New York City field seminar

My action packed Spring 2011 semester is closing with a bang. I am taking thirteen Al Akhawayn students (Sophomores and Juniors mostly) on a ten-day excursion through Manhattan. The field trip culminates a semester-long team-taught seminar on New York City, the purpose of which was to reinforce the university’s Liberal Arts core by introducing students to American society and culture through an extensive tour of its most iconic metropolis. The seminar investigated New York City’s historic role as eastern gateway to the USA and its current position as a global city. It also introduced students to functioning cosmopolitanism through the prism of the city’s various ethnic neighborhoods, diverse religious and civil society institutions, and dynamic arts scene. The role of culture, and of the visual and performing arts in particular, in the social and economic development of the city was especially highlighted.

There is no way I could have pulled this course off on my own. Several Al Akhawayn University faculty members contributed by providing lectures on select topics. Myronn Hardy, a New Yorker, discussed literature (the Harlem Renaissance) and theater (Broadway). Jeremy Gunn, who practiced law in New York City, offered a presentation on the city’s “high rollers” (financiers, brokers and their lawyers). Ahmed Rhazaoui, who spent many years at the UN (with the UNDP to be exact), gave a lecture on the structure and workings of that international organization. Jeanine Pfahlert presented on Greenwich Village: bohemia/counter-culture, the American labor movement (Triangle Shirtwaist fire), the women’s movement, etc.

For my part, I gave the students a heavy dose of urban geography (how capitalist cities function, real-estate, urban transportation, housing, gentrification) and introduced them the architectural styles and building types. These weekly presentations were punctuated by film screenings, including Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” (a big favorite with the students, probably because of Leonardo DiCaprio), the original “King Kong,” “West Side Story,” “Manhattan,” “Wall Street,” and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” among others.

In New York City itself I am fortunate to be able to rely on the field contributions of Mosette Broderick (Director of the Urban Design and Architecture Studies program in the Department of Art History at NYU’s College of Arts and Science) and of René Poitevin (professor at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individual Study).

While in New York City I will be taking the students on an ambitious tour of Manhattan monuments, historic sites, museums, places of worship, associations and neighborhoods. Time has also been set aside for students to pursue their individual projects (the indie music scene, Wall Street finance, East Village counter-culture, the homeless, skyscrapers, etc.) and for shopping (students will be expected to bring gifts back for each member of their family, and for many others besides).

Luckily for me my sister Leslie, a long-time resident of East Village, has helped put together a slate of optional cultural events (theater, dance, exhibits) and will be hosting the group on two occasions: at her bassoon workshop on Essex Street and for a picnic at the Dias y Flores community garden on East 13th Street.

The complete schedule looks something like this:

  • Thursday 19 May: late afternoon arrival from Casablanca
  • Friday 20 May: Downtown financial district, Wall Street, the NY Stock Exchange, Trinity Church, Ground Zero, the Woolworth Building, City Hall and the court houses, followed by a tour of Soho & Greenwich Village.
  • Saturday 21 May: Midtown, the Empire State Building, the New York Public Library, Grand Central Terminal, the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, MoMA, Broadway theater district, the garment district, etc.
  • Sunday 22 May: Battery Park ferry to Ellis Island followed by a tour of Greenwich Village & East Village culminating with a picnic at the Dias y Flores community garden.
  • Monday 23 May: day begins in Harlem, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Schomburg Center, a walk down Lenox/Malcolm X Avenue to the Malik Shabazz Mosque and Little Senegal (West 116th Street), New York City Mosque and Cultural Center, the Guggenheim Museum. Day ends with the 2011 Movement Research gala dance performance & party @ the Judson Memorial Church.
  • Tuesday 24 May: visit the Central Synagogue, visit of the UN Headquarters and then the Moroccan Delegation to the UN, dinner at Sylvia’s (soul food) in Harlem.
  • Wednesday 25 May: the American Civil Liberties Union, tour of Lower East Side, Five Points, Chinatown, Little Italy, the Tenement Museum, Leslie Ross’ bassoon workshop.
  • Thursday 26 May: the Metropolitan Museum, El Museo del Barrio, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
  • Friday 27 May: free day, return flight to Casablanca that evening.

Yes. It is probably too packed. Some things are likely to change, and a few may be dropped along the way. I originally planned for a day in Brooklyn (Brooklyn Museum, the Botanical Garden, Coney Island) but there simply isn’t time for this. I apologize to all Brooklynites. You deserve better.

