In the past few weeks, one of my courses has embarked on a wee experiment in democratic education. What I call “Guided Group Learning” is a structure for students to pursue their own interests on a topic in a group setting
Some important notes:
This exercise is at the end of a year-long course called Portland! It is part of a group of year-long courses at Portland State University (called Freshman Inquiry, or FRINQ) that students choose from. In our course, we did a quarter of Portland History, another quarter of geography (physical, political, cultural), and this quarter was divided between economic geography, the elections that we just had (so, basically a short course in civics) and this section: Guided Group Learning.
In order to get to these two weeks of student-led education, students had to write a proposal (see below for the outline.) This was hands down the worst part of the whole process. Students found the assignment confusing, I often found their efforts to be thin, and we were all pretty frustrated for a while.
I also think it is in these moments of frustration when we actually learn the most: they had to learn to consider what the instructions mean beyond what is on the page, and to express their ideas more clearly. And I have to learn – as a teacher – to be more compassionate, more patient, more specific, and to admit to my own shortcomings in writing the assignment. I also have to express to them how to improve on their work without anger or turning them off to the main point of the project, which is to learn on their own terms.
So the groups chose, based on some loose parameters: they chose to study local sports teams, food carts, transportation, local markets. It has been really exciting to see them dive into the work.
And although there is a lot of planning at the top, and presenting at the end, I think the best part is the time in the classroom during these weeks of ‘go.’ Here are a few reasons why.
First – not everyone is here all the time. Some students are off on field trips or doing interviews with scholars and community members each day, so there are only four or five groups in the classroom on any given day. This makes it possible for me to give attention to anyone who wants it in a meaningful way.
Second – students sit and they work together. They work in the ways that are comfortable for them, ways that I would not necessarily choose or approve of, but ways that work, whatever that may mean. Headphones in ears, perhaps, which I would never allow. Or reading an article in class together instead of reading it before, and coming in ready to discuss. Might some of those ways just be bad habits? Sure. But this gives me the chance – for a short while, and in a controlled setting – to watch them work as they do on their own, and to learn a bit about their process.
Third – and this may seem both obvious and a bit pat – the learning is theirs. They have a list of tasks they must complete, and I am there to follow their lead, to answer questions and to get out of the way.
This, I find, is also the hardest part in all dimensions: the getting out of the way. Letting students do things their way, letting them come up with answers and ideas that are less sophisticated than what I might impart, but which I know from experience have more staying power. Letting go in this way is incredibly hard. Looking forward to the end result.
Guided Group Learning proposal assignment
- Choose a site or topic. This should include a particular place or places. “Portland Parks” is not a meaningful topic, but a particular park or comparison between two parks is meaningful. Why did you choose it? (150 words, individual).Choose at least two news articles your group will analyze, and explain why it is important. How do you know the source is credible? Is it current or historical? Why is the time frame useful? (100 words, individual).
- Choose at least one scholarly article your group will read together, and explain why it is important. (If you’re stuck, begin with Google scholar or talk to a librarian.) (150 words, individual).
- Choose a scholar or community member to interview; make a plan for getting in touch with that person and draft an email. (300 words, group).
- Choose at least one site for a field assignment, and write up the field assignment in the style of the assignments we have been doing all year. How should I assess (grade) its quality? (100 – 500 words, group)
- Length and parameters for your final assignment (paper, video, podcast) and presentation. How should I assess (grade) its quality? (400 – 500 words, group).
- How will all of the pieces of this assignment go together? (300 – 500 words, individual).
Lately, I have been digging into parts of my research that have to do with fees for entry: that is, a city (in this case New York) charging the public to use certain spaces. This isn’t entirely uncommon in a lot of places — leagues rent ball fields, people rent time on a tennis court, and people pay admission to get into public swimming pools.
Why is this such a big deal? Because most public space, most of the time, is free to enter.
