Study Abroad in the City

At conference of education abroad professionals, one question was how best to use the urban centers as texts.

April 13, 2011

BOSTON – How can you best use the city as a classroom? Speakers at last week’s Forum on Education Abroad conference offered a range of answers to that question.

“Some scholars have been talking about the 21st century as the century of the city, and I don’t think that’s hyperbole,” said Xiangming Chen, dean and director of the Center for Urban and Global Studies and a professor of sociology at Trinity College, in Connecticut. Not only is the world’s population more than 50 percent urbanized at present, that figure is projected to rise to 70 percent by 2050.

Chen described Trinity's summer study abroad program, "Megacities of the Yangtze River," in which students cruise down the Yangtze, stopping in four cities, starting in Chongqing and ending in Shanghai, accompanied by three Trinity professors – a sociologist, an historian and an ecologist. "What’s striking about the cities in China is the combination of speed and scale; when you put the two together you really have an unprecedented transformation process," Chen said. "These places are really so big that it can be hard for students to fathom the complexity." The program begins, however, by offering a more modest basis for comparison – students spend their first week on Trinity's home campus, focused on the industrial and social history of Hartford, a small city of about 125,000, and its connections to the Connecticut River.

Trinity’s megacities program in China is one of many discussed in the new city-themed issue of the Forum’s interdisciplinary journal on study abroad, Frontiers, which includes a range of articles on different theoretical constructs useful in teaching and understanding the city – such as Foucault’s notion of "heterotopias," Benjamin’s discussion of the "flâneur," and de Certeau’s conceptions of "walking in the city" – and varying pedagogical approaches.

At the Forum conference on Friday, Milla C. Riggio, a professor of English at Trinity who started the college’s program in Trinidad, described the use of Port-of-Spain, a small city, comparable in size to Hartford, that she described as “densely multicultural and multiethnic.” Trinidad's population is 41 percent Indo-Caribbean, 39 percent Afro-Trinidadian and 20 percent all others (Chinese, Colombian, Corsican, English, French Creole, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Syrian….)

As Riggio, an expert on Carnival and Shakespeare, describes it, Trinidad and Tobago remains a developing country with a strong festival culture, but it is also a major global economy and exporter, the number one producer of methanol in the world and number two for ammonia; it also supplies 80 percent of the liquefied natural gas used in the United States. Students examine a variety of issues related to urbanization and globalization, including environmental issues, economics and ethnic and religious tensions (the major religions include Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Anglican, Pentecostal, Baptist and Islam). Significantly, said Riggio, "We are able to put students in an English-speaking Muslim culture with a very strong female presence."

"Urban studies, with this multidisciplinary approach, I think is ideal for a study abroad program," said Michael Steinberg, executive vice president for academic programs at IES Abroad. He presented Friday on IES’s Metropolitan Studies Program in Berlin, offering an overview of such courses as "The Recycled and Fragmented City," "Metropolitan Development: Urban Studies in Comparative Perspective," and "Visual Culture and the Urban Landscape." The latter course, for example, includes discussion of such topics as art in public spaces and "how to deal with monuments of an unbeloved past" (policies of demolition and replacement), and involves a variety of field trips, including to various buildings connected with the Nazi regime and the Berlin Wall strip, described in the syllabus as "urban waste, boom area and Land Art object."

As Elizabeth Brewer, of Beloit College, and Michael Monahan, of Macalester College, write in the introduction to the new issue of Frontiers, "To learn from the city means to engage with its assets and riches, but also with its pressing problems, contradictions, and paradoxes. It also means to reflect upon urban settings as places where civilizations often meet and define themselves, and where populations and infrastructure change over time, sometimes slowly, but in other cases, rapidly."


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