Course Guide: Sample Assignments

In-class assignments
Metro-Tech Walkthrough (Week 1)
E.B. White’s "Here Is New York" (Week 2)

Homework assignments
MetroTech Impression
E.B. White Response Reading Responses.
Urban Open Space Assessment
Case Study Site Proposal
City Story
Case Study Outline

In-class Assignments
Our initial intent was to ask students to spend 5-10 minutes of each class period writing informally in response to a question or comment that would focus the class on one of the issues of the day and stimulate students' thinking so that we would have a more productive discussion. While we did often start with such a question or comment, time constraints and the amount of out-of-class writing due each week led us to abandon in-class writing in favor of asking students to discuss prompts in a small group. The in-class writings and small group discussions both generated rich responses, and we plan to have a better balance between writing and group discussion assignments in future versions of the course. The in-class writing assignments from early in the semester are described below.

Metro-Tech Walkthrough (Week 1). We thought an excellent way to get students thinking about the issues we would cover in the class was to have them physically experience a city space they knew well but whose design they hadn't carefully considered or evaluated. Therefore, after reviewing the syllabus and introducing the main themes of the course, we asked students about their impressions of MetroTech Center, particularly the area known as the Commons, a square within MetroTech that is the main part of Polytechnic's "campus."

A few students felt strongly that the design of the Commons creates integration among the students (with three Poly buildings face three sides of the Commons) and the business employees of MetroTech Center (skyscrapers line the fourth side of the Commons) and the surrounding communities (which include Long Island University, the Fulton Street area shopping district, and low-income housing developments). Other students argued that the design of MetroTech cuts the business district off from the surrounding communities. The discussion led students to realize that both of these hypotheses needed testing and to a discussion of how to test this sort of hypothesis through observation. Students then divided into self-selected teams of 4-5 and took a slow walking tour (about 30 minutes) of MetroTech, with the aim of looking carefully at the physical design of the area. We gave them several specific questions to consider as they walked.

Upon their return, we asked students what they noticed. Their responses included the following:

  • Students wondered about the artwork in the commons. For example, what does the alligator eating the businessman (whose "head" is a moneybag) symbolize?
  • Students felt that there was a clear division between MetroTech and the Fulton Street area made clear by a few fences and the garage/parking area that is unpleasant to walk through.
  • Students felt that the signs in the park (with its list of prohibitions) made it clear that the Commons green area was not a place for play; rather, it was a "bureaucratic park."
  • Students noticed that there really isn't anything to do in the public areas of MetroTech; "MetroTech just surrounds you."
  • Students agreed that MetroTech is a very controlled environment, with hand-picked stores, clear rules, and the prominent presence of BID employees and security officers.
This walking tour was the basis for their first written homework assignment.

E.B. White's "Here Is New York" (Week 2). To stimulate discussion of White's classic essay, we asked students to choose a paragraph that they found particularly intriguing, moving, confusing, or that otherwise stood out for them in some significant way. We found that many of the students chose the famous "three New Yorks" paragraph, and this led to an interesting discussion of the ways we could divide or classify the city. This helped students see that there are many, many ways of looking at a city and its people. The other paragraph that several students chose was the "city as a poem" paragraph, which led to a discussion of metaphors for the city and the place of arts in an urban environment.

Homework Assignments

MetroTech Impression. As a follow-up to the first week's walk-through of MetroTech Center, we asked students to write up their impression of MetroTech Center in 1-2 typed pages. The responses developed points raised in class discussion and drew conclusions such as "MetroTech is clearly not designed with Poly students in mind," "MetroTech was designed for white collar workers," and "MetroTech is a place that looks in rather than looking out. It's an enclosed space." Discussing their responses, students worried about MetroTech's impact on the surrounding area, specifically that the MetroTech development, with its financial giants such as Chase and Bear Sterns, will cause slow but steady gentrification in the area.

