Like New England and The South, this course on Urban America seeks to explore the relationship between culture and environment. Unlike those two courses, this course directs our attention to a specific type of environment, rather than to a region of the country. Since at least the days of Thomas Jefferson, Americans have had a love-hate relationship with cities. We will want to explore this ambiguous attitude. First, however, we'll have to understand what a city is: how, as a made thing, it represents planning and thinking, and aesthetic values. Then we can proceed to look at ways individuals and groups have reacted to this unique type of environment.
The course has been thoroughly revised since the last time I taught it in 2003. Three of the books for the course have been replaced. There are a number of reasons behind this revision. First, my sense is that fewer and fewer Roger Williams University students are very well acquainted with urban places. Most now live in suburban or even exurban communities. This very unfamiliarity with cities, large or small, famous or obscure, reinforces many of the negative city stereotypes. I’ve chosen some new books which will both explore and to some extent counter those stereotypes. Second, as more and more consumers compete for smaller and smaller supplies of energy, many analysts are beginning to question whether American-style suburbs are going to be sustainable much longer. If these men and women are correct this generation may be the last suburban generation, and coming to grips with urban life may be a task many of them will face. Finally, there are a number of new tools which are available for exploring cities... not only the central business districts, but the neighborhoods, as well. We’ll be using these tools often, and we’ll learn to use these tools together.
This course should be considered experimental. It may head in quite unpredictable directions.
Students in it will have to be both flexible and self-motivating. The best of them will also seize the initiative and explore the possibilities of what we’re going to do with me. Some students are not comfortable in this kind of an environment.
If you are a student who needs lots of structure and specific and predictable outcomes, you may want to consider taking another course instead of this one.
On the other hand, if this sounds like a chance for you to break new intellectual ground, and you can trust me to be fair and flexible in my assessments, then this course could be just the thing for you.
As is the case in all my courses (and has been the case since 1972), the course introduction serves as a broad overview of the semester, but the actual syllabus is constructed on a week by week basis. Also, as has been the case since 2000, each course has a website which supplements and enriches the syllabus. Shortly I shall stop distributing the paper version (there will be printable version available on the website) and students will be responsible for going to the website and locating the work for the next class themselves.
At the left of the home page and every other page is the navigation calendar. Click on the date to discover the week’s work
Books for the course:
There is a lot of reading for this course. Be warned! If you don’t enjoy putting your nose in a book on a regular basis, this may not be a good course for you to take. (It seems like I’m giving a lot of warnings here. I don’t want to scare everyone away, but I don’t want anyone to be surprised about the amount of work, either.)
These should be purchased and added to your personal library:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Random House, 1972
University of Chicago Press, 2004
Major Problems in Urban and Suburban History.
Division Street America
Publisher: New Press 1993
There will be other things I’ll ask you to read as well. These will be drawn from the nearly endless list of resources available on the Internet.
Most Americans equate the Central Business
District or “Downtown” with the idea of cities,
and they assume that “downtown” has
always existed in the form in which it exists
today. Alison Isenberg’s Downtown America
challenges that idea. Her book will introduce
us to the men and women who actually
created the modern “downtown”. Through this
book, we’ll learn why they made the choices
they did, and what some of the consequences
of those choices were.
Howard Chudacoff is a prominent historian of Urban
America, and Major Problems in Urban and Suburban
History constitutes his selection of writings about American
cities and the suburbs which depend on them. We will not
be reading all of this book. We’ll rather pick and choose
which “problems” to investigate. I should say at this time
that “problem” in the sense Chudacoff uses the word is not
a problem of the city (crime, grime, etc. etc.) but an
intellectual problem in interpreting and understanding
The work of the course falls into three overlapping sections.
In Part One, we’ll ground ourselves in the tools we’ll use to try to understand American Urban life, including theories proposed by Jane Jacobs. In
Part Two, we’ll study aspects of urban life in America from both a historical an contemporary point of view. We’ll look at the historic development of “downtown,” and at “downtown” in contemporary America, As well. We will also explore a number of intellectual “problems” related to understanding Urban America.
