Get to Know New York City in the Summertime at Duke: Saturday Syllabi

Take a class without having to go to school.

Happy Saturday! You made it through the work week relatively unscathed and now you’re home free for a couple of days. Since you’ve got all this time on your hands, why not use it to get your learnin’ on. It’s too hot outside to do much except melt, anyhow.

Last week we highlighted how M.I.T. students got to make their own holograms. This week we’re slowing it down, heating things up, and heading to the Big Apple by way of Durham, North Carolina, and a Duke class from 2013.

Class: Summer in the City

Professors: Marianna Torgovnick, Claire Conceison, and Maleda Belilgne.

Class Goals: “Summer in the City introduces you to New York’s geography, neighborhoods, history, and current cultural issues. It’s a short course, so we cannot do much more than an introduction — one that will allow you to establish a personal relationship to the City through your assignments and to explore New York more fully in SSII. Our special theme for [the class] will be New York in the 21st century, with attention to major changes in the City after 2001 and Hurricane Sandy, to recent demographics, and to growing global connections.”

Assignments: “New York is always and ever a vibrant center for cultural life and the media, but conditions change during the summer. Large segments of the population, often the wealthiest segments, leave for the Hamptons, upstate New York, or other summer places. Rhythms alter, as do the conditions for funding. The issue of public space and how it should be used — always present — becomes more intense as good weather makes public space more available.

As a summer session course, Summer in the City will introduce you quickly to the demographic facts and seek from Week One to make you more aware of how to ‘read’ demographic issues and cultural/social/business potential on the ground. The course will be structured around three assignments of graduated length and complexity, with gradually increasing research.”

  • Participant-Observer Experience:

“You will be assigned at random … a neighborhood, specific locations, or a short walking tour to follow. During Week One, you will visit your location within the city and observe the area you have been assigned as a participant-observer in at least two different places, on two different days of the week, or at two different times of day.”

  • The Summer Semester Project:

“Option A) Design and illustrate a new possible venue/building/use/organization/idea for the neighborhood, site, or cultural institution you toured for Assignment One (or another of your choice). Or re-imagine an existing site/venue that seems to you not fully developed. Your project might include a new sort of space, a new business, a new way of advertising or structuring even … you name it. Your project must include attention to practical matters such as cost, funding, and public safely, though it need not solve every problem that arises.”

“Option B) Write a research paper of approximately 20 pages on a neighborhood, an institution, a building or architect — ideally one encountered for Assignment One. If you wish, you may instead write a research paper on some other aspect of the course: New York movies not discussed in class (or in greater depth than possible in class), a New York poet (Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore, Allen Ginsberg, or a poet of your choice), etc. You may define and narrow the topic as you wish.”

Walking Tour Areas:

1. Lower Manhattan: City Hall, Tribeca, Little Italy, Lower East Side

2. Downtown and the Village: Nolita, Soho, Bleecker Street, East Village, Chelsea, Gramercy Park

3. Midtown: Union Square to Madison Square, The Great White Way and Times Square, The Public Library and Bryant Park, Midtown East

4. Upper West Side: The Gold Coast, Haute Bourgeois Broadway, Riverside Park and the Boat Basin, Church and Gown

5. Central Park Area: East to West, The Heart of the Park, Lincoln Square

6. Upper East Side: The Upper Reaches of Fifth and Madison, Carnegie Hill and Beyond

Reading/Assignment List:

  • Documentary, The Cruise [1998, Bennett Miller, dir.]
  • Venice (Off-Broadway play): Public Theater, Lafayette and Astor Place
  • Harlem Renaissance Tour: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 135th St & Malcolm X Blvd
  • Romeo and Juliet (American Ballet Theatre), Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center Plaza
  • Empress Dowager by Yangtze Repertory Theatre (in Chinese with English subtitles) Theater For The New City (in the Johnson Theater) First Ave. between 9th and 10th Streets

This is the kind of summer class that big city dreamers would kill to take. So much of it insists on observation, perfect for one of the best people-watching cities in the world. The options within the class — ranging from PDFs to Broadway plays to walking tours — are pretty much wide open too, which is freeing in a way, forcing you into the city by steering you through its cultural fabric. It’s a bit tourist-trap happy, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

The assignments are also intimidating in the face of attempting to define or contextualize a massively complex city. You risk oversimplifying it. But in the limited time for a summer class, the observing and engaging assignments give the professors enough leeway to hopefully let the students establish their own connection to certain places around the city and then run wild on it.

Extra points for the assignment that has the students posit how they would “re-imagine an existing site/venue,” which in New York is as common as it is controversial. The city reinvents itself as a matter of respiration. (Not for nothing is it “New.”) But the city has proven it can honor its history while always looking forward and asking what’s ahead.

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