Across the street from Brock, is the Glenridge building – a labyrinth of offices home to some of the professors in the Faculty of Humanities. As you walk through the snaking hallway, passing each uniform door, you might see a specific office on the second floor that peaks your interest. The door of the office is slightly ajar, and decorated with what looks like avant garde art, and there is a pair of shoes or two sitting outside in the hallway. It becomes clear however, when you knock on the door and are invited in, that this is the office of Brock History Professor Maria Suescun Pozas, who is sitting on a bright pastel, Mexican rug in the middle of the room.
This isn’t an aesthetic design choice, however, this is a pedagogical decision (as much as Dr. Suescun Pozas pokes fun at the highfalutin nature of the word).
Maria del Carmen Suescun Pozas was born in Venezuela, raised in Bogotá, moved to Montreal, Canada in 1991, and attended Concordia University, where she was trained as a visual artist. Suescun Pozas began teaching at Brock University in 2007, and currently teaches Latin American History in the Department of History.
One might believe teaching history would be a far stretch for a self-declared artist, but the ideological gap that lies between the disciplines of visual arts and history is the figurative space in which Suescun Pozas teaches, researches and lives.
“I chose to be a historian… but I didn’t have to give up being an artist”, said Suescun Pozas.
In fact, Suescun Pozas does not teach history despite her visual arts training, but through, and as a result of it. Suescun Pozas is particularly interested in cognitive dissonance within her research and teaching style, which, broadly speaking, refers to holding together two apparently opposite or mutually excluding thoughts and making a decision as a result of the discomfort this might generate.
“Cognitive dissonance always catches us unaware, it might feel messy and scary at first, it is nevertheless a path to changing ungrounded beliefs or perceptions, mobilizing change in positive ways, both individually and collectively, fostering mutually enriching understanding for collaboration across academic disciplines, the University-community continuum, transnationally, in a global scale,” said Suescun Pozas. “This is perhaps one of the most effective tools for research, teaching and learning in the present times.”
Suescun Pozas’ teaching style is unique, but more importantly, her students find it alluring, and she finds it effective. Some students that’ve taken classes with her before have referred to her as having “high expectations”, and the overall course experience as “mind-****ing”, which Suescun Pozas says with pride.
“My students often tell me that they are trying to ‘figure me out’”, said Suescun Pozas. “This teaching style did not come out of thin air, I’ve been perfecting this via life style, university training and career paths, and working in academia, in the art of living. I have been doing so in my teaching for the past nine years, and have used my 20 plus years of teaching experience.”
So what does sitting on the floor of a professor’s office have to do with cognitive dissonance, or even her core focus of study, which is Latin American history? It’s about breaking down barriers between the teacher-student relationship in a professional and creative way.
Desks, podiums, the daunting nature of the seminar room, and lecture hall – these are “stagings” within the university environment that set us, meaning teachers and student, apart from each-other.
While some embrace the pomp and prestige of academia, Suescun Pozas prefers human relationships and an environment that accommodates individual learners, where students can produce original and innovative thoughts and communicate in a meaningful and creative way.
“[Her office] feels like a design studio, and ideas flow naturally,” said John Raimondo, a fifth-year History student, research assistant and service-learning co-ordinator working for Dr. Suescun Pozas.
“The only thing I have is curiosity,” said Suescun Pozas. “If anything, be curious: this drives me as a scholar.”
It doesn’t stop at curiosity, though, as Suescun Pozas has turned that curiosity into a research project with a local focus, and a grand scale. Think Latin America Niagara, Think Niagara Latin America: Making History Together is a research initiative designed to bridge the cognitive gap between Canadian culture and Latin American culture, and expand people’s understanding of Niagara’s history to include the histories and cultures of Latin America, the Caribbean and Brazil.
Once again, this is a matter of cognitive dissonance. When people are initially confronted with trying to think about the connections and intersections of Canada and Latin America, they are initially apprehensive. However, Suescun Pozas describes the point when people finally see a connection between Canada and Latin America, and embrace the cognitive dissonance as beautiful, “magical” moments.
“When Maria came to us in January, I didn’t think we would be of much help,” said David Sharron, Head of James A. Gibson Library Special Collections and Archives. “Most of our archives are Niagara-based, so it appeared doubtful to have anything that linked to Latin America. But, within two days we came up with 14 collections with some Latin American content. It was very fun for us to look at our collections through a different lens.”
Special Collections and Archives is a large Niagara-based archive of records, texts, photos and artifacts that recounts Niagara’s long history and culture. The collection is primarily operated through donations, with approximately 99 per cent of its objects being donated. The collection is intended, not only for faculty use, but use by students and the community as well.
