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Border Studies: Beyond the Boundaries of a Single Discipline

In our increasingly interconnected world, the symbolic and material effects of borders and bordering have generated growing interest from scholars across the humanities and social sciences, leading to the emergence, in the last few decades, of border studies as a major field of pedagogy. The burgeoning field of border studies encompasses a broad range of concerns, so understanding the complex phenomenon of borders requires thinkers and scholars across the humanities and social sciences to take a multidisciplinary approach. Border studies, as a field, lies beyond the boundaries of a single discipline.

What Is a Border?

Increasingly, academic discourse has recognized that most borders are not physical and geographic divisions; they’re socially constructed, multifaceted, fluid, and transitional—a process more than a place. As Margit Fauser, Anne Friedrichs, and Levke Harders note in the Journal of Borderland Studies, “Borders and bordering processes, rather than ontologically given or territorial fixities, can be understood as social institutions.” Border studies, in turn, has become a multilayered field, “developed in parallel by political scientists, sociologists, ethnologists, psychologists, anthropologists, linguists, economists, physical geographers and even specialists in more technical sciences.” Yajaira M. Padilla, associate professor of English and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Arkansas, notes that the study of borders is not new, but, based on new realities, there is a shift in how scholars are answering questions such as the following: What is a border? What does it mean to be bordered? Who are the main actors in bordering and what roles do they play? How do borders follow people as they cross them? What methodologies can be employed in studying borders? (Interview conducted by the author, 3 Sept. 2019).

As the politics of border control, immigration, detention, and expulsion of migrants and refugees has intensified in recent years, issues of borders and borderlands have attracted more attention among the public, scholars, and students, prompting colleges to develop and broaden border studies programs. As David Vásquez-Hurtado, professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College, noted when speaking about the creation of their new borders and languages program, students there have recently begun to express a more robust interest in activism around immigration and borders (Interview conducted by the author, 5 Sept. 2019). In a similar context, the Earlham College border studies Web page states, “Arizona has recently been referred to by some as the epicenter of the struggle for human rights in the United States. Located in the heart of this struggle in Tucson, the program allows students to explore . . . local policy, practice, and responses to the current human rights debate on the border.” In the light of the multilayered and complex nature of borders and bordering, in addition to the varying proximity of schools to border areas, these programs differ in scope, focus, and methodology.

What Do Border Studies Programs Do?

The border studies minor at California State University, San Marcos, is an interdisciplinary exploration of border communities, or life at the borderlands, focusing on the “dynamics that occur in regions where multiple communities come into overlapping contact and where borders of all sorts both divide and create communities.” The department Web page stipulates that “the minor in border studies is particularly suited for students who want to work within border regions in careers such as city planning, public policy, law, health professions, border patrol, education, and public administration, or attend graduate school in related fields.” Students can integrate courses in anthropology, history, linguistics, sociology, geography, quantitative research methods, and women’s studies with border and migration studies to tailor the minor to align with their interests.

At Fort Lewis College in Colorado, the brand new major in the borders and languages program offers students a linguistic approach to border study. The goal of this unique program is for students to become proficient in a target language through studying life at the southern border. Students are encouraged to make sense of language through immersion and cultural context. According to the language professor David Vásquez-Hurtado and the sociology professor Benjamin Waddell, both of whom teach in the borders and languages program, this major was created—and implemented starting in the fall of 2019—in response to both a decline in language enrollments and an interest among students in activism related to immigration issues (Vásquez-Hurtado, Interview conducted by the author, 5 Sept. 2019; Waddell, Interview conducted by the author, 9 Sept. 2019). Students in this program might learn about Latinx culture or explore borderlands music in depth, as well as study social problems at the border, all while honing their proficiency in Spanish. In addition, studying abroad in Latin America, where students live with immigrant families, is a key experiential component of Fort Lewis College’s program.

Arizona State University’s School of Transborder Studies uses an interdisciplinary approach to focus specifically on the populations of the United States–Mexico transborder space and beyond. The program’s aim, since its inception in 2010, is to give students the opportunity to explore firsthand “the concerns, social problems, health inequalities and political issues that influence these communities and their respective nations of origin,” and to become agents of social change.

At Earlham College in Tucson, Arizona, students from colleges around the country come to spend a semester immersed in living, working, and traveling on and around the United States–Mexico border, in an attempt to fully understand the complexities of this dynamic region. Earlham’s border studies program was created in 1976 but was recently revamped to be more inclusive of and accountable to the local Tucson community through its partnership with Pima Community College. As stated on their program Web page, “all students are immersed in an extended field study placement (internship) with different community organizations and schools in the Tucson area . . . students learn from community members and organizations as well as engage in service to support grassroots efforts occurring at different sites.”

Other degrees related to border studies such as immigration law are offered at schools across the country, and make use of interdisciplinary approaches to learning about the effect of borders and border policy on immigrants.

Teaching Tools and Resources

While schools in close proximity to United States borders in the north and south might have access to border communities, detention centers, immigration activists, and recent immigrants as learning resources, many students at other schools do not have the opportunity for firsthand experience with migrants and people living and working at borderlands. Moreover, even schools near borders may face challenges in seeking first-person narratives from people risking their lives and livelihoods at the borders and beyond.

Resources like the Web site Ecologies of Migrant Care can be invaluable in bringing the stories of the border to light. An initiative of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at New York University, this online digital archive houses nearly one hundred interviews with migrants, activists, faith leaders, journalists, academics, and artists, who provide first-person accounts, transcribed and subtitled into English and Spanish, of the widespread humanitarian crisis in Central America and at our southern border. As Diana Taylor, codirector of this archive, explains, “These materials are already being incorporated into undergraduate and graduate syllabi across the United States, Mexico, and Canada in courses on contemporary migration, human rights, border studies, and other areas. Ecologies of Migrant Care was created precisely to allow for the broadest possible diversity of uses among researchers, teachers, students, and beyond” (“Re: Ecologies of Migrant Care” e-mail to the author, 8 Oct. 2019).

Other teaching tools and resources can be found on Ecologies of Migrant Care, such as an extensive list of undergraduate and graduate migration and citizenship course syllabi from 2014 to the present, which cover topics such as forced migration, transnationalism, gender and migration, and human rights, created and maintained by the American Political Science Association. In addition to noting the value of Ecologies of Migrant Care as a teaching tool, Taylor points to the testimonial and historical value of the stories it gathers. Explaining her motivation in documenting the lives of migrants and those seeking to advocate for and protect them, she states, “The economic and human rights crisis on the U.S. southern border is one of the major humanitarian catastrophes of our time. My goal was to keep these stories from falling back into invisibility.”


Photo by Markus Spiske via Unsplash








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