The author of This City Belongs to You: A History Student Activism in Guatemala, 1944-1996 (2017), Dr. Vrana joined the history faculty in 2017 as an assistant professor specializing in Modern Latin America history. Read her interview below to learn about her research and teaching interests, to say nothing of her love of music, cats, coffee, photography, vegan sweets . . . .
How are you finding life in Gainesville outside the university? Have you discovered a favorite place to spend your time?
What’s not to love about Gainesville? I’ve really enjoyed exploring the town outside the university and other smaller towns and communities nearby. Gainesville itself reminds me a lot of Bloomington, Indiana, where I went to graduate school. Although I prefer cities, Gainesville’s quirkiness and a little bit of nostalgia make me happy.
Some of my favorite places include the Wednesday farmer’s market at Bo Diddley Plaza and the beautiful Spanish moss- and palm tree-canopied streets in the Duckpond. Karma Cream, Vine, and Volta keep that caffeine and sugar flowing. Seeing great bands and DJs at High Dive, The Wooly, and The Atlantic makes Gainesville special, too.
Now that you are in your second semester at UF, how are you finding the students compared with other institutions where you have taught?
Before coming to UF, I taught at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Connecticut. How I miss many of my students from SCSU! The student body at SCSU included a greater percentage of first-generation college students and Black and Latinx students than UF’s student body. There are other differences, too. Most students at SCSU were from New Haven or nearby counties. While most UF students come from Florida, the infamous regional diversity within the state means that even in-state students bring different experiences with them to the classroom.
At UF (like SCSU), teaching Latinx students about Latin American history is an honor and responsibility. The broad interest of UF students in Latin American history is really exciting!
Let me add that I am especially impressed with my UF students’ passion and eagerness to read and engage with class material. So far, I’ve seen that students will rise to meet whatever challenge I set out for them. My students in Youth Culture and Crime and Criminality (Spring 2018) have been particularly impressive.
Do you have any particular expectations of students or yourself in your relationship as teacher and mentor with them?
From my students I expect hard work, energy, and commitment; I expect the same from myself. On the first day of class, I tell my students that showing up is not optional. By this I mean more than simply attending class—when students aren’t engaged, the whole class suffers.
If students are interested in working more closely with me as a teacher or mentor, the first step is to show up to office hours! There we can get to know one another a bit better and I can hear about their research interests and, especially, any unique skills or experiences that inspire or support their research.
What type of graduate students in terms of research interests would you like to attract to UF?
I am most interested in working with graduate students focused on Central America, social movements, youth, social class, or disability. My first books were on Central American student movements, so training students in related areas is ideal. My new research on disability has taken me in the direction of two related areas: public health and crime/criminality. Prospective students interested in disability, public health, and crime should consider applying to UF given the strength of a number of faculty in the Department of History in these thematic areas/subfields.
As the Latin America section continues to expand with this year’s Colonial Spanish America/Iberia hire, we are in a position to offer both depth and breadth of training. Few Latin American history graduate programs can offer this. Our graduates conduct top-notch research and are prepared to teach well.
I’m looking forward to the new class of graduate students that we will welcome in Fall 2018.
Can you tell us something about a current research project?
My next book, The Idea of Disability and the Making of Modern Central America, traces the emergence of the category of “the disabled” across Central America’s twentieth century, arguing how doctors, bureaucrats, and philanthropists used disability to present the region as modern to a world inclined to believe that it could not be so modern. Specifically, I discuss the development of medical expertise; changes in the locus of responsibility for care of people with disabilities from religious organizations to the state to the family; public health and social security programs; and human rights as the dominant framework shaping disability cultures and for addressing trauma after the civil wars. A foundational premise of the disability rights movement is that disability is a social, not a medical, phenomenon. My research excavates the history of this social phenomenon.
Right now, I’m working on an article about Hansen’s disease (better known as leprosy) in Nicaragua that follows how leprosy has figured into the fabrication of social difference from President Zelaya’s order to send so-called “lepers” to the Isla de Asseradores in 1893 to the widespread public health concern over “mountain leprosy” (which was actually not a leprosy at all) in the 1980s and 90s.
I am also co-editing a book on the Guatemalan Revolution with Julie Gibbings (University of Manitoba.
What sort of undergraduate and graduate courses do you plan to offer in the future?
I’ve enjoyed teaching thematic classes on Revolution, Youth Culture, and Crime/Criminality in Latin America. I will likely offer them again in the near future.
In Fall 2018, I’ll offer the History of Mexico for undergraduates and a field seminar in Modern Spanish America for graduate students.
Do you have new ones you are currently developing?
The History of Mexico is a new course for me, so that’s technically in development! But I am also developing two versions of a course called The Body in Latin America (one for undergrads and another for grads) that will focus on my new area of research.
What courses are you teaching this spring (or fall if you are on leave in the spring)?
This spring (2018), I am teaching Youth Culture in the Americas and Crime and Criminality. I’m loving these classes.
For Fall 2018, the graduate field seminar on Modern Spanish America will focus on providing graduate students coverage in the history and historiography of the region since the 1820s.
The History of Mexico is going to be really cool, even though it sounds more traditional than, say, Youth Culture. Mexico’s history is full of incredible personages and unexpected turns, but it is also crucial to U.S. politics, culture, and society. It will be a great class.
Do you have anything in particular about yourself that you would like to share with the UF history community? Hobbies? Past-time interests? Family life? Pets?
I guess that if readers have gotten this far into the interview, I probably owe them something more personal and interesting! Hmm… I love an unexpectedly wide range of music, riding my bicycle, baking and cooking (especially sharing delicious vegan recipes with omnivores), and spoiling my cats, Dolly and Riedell. I am learning analog photography and film processing—a teenage dream, now come true. Florida palm trees and the magic hour of sunset make me feel earnestly, embarrassingly grateful every day.