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Ted Henken: Cubanologist And Teacher

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Professor Ted Henken, who takes over as Chairman of the Department of Black and Hispanic Studies as of the Spring 2010 semester, has recently come to public attention as the author of "El Yuma," (approximately, "the Yank") a blog devoted to the newly emerging Cuban blogosphere. In Cuba, thanks to tight government control of the media, blogging is more difficult, but also more important, than in the U.S.

While Henken does not see blogs as necessarily radicalizing or democratizing agents, his research of the Cuban "blogosphere" clearly shows the important role they can play in diversifying Cuba's monopolistic media environment and promoting a more inclusive national civic debate about Cuba's many challenges. The Internet lays a good foundation for a battle of ideas, but it does not necessarily favor a winner," he says.

Henken calls the World Wide Web part of the "connective tissue," that is already helping many Cubans overcome the political isolation they experience, imposed by what he calls the "double embargo": the U.S. embargo against Cuba and the Cuban government's embargo against the Cuban people.

Professor Henken, who holds a PhD in Latin American Studies from Tulane University in New Orleans, became interested in Cuban culture prior to graduate school, when he was a social worker, helping resettle Cuban refugees in Mobile, Alabama. He did his doctoral dissertation on Cuba’s underground economy and once wrote an article entitled "Everything Is Prohibited But Anything Goes." It’s a phrase that pretty much summarizes his view of how Cuban society functions.

With travel to Cuba becoming less restrictive, Henken is already planning to bring his students with him on his next visit. In the fall of 2010, he will be co-teaching a course at Baruch on "Cuban Culture and Society" and towards the end of the semester, he hopes to transport the entire class to "a sister institution" in Cuba. It should be quite an experience, but it won’t be the first time Henken has taken Baruch students on extended field trips. Ever since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, he has been leading small groups of students from Baruch and the Macaulay Honors College on Spring break "service learning" projects to the Big Easy. There, they learn about the "the history of the city, its ecosystem, geology, engineering projects, public policy, and the rich ethnic and musical culture," — all while wielding hammers and carrying bricks to help homeowners rebuild the many damaged houses.

Ted Henken is a special kind of teacher, one who combines scholarly objectivity with activism. That’s not always and easy thing to do. In 2007, he was the winner of the President’s Excellence Award for Distinguished Teaching, a recognition of his dedication to his students. Just at the moment, he is busy with another ad hoc project: a combination teach-in and fundraiser for Haiti, a disaster of massive proportions, and one certain to have long-term hemispheric consequences.