Part three will constitute a series of reports on key American Cities which will be presented by teams of from four to five students. Currently my roster shows 35 students, which means at a minimum seven groups of five students each.
Each group will prepare a presentation on one of the cities from the list below. The presentations will include something of the history, cultural life, characteristics of the contemporary population in terms of such things as wealth, education, and ethnicity, and an assessment of what it’s like to live in that particular place at this point in the country’s life. No two of these cities are alike, and therefore no two presentations have to be exactly alike. I’ll let the class divide itself into teams. I’ll let the teams indicate their choices of cities, but I may have to do some assigning of places, if too many want to choose the same place. This time around I’m going to allow students to choose from some smaller cities as well as larger ones.
Each city is linked to its official website. Browse around. Remember, however, that the information contained is going to be somewhat selective. No city likes to air too much dirty linen in public.
The reason I’ve selected these particular cities is that there is unique data available for all of them. I am willing to entertain the suggestion of other cities in which groups might be interested, as long as students realize that certain kinds of things would not be as easily obtained.
There are nineteen cities listed, and I expect no more than 9 groups . . . This should keep anyone from having to work with a city they absolutely don’t want to work with. I’ll have more information about this project for you shortly. I want to form the groups by the end of class on September 7, and I’d like to have the cities chosen by those groups by September 14. I’d like the first groups to present by the end of October. So, roughly, we’ll finish Part I of the course by midterm-time, and then work in parts II and III for the rest of the term. I’m expecting reports to run about 20 to 30 minutes or so, so we’ll be able to do two a week, sometimes three, as necessary.
Evaluation and Grading:
Midterm Examination (Take-home) on Jacobs, some of Chudacoff, and possibly some of Isenberg, depending on how things go: 25% of final grade.
Final Examination (Take-home) on sections of Chudacoff and Terkel, 35% of final grade.
Project: 30% of Final Grade, divided into two parts . . . Individual contribution (25%) and overall group (5%). Each member of the group will write up his/her portion of the project in a form appropriate to what he or she does. No matter what the particular portion is, a bibliography will constitute part of the write-up.
Intangibles 10% (Attendance, participation, contribution to your group, and the like).
I’ve charted a very ambitious course for us. If it should turn out that this is too ambitious, I’ll make corrections, but I’m going to expect everyone’s best effort in this class, which is truly going to be a collaborative project if it works well. I’m raring to go, and I hope you are, as well
I think it was Woody Allen who once remarked that 90% of success in life can be attributed to simply showing up. On the other hand, none of us is entirely in control of his or her schedule. I try to construct my attendance policy around these two points. I do take attendance, and I expect people to be here. I liberally excuse absences when I’m informed in advance, or when the cause is truly an emergency. The proper method of informing me of a conflict is by e-mail at the class e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. The class meets once a week. Consequently each absence deprives the class of 1/13 of a student’s potential contribution to the group. Two unexcused absences well reduce one’s grade by one degree (i.e., from B- to C+). Three unexcused absences will result in no credit for the course.
Because group work is an important part of this class, attendance at group meetings is crucial, and dereliction of group responsibilities will result in a grade penalty for the course. Groups will, by and large, set their own rules. However, I will meet with each group at least once in the course of the semester, at a time mutually agreeable to all. Each group will choose a leader/contact person (by whatever method the group wishes to use). That person will receive extra credit for the extra responsibilities involved. These will include keeping a diary of the group’s activities and organizing and chairing the class presentation.
Most of you probably encountered Immanuel Kant’s What is Enlightenment in your Core 102 Class. If not, it is worth a quick reading, and This LINK will bring you to it. Kant practically defines “enlightenment” as a product of the courage to use one’s own mind. Simply put, lacking that courage, one’s learning suffers, and one’s contribution to the learning of others is diminished. Consequently, this course, like all Roger Williams University courses, subscribes to the University statement on plagiarism and issues of academic honesty generally. These are found in the most recent copy of the University Catalogue, or on line HERE.