So thinking about fees is useful because, in social science research, we often find an exception (or something that people find exceptional), and we dig in to see what we can find out. In this case: what can I find out about how public space operates in cities by examining the times that public space is used to generate revenue ? Who do policies like this include and exclude? For whom is it a hardship? What sort of rationale goes into justifying this fee to residents of the city?
I find this topic incredibly important, but—like a lot of research into the everyday workings of making a city run—also a little banal. Furthermore, I am currently investigating the *history* of the fee for swimming, from about 1870 to about 1980. That’s right: I dig through archival sources in order to understand, for instance, the choice to charge adults 25 cents and children 10 cents to get into a public swimming pool in the 1930s.
And, like all researchers, there are days when I think what if this isn’t important? or what if no one cares?
And then this article popped up yesterday in the Guardian about a company called ‘Go Ape’ that has restored some playgrounds in London for everyone to use, by charging a rather high fee for some people to go on its high-in-the-air obstacle course. To some, this is a fine logic: everyone gets a nice park and a playground, and those that can pay get something cooler. It’s just the market at work. But what I find in my research is that this kind of logic is self-reinforcing, and sends other public places scrambling for similar revenue streams. As the article notes:
“A report by the fund last year estimated that 45% of local authorities are considering either selling parks and green spaces or transferring their management. More recent research suggests this is most likely to affect smaller green spaces, especially those in metropolitan areas.”
Now, this partially has to do with how parks in England are organized and funded. New York City is not allowed to sell off its parks to developers whole cloth, but they certainly can move management to private organizations and this happens all the time.
And while some neighborhoods (like those around Central Park) can afford to support a private conservancy to fund operations, the majority cannot. In fact, the 2014 city-wide “Community Parks Initiative” is slated to spend $130 million on 35 parks in the outer boroughs that haven’t been rehabbed in years. And while that may sound like a lot of money, consider that these 35 parks were chosen from a list of 215 that urgently need the help. The neighborhoods around these parks are not able to raise their own funds, but now there is a logic floating around that perhaps they should.
So back to history:
When the pools opened in the summer of 1936, Parks charged a fee of 10¢ for children and 20¢ for adults. This was the first time fees would be charged for use of public spaces and the idea was met with resistance from the start. At the opening ceremony for Hamilton-Fish pool on the Lower East Side, Mayor LaGuardia tried to appease patrons, who were protesting loudly, stating, “This is all new to New York and all experimental… After the experience of this Summer we will know just how to arrange things next year” (“East Side Cheers,” NY Times, June 25, 1936).
Of course, this wasn’t experimental. It ushered in a whole era of fee-charging in order to balance city budgets for a number of decades. The Parks department also introduced a free period, but it was only for children, and only during particular hours — not the hottest hours of the day. While (almost) everyone got to use the pool in some capacity, the fee structure created a two-tiered system, indicating to the poorest children that the public space was not entirely theirs to use.
What effect does this low-grade exclusion have on children for the rest of their lives? To what extent do they believe the city is theirs, just as much as the children of parents who can pay?
And as I read about the new private Go Ape tree-top obstacle course, while it sounds like a lot of fun, I can’t help but think haven’t we been here before?
Check out my recent article, published in Social Science History:
When I was an undergraduate, there were two kinds of texts that we were assigned in university classes: readers, which were compilations of academic (and sometimes other) articles that we bought at the copy shop, and books that we bought at the bookstore.
There was no Amazon at the time, nor really any way to buy textbooks but to go to the bookstore. There were three around campus, two private and one that was owned by the university. There was also the weird academic bookstore, where professors and grad students shopped (and still do) but I still had no context for what that was.
At the campus bookstores, you went early and tried to get the used books with the fewest markings in them, as these were the best value. Book rental hadn’t really come in yet, so the deal was that you would buy your books and then try to sell them back at the end of the term for a decent price.
But my real pleasure, at the start of each term, was walking the aisles of the course texts, imagining classes I wouldn’t take. I would pick up and skim through books on topics foreign to me: Chinese history, contemporary ethics, vertebrate biology. Occasionally I would even choose a book from one of these courses and take it up front and place it on the pile of books for my classes, and keep it.
