Dear Colleague Letter

Dear Colleague,

We most enthusiastically invite you to apply to participate in our NEH Summer Institute, “Mesoamerican Cultures and Their Histories: Spotlight on Oaxaca!” (July 5–31, 2015). Coming together in beautiful Oaxaca City and venturing out into the surrounding areas will offer a special immersion experience. Oaxaca is a place that facilitates the study of archaeology through visits to dramatic, ancient cities guided by a colleague who has worked his entire career in the area. The setting lends itself well to the study of “ethnohistory” (history of indigenous peoples through their own sources), offered by scholars who have been engrossed in the decipherment of pictorial and textual manuscripts authored by native scribes and painters. Oaxaca is also incomparable as a site for examining art in history and contemporary art expressions as a window onto indigenous cultural continuity and innovation, especially through music, textiles, pottery, foods, and photography. Finally, this rich context gives us a chance to view some recent documentary films about Mesoamerica and to consider film as a tool both for cultural renewal and decolonization. We are thrilled that we have a chance to conduct these interdisciplinary inquiries while immersed in a part of Mesoamerica where both regional indigenous traditions and local variations are still very much alive.

We are assembling a top-notch team of specialists in Mesoamerican studies, including several colleagues from Mexico and several from our own campus in Oregon. But let us first introduce ourselves — the director and the core faculty.  I, Stephanie Wood, Director of the Wired Humanities Projects at the University of Oregon, the author or co-editor of five books  and dozens of articles on Mesoamerica, will be directing the Institute. I am a specialist in pictorial and textual manuscripts produced in indigenous communities of New Spain, and am the director of an emerging Nahuatl Dictionary, a key language of central Mexico, that had four years of funding from the National Science Foundation and the NEH.  I am the lead content editor on the Mapas Project, which benefited from another NEH grant, 2006–08. This is a digital resource that will feature prominently in the Institute, along with the Virtual Mesoamerican Archive (VMA), an online finding aid and repository for Mesoamerican heritage materials that I edit. As the Institute director, I will be actively involved in every aspect of the program over the entire four weeks, meeting with each of you one-on-one on two occasions (once in the first week, plus one more), and available for your questions at any point. We will also have a local assistant, Bertha Flores, who will come to our aid when having the input of a local Oaxacan — someone who knows local conditions and traditions so well — will make all the difference.

Additional members of the core faculty, from the University of Oregon, include Ron Lancaster, our master teacher, formerly a high school teacher and then a teacher trainer at the College of Education, who will lead our homeroom pedagogical discussions, help us probe the required readings, give feedback on NEH Summer Scholars’ projects, and generally lend a helping hand and offer guidance as needs arise; Dr. Ronald Spores, Vanderbilt University Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and UO courtesy professor, who will lead our visits to spectacular archaeological sites; Dr. Lynn Stephen, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, who will host our tours of textile and pottery venues and street-art studios around the city of Oaxaca during our arts week; and, Dr. Gabriela Martínez, a documentary filmmaker, who will help guide our final week, in which we explore documentary films.

Our Mexican faculty and speakers will come from several institutional, scholarly, and artistic traditions. We bring them into the mix to give you as many local voices as possible.  In the order in which they will present (tentatively, at the moment), these colleagues are: Dr. Michael Swanton (or his designate), a linguist specializing in indigenous languages who directs the academic program at the center where we will hold most of our sessions; Dr. Sebastián van Doesburg or Drs. Michel Oudijk and Beatriz Cruz (to be settled in 2015), ethnohistorians who are knowledgeable about manuscripts and their importance to indigenous communities; Maestra María del Refugio Gutiérrez Rodríguez, a manuscript restoration workshop director at the Biblioteca Burgoa; Luis Domínguez, an amatero (amate painting street vendor); Diego Sánchez, our guide for the ethnobotanical garden; Leobardo Pacheco Arias, a specialist in the Mixtec/Zapotec ballgame; Magda Girón, a cook who will teach us about local sauces of Native origin; Zeferino Mendoza and Richard Hanson, who work to establish student-to-student conversations in Mexico and the U.S. in Spanish; Itandehui Xiaj Nikté, an indigenous street art-historian; don Paco González, master natural dye specialist, weaver, and native speaker of Zapotec; Maestra Marietta Bernstorff, art curator; Dr. Concepción Núñez Miranda, filmmaker; and Héctor Cortez, a Zapotec musician who will give us a demonstration of musical fusions.

