Dain Borges, Associate Professor in HistoryBy William Harms
When students do historical research on Latin America, Dain Borges often reminds them they can pick up the phone and call people in the country they are studying and get their perspective.
“I have students who are studying the 20th century, and plenty of the people who lived through the events of that century are still alive,” said Borges, Associate Professor in History. “As a historian, you have to look at all kinds of documents, including those you can gather from talking with people. I’m a believer in eclectic sources,” he said.
Oral history may sometimes be fragmentary, sentimental or biased, but it will always provide surprises, he said. The telephone calls can supplement the students’ archival research in Latin America, he said.
“I suggest that students talk with a wide variety of people during their fieldwork. I tell them not to shy away from any evidence that would challenge what they think is right,” he said.
He also encourages students to try to understand events from the perspective of the people and culture they are studying. “Too much of the work in area studies after World War II tended to look at Latin America as a problem case. I want students to start by assuming that people everywhere have good reasons for the decisions they make,” he said.
Looking at historical issues from a variety of perspectives helps strengthen student work, Borges said.
He also tells students to look for what he calls “unpaid research assistants,” individuals who have chronicled events in the past but may not be considered traditional historians. Someone who gathered data for police reports, for instance, may have accidentally amassed a wealth of information about social life.
While helping students to learn how to study the details, Borges also encourages them to grapple with the bigger picture.
“One of the common traps hsitorians fall into is preparing explanations limited by national boundaries,” he explained. A student studying Venezuela, for instance, might be tempted to explain the country’s politics through the vantage point of the nation’s oil wealth, if not challenged to compare other countries with similar political institutions but no oil reserves, he said.
“I also challenge students to rethink big nations through the viewpoint of smaller ones. I am from Puerto Rico and I often propose that students try to understand Brazil through that perspective.”
Both Puerto Rico and Brazil have much in common, he explained. Both began with plantation economies, both had high levels of immigration, and both later experienced rapid industrialization.
Borges joined the faculty in 2001 after serving as an associate professor in history at the University of California, San Diego. He received his A.B. in 1977 from Harvard University in Hispanic-American history and literature and a Ph.D. in 1986 from Stanford University in history.
His research focuses on 19th- and 20th-century Latin American culture and ideas. His current research project, “Races, Crowds and Souls in Brazilian Social Thought, 1880-1920,” centers on the ways in which Brazilian intellectuals used race sociology and social psychology to understand popular religion and politics. Borges teaches seminars and courses on Latin American history, comparative 19th-century transformations, ideologies of national identity and culture in the African Diaspora.
His teachers in graduate school and college taught him to appreciate the way literature can complement a study of history by providing a means of understanding cultures, he said.
“My favorite teachers were Richard Morse at Stanford and John Womack at Harvard. Each showed me different ways to approach the important connections between history and fictions. I also enjoyed Ann Swindler, who taught at Harvard and Stanford, who showed me how to use the Socratic method in my own teaching,” he said.
He also relies on inspiration for the nourishing qualities of teaching from the Brazilian folklorist and music teacher Mário de Andrade who said that he hoped he could be “like fertilizer, good for the tomatoes and good for the violets.”