Today, on my 27th first day of school, I found myself once again lost in between the shelves in the campus bookstore.
The situation is quite different: for one, I’m a professor. I can only fantasize about taking classes, and I likely won’t take any of the kind undergraduates get to take anytime soon. There is an internet now, from which my students order most of their books, or simply read (or don’t read) online. This basement feels bleak and small compared to the main floor of the store where profitable things are sold: sweatshirts, hats, pens. But there is a joy I still take in the wandering among the steel bookcases that will stand naked and empty in a few weeks, until the start of the next term. Here, in the basement of the store, the university is a university again – and I am happy to see old friends on these shelves. Machiavelli and bell hooks and Marcell Mauss and whomever wrote that engineering textbook and deCerteau and Paolo Freire and Fritjof Capra and Alan Lightman and Hannah Arendt. A family tree. An ancestry. A matrix of the many ways to understand the world, down aisles and across shelves.
Many pixels have been shed on the sadness of losing print culture, on the kids today who think that everything important is on the internet, and I am loathe to add to that long scroll of sadness. Yet the books on the shelves, the students each of the 35 copies or so represent, the possibility that one of those copies may end up in the wrong hands — the hands of the young woman who just stumbles on a book and is compelled to bring it up to the front — these are irreplaceable, even among our vast digital storehouses of knowledge.
I published this essay on the incident of police violence in McKinney, Texas in June, outside of a community-owned swimming pool.
I wrote this piece about a conflict over park fees in the Mission district in San Francisco. Metropolitics is a new(ish) online magazine of urban issues, written by (mostly) academics in plain language:
Portland, famous for rain, is my new home.
I work in the Urban Center which is a series of buildings surrounding a plaza. These include my office, a number of campus eateries, the student rec center, and a number of other university offices, too.
One feature (!) as one walks up the east side of these blocks are a series of buildings with awnings that appear to have had the awning part removed (image here.) This, of course, is a bit of post-modern building detail, in which the formerly functional parts of buildings (domes, arches, etc.) are now ‘referents.’ That is to say, they don’t do the work they formerly used to do.
(My teacher at UC-Davis, Mark Francis, once said that you can know which are the postmodern buildings because they are wearing little hats! These are referents of domes.)
So it rains, and I cling to the side of the buildings where I expect awnings to be and: nothing. It’s a frame with a hole. I get wet.
So I started thinking about what awnings actually are, and what purpose they serve. Awnings, indeed, are a kind of threshold: they are a gesture from the private—a building owner or business—at the public passers-by on the street. They draw one in, perhaps enticing us to retail, but they also shelter us.
In photos of European and American cities well through the 20th century, we see photos of striped and solid fabric awnings, colorful with images and names of businesses in stylized font. Shopkeepers would roll them out with a crank in the morning, and roll them back up at night.
This image from Portland in the early 20th century shows a storefront that sells fabric for tents, awnings, and waterproof horse and wagon covers.
So where did the awnings all go? Why don’t we see this ritual anymore, and what does it say about the pedestrian’s relationship to the private edge of the sidewalk?
Some speculation, none verified:
- Based on the variety of uses advertised in the above photo, waterproof canvas ‘duck’ was simply more ubiquitous in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and now there is simply less of it. Awnings that do exist are mostly permanent, and made of more weatherproof materials, like vinyl.
- Awnings have become hard (metal, plastic, slate) elements of buildings – included or not. If they are not included in the original design, no one bolts in an awning.
- With the rise of streets-for-cars—as opposed to streets for pedestrians—there became less concern for the comfort of pedestrians.
- This is part of a larger anti-homeless design trend, in which doorways and other sheltering places have been largely eliminated to prevent loitering.
- Building codes changed: awnings either became de-emphasized or outlawed.
Today, awnings have enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence; they are part of a network of passive technologies for controlling the light and heat of the sun as ‘green’ buildings have come into vogue. Yet this version of the awning speaks to the occupants of the building, not to the street.