We welcome your special qualifications to add to the fascinating mix of people and topics at this Institute. We especially welcome social studies teachers and Spanish language teachers who desire to enrich their Social Studies and Language Arts classes with more Mesoamerican content, whether for the sake of their students of Mexican heritage or to prepare everyone with a better appreciation of the civilizations and cultures of the ancient Americas. Teachers of art and film are also naturals, given our content. We believe a diverse group of teachers is best; we have had some excellent science teachers who have created ethnobiology curricular projects, too. So feel free to make a case for us to consider your particular approach to learning. We have found that teachers of every grade level and many disciplines have much to contribute to and to gain from active participation in the Institute.  Therefore, we will consider applications from teachers of any level, K-12, who may wish to incorporate Mesoamerican content in their classes. NEH also allows that we invite up to three graduate students who are preparing to be teachers.

While Professor Wood has some language teaching experience – with ESL, Nahuatl, and Spanish — and languages and linguistics will be topics that receive some attention, we will not be leading this Summer Institute in Spanish.  Presentations and discussions will all either be delivered in English or we will have an interpreter assisting, and Spanish will not be a requirement. It would be an asset to know Spanish, however, as your interactions with the Mexican faculty and access to a greater array of curricular resources could be very rewarding.

The Institute will officially span four weeks (July 5–31, 2015). As mentioned agove, we will begin with a welcome reception on Sunday evening, July 5th. We will welcome any friends or family who might be with you upon your arrival in Oaxaca.  We will conclude with a farewell party on Friday evening, July 31st, when families are also invited.  We hope your travel dates will be perhaps July 4th (or earlier) and August 1st (or later).  Naturally, it is up to you if you wish to extend your stay on either end, covering your own expenses more fully.  Our formal sessions will begin on Monday, July 6th, at 10:00 a.m. with an orientation session for one hour or so, followed by the launch of our content presentations. Most days, we will have a homeroom discussion first thing, when we will explore how to teach the previous day’s material and discuss our readings. Most days, too, we will have an extended midday or early-afternoon break, sometimes with time enough for an independent exploration period, and resume with a brief evening program.  We will aim to induct you into the rhythm of life in Oaxaca. On days when we have excursions, our hours may be longer and our schedule will vary more. On excursions, we may have meals together or you may be packing lunches.  Our syllabus, in draft form until one month prior to the start of the Institute, is already up on our website and should be consulted regularly once the program begins for details about our daily schedule and reading assignments.  You may also wish to read ahead.

Each of the four weeks of the Institute will have a distinct academic theme:

  • Week 1: Archaeology:  “Art and Architecture as Windows into Cultural Realities in Pre-Columbian Times”
  • Week 2: Ethnohistory: “Seeking Indigenous Perspectives and Cultural Memories through Manuscript Studies”
  • Week 3: The Arts: “Cultural Continuity and Innovation in Music, Textiles, Pottery, Street Art, and Culinary Arts”
  • Week 4: Film:  “Indigenous Cultures and Issues Today, through Documentary Film”

The reading assignments, all either in PDF form or as links to web pages, will be connected to each day’s activities on the syllabus. There will be no books required for purchase. The core faculty for each week has helped select the readings, intended partly as background information and partly to introduce issues for discussion in homeroom sessions or while on excursions.

Class sessions will take place Mondays through Thursdays, with an effort to intersperse lecture/discussion days with getting out and about. On Fridays, we will offer shorter gatherings where you can work on your curricular units and visit the library. We are asking the librarians at the BIJC to help make appropriate readings available in English and Spanish. Available staff and faculty will also attend on Fridays to see if we can be of help, such as answering substantive questions, improving electronic slide presentations, editing images, or creating online photo galleries.  The faculty will also bring additional, relevant books to make available to you on Fridays — books that could help you delve into certain topics.  Finally, the IAGO library will be accessible to art teachers; if you wish to go there instead of our seminar room or the BIJC library on Fridays, please let us know and we will take you and introduce you to the staff there.

We view our field trips as part of the formal course. These are integrated with the intellectual content and readings. While we hope they will be enjoyable, they are intended as learning exercises to deepen our understanding of Oaxacan indigenous communities and cultures of the past and present. It is hoped that you will be keen observers, ask probing questions of the guides, and record these experiences in some form (taking notes, still photos, video, audio, sketching, etc.) for use later in shaping your curricular materials.

Aside from our academic excursions, you can expect to encounter many more opportunities to explore Oaxaca on your own or with knowledgeable guides. You will find it easy enough to make a weekend trip to the communities of the Sierra Norte (Zapotec) or the Mixteca Baja (we will visit the Mixteca Alta twice as a group), just as it will be very feasible to take tours of the local museums, art galleries, and to attend local cultural events within the city. We will not be able to take you to every archaeological site; it is hoped you will seek out some of the smaller sites on your own. The world famous Guelaquetza dance festival will be held during our time together in Oaxaca. With these wonderful weekend temptations, we do hope you will still show up on Monday mornings re-charged and ready to resume our exciting academic program. This will not be a “paid vacation,” but an opportunity to develop scholarship and rich curricular materials that will not only benefit you and your students but will also be available to benefit the classrooms of teachers in many other locations.

