Prof Huizar-Hernández Receives Opening the Canon Award

February 18th, 2022

A project that uses digital mapping to layer additional data sets an offer new insights into The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca and has earned Dr. Anita Huizar-Hernández one of two Dorrance Dean’s Awards for Opening the Canon.


Huizar-Hernández, Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, is awarded for her project, “Contingent Colonialities.” The $20,000 award will fund the creation of a new general education course that brings 21st century digital tools to help students reach a better understanding of a 16th century text, and what it reveals about colonization.


The Dorrance Dean’s Award for Opening the Canon recognizes and supports faculty in the College of Humanities who are doing cutting edge curricular (re)design work that incorporates in novel ways texts that have been widely recognized as having enduring value and significance. The inaugural winners are Huizar-Hernández and Dr. Jaqueline Barrios, Assistant Professor in the Department of Public and Applied Humanities.


The starting point for Huizar-Hernández is the detailed account published in 1542 by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca of his eight-year journey from present-day Florida to the borderlands of the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico. Students will use ArcGIS Online, the leading software for web-based mapping, as well as StoryMaps, an ArcGIS application that creates digital stories based on maps, to collaboratively create a public-facing interactive website about Cabeza de Vaca’s 1542 text.


“I want students to think about Cabeza de Vaca’s text as data and then consider the story that data tells us. How can we get a different understanding of a place by putting different kinds of data sets or data stories together and seeing how they interact?” Huizar-Hernández says. “With mapping technology, you can start to tell stories that are not linear, pulling in data from a variety of time periods and layering them in interesting ways.”


For example, students can layer data about the landscape, and its flora and fauna, and then expand to a direct comparison of data across time and space, juxtaposing that layer of flora and fauna data drawn directly from the text with recent data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency related to environmental degradation.


Huizar-Hernández says the Cabeza de Vaca text is an “unconventional yet exciting entry point to hone students’ geoliteracy,” giving them a hands-on way to develop a complex understanding of how the relationship between “where” and “why” has developed throughout time.

“Courses can often be linear. They’re set up for you to try something, master it and move onto the next thing. With canonical texts, students can feel like they’re only learning how they’re supposed to read it. What excites me about this award is it encourages the exploration of different analytical and interpretive possibilities with new tools,” Huizar-Hernández says. “I’m interested in students having this kind of open-ended research experience in a class setting, especially early on in their careers.”


By contrasting Cabeza de Vaca’s text with other historical and contemporary data, the interactive website will allow users to appreciate how Cabeza de Vaca’s depiction of the Americas is shaped by colonial power relations. The maps and StoryMaps students create will enable users to gain a more well-rounded understanding of not only the landscape Cabeza de Vaca describes, but also the lens through which he saw the world, which then shaped the way countless readers of his text continued to see that same world thereafter.


“So much of the interpretive work we do as humanists and as literary scholars happens in isolation and that can be hard for students,” Huizar-Hernández says. “A mapping approach works best in a team based environment and I’m energized by the possibilities that arise when students work together in a humanities lab type setting.”


The project grows out of a pilot phase that Huizar-Hernández launched last year with $14,999 in Faculty Seed Grant funding from the Office of Research, Innovation & Impact. Huizar-Hernández is also applying for National Endowment for the Humanities grant funding to create a permanent digital home for the project, which can provide public access for student projects year after year.


The Dorrance Dean’s Award for Opening the Canon is one component of the College of Humanities’ Fearless Inquiries Project, a long-term, flagship effort specifically aimed at catalyzing a national culture that prizes open discussion, independent judgement and the questioning of stubborn assumptions.


“On behalf of the entire College, I want to express our gratitude to Jacquelynn and Bennett Dorrance for supporting the Fearless Inquiries Project and enabling these crucial initiatives,” said Dorrance Dean Alain-Philippe Durand.


Huizar-Hernández was selected for the award following an internal, competitive process, with a selection committee composed of alumni and other national leaders.


“Studying a vital text from the past with cutting-edge modern tools will captivate students in new ways and encourage them to bring more creativity to their work,” said Kim Jones, Vice Dean for Academic & Faculty Affairs. “Dr. Huizar-Hernández is an innovator in the classroom and the College is excited to see her continue introducing the humanities to students in new ways.”