Hacking History - Towards a Digital History of Latin America

Dr. Jeremy M. Mikecz

Spring 2019

498 Home Syllabus Schedule Mikecz Home Tutorials


class hours: Mondays 2:00-4:50pm

Taper Hall (THH) 115

History and Digital Humanities

Instructor Contact Information

Dr. Jeremy M. Mikecz

Digital Humanities Program and History Department

University of Southern California

Office: Social Sciences Building SOS 263

Contact: mikecz [at] usc.edu or through Slack Channel

Office Hours: Mondays 10:00 – 11:30am or by appointment


Latin America is a region often seen in extremes. It is home to great wealth and great poverty. It is one of the most urbanized parts of the world with many of its people living in mega-cities such as Mexico City, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Lima, and Buenos Aires. Yet, it also hosts the longest mountain range (the Andes) and largest rainforest (the Amazon) in the world. It is often viewed in opposition to North America, yet, nonetheless, shares many similarities with its northern neighbors.

Understanding the region’s history is complicated by the fact that this history has often been written by outsiders. Spanish and Portuguese invaders wrote their own versions of indigenous history while simultaneously destroying many indigenous records. Other Europeans, in turn, wrote highly condemnatory histories of the Spanish conquest, for example, while leaving out their own atrocities in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Today, the region is too often seen by the West as the home of famine and civil unrest (Venezuela), gang violence (Mexico and Central America), and “banana republics.” However, it is also the site of great social and scientific innovation, community activism, and cultural exchange.

Just how can we separate myth from history? Stereotypes from real trends? This class will explore the ways digital tools and methods may help us answer these questions. It will do so by focusing on three overarching themes: imperial expansion and invasion, urbanization, and migration. Within these three main themes, attention will also be paid to social justice, human-environmental interaction, inequalities, and historical myths and narratives. While studying these topics, students will learn and apply some basic digital skills in programming, quantitative data analysis, text analysis, Geographic Information Systems, and data visualization. Students will also reflect critically on what it means to be human and a citizen of the world in the Digital Age.

This class is perfect for students interested in learning about the history of Latin America while also developing and honing skills in these digital platforms as well as traditional writing and reading skills.

Learning Objectives

This course will prepare students to:

  1. Reflect on what it means to be human in a digital world by a) examining the potential problems and inequalities that result from our increasing reliance on ‘big data’ and digital tools and b) assessing ways digital tools can be used as tools of equality, democracy, and empowerment.
  2. critically reflect on the potential and problems presented by the analysis of both quantitative and qualitative historical sources
  3. construct, modify, and analyze digital quantitative datasets using the programming language Python in order to reassess the history of Latin America
  4. analyze and mine digital texts
  5. create geospatial databases and digital historical maps using QGIS and other platforms
  6. create data visualizations and infographics to tell stories and make arguments
  7. learn to collaborate effectively on digital projects
  8. critically assess the potential dehumanizing effects and other consequences that may result from a non-critical use of ‘big data’ and digital methods while proposing ways digital research can be done in the spirit of humanistic inquiry.

Class Requirements

  1. Attendance: All students are expected to attend every class and arrive on time. If this is ever not possible, students must notify the instructor (in advance if possible) and make arrangements to make up for time missed. Missing class time – particularly if not communicated with the instructor – will affect the student’s grade.
  2. Reading: Students must complete all assigned reading by the date indicated on the syllabus and come prepared to discuss the major themes of the reading as well as be prepared to give their own interpretations about the value of each text. A few short quizzes may be given to test student preparation, but for the most part students will be able to demonstrate their contemplation of the material through class discussions where mastery is not expected but effort is.
  3. Class etiquette: Both students and teacher are expected to respect each other’s opinions, individuality, and time. In particular, all are expected to listen to and engage with their teacher and fellow classmates and to ask questions when there are sources of confusion or disagreement. Please put away and mute cell phone and use laptops only for notetaking.
  4. Assignment Deadlines: Homework assignments are due at the beginning of class (unless stated otherwise). Larger project deadlines must be submitted to Blackboard, my email inbox, and/or your website (depending on instructions) by the assigned deadline. Late projects are docked one letter grade. Projects more than three days late will require a personal conference with me to discuss any possible extensions.
  5. Academic Integrity: Presenting someone else’s ideas as your own, either verbatim or recast in your own words, is a serious academic offense with serious consequences. For a discussion of what plagiarism is see: http://www.usc.edu/student-affairs/student-conduct/ug_plag.htm. Other forms of academic dishonesty are equally unacceptable. There is no unauthorized collaboration, cheating, or falsifying records. For USC’s Academic Integrity policies see: http://sjacs.usc.edu/students/academic-integrity/. Here is a link to tutorials on the subject: https://libraries.usc.edu/research/reference-tutorials. If you have questions or doubts please see me.
  6. Support Systems for Writing: If you are worried about your writing skills you can see me, but if you want more help you can use USC’s writing center. You can set up consultations to discuss writing strategies. For more see: http://dornsife.usc.edu/writingcenter/.
  7. Discrimination Policy: Discrimination, sexual assault, and harassment are not tolerated by the university. You are encouraged to report any incidents to the Office of Equity and Diversity http://equity.usc.edu/. Also see USC’s Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Services: https://engemannshc.usc.edu/rsvp/, which provides 24/7 confidential support and other resources. For concerns regarding sexual assault see USC’s Sexual Assault Resource Center: http://sarc.usc.edu.
  8. Disability Support System: The Office of Disability Services and Programs http://sait.usc.edu/academicsupport/centerprograms/dsp/home_index.html provides certification for students with disabilities and helps arrange the relevant accommodations. A letter verifying your needs can be obtained from DSP and should be given to me as soon as possible. Their website is: https://dsp.usc.edu.
  9. Emergency Support System: If an officially declared emergency makes travel to campus infeasible, USC Emergency Information http://emergency.usc.edu/will provide safety and other updates, including ways in which instruction will be continued by means of blackboard, teleconferencing, and other technology.


Participation (10%): Students will be expected to attend every class and – within class and outside of class - participate in discussions and work collaboratively with their peers.

Class Assignments (25%): This grade includes a variety of in-class and take-home assignments (besides the larger projects listed below), including presentations. This grade will include:

Latin America in the World: Quantitative Data Analysis (25%) – Working in pairs, you will compile, analyze, visualize, and map country-level data comparing select Latin American countries with North America and the world. Each pair will choose a specific historical question or set of questions. These questions will then guide each group as they decide what data to work with and how to analyze and visualize it. Final results will be incorporated into a paper on their Google Site. This paper will not only address your methods and results but will also critically assess how meaningful your data is. How was it collected? measured? What may have been missed? How do you incorporate such flaws into your analysis?

FINAL PROJECT (40%) - Telling (hi)stories visually: Working individually, students will create an information graphic or data visualization that answers a specific historical question relating to Latin America, Latinos in the world, U.S.-Latin American relations, or some combination of these topics. The visualization will integrate text with maps and other data visualizations to make a historical argument.

Required Texts:

  1. Michael Reid, Forgotten Continent: A History of the New Latin America. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2017.
    1. Note: Get the 2017 version with the subtitle “A History of the New Latin America” if you can. The older 2007 version has the subtitle “Battle for Latin America’s Soul.”
  2. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Beacon Press: Boston, 1995.
  3. Alberto Cairo, The Truthful Art: Data, Charts, and Maps for Communication. New Riders: 2016.
  4. Fourth book to be determined - but possibly:
    1. Jason de Leon, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. University of California Press: Berkeley, 2015.

Other Key Texts

for course schedule click here.