Print This Issue

Talk About Teaching and Learning

November 16, 2010, Volume 57, No. 12

Getting Students to Think About the Place Where They Are

Domenic Vitiello

Sometimes I joke that students take my classes because we take field trips.  I occasionally wonder how much of their motivation lies in the reprieve from a windowless classroom or the dinners and shopping of those who linger after trips to Chinatown or the Italian Market. My own motivations for the trips lie in the additional layers of complexity that the city, its built environment, people, and institutions, offer to the project of getting students to think critically and contextually.  Pushing students to connect class readings and other materials to what we see, hear, and “read” in neighborhoods helps develop more nuanced, sophisticated analysts and problem solvers. Working through the complex, sometimes-disorienting challenges of making sense of cities, urban life, and urban problems can also help students locate themselves in the world, in personal and professional terms. Yet like other subjects or course materials, employing the city as a teaching tool or laboratory for learning carries its own risks.  Some are mildly amusing, while others have greater consequences.

For undergraduate Urban Studies students, the ability to read broad social and economic patterns in the built environment is a vital literacy. This is an intensely local project of analysis property-by-property and sometimes crack-by-crack in old buildings. But by looking closely at a site or neighborhood it also enables them to locate places – and themselves – in the world. My class The Industrial Metropolis (URBS 103) introduces first- and second-year students to U.S. urban economic history and geography from European colonization to global warming. Our first trip is designed for students to begin the process of reading a place and locating it in the world economy. Visiting the Newlin Grist Mill in a bucolic corner of Delaware County, we explore the architectural archaeology of buildings erected and changed over centuries. This tends to elicit scratching of heads as to what this has to do with urban studies. It forces students to make sense of how the rural periphery relates to the urban core, and how processing industries began to build a more complex economy that reshaped the region’s role in the Atlantic economy. Complemented by readings about Manchester’s industrialization and its links to the British Empire, and by maps that locate Newlin in the Philadelphia region, the trip initiates a semester-long process of tracing connections at multiple scales.

Our next trip is to Old City, which makes more visceral sense but is challenging for other reasons. This time students’ confusion comes from the handouts, 11x17 inch photocopies of c.1900 fire insurance atlases. This is the first part of an introduction to documentary sources whose analysis helps us reconstruct urbanization and inform our place in time. Presented with the task of locating where we are on the map and what all the buildings around us were, students learn how old maps can help us interpret what we see today and also to reconstruct what is no longer visible on the ground.

For the major research paper in the class, each student conducts a fine-grained analysis of a Philadelphia industrial district from the Civil War to the Great Depression. They must decipher multiple sources and the relationships between them. While atlases help them track changes in economic geography and physical development, census records and factory inspectors’ reports allow them to reconstruct who lived and worked in East Falls, Kensington, or Spring Garden. The final product is a detailed portrait of industrial restructuring and corresponding changes in the labor market, demographics, and urban landscape. Students tend to emerge somewhat exhausted, partly from reading nineteenth century script, but generally satisfied with what they have accomplished using a set of primary sources that seemed indecipherable just a few weeks earlier. Their ability to triangulate primary sources to construct coherent analysis gives most confidence that they can tackle sophisticated research in any number of disciplines. This capacity to connect disparate information seems an important part of developing students’ critical thinking in all sorts of fields.

The city also helps many students develop a more grounded sense of themselves and their subjects, whether academic or professional.  For the Masters students I teach in City Planning, integrated analysis of the multiple layers of cities tends to be computerized these days, and seemingly easy, thanks to Geographic Information Systems (GIS). But as with any quantitative or geographic information, the data itself is an abstract representation of reality. With this generation of students thoroughly engrossed in digital communication and analysis, we run the risk of training “Nintendo planners” with limited abilities to make sense of things the data cannot capture. GIS is a wonderful tool, but too many plans and public policies today are generated simply from behind a computer screen. Immersion in the city itself helps overcome these pitfalls.  It compels students to wrestle with challenges whose messiness is often obscured by the bright colors and clean lines on their maps. It enables them to connect patterns displayed on maps to direct experience of people and places.

In Metropolitan Food Systems (CPLN 621), we train professional planners to analyze and repair our broken food systems. The major project in the class is a Community Food Assessment, a mode of analysis that attempts to capture the whole food environment of a neighborhood. GIS and administrative data are critical to this endeavor, especially for characterizing demographic, economic, transportation, and other broad patterns. Readily available data on stores, however, tells us little more than their location, square footage, and gross sales.  This does not reveal what sorts of food are available, the quality or cost of that food, nor people’s experience of shopping and eating. Nor does it reveal anything about the vast landscape of food cupboards, community gardens, and off-the-books vendors such as the produce trucks that set up on corners throughout the city. For this information, students need to connect with food relief and other civic organizations, and go out into the field to record their observations block by block.

Engaging substantially in the iterative, deductive process of systematically gathering field data “on the ground” can help students learn to analyze data in more nuanced and critical fashion. This year we partnered with The Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Stores Initiative, which is expanding to push fresh food and social marketing into over 1,000 stores in Philadelphia. Working in two zip codes, students documented the availability, prices, and quality of different foods, and whether stores accept food stamps or vouchers from the Women Infants and Children nutrition program.  They spoke with storeowners, employees, and sometimes customers, and observed people’s shopping behavior.  This enabled students to transcend the current “popular wisdom” that corner stores are simply bad places with bad food that fuel the inner city’s obesity epidemic and related public health crises. One team that spent some quality time in the Hunting Park section of upper North Philadelphia found that certain stores serve as vital centers of community, sites of healthy interaction, social support, and safety in a neighborhood that lacks many other amenities.

Taking or sending Penn students to poor neighborhoods in the city helps develop important forms of literacy as well as sensibilities. Systematically analyzing why inner city communities look and act like they do (usually with the help of readings from history or sociology) helps unpack common assumptions about why “this looks like a bad neighborhood.” Sensitizing our mostly white, privileged students to places they often only pass through on the train tends to be a humanizing experience. A more complex understanding, and often a bit of empathy, can go a long way toward preparing better analysts, problem solvers, and future decision makers. For many students, it informs an important and often challenging process of locating themselves in the world in a social, political, or professional sense.

Of course, engaging in the city has its pitfalls.  Some of our Urban Studies minors in Real Estate have gleaned little about the details of poverty from our trip to Kensington, seeing mostly opportunities for speculation and gentrification. In my class The Immigrant City (URBS 270, CPLN 670), on our trip to South Philadelphia, some hungry students go right for the cheesesteaks and tacos without pausing to critically analyze patterns of labor migration, consumption, and the local politics of illegal immigration. In Chinatown, when we open the City Paper to map out the geography of Asian brothels, some students get caught in the scandal and sensationalism, missing the lesson about economic geography and labor exploitation. As one colleague observed, “these responses allow students to return to a comfortable assurance about urban spaces, immigration and poverty.” Perhaps the greatest risk, though, is that my students will arrive at the end of the semester believing that all cities are like Philadelphia, emerging with a parochial view of urbanization and failing to grasp more of the city’s and their own place in the world. To recapture that broader context, we return to the classroom, to lectures and readings about other cities, and to assignments that build a comparative perspective beyond the city where we find ourselves.

Domenic Vitiello is Assistant Professor of City Planning (School of Design) and Urban Studies (SAS)

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


Almanac - November 16, 2010, Volume 57, No. 12