Paideia 450 courses focus on ethical reflection and on writing skills. Our course mixed traditional reading, writing, and classroom work with site visits. Most working days of the term had a classroom session for which students read primary and secondary sources relating to urbanism and prepared written responses to given prompts; we then visited locations (often with guides) connected to the day’s reading.
The capstone activity was a term paper, written when students returned to Luther, that asked them to incorporate their experience of urbanism and the background and secondary readings into an interpretive essay on one of the major literary works or sites that we encountered.
As for interdisciplinarity, I am a historian of early modern philosophy, and Professor Caldwell is literary scholar who focuses on French and Italian literature. The disciplines are similar in that they focus on the interpretation of texts, yet their objects of analysis and approaches tend to be quite different. We had shared readings (both primary and secondary sources), which we each approached in our own way. Furthermore, with the help of scientific and social scientific literature, we stretched our usual work by treating these cities themselves as texts to be interpreted, in an effort to enrich our understanding of the written texts, thus incorporating new disciplinary perspectives into our course.
We began the course by providing students with the following statement giving the background and goals of our work together. This provided a good reference point for them and us as we moved through the busy month. I think having such a statement, more detailed than the course description, helped maintain the intellectual focus during a multi-city study abroad course such as ours.
Initial Statement to Students
In everyday life, much of our time and attention is focused on the objects around us, things we encounter and interact with as part of our ordinary experience: furniture, computers, automobiles, sidewalks, clothing, buildings, etc. We can, however, also turn our attention away from the outer world of objects to the inner world of our own experience. We can observe our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, values, desires, emotions, and other aspects of our selves. In short, each of us can ask, “What is it like to be me?”
The term for the experience of being a person in the world is “subjectivity.” It is, as the philosopher Robert Solomon put it, the “perspective, experiences, feelings, beliefs, and desires” that make a person who he or she is. Once you understand the idea of subjectivity, you will begin to discover a vast universe inside of yourself. Questions emerge such as: Who am I? How did I get to be this way? What exactly do I believe and feel and do? Why do I believe and feel and do these things?
One reason subjectivity is fascinating is that much of the self lies below the level of consciousness. To use the example I brought up during one of our orientation sessions: when you sit down in a classroom you have all kinds of thoughts and feelings that you probably don’t even notice you are having. You know that you should sit in a chair (rather than standing up or sitting on the floor); you have a sense of how close you can sit to others; you know you shouldn’t sit in the chair behind the teacher’s desk; you have feelings about who you want to sit near or sit far away from; you decide whether or not to take off your coat; you decide whether to sit up straight or slouch. Every day we have thousands of thoughts and feelings like this. They make us who we are, but we hardly notice them; the thing that is closest to us, our own subjectivity, is hard to see. Once you get used to paying attention to it, however, you will probably find that it (namely you) is quite fascinating.
As soon as you understand that you are a subject, that there is something it is like to be you, you will see that everyone else can say the same thing. There is something that it is like to be them. And their experience of being a person might be very different from yours. As you travel, and read about other places, and study history, you will find that human subjectivity is diverse. All aspects of selfhood (beliefs, values, desires, emotions, aspirations, attractions, aversions, ambitions, physical sensations, etc.) change from person to person and place to place. (They can even change within the same person from moment to moment.) One way to begin understanding the subjectivity of people from other times and places is through works of human creativity. A function of the arts is to express, describe, and examine the experience of being human in a certain time, place, and social situation.
Many forces shape a person’s subjectivity; the most obvious of them come from the environment in which a person grows up and lives. This includes family relationships, religious assumptions and practices, political ideologies, accepted and unaccepted forms of behavior, economic arrangements, forms of normalization and marginalization, and of course the physical environment in which one lives. Right now is the first time in history that more than half of the people in the world live in cities. Urban experience is becoming the rule rather than the exception in the formation of human subjectivity. This Paideia course is designed to explore human subjectivity in the urban environment through the analysis of artistic creations that were made in four major European cities at the times of their greatest historical influence. We will study ancient Rome (c. 100-300), late medieval and Renaissance Florence (c. 1300-1500), early modern Lyon (c. 1500-1700), and 19th century Paris.
What makes this course different from an on-campus class is that we will examine these artistic creations in the cities in which they were produced or which form their subject-matter. This is a special opportunity because cities are both a cause and an effect of human subjectivity. People make cities; but in turn cities shape the people who live there. The reciprocal relationship between the self and the built environment is a unique aspect of urban experience. We will study primarily works of literature and visual art, and we will move through the urban spaces that are their context and subject. By studying creative works in the urban settings in which they were produced we can hope to gain a better understanding not only of how the city shapes the self but of why (and how) people create and respond to urban environments.
The basis of assessment was as follows:
- Participation: 40%
- Daily Critical Reflections: 40%
- Final Paper: 20%
For each critical reflection, we provided students with a prompt as a starting point for that day’s writing. For the final paper we asked them to enlarge one of their reflections into a substantial thesis-driven essay with detailed reference to primary and secondary sources. The paper was evaluated according to a standard rubric for interpretive essays in the humanities: thesis, organization, argument, mechanics, etc.
The prompts given to students included:
- Over the last two days we spent a great deal of time in an iconic modern space (Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport) and also in an iconic ancient space (Rome’s Coliseum). Compare and contrast these two built environments: what ideologies and values seem to be expressed in these buildings, what vision of human life?
- On our walking tour of Rome today, we saw several important buildings and sites. Choose one, and reflect on the following questions: How was it placed with respect to the surrounding neighborhood? What message did it seem to convey? What uses would it be good for, and what uses would be inappropriate? How were people interacting with it? Feel free to add any other reflections that you wish.
- Based on you self-guided walking tour of Paris, compare the experience of movement in this city to your experience in Rome: What forms of transportation did you use? How did these shape your experience of the cities?
- The assumption of French “naturalist” literature is that human subjectivity is a product of environment, just as much as the traits of plants and animals. How does your reading of these works, and your experience in the cities we have visited, confirm or refute this principle?
- Impressionist painting has been interpreted as a bourgeois art form that naively celebrated vanity and consumerism, and which contributed to the invisibility of poverty and oppression in belle époque Paris. Conversely, it has been interpreted as a courageous attempt to introduce realism (including the depiction of prostitution and drug abuse) into classical painting. Based on your time in the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, what do you see in impressionist art?
- We have visited many busy museums this semester. Reflect on the techniques (architectural and otherwise) used to manage such large numbers of people.