The Pedagogy of Place

Historians discuss ways to teach students -- and themselves -- more about the cities where they work and live.
January 4, 2008

There’s no denying the selling power of "urban." It's proven effective as a word to describe real estate (urban lofts) and retail (Urban Outfitters), so why not as a way to pique students' interest in an academic field?

Flip through history course catalogs these days and you're likely to see "urban" in a range of titles. And it's not just professors with Ph.D.'s in related history subfields teaching the courses. Take, for instance, a panel assembled for a session Thursday at the American Historical Association's annual meeting on "Teaching Urban History," featuring speakers with backgrounds in such areas as environmental policy and American studies. The common thread: Panelists said their interest in urban history came, at least in part, from a desire to learn more about the places where they work and live.

It's a topic of perpetual importance at colleges, the panelists agreed, given that many students come each year to a new city that they know little about. Students who are often bored in survey history courses don't typically report the same disillusionment with the urban history courses, several speakers said. The reason? Courses about regional history lend themselves to assignments that get students out of the classroom and into the surrounding communities. For that reason, many described the courses as helping to improve town-gown relations.

Amy Howard, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond, said students there are often guilty of living in the oft-cited "bubble" of college life. The course she teaches, "The Urban Crisis in America," requires them to speak to city residents for documentary films they create and blogs they update. Students in the course also live together, which Howard said increases the likelihood of strong discussion.

The class covers issues that plague cities across the country but weaves in a history of Richmond on several occasions. Gregory Wilson, an associate professor of history at the University of Akron, uses the same approach for an urban history course he teaches to undergraduates. His syllabus includes day trips to historic Akron sites, and a visit from a former factory worker as part of a lesson on the history of rubber.

Steven H. Corey, an associate professor and chair of urban studies at Worcester State College, takes students to visit toxic waste sites as a way to illustrate environmental history. (His dissertation was about the history of trash in New York City.)

“The active learning component is critical,” Corey said. “We aren’t just standing there lecturing. Students are using urban history, and they take it with them once they leave the classroom.”

Added Wilson: “Students want service learning and engagement, and they're not finding it in many other classrooms."

Wilson said he sees a growing number of professors becoming interested in community integration. And it's an attractive proposition for colleges, which promote the idea of students being engaged residents in their areas. There's also a growing amount of grant money available for professors who can show that they are getting students involved in promoting city history.

"Provosts and presidents are very interested in this right now," Howard said. "There's a groundswell of support."

(Panelists also said it's telling that the AHA approved a panel on the teaching of urban history. They agreed such a session would have been unlikely 10 or 15 years ago, as the field was maturing and the association focused more on research topics.)

Speakers noted that when designing assignments for urban history courses, professors have to keep in mind students' varied backgrounds. It works both ways: Some have no knowledge of the region, while others might have preconceived notions of a place that impedes classroom discussion. Howard said she gives students in her urban crisis course an introduction to Richmond during the second week of classes by taking them on a bus tour through the city's core.

“If you’re sending them into the unknown and they go into a project with just their assumptions, you're doing everyone a disservice," she said. "The students are just going to put their tail between legs and shut it down."

Howard and others said they explain to students that they're interviewing and listening to city residents in order to collect historical data, not to take part in community service.

Several speakers identified potential drawbacks to the interactive approach for teaching urban history. A professor from a private urban institution said her students are far more focused on studying abroad and learning about global issues and aren't willing to take an interest in the city -- making a documentary project she assigned in her history class unfulfilling.

Others said students -- and especially those who have jobs -- can be turned off by the amount of out-of-class time the courses require. Hands-on assignments can also be more difficult to assess than tests and essays, some panelists noted, given the group work often involved and potential unequal distribution of work.

And then there’s the issue of what to do with the students' material. History professors aren't archivists, the panelists noted, so often times the documentaries and other projects end up sitting in storage after the course is through. That wasn't the case in at least one instance, however, as Howard said her students' film about homelessness in Richmond was picked up by the city's Chamber of Commerce.


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