On course: Bryn Mawr courses and their reading lists

Growth and Structure of Cities 185: Urban Culture and Society: Professor Gary McDonogh and Assistant Professor Juan Arbona.

Urban Culture and Society asks students to think about many dimensions of the city-from neighborhood festivals to public fountains-while listening to diverse citizens who range from squatters to Tokyo shopkeepers to planners and critics. At the same time, it asks students what they value in cities worldwide, what they want to change, and to be an active part of the process of shaping the future of cities.

The Cities Program is taking the opportunity to rethink this foundation course with the arrival of Juan Arbona, who is co-teaching with director Gary McDonogh. "One of the things we were looking for when we hired Juan was someone who was engaged in actual planning and policy issues, because this is an area in which many students want to work," McDonogh said.

Arbona holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from Cornell University and specializes in the political economy of Latin American urbanization.His current research is in Bolivia and Peru, perspectives that complement McDonogh's anthropological work in Barcelona, Hong Kong and American cities. Both, however, share the program's commitment to the problems, excitement and vitality of the city as a focus of study.

"We want students to understand how a city functions-the social, legal, economic and cultural mechanisms that make it work-before we get into the details of how to make it work better," Arbona said. "What are the different meanings that cities have in an international context? In what way are cities in Latin America and Africa similar and different and why? Cities are so complex and constantly changing-we are trying to help the students see urban spaces through many different lenses."

When McDonogh joined the department in 1992, he created 185 to complement Professor Emeritus of History and Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus in Humanities Barbara Mil-ler Lane's Cities 190: Form of the City as a social science introduction to the program, focusing on global coverage and student interaction with the city.

"We use Philadelphia a great deal and ask students to think about not only their academic study but goals of citizenship as well," McDonogh said. Both courses are core requirements for the major. Form of the City, now taught by Assistant Professor Carola Hein, focuses on visual culture, the historical development of cities, planning, and issues of urban form. It has taken on more global perspectives that incorporate her work in Japan as well as Europe. "In Cities 185, we want students to think about many social, cultural and political economic issues," McDonogh said. "We also try to let them to ask na´ve questions, to think about the aspects of city life that they take for granted. Many of our bi-co students have lived in cities all of their lives. Others come from more suburban or rural areas of the United States.

"For students familiar with U.S. cities, rethinking often involves discovering connections between familiar urban questions and the experiences-and solutions-of cities around the globe. For students from abroad, the course often involves analyzing myths about the United States as well as sharing reflections about their varied metropolitan experiences."

Bestor, Ted. Neighborhood Tokyo. Stanford: Stanford University Press (1989).

LeGates, Richard and Frederic Stout, eds. The City Reader. London: Routledge (2000).

Low, Setha, ed. Theorizing the City: The New Urban Anthropology Reader. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers (1999).

Page, Max. The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1999).

Whalen, Carmen Teresa. From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia: Puerto Rican Workers and Postwar Economies. Philadelphia: Temple University Press (2001).

Comparisons arise, for example, in discussion of the commoditization of resources such as water in shifting global markets. Arbona works near Cochambamba, Boliva, which has received widespread media coverage because of local revolt against multinational privatization of the water system. "To distribute water within a city you need a certain amount of investment, which is becoming harder and harder to do," Arbona said. "Cities are being encouraged to privatize water management and distribution rights. This raises the question, 'Should we treat water as a human right or as a commodity? This is a hotly debated issue throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia."

"Many students from American cities where the infrastructure has been in place a long time don't necessarily think about the power relations involved," McDonogh said, "yet we're seeing many of the same issues come up, because most American cities are not self-sufficient in terms of water."

There are lighter moments as well, when the class turns to Halloween and its meanings as an urban ritual.

"Before listening to bi-co students, I had not realized how different Halloween is from place to place in the United States," McDonogh said. "There are Manhattanites who never leave their apartment building for trick or treating; while there are others in New York for whom it's a very neighborhood event-or an event for young men rather than women. Students also seem to have more knowledge than I recall from my childhood about places outside their neighborhood that have really good candy." Arbona, who did not grow up experiencing Halloween, wonders "if international students have a different experience of Halloween by watching it on television or in movies?"

Senior majors return to the course as teaching assistants and occasional lecturers, while alumnae/i (more than 400 students have taken the course) also have returned as guest speakers. This semester's TAs, Marshall Scholar Allison Hayes-Conroy '03 and Rosemary Barbera, graduate student in Social Work and Social Research, run voluntary discussion groups and talk with students as they try to figure out how to approach questions and assignments. The teaching team meets weekly to talk about the class, student needs, and current issues.

The course demands four written assignments, usually from 5-8 pages in length, which allow students to use the ideas and tools of lectures, readings and discussions.

The first assignment asks students to analyze how people use and create space. They must observe and interpret places in greater Philadelphia defined by characteristics such as constructions of nature, smoking, memorial art, or the peculiarities of a third floor. The second asks students to look critically at mass media presentations of data on urban issues.

For the third assignment, groups of students tackle sites in greater Philadelphia. While the last varies, "Every year I include the Italian Market, Old City, churches, bookstores, cultural institutions, urban public spaces, and Manayunk," McDonogh said. Students must find out where the site is, how to contact people there, and how to get there. At the site itself, they need to talk to people involved with the institution as well as passers-by and neighbors. They look at surrounding services, at census materials to help determine how the neighborhood has changed over the last 20 years, and are asked to consider whether there should be an alternate use for the site.

"Working on projects in teams is very important if you're going on to a career in planning," McDonogh said. "As they report to the class, groups have staged plays and done elaborate audio-visual presentations; they're telling one another how Philadelphia is and what they learn from people there." The final paper asks students to deal with planning and policy questions that integrate theory and data from the course.

You may order these books from the Bryn Mawr College Bookstore, whose proceeds benefit the College: Elizabeth Morris, Bryn Mawr College Bookshop, New Gulph Road, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010, 610 526 5322, emorris@brynmawr.edu

cover icon Return to Winter 2002 highlights