Typical of an NEH Summer Institute, we will emphasize collaborative work. Working in teams of two or three, you will develop model lessons for your courses back home, utilizing the content and resources being made available to you through this NEH Summer Institute. The last week of the Institute will include NEH Summer Scholars’ presentations (typically in small groups) of your new or significantly reshaped lesson plans. We will also provide space on our Institute web site or server for sharing all resulting curricular materials within and beyond our group.

We ask that NEH Summer Scholars come to every lecture and presentation prepared with a number of comments or questions from the assigned readings to present to the speakers for their consideration during their lectures. Anyone who misses sessions or departs early from the program will have to forfeit a pro-rated portion of the stipend.  We are also requiring NEH Summer Scholars to produce a final presentation in the form of class lessons or resources incorporating material from the Institute experience that they will actually use in their own classrooms.

Local Arrangements

Stipends: NEH provides $3,300 as a taxable stipend to each person chosen to participate in this Summer Institute.  Stipends are intended to help cover travel expenses to and from the project location, books and other research expenses, and living expenses for the duration of the period spent in residence. Applicants to all projects, especially those held abroad, should note that supplements will not be given in cases where the stipend is insufficient to cover all expenses. The value of the dollar and your choices regarding housing and meals may mean that you will need to supplement your costs of participating with your own additional funds, but we are making every effort to point you to discounted lodging sites and nutritious low cost meals to help you make your stipend stretch.

Also, please note that while NEH neither encourages nor discourages family members from traveling with the Summer Scholar, all costs for family members must be borne personally, and NEH does not allow family members to be participants on excursions or in the classroom. We will seek opportunities for some social gatherings where your friends and families may get to know the group, and we hope you will make an effort to seek out the group in your spare time even if you have family or friends on the scene while the institute is going on. We have found that contributing to the group dynamic will enrich your experience greatly. Keeping to yourself or your own family in the off hours, likewise, can result in your feeling somewhat less well integrated with the group.

Because it is nearly impossible to cash checks made out to you in dollars, we will make every effort to get half of your stipend ($1650) to you prior to your departure, sent in the form of a check to your home or, preferably, an automatic deposit. Because you will be making your airline ticket purchases almost as soon as you hear that you have been accepted into the program, and you will need to reimburse yourself, the first installment should help cover that expenditure, even if it arrives after the fact.  This will be true, too, of the low-cost travel insurance we require that you purchase (for a total of less than $100). We will mail or auto-deposit the second half ($1650) of your stipen on or about the last day of the Institute, as soon as we know that you have completed the program and no deductions will need to be made for absences or withdrawals. Additional information about stipends is available elsewhere on this website.

Housing: NEH Summer Scholars will be able to choose and pay for their own lodging in Oaxaca.  But, we are reserving several well-located, reasonably priced, furnished apartments from which we hope you will choose.  We are suggesting units that were preferred (or found acceptable) by former Institute participants.  The furnished apartments will allow you to do some cooking and save on expenditures for food.  Small supermarkets and traditional Oaxacan markets will be within walking distance.  Staying close to other NEH Summer Scholars is always a big plus for creating community within the group.  Also, if you are willing to share an apartment or a room, your housing costs will be much reduced. We are providing a Facebook page for our NEH Summer Institute where you will be able to message other group members about your desire to find a roommate or an apartment mate.

If you prefer to stay outside of the places we have selected, we hope you will stay close to the rest of us and close to the classroom, both for your own convenience and so that you will be available for socializing with the group. A couple of alternatives are imagined – for instance, you may seek out a home-stay situation where you will lodge with a Oaxacan family and have an opportunity to speak more Spanish and witness daily life.  Or, you may prefer to be in a hostel, where the daily rates will be quite low (but be prepared for living conditions that could also be very basic). No matter where you choose to stay, you should arrange for your lodging as soon as you know you have been selected as an NEH Summer Scholar, as the Guelaguetza dance festival that takes place in July will make housing availability more of an issue than it is the rest of the summer.  We will make every effort to help you settle into a good choice.

Meals: NEH Summer Scholars, unless they are staying with a Oaxacan family (where they might receive some meals), will have the freedom to choose where they will eat most meals. Your stipend is intended to help you cover the cost of meals.  Oaxaca is resplendent with exquisite and affordably priced restaurants and cozy cafes, and our website makes some recommendations.  When possible, certainly on excursions and sometimes when we are in the city of Oaxaca, we will arrange for group (no host) comidas at restaurants that can accommodate our numbers — or, we will recommend when you might wish to bring a sack lunch.  On such occasions we will encourage those who are interested to organize one or more “Spanish only” tables as one option during meals; perhaps participants who are Spanish teachers will assist us with this.  Should you encounter stomach problems (such as “Montezuma’s Revenge” or any other health issues), our Director and local assistant will be on hand to help you gain immediate access to medical clinics (if need be) and pharmacies, and we will help with the Spanish interpreting. That said, we absolutely love Oaxacan cuisine and hope you will, too – the fresh corn tortilla tlayudas (like large tostadas), the rich chocolate-chile mole sauce, delicious tomatoes and avocados, and black beans are but a few of the many temptations!

