Part of my job is to help students learn to identify their own questions — even when they are not aware of the questions they have. Ultimately, this process should be universally applicable and not confined to Hispanic literature.

Jason McCloskey

Were the conquistadors brave heroes — or scheming pirates? It all depends on perspective, says Jason McCloskey, who studies the epic Spanish poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries that depicts swashbuckling Spanish heroics on the high seas.

"From the Spanish viewpoint, the people who sailed for Spain were explorers. Their adversaries were pirates. But from a different perspective, you'd see sailors representing rival empires. Legally, historically and poetically, there's not a good, solid difference," says McCloskey, a professor of Spanish who is writing a book on the subject. 

Teaching epic poetry in the model of The Iliad and The Odyssey, in a language that is not native for most students, requires intense preparation. This process often reveals new perspective, which in turn informs McCloskey's research. "My goal is to be ready to respond to any question that might come up. When I read in this mindset, I start to see the text in a different light, and I understand it much more deeply," he says.

Poetry is about the intense use of language itself, according to McCloskey, who began studying Spanish in middle school and enjoys helping his students become proficient in the language. As they develop skills in writing, speaking and comprehension, they delve more deeply into the culture and literature of Spain in courses such as Introduction to Latin American Literature.

The canonical Latin American texts from the pre-Colombian era forward are not light reading. "The trick is to harness the natural interests of students and help them connect what they thought they knew about exploration before they took the class," says McCloskey, whose current research focuses on Luis Zapata and Juan de Miramontes. "If there is ambiguity about the legitimacy of explorers, then the legitimacy of the Spanish empire itself comes into question. If it was founded by people who were basically pirates, what does that say about the empire? At the very least, it would suggest that it is no more legitimate than rival empires of the era."

He hopes his efforts help his students appreciate the richness and beauty of the Hispanic literary tradition. "Part of my job is to help them learn to identify their own questions — even when they are not aware of the questions they have. Ultimately, this process should be universally applicable and not confined to Hispanic literature. I want them to learn to figure out what to ask, and then how to go about finding answers."

Posted Sept. 30, 2015

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