How to teach from The Arcades Project(?)

If you’ve found this post looking for answers, I must apologize for I have none. What I do have is one two-hour session to draw on.

First things first: I teach a class I designed called “Writing and Reading the City” (our shared Tumblr is here) in the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID)  program at the University of Washington. It’s a sophomore level special topics class that draws 25-30 students from majors all over campus. I start off with Soja on Catal Huyuk/synekism/Lefebvre (from Postmetropolis), then we spend a couple of weeks hitting major points in urban history and theory, reading Engels, Carmona on Napoleon III/Haussman, the despicable Le Corbusier, Jane Jacobs, as well as some others that I find illuminating (Harvey Pekar on Cleveland, Michael Sorkin on Manhattan). Then we do two days on Lefebvre to address the tripartite models from The Urban Revolution and The Production of Space as analytical models for term projects as well as the organizing prinicple for the rest of the class readings.

I tried Benjamin as an account of spatial experience because, like many, I don’t know what to do with the book, and I wanted to see where it would go. They are reading a novel for Thursday (Open City) and preparing a term project progress report this week, so I decided that I would have them read from Arcades in class. I made a little packet that contained the first Exposé, the list of Convolutes, the first 8 pages of Convolute M (Flâneur), as well as Poe’s short story The Man of the Crowd, which Benjamin references. I gave them a short lecture about what the project was, who wrote it, etc., then turned them loose to read. I had given some directions (read these pages…skip to Poe after Benjamin first mentions him…come back to the Arcades and read these highlighted sections, etc.). My idea is that it would be a slow, immersive experience…I put some music on (Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports”) and we spent about 40 minutes reading.

In 5.5 years of teaching, this is the first time that I’ve had students read in class (I had them do the first in-class writing I’ve ever done last week too, and I thought it was a great experience). I used the time to reread what they were reading as well as read more of Convolute M, and found it to be really satisfying reading, especially the rereading, which I didn’t really do in order. After they finished, I had them discuss it in small groups with a few leading questions, then we had a large group discussion. Everyone seemed to really be into the selection, even if some were apprehensive about its “point.” However, they all seemed to appreciate the aspect of entanglement that he was dealing with (which I was trying to replicate in class), and had a lot to say about how the discontinuity of the reading, the focus on the scraps of everyday life, and how it permitted a unique account of 19th Century Paris to unfold.

I thought it was successful as a one day activity, but I’m curious as to how others have approached it, if it went well, suggestions for engaging more of the work, etc. Thoughts/ideas?

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