Reading Responses. Students were responsible for submitting reading responses 9 out of the 13 weeks of the semester. (Some weeks one response was due, others two; it varied depending upon the length and number of readings.) On weeks that the responses were due, we often allowed students to choose to which among the assigned readings they would respond. We asked that their responses be a cross between a journal entry and an essay, an informal but thoughtful exploration in which they respond to the text. We provided the following questions as prompts for their reading responses:

  • What do you find interesting, thought-provoking, unusual, or moving in the text?
  • What ideas, images, characters, situations, or narrative strategies fascinate or trouble you? Why?
  • What do you think of the characters? Why?
  • Do the characters transform as the story unfolds? Are changes in fortune or circumstance accompanied by a new understanding of the self or of the surrounding world?
  • How does the story - its characters, scenarios, conflicts - relate to our world today? To you personally?
  • What questions does the text raise about our cities? our society?
  • What makes the text powerful?
In addition, we provided the following guidelines:
  • Your reading responses should be thoughtful and show careful reflection. Avoid summaries; instead, explore ideas. Feel free to ask questions and attempt to answer them in your response.
  • Reading responses should be 2-3 pages double spaced and are due at the beginning of class. If you miss a class but wish to submit a reading response, you may send it via email.
Though each week there was a balance between readings in the humanities and the social sciences, most weeks we required students to respond to literature. This put students who were struggling with ESL issues (and were therefore understandably uncomfortable with reading literature, especially poetry) at a disadvantage. These students often had difficulty with their responses, and we had several cases of students avoiding an honest response and instead submitting criticism downloaded from the Internet.

In the future, we will aim for a better balance between humanities and social sciences readings in the reading responses, allowing students more opportunity to response to social science readings as well as to the literature. To help ensure that students are reading all of the assigned texts carefully, we will also ask students to write short responses in class, based on questions that might, for example, ask students to make connections between the humanities and social sciences texts.

E.B. White Response. Because we ran out of class time while discussing E. B. White's essay "Here Is New York," we asked students to respond to the following questions for the next class period in lieu of one of the scheduled reading responses:

  1. How does White map out the city in his essay? What are his organizing principles?
  2. What does White leave out in his optimistic glance of the city?
These questions addressed issues that had been raised in our class discussion but that we didn't have sufficient time to discuss.

Urban Open Space Assessment.

Case Study Site Proposal. After we had read and discussed several Bruner case studies, we asked each group to submit a short proposal describing the site they had chosen for their case study. In class, we'd generated the following list of possible sites in the NYC area. The asterisks indicate sites that were chosen by students:

Past Bruner Award Finalists:
New York City Greenmarket
Greenpoint Manufactiring and Design Center*
Brooklyn-Queens Greenway
Tenant Interim Lease Program
Harlem Meer (Central Park)*

2001 Bruner Award Applicants (not selected as finalists):
Midtown Community Court*
Landmark on Main Street (Port Washington)
Pier 11, Ferry Terminal for the City of New York
Redesign of Herald and Greeley Squares*
Park Avenue Thorpe - Bronx
Knickerbocker Residence (affordable housing project, Brooklyn)
Bridgemarket, Manhattan*
Ewalk (42nd Street)
Elizabeth Port Revitalization (Elizabeth, NJ)
Mount Morris Home Ownership (affordable housing project, NYC)

MetroTech Center*
Battery Park City*
Fulton Mall (pedestrian mall, downtown Brooklyn)*
Fort Greene Park (Brooklyn)
Atlantic Center (shopping center, downtown Brooklyn)
Brooklyn Academy of Music (performing arts center, downtown Brooklyn)*

Students were asked to (1) briefly describe what they knew about the site, (2) list approximately 10 questions that they hoped their research would answer, and (3) describe how they planned to answer those questions - whom they might contact, where they might find archival information, if there were any particular areas they intended to focus on, etc.

City Story.

Case Study Outline.