Cuban-class mutiny: Students seize control of the learning process

Ann Marie Stock mingles with students.

We asked Professor Stock why she risked giving up control of her class. See Q&A with Ann Marie Stock.

Cuba will never be the same.

Not for the 18 students who commandeered the Hispanic 392 “Cuba-Culture-Politics” course and took it on a self-directed voyage of discovery. Not for the course’s professor, Ann Marie Stock, who encouraged the mutiny. Not for members of the Williamsburg community who were brought together to broaden their shared interests in one of America’s closest yet most misunderstood nations.

Leading the student revolt was Jacob Rooksby, a senior who, fresh from a summer service-learning experience teaching English in Cuba, was eager to help generate greater understanding of the island nation. He saw the one-credit cross-discipline seminar as the perfect vehicle. As part of her assent, Stock named Rooksby as her teaching assistant. Together, they encouraged students to draw upon resources around them in order to answer their own questions and to enlighten others.

Their first big splash came in mid-March when one class group successfully hosted Images of Cuba, an exhibition featuring the works of four area artists. Held at the Reves Center, the show attracted more than 100 people. During the semester, it was followed up by a series of events, including a Cuban musical performance, a Cuban cuisine party at the professor’s house and the hosting of several speakers, including Capt. Randy Beardsworth, whose experiences in Cuba stemmed from his work as a Coast Guard officer involved in drug interdiction, and an appearance by Cuban filmmaker Orlando Rojas, who drew more than a hundred listeners.

By the end of the class, misperceptions that Cuba is merely a poor, uncultured and dreary place were challenged; beyond that, however, a learning experience was modeled in which the students educated themselves and others through their own empowerment—in the words of Rooksby, by being put “in the hot seat” and bearing the “responsibility to deliver.”

Students embraced the class format, and the results were evident in their learning curves.

Jenna Morgan (’07) was captivated from the first event. “Right away, I got a more definite picture of Cuba in my mind,” she said. “I got an artistic feel. All of the artists talked about how green it was; a lot of them talked about the light, and all of the pictures are full of light and color. I got the feeling that Cuba is very alive looking.”

From that experience, she was drawn into subsequent discussions of politics. A statement by Beardsworth struck her: “He was talking about a Cuban who ran a paladar (an in-home restaurant), and the man described life in Cuba as ‘living on the blade of a knife,’” Morgan recalled. “The man knew everything he had could be taken away by the government without notice.”

Beatrice Beardsworth (’07), daughter of the speaker, also was enrolled in the class. As an art major, she was particularly impressed with the art exhibit: “I saw that Cuba is so rich musically and artistically,” she exclaimed. “Everything is so vibrant.”

Although living with her father gave her ample opportunity to hear his views, she said she had not truly engaged him in a political discussion of the sort he presented to the class. The immersion was rewarding: “I’m not an actively political person,” she confessed, “although I feel sometimes I should be, so that was a very positive process for me. It is easy to consider how, in the grand scheme of things, Cuba is just like a blip on the radar, but what we do there—how we approach the Cuban people—is extremely important.”

Graham Nessler (’05) agreed that the political discussion was important, however he seemed most moved by the presentation of Rojas. “He talked about how he got into filmmaking and about different styles of films—how there is a certain school in Cuban filmmaking focused on structure and rules and techniques, and how there is another school that’s more open-ended, that focuses on the passion of a particular story.” Nessler said. “The interesting thing to me was how he said he, as an artist, could learn from both schools.”

Concerning the politics, Nessler said, “I had some stereotypes going into the course. I didn’t agree with administration policy then, and I still don’t. I learned that although Cuba obviously is poor, there’s a lot more affluence than people realize. It was interesting to hear that they actually are developing vaccines there that promise to help a lot of people. It seems that Cuba does have a lot to offer but it also has a lot working against it both politically and economically.”

Each of these students would like to repeat the type of class experience. Morgan said the class became both “fun” and “interesting”–“it didn’t seem like work,” she added. Beardsworth said the small groups were what made the class effective. Nessler said, “The class was successful in many ways. For one thing, we did help educate the community, and that was one of our goals. For another, it was the kind of class in which you could be creative, and anything in which you can be creative is worth doing again.”

The lessons learned were different for each class member—but the lessons will not soon be forgotten. One reason is that class guests mingled—they were not just lecturers but they were people who engaged in interaction, Rooksby pointed out.

“The class was not just about theory,” he said. “We saw that we all have something to learn from each other, and it’s not just about one person being the expert and everybody else just regurgitating what they think we should learn.”

Although other members of the class looked to Rooksby as a mentor—he, after all, had been there and had completed a 15-page report (it recently won the Shatz Prize after being published in the William and Mary Monitor) tackling the questions of U.S. perceptions of the embargoed nation—for his part, he insisted that they bring their interests to the fore. Describing some of the small-group planning sessions, he said, “Students were full of ideas. One said ‘I know that the library has display cases. Why couldn’t we do a display case on Cuba?’ We did it. We just fed off of each other. An international relations major would suggest a speaker and a topic; someone from another major would see a connection and offer an idea.”

Of course, none of it would have been possible without the willingness of the professor, Stock, to encourage the students to take greater responsibility for their own learning and for that of others.

Of Stock, Rooksby said, “She has been totally approachable and affirming in the process. I mean, at how many schools can you walk into the office of the dean of international affairs and say, ‘Let’s sit down and chat about an idea,’ and the idea becomes the basis of a course?

“But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, I think that’s something across the board that William and Mary administrators have—they have that sort of approachability.”