Date of this Version
In: Place, Self, Community: City as Text™ in the Twenty-First Century, Edited by Bernice Braid and Sara E. Quay. National Collegiate Honors Council, 2021.
I had been hearing about City as Text™ (CAT) for some time from my honors dean, Sara E. Quay, and from faculty members who had participated in CAT programs around the nation and internationally. So when Sara asked if I would like to participate in the Rotterdam City as Text Faculty Institute, I was prepared—in a broadly conceptual sense. Needless to say, Rotterdam was fabulous, the Institute was eye-opening, and I was converted.
Bringing that energy and set of ideas back to my own honors foundations class was a way of preparing the students to look with new eyes, not just through a disciplined or focused gaze. Honors students often arrive at a critical moment; they have demonstrated maturity and purpose, resolve and dedication, but they are not yet locked into a unidirectional pattern of task and completion. They can still be encouraged to wander off-script and appreciate aspects of the world that, under usual circumstances, they might regard as distracting or insignificant. And where better to start than in their own small college town, which they likely know only in terms of its supermarkets and quickest ways to the interstate highway.
Taking the ideas that I had engaged in Rotterdam into the classroom, I greeted my HON200 students with the news that their first assignment would be an exploration—a walkabout in CAT terminology— in downtown Beverly, Massachusetts. Too well-mannered to groan, they listened attentively as I explained the walkabout (as an Australian, I found particular resonance in this term), organized them into groups, and encouraged them to “notice as much as you can, filter nothing.” I had become particularly concerned about the reach of television shows such as The Amazing Race— with its encouragement of American contestants to see the world not in its complexity but as the shortest route between an entry and exit point: the world as a gameboard, with prizes for avoiding “distractions” such as local culture, routines, and people—or worse, Survivor, which looks like a Dickensian study abroad program with its “eat or be eaten’’ social Darwinism and tokenized representations of “exotic culture.” CAT might well be the antidote; its prize was deliberate encouragement to stop, get lost, read, make connections, chat, or taste, reshaping individual expectations in a new (or old) location. I did not want our students to think of “place” as a set of boxes to be checked before returning with a completed worksheet but as a multidimensional set of realities with social, physical, historical, political, infrastructural, and commercial layers.
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