Library and computer resources: All required readings will be available to you as electronic documents that can be accessed via the Internet or downloaded to a laptop or electronic tablet. NEH Summer Scholars may wish to download the readings prior to leaving for Oaxaca, or you may choose to print the readings and bring them with you, but the weight of the paper will be a consideration. We sincerely hope you will get a jump start on the readings prior to your departure from the States.  You may look over the syllabus and the required readings (password upon request from:  swood [at] uoregon [dot] edu), and choose for yourself where you will begin reading.

NEH Summer Scholars may wish to supplement the required and recommended readings with additional published material, whether borrowed in local libraries or purchased in local bookstores.  For instance, you may wish to publish books on the specific topic that you will develop into a curricular unit.  Our website provides you with a list of the best bookstores (one sells books in English, and the remainder sell only Spanish-language books), and the name and location of the English-language library.  We will provide additional information about Internet cafés where you can use your laptops to stay in touch with folks back home and access supplemental learning materials on line.

We will be making available on our server a huge number of Mesoamerican digital resources available to NEH Summer Scholars through our own Virtual Mesoamerican Archive, Mapas Project, Nahuatl Dictionary, Zapotec Dictionary, Early Nahuatl Libraryand Age of Exploration Digital Maps Collection — materials that you will have permission to download and incorporate into your lesson plans.

Continuing Education Credit: All NEH Summer Scholars will receive a certificate, acknowledging their participation in the four-week NEH Summer Institute, which they may present to their home school districts. It is our understanding that some school districts might have an option for teachers to obtain some kind of continuing education or in-service credit from this experience.  We can provide such special certificates for a fee, upon request.  For those who wish to earn graduate credit for the Institute through the University of Oregon, we will also look into this if we get enough requests.


The application process has two parts.

1) First you must register with NEH on their website that you intend to apply for our Institute. The web address is:

You will provide NEH with basic information and finalize your online information by following their directions.

2) Print out the “cover sheet” (which also says “Confirmation” on it) that NEH provides. This will be come part of your application packet that you will be sending through the U.S. Mail service.  If you forget to print the cover sheet, you can return to that web page and go through the process again.  It is not a problem for us if this generates an extra number or an added person in our list of applicants.  This happens often

3) In a manila envelope, please include three copies of the following items, collated:

  • the completed application cover sheet from the NEH registration process;
  • a résumé or brief biography (limit: 4 double-spacedpages) detailing your educational qualifications and professional experience and providing names and contact information for two references;
  • an application essay (limit: 4 double-spaced pages).

4) Please address the application materials in the manila envelope to:

Stephanie Wood, Director
2085 University Street
Eugene, OR 97403

5) Your hard copy application must be postmarked no later than March 2, 2015. If postmarked later than March 2nd, it will not be considered.  It is not recommended that you send your application return-receipt-requested or registered.  This just adds a layer of difficulty to our obtaining your application.  We will acknowledge receipt of your application within a week of its arrival, but more often we will acknowledge it the same day we receive it.

6) The thirty applicants whose applications are selected will hear from us by March 30, 2015, and will need to make up their minds whether to accept to participate by April 3, 2015.  If you say “yes” to us, this will be final.  If our institute is not your first choice, you can only wait until April 3rd to hear from that institute and then make up your mind about us if you have not heard from that other institute.

For more information on the application process, click here.

Additional suggestions:  From our point of view, the most important part of the application is the essay.  This essay should include your reasons for applying to our specific Institute; your interest, both academic and personal, in the topics we will be studying; the relationship between our particular line of study and your teaching or professional responsibilities; your relevant academic qualifications and experiences that equip you to do the work of the Institute and make a contribution to a learning community; what you hope to accomplish by participating, including any individual research and writing projects you foresee undertaking and/or curricular units you will create.  Very important: please review the syllabus provided on our website and look for specific connections you might mention in your essay. We will be looking for some evidence that you have really given our particular Institute goals and design your careful consideration and have concluded that this has the potential for being a very good match with your own goals. Finally, review the comments on our eligibility page if you wish to make the strongest possible application.

Again, we truly appreciate your interest and enthusiastically invite you to apply to participate in our Institute. Over the next couple of months, we will be continually updating this website: If you have additional questions, please contact Stephanie Wood by email (swood AT uoregon DOT edu).


Stephanie Wood, Ph.D.,
NEH Summer Institute

Please note:  Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

A glimpse of Oaxaca city. (S. Wood, 2010)

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