, I explore new fields that I would otherwise have never explored on my own.

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