One such connection was a private collection donated by Dorothy Rungeling of Fonthill, Ontario. The collection profiles Rungeling’s achievements in aviation, as she became one of the first women to receive her pilot’s license, and was the first woman in Canada to pilot a helicopter alone. Rungeling was awarded the Order of Canada, and has even been featured on a Canadian stamp.
Even in this Niagara-based collection, however, there are strong connections to Latin American culture, as Rungeling took part in airplane racing in Cuba and the Bahamas. Furthermore, according to Sharron, even Brock’s history is linked to Latin America.
“In the late 1960s, Brock University had a sister school in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. The Department of Geography at that time had students travel there to take in the culture, and students from Port of Spain came to Brock as well.”
Sharron and the archivist team on the tenth floor of the Schmon Tower are just a few of many partners and contributors to the research effort that Suescun Pozas has recruited. Moreover, Suescun Pozas often jokes about “barging” into offices and interviewing people around Brock about their possible connections to Latin America just as she did when she paid a surprise visit to David Sharron.
“I always storm into people’s offices throwing a ball that [they] can’t curve,” said Suescun Pozas.
Unlike some cultural research that seek the first-hand experiences of Latin Americans, the project is not interested with a purely Latin American world-view, but instead remnants and seeds of Latin American history and culture both through and within Canada and the Canadian experience.
Ideally, Suescun Pozas hopes that the current initiative, deeply rooted in Niagara, will expand from the local level and be replicated by colleagues around Canada.
Think Latin America Niagara, Think Niagara Latin America: Making History Together is not only a solo research project for Dr. Suescun Pozas, however; she has implemented and embedded it within her teaching, referring to it as the The Seedling for Research, Seedling for Change Initiative in History.
HIST 2P09: Modern Latin America is one of the first classes to have boldly integrated the initiative, with all of her courses to be redesigned with the concept in mind starting in September of 2016. The initiative has students research elements and artifacts of Niagara history, in comparison to, and in dialogue with Latin American history and culture.
Currently, students enrolled in the class have each selected their own research project. But this isn’t a traditional humanities class, and the students involved learn much more than dates and names – they learn practical skills.
“We’re bringing real-world business skills into the humanities,” said Raimondo. “It’s an important evolution, and it allows students to make connections and get outside the classroom through the service-learning or experiential learning components. We’ve even partnered with Career Services, so students in these classes will be able to log their research hours onto Experience BU and Experience Plus.”
Students have each chosen their own research projects, and have subsequently engaged and collaborated with community partners throughout Niagara. Each student has chosen a local or Canadian artifact or concept, which they then connect through research, to Latin America. Ryan Laxton is working to connect the wine industry and the wine industry in Latin America, and is working closely with Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Chris Mcgivern, is looking to link the construction of the Welland Canal to the construction of the Panama Canal, and working to showcase this in the St. Catharines Museum, and Laura-Lee Burey is exploring the connection between Métis in Canada and mestizos in Latin America.
Student researchers in Dr. Suescun Pozas’ courses make findings, cognitive dissonance helps them connect seemingly unconnected things, feeds their curiosity, find sources of inspiration along the path.
“Laura-Lee, a member of the Métis Nation discovered in the Métis collection in the Welland Historical Museum coins that were presumably minted in modern day Mexico during the 17th century. Ryan, a member of the fencing team discovered that a local winery manages operations both here and in Argentina. The discovery of significant connections between local history and Latin America in the Special Collections and Archives at Brock inspired Chris, a student in Concurrent Education to explore ways of connecting the history of the construction of the Welland canal in all its phases and the construction of the Panama Canal. These student researchers are trailblazers. So are community partners they are working with. So is Artist in Residence with the project, Julia Rose Simone, an 11-year-old student in grade 6 at École Notre Dame de la Jeunesse in Niagara Falls. Julia’s earned her title by rising to the challenge of connecting Canada and Latin America using her artistic gifts. Her visual rendering is opening a window into the new ways of reading and seeing” said Suescun Pozas.
This is what, in her view, the research project is about, and the unlikely research team is opening the path for other students in her courses in the following years.
“It’s a great initiative, and an ambitious project. Within the structure of the class, not only do students get the chance to do innovative, original work, but [within the structure of the course] their ideas and voices are valued,” said Raimondo.
“There is a lot of research in my teaching and a lot of teaching in my research”, said Suescun Pozas. “As a course instructor, I see it as teaching a lab of researchers; my students are producing original work.”
