Teaching the City, Teaching in the City

San Francisco from  The U.S. National Archives via Flickr

San Francisco from The U.S. National Archives via Flickr


Nearly a decade ago, a colleague and I decided to develop a new team-taught Level 3 module on the urban experience in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americas. Drawing upon her expertise in Latin America and mine in the United States, we hoped to complement other staff members’ modules on British and European urban history, and to emphasise the many ways in which, we felt, that the cities of the “New World” differed, in social, cultural, political, economic, geographical, and architectural terms, from those of the “Old.”

Although the course was a success in terms of enrolments and evaluations, and we really enjoyed teaching it, in its initial form it turned out to be a one-off. Her teaching commitments changed and made her unable to continue our collaboration, and I opted to carry on with the module on my own, removing the elements of teaching and learning on Latin America and focussing exclusively on the experience of the U.S. Although my examples ranged from turn-of-the-century St. Louis to contemporary Los Angeles, from the murder of a prostitute in 1830s New York to the challenges faced by Mexican migrants in Depression-era Chicago, I continued to emphasise the seemingly unique nature of the American city, which I attributed variously to the U.S.’s vast physical size, the relative newness of even its longest-established cities, and the immense role played by immigration in the nation’s history in general and that of its urban spaces in particular.

More recently, though, after a decade of teaching this module, I’ve become steadily more interested in bringing the American and the British urban experience into comparison and, ideally, dialogue. This change has stemmed from two sources: firstly, having now lived and worked in Britain, and specifically in the city of Manchester, for over a dozen years, I’m now much more aware of the UK’s urban history, and realise, for example, that the processes of urban regeneration popularly known as “urban renewal” in the US, which played out in many American cities in the 1960s and 1970s, were similarly influential, and were both welcomed and resisted, in locales such as Hulme, a few hundred yards from my University teaching room. Secondly, recent events, such as the anti-G8 protests of 2009 and riots of summer 2011, with which my students are intensely familiar, have turned out to be a great “hook” with which to draw my students into enthusiastic discussion of topics such as the right to protest, the freedom of the streets, the responsibilities of law enforcement personnel, and the sources and meanings of class conflict.

As an historian, I hope to convince students that, in William Faulkner’s often quoted words, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As a scholar of American Studies, although I hope to avoid the “American exceptionalism” which has been so blinkering for politicians and academics alike, part of my task is to encourage students to believe that American history and culture and not just potentially exciting, but that they offer a sharp contrast with the historical and contemporary experiences of Britain, Europe, and other nations and regions of the world. Negotiating these sometimes contradictory values can be and often has been intensely challenging, but the reason that I have continued to offer this course (now called AMER30772: Cities of Dreadful Delight) year in and year out, while rotating, adding, dropping, or significantly reformulating my other undergraduate and postgraduate courses, is that each year I have moved farther from my original belief in the uniqueness of the American urban experience. To give one example, this spring I gave my usual lecture on the phenomenon of “slumming” in the turn-of-the-century U.S., by which middle- and upper-class American urbanites and suburbanites, bored with their usual leisure activities, organised expeditions to slum neighbourhoods in New York, San Francisco, and other cities in order to see “how the other half lived”—tantalised by the perceived exoticism and danger of the urban poor, particularly those who were non-white and/or recent immigrants, they visited working-class saloons, overcrowded tenement houses, and even opium dens, and returned to regale their less adventurous friends with tales of their daring adventures. I contrasted this bygone fad with the more recent one of the undergraduate “chav party,” using comments from student-oriented websites debating why, and how, one might best imitate the appearance, tastes, and behaviour of the perceived “dangerous class.” My students seemed to gain a much more nuanced understanding of the practice of “slumming,” and to see it not simply as a perplexing or amusing but now irrelevant leisure pursuit, but as something which continues, in both theory and practice, to symbolise some widely accepted attitudes about social hierarchy.

The more I alter my lectures, seminars, readings, and assessments by trying to bring the American historical experience of urban life into dialogue with issues that are “closer” to my students, whether in geographic or temporal terms, the more I feel that I need to do. I’m currently thinking of taking next year’s group of students on an “away day” through the streets of Manchester: by doing so, I hope not only to give them first-hand examples of many of the themes of the course, but to encourage them to make additional connections of their own, and to share them with each other and, through me, with future groups of students. As a scholar of the humanities, the focus of my work has always been on the library and the archive, but I’m starting to feel that I’ve acquired a laboratory of my own, in the city where I live and teach.

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