HY3257 The Philippines: A Social and Cultural History – Deconstructing the popular image of the Philippines

In this interview, Dr Portia Reyes tells us about HY3257 The Philippines: A Social and Cultural History, which will be offered to undergraduates in AY2021/2022 Semester 1.

Tell us a bit more about the module! Could you share some memorable experiences you had while teaching it?

The module primarily looks at the Philippines as an exemplar – a case study, if you will – of social and cultural history. What I try to do here is to introduce students to the nuances of what they see and perceive of the country from what they consume through popular culture. For instance, the Philippines is often depicted as a spectacle of poverty, of natural hazards, and a place of immigrant labour. What I try to do is to help students see beyond that picture and provide students with a social and cultural history of the country.

This means that we trace the origins of these “pictures” and go back to the primary sources and the canon of historiography. What I try to do is to re-introduce students to the importance of reading – really reading – primary sources. Beyond that, of course, I want to introduce them to different sources of social and cultural history.

In the module, we examine sources, but I’ll also try to introduce other aspects like evidence of material culture, which could be a song, or prayer. Archaeological and anthropological data like these are now being appropriated as primary sources or primary evidence of culture, and become what we might know today as new cultural history and new social history. We’ll try to apply a hybrid of the philosophies of these two approaches in the case of the Philippines. We’ll see the present narrative of the country as not just a history of the Philippines as a country, but something to be understood by examining the deep historical roots of the place leading up to the present.

How did you develop your research interest in this area? 

I’m a trained intellectual historian, but I view intellectual history from the perspective of new cultural history. Some of my best mentors in both the Philippines and Germany are cultural historians, but I focus on intellectual history. My students are therefore introduced to how I view history, in this regard. It’s a little difficult to teach intellectual history as I know it, because I focus on intellectual history and historiography, but I try to walk students through cultural history and social history. The kind of training I got, however, was a little dated because at that time people focused on quantitative kinds of social history. What I try to do with my students is to introduce students to more qualitative kinds of social history, of course without losing sight of quantification. That entails an almost retrospective, anthropological view of history as we know it. 

I try to introduce students to other examples such as in material culture, like epidemics. We could read epidemics as a learning towards understanding a cultural history of disease in the Philippines, or how health regulations evolved across time. We could also look at letters, administrative letters, that people had written to find out the atrocities of the Second World War. We could look at poetry or songs to understand the perspective of revolutionaries in the 20th century. While we examine these sources, I’ll introduce students to the ‘history of the mind’.

Could you share any memorable experiences or interesting discussions that came up in your classes?

There are so many! When the module was offered last semester, I met some really bright students out there. 

There were two writing projects. The first is a critique of a journal article. The second is a comprehensive review of a film or documentary. It’ll be an analysis of a film as a document, not just as a subject of its time. They could choose an alternative, too, to analyse two or three evidence of material culture. 

In relation to this, one very interesting paper I received was on Filipino sculptures, like Catholic icons, and their relationship with Western culture and sculpture art form. It was interesting, because the student was able to point out that these sculptures did not just contain hints of Westernisation, but also had Filipino elements in iconography. That’s very impressive, and something that you might expect from a very good History student, not just here but also in the Philippines. This is a great compliment, because (for being in the place of study,) students in the Philippines have a much richer understanding of the Filipino culture and identity, and the student I had was comparable to them. That was very interesting – very smart.

We noticed that your module offers alternative essays/assignments! What are they like, and why did you choose to offer them? 

As long as you talk it over with me, I am game! 

On the whole, I’m used to not giving assigned questions in essays. I normally give students as much liberty as I can. But in NUS, it is typical for modules to assign specific questions for assignments. Giving alternative assignments is my attempt to provide for students with the core principle of granting them more liberty to choose a topic. 

And I think that’s important. It’s a good thing, because it provides students the freedom to think for themselves and conceive history in relation to what they are interested in. Of course, this is all done without losing sight of the module topic. 

I’m not used to setting hard questions for my essays, but because I am required to provide set questions, my provision of an alternative essay assignment is an attempt to enable them to freely choose and decide what they wish to write.

Do you have any advice for students who might be interested in your module or the larger practice of investigating social/cultural history?

Come interested! (laughs) That is the most important – come interested, be open, and be ready, of course, to do some work. The work will pay off, because you will learn a lot in the process.

When I conceived of the module, it’s not just about providing data, but I also designed it to provide students with skill sets towards understanding and practise social and cultural history on their own. Hopefully, after going through the module, students will remember and employ these skill sets in their own case studies in the future, even if they might forget whatever data they learnt about the Philippines. That’s what I would love students to take home!

This interview is a part of the Humans of History series, which spotlights the stories of the people that make up the NUS History community.

Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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