This cities course was by far the most successful of the three Gateway cities courses run at Poly. The success, we believe, is rooted in two main changes we made from the previous years: (1) a more focused project with a clear model for students to follow and (2) a truly interdisciplinary (rather than middle-of-the-road) approach to the material.
More focused project
Asking students to develop their own case studies using the Rudy Bruner Awards as models helped us avoid the problem of the previous two years of students not really knowing what to do for their projects. In our first year, for the team project, we asked students to develop a plan for Governor's Island (at the time the future use of the island had not yet been determined). But this was too ambitious, for two main reasons: (1) we weren't able to spend the time on urban planning and design issues that would have made such a project truly meaningful for students and (2) such a project demanded design skills that the course wasn't designed to address, skills that few students had developed on their own or through other courses.
The second year, we asked students to choose a neighborhood in the city and, as a final project, develop a "descriptive essay" (a detailed narrative with photos) that defined and characterized the neighborhood. While this was a more appropriate assignment for the course because it asked students to describe and analyze rather than design, students were still unclear about what questions to ask about their neighborhoods and how to find answers to their questions.
The beauty of the Rudy Bruner case study model is that instead of focusing on a neighborhood - which is still much too large a subject to be manageable for a project for this course - students were able to focus on a specific place or project within a neighborhood and discuss how that project has impacted city life. In addition, reading and discussing several case studies gave students a much clearer idea of (1) what kinds of questions are important to ask when analyzing the effectiveness of a city space, (2) why those questions are important, and (3) how to go about getting answers to those questions. Further, this projects led students to discover the many ways that city life can be improved and how politics, economics, history and environment are inter-related and inter-dependent factors in any city design project.
A Truly Interdisciplinary Approach
The second major departure from the previous versions of the cities course was to significantly alter the reading materials for the course. In years one and two, we included many readings in the humanities, but only a few - Jorge Louis Borges' "The Garden of the Forking Paths," for example - were works of literature. We decided that this time our humanities texts would consist mainly of stories about city life, works of literature and art concerned with the same problems in the city that past and present Bruner finalists addressed: homelessness, connection to nature, connection to others, connection to the past, and the place of (need for) arts in the city. This not only allowed us to group humanities and social sciences readings in accessible units but also to help students see how the different disciplines might address the same issues. Further, these creative pieces gave students models for creating their own city stories, a new assignment for the course that allowed students to express their feelings about the city in a creative and engaging way. In addition, our emphasis on creative texts encouraged students to be more creative in their final reports. The Herald/Greeley Squares team, for example, included a wonderful fictional narrative and a video as part of their final report.
Helping students make connections. After many lengthy planning meetings, the connections between the humanities and social sciences texts seemed quite clear to us. But it quickly became evident that one of the main challenges of the course would be to help students see those connections clearly.
On the first day of class, for example, after we reviewed the syllabus, one student said, "I've heard what this course is not, but I don't quite see what it is." After the class, in which we'd talked briefly about the Bruner awards and examined William Blake's poem "London," a few students expressed discomfort at a class in which the professors switched gears so dramatically. Besides, this was a course about cities, wasn't it? So why were we going to spend so much time reading stories and poems?
To address this concern, we began the second class with this question : "What is the place of literature and art in a cities course?" This question generated interesting responses from the students, who began to see that the humanities and the social sciences are two different ways to explore the complexities of city life - but that the two approaches often arrived at similar conculsions. Later the connection between the two disciplines was made more clear as we discussed the Bruner finalist that was to eventually win the 2001 Bruner Gold Medal Award: The Village of Arts and Humanities in north Philadelphia. When discussing this Bruner finalist, we asked students what they thought was the value of this project. Why use art as a way of revitalizing a depressed area where so many people lack the basic necessities and where affordable housing, job training, and other more practical projects could make a major difference in residents' lives? Here's how the students responded:
- Why art?
- Why not?
- art can enrich
- art can educate
- art can pull people together
- art can bring outsiders in
- art can provide employment
- art can empower
- art can offer spirituality
- art can create pride (in both having and creating)
- art can inspire
- art can lead to economic development
Of course, as much as we improved the course this time around, there are many things we hope to do differently next time to further improve the course. They include:
- Further limiting the number of readings and reading responses. Though we limited the texts to what we thought would be a manageable number, the material we chose was so rich for discussion that we had to cut several texts from the syllabus and abandon our plans to walk the Brooklyn Bridge. In other instances, our expectations were simply not realistic. For example, it would be nearly impossible to cover both "Bartleby the Scrivener" and "The Overcoat" and a corresponding Bruner case study about a project that addresses homelessness (our schedule for week 5) in a meaningful way in just one class period. In addition, limiting the readings would reduce the number of required reading responses, which would result in fewer but more thoughtful responses since students could take more time with each text.
- Better use of the course website. We had hoped that the ease with which students could use the discussion board in Blackboard - and the wealth of ideas and issues raised in each class - would encourage students to continue discussions and raise questions online between class meetings. However, because online participation was not a requirement, and because technical difficulties often limited our use of the site and other Web materials during class, student (and faculty) use of the site dropped significantly after the first few weeks of class. We did, however, continue to post reminders of assignments and interesting links to relevant materials throughout the semester.
- Provide model reading responses. Despite the details in the syllabus, some students were unclear about exactly what was expected in a reading response. As a result a number of responses were either summaries or critical analyses, often with information downloaded directly from the Internet. Giving students a few samples of model responses would address this problem.
- Allow more group time both in and out of class. Though most of the team projects were good to excellent, we think that more class time devoted to the project would have helped teams work more effectively and develop more sophisticated projects.
- Start team projects earlier in the semester. Getting students started on their projects two to three weeks earlier in the semester would allow for more research time and instructor feedback.
- Discourage projects on places that already have Bruner case studies available. The teams that chose to revisit a previous Bruner winner tended to rely too much on the existing report and do less investigating than the other groups working with new material. In addition, with an existing case study, students were not as challenged in thinking about what questions to ask and how to find out the answers.
- Focus on development of critical thinking skills in students. We found that a significant portion of the students in the class had difficulty understanding the complexity and inter-relation of the issues raised in the class and addressed by the literature and case studies. We need to determine how to best address this issue.