Dr. Suescun Pozas is currently working on a book project, tentatively titled, “Latin America Made in Canada”, which alongside her research, will include three students from HIST 4P26 who submitted projects that Suescun Pozas deemed exemplary back in Winter 2015. The students, Cameron Carter (currently doing an M.A. in History at McGill University), John Raimondo and Rebecca Morkunas (about to finish their History degree at Brock), were mentored by Suescun Pozas as junior scholars, in order to get these papers that were “almost there” and prepare them for consideration for publication in the book. Suescun Pozas hopes that this initiative will continue with subsequent courses and students as well.
The book explores the representation of Latin Americans by, of, and in significance to Canadians.
“We know a lot about Latin America from an American perspective. This is a framework given to us by scholarship coming out from the United States or that speaks to U.S. readership, but we cannot assume the same experiences here in Canada. As scholars of Latin America in Canada, we need to speak as and to Canadians. Let’s explore how Latin American is relevant to Canada,” said Suescun Pozas.
The Think Latin America Niagara, Think Niagara Latin America research initiative is a game-changer for standard pedagogies for teaching History. Suescun Pozas envisions her methods as a possible evolution for the modern university.
“Ideally, the university dissolves boundaries,” commented Suescun Pozas. “Unfortunately, exploration and curiosity has become heavily constrained.”
While Brock University is extremely proud and supportive of their unique seminar system, many believe that small seminars and breakout spaces like labs and tutorials are not sufficient indicators of the quality of an institution’s education.
While all Brock professors, teaching assistants and instructors hold mandatory office hours, in which students can optionally meet, discuss or engage with instructors, many students do not make use of the opportunity.
“The quality of education a student receives ought to be based on the amount of quality contact time,” said Suescun Pozas. “Brock must develop the quality of relationships between instructors and students, that will give the university a competitive edge. Teaching must be comprehensive, and that means researchers must be available, and interacting with students.”
In order to help develop relationships with her students, Suescun Pozas has introduced consultations into her teaching at the undergraduate level, so that students have to come to her office, discuss their projects, their research, and have their thoughts and voices both valued and listened to.
“Fourth year is too late to do this. Students need to be developing research skills and thinking about the most pressing issues for inhabitants in this planet, and engaging in important conversations in first, second, and third year as well,” commented Suescun Pozas.
So what does a day in the life of Dr. Maria del Carmen Suescun Pozas look like? It might be spent sitting on the office floor, spinning ideas around with her student researchers. It might look like a drive to the Niagara Historical Society Museum in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the St. Catharines Museum or the Mayholme Foundation in Saint Catharines, or the Welland Historical Museum, stopping afterwards to debrief and brainstorm at coffee places like Balzac’s Cafe in NOTL, Mahtay Cafe in SC, or On the Front Cafe or The Grounds in Thorold. Perhaps she is consulting with David Sharron, or Karen Bordonaro, liaison librarian that supports Suescun Pozas and student researchers with research projects, walking into the Brock Alumni Relations and Development office to invite them to get involved, learning about origin histories of First Nations in conversations in Aboriginal Student Services, attending a meeting of the Niagara Region Métis Council. Or it might be barging into Brock head rowing coach and former world champion Peter Somerwill’s office or dropping a line to Gillian Kemp in the Goodman School of Business, looking to provide an unknowing colleague with a “magical” opportunity to connect.
Ultimately, a day in Dr. Suescun Pozas’ life will likely be centered around students. Through service or experiential learning, innovative research, building academic community partnerships and her extreme enthusiasm, each day Suescun Pozas flaps the wings of interdisciplinarity against the boundaries that limit a student’s inquiry and curiosity at their university. Whether you’re sitting with Suescun Pozas across a seminar table, or a pastel Mexican carpet, whether you’re discussing Latin American history, or producing innovative ideas worth spinning, as Suescun Pozas has coined – you’re likely to find her with a look of electricity in her eyes, that gives off the sense that ‘this is going to be fun’.
Suescun Pozas is confident that the Seedling for Research, Seedling for Change Initiative student-researcher relation she is introducing in her courses is “the pedagogical way of the future in History”.
According to Suescun Pozas, “this team of community partners, student researchers, and senior researcher are responding to present challenges, getting ahead of future ones. The contribution to develop the knowledge economy in the Niagara Region can begin as early as year one following this model.”
While it may be cognitive dissonance to think of research and excitement, or an academic who is exhilarating, or even Canadian and Latin American societies and histories in the same strand of thought, if you get the chance to take a class with Dr. Suescun Pozas, expect to not only become comfortable with cognitive dissonance, but to master it.
Dr. Suescun Pozas will be the Historian-in-Residence in the Welland Historical Museum in 2017. Suescun Pozas is also securing funding to hire student research assistants in order to provide students with opportunities for experiential learning.