We leave tomorrow. Wish me luck.

Debriefing: What worked and what didn’t

It is now October. Several months have passed since the New York City Field Seminar. Having received a few of the thousands of photos students took during the ten-day trip, and having had time to reflect upon the experience, I would like to offer the following assessment.

The Moroccan students were certainly excited by the city. No sooner had we checked into the hostel after a long flight than most of them took off for the bright lights of Times Square. Clearly, they had no time to lose and intended to get the most out of the field trip. “The most” included a lot of shopping and great bouts of clubbing. It proved very difficult, during “class hours,” keeping their minds on the academic business at hand. The various walking tours were particularly challenging as great shopping opportunities beckoned at ever step and every storefront had something enticing on display.

Professor Mosette Broderick, Director of Urban Design and Architecture Studies at New York University's College of Arts and Science, talks to students in front of an NYU building facing Washington Square. (ph. Rim Ibrahimi)

Judging from the photos students took, the highlights of the trip could be summarized as follows:

Visiting the Central Synagogue. This is a fabulous building, built at the height of the “Moorish revival” movement and completely rebuilt following a devastating fire in 1998. The Moorish elements of the decor were of particular interest to me but, for the Moroccan students, this was their first encounter with a synagogue of any kind.

View of the interior of the Central Synagogue on East 55th Street and Lexington Avenue. (ph. Yousra Ftouh)

A docent and students engrossed in a discussion (ph. Yousra Ftouh)

Visiting Ellis Island. Students really appreciated Ellis Island, possibly because having to travel there by boat and pass by the Statue of Liberty is a thrill in itself. Also, some students felt a connection when they saw Syrian and Lebanese names among those of the immigrants showcased.

Period traveler's trunks assembled in the entrance hall of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. (ph. Yousra Ftouh)

Visiting the Headquarters of the United Nations. There is an aura of power and prestige to this building. The students enjoyed the guided tour and were genuinely impressed by the institution.

The AUI group posing in the visitor's gallery of the UN's General Assembly (ph. Yousra Ftouh)

Afterwards, His Excellency Mr. Mohammed Loulichki, Moroccan ambassador to the UN, received the students for a question & answer session at the Moroccan delegation. The students were on their best behavior.

The AUI group posing in the company of the Moroccan ambassador. (ph. Yousra Ftouh)

The last scheduled event of the field seminar was a visit to the Lower East Side workshop where my sister makes baroque bassoons.

Leslie Ross giving a tour of her Essex Street bassoon-making workshop (ph. Yousra Ftouh)

Among other things, Leslie explained how the bassoon designs of Europe derive from the double reed ghaytah of North Africa and the Middle East.

Some parts of the intensive ten-day visit did not work so well. I had originally scheduled museum visits in the afternoon, after the other activities of the day. I found the students were too exhausted by then to be able to appreciate art (but not too exhausted to go out and shop some more). I ended up having to make most of the museum visits optional and rescheduling others on the “free day” at the end. As a result, art lost out. For instance, only a single student accompanied me to MoMA! Art was not on their minds, and despite the art emphasis of the course I don’t think most of the students understood the importance of the arts and of culture to the dynamism of New York City. Another example, thanks to my sister I was able to obtain tickets to the annual dance gala held at the Judson Memorial Church. The students were not at all interested in attending, and complained that $20 was just too much to spend on such an event. I didn’t ask them how much they spent on entrance fees to trendy clubs and on late-night taxi rides. None of them accompanied me to the gala which otherwise attracted the cream of the New York dance world and its aficionados.

Nor was the issue of urban cosmopolitanism, also emphasized in the course, fully understood. I made several attempts to introduce the students to the world cuisine available in New York City. One evening I took a few to a Turkish restaurant near the hostel; they ordered pizzas! During our day in Harlem I took them to a Senegalese restaurant on West 116th Street (see my next post). Half of them immediately left “to look for burgers.” While bright young things across the USA flee the burger joints and pizza parlors of the hick towns they live in for the cosmopolitan delights of New York City, my students used their stay in the Big Apple to indulge in the Middle American experience. Some even used their “free day” to visit a big box discount store in New Jersey.

I am sure the New York City field seminar was a valuable experience for every student, but what they learned in the field was not necessarily listed in the course’s “intended learning outcomes.”

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About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
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