Bridging National Borders in North America: About the Institute

In recent years, the dramatic rise of the Latino population throughout the United States, controversies over cross-border migration and trade, and the reexamination of the fraught connections between the nation-state and history as a discipline have imbued the study of borders and borderlands with heightened salience. The past fifteen years has seen the publication of a number of focused studies set in the contemporary northern and southern borderlands of North America, examining processes of imperial and national territorial incorporation from native, Mexican-American, Métis, and transnational perspectives. In more recent years, a growing body of work has demonstrated the centrality of Asian migration and the attendant controversies it generated to the politics and border policies of Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Perhaps most importantly, scholars of imperial and national borderlands are starting to conceptualize their work in much more comparative terms, as studies of parallel and often connected processes of nation-building, rather than as discrete and particular regional dynamics. Borderlands studies thus have emerged from their conceptual cradle—New Spain’s northern frontier—to serve as an analytic concept for illuminating not only the contemporary U.S.-Mexico border region but also contact zones across the wider North American continent and beyond.

The Newberry Library’s Dr. William Scholl Center for American History and Culture will host a four-week summer 2014 NEH seminar for college and university faculty that will explore the history of North America’s border and borderlands. In keeping with the recent work in the field and the collection strengths of the Newberry Library, this seminar will take a broad geographic approach, framing borderlands as distinct places at particular moments in time where no single people or sovereignty imposed its will. The organizing theme is the process of border-making. We will examine three aspects of this theme: how nation-states claiming exclusive territorial sovereignty re-drew the continent’s map; the intersection and sometimes collision of these efforts with other ways of organizing space and people; and the social and political consequences of the enforcement of national territoriality. Two questions will guide our examinations of these developments: how did diverse peoples challenge national borders, or use or alter them for their own purposes? And, how does consideration of these topics recast our understanding of the national and intertwined histories of Mexico, the United States, and Canada?

The seminar’s format, readings, and guest scholars have been selected with the goal of bringing together participants with diverse scholarly agendas into a common conversation. Although four weeks is hardly enough time to achieve comprehensive coverage of the field of borderlands studies, the readings and guest faculty do encompass the leading questions of the field, provide a breadth of temporal and geographic coverage, and offer different vantages on researching borderlands (including the Newberry’s fine collection). The seminar thus will provide participants with deep engagement with leading scholars and recent scholarship as well as with the key sources necessary to advance their own research. NEH Summer Scholars in this seminar should have an ongoing project that directly relates to some aspect of the history of borders and borderlands in North America. Projects may be at an incipient or advanced stage; treat native, French, Spanish, Russian, British, Mexican, Canadian, or American borderlands; may be methodologically oriented at history, art history, literature, anthropology, or native studies; and may be curricular or bibliographic as well as scholarly. Participants will interact with the seminar director, invited faculty, and Newberry research staff in seminar sessions that take place three mornings a week and during individual conferences and informal lunches. Afternoons and weekdays where no sessions are scheduled will provide the opportunity for participants to engage in sustained research in the Newberry’s collection and to meet with the seminar director and visiting faculty.

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