I appreciate living in a major metropolitan city where you don’t need a car to get everywhere. I live close to public transportation so that is a plus even though I have to be hyper alert to ward off the forces of evil. Such is life in the city. Dealing with weather extremes such as microwave heat in the summer and freezer cold in the winter is a challenge but this is city life in the northeast!
I enjoy the city because I am a sociologist at heart and maybe an adventurer of some weird sort. I enjoy watching people. Now, this can be hazardous if you are obvious about it but I have learned the stealth approach. My natural ‘introvertedness’ over the years have taught me to listen first. (Also a pair of dark sunglasses helps.) Sometimes listening without being obvious is just as good as watching. When people are not aware that they are being watched, you hear all kind of emotions by the sound of a person’s voice. Also, very specific behavior and facial expressions become very apparent. Although I have also mastered the blank depressive stare on public transportation, once you see the same people on a routine basis, you began to notice little things. For instance, how does a person react when someone sits next to them? How does a person’s countenance change when they see someone they know? How does a person react when someone is annoying them? Why do some people look petrified when the bus is sardine packed while others seem comfortable? Why is it common for people to witness an emergency situation and not intervene when others are present (See The Bystander Effect)? The nuances are subtle but they are there from a roll of the eyes to a mouth turned down on one side. Believe it or not, these observations helps me teach my Urban Studies course.
Urban Studies is an interdisciplinary field that seeks to explain how cities develop, grow and decline. It also seeks to highlight the complex web of elements that help a city function such as public works, physical space, social services, local economies, etc. We review cities from antiquity (Rome, Cairo, Istanbul, Beijing) as well as modern cities (New York, Paris, Seoul, Sao Paulo). One part of my class that I enjoy is providing field experiences: placing students in an environment to experience some aspect of city life.
I recently took them to visit a small youth shelter. I did not know much about this shelter at all and neither did the students. They welcomed us, gave us a tour and told us about their mission. The theme for this class was ‘poverty in the city’ so the assignment was to learn about the organization and receive a tour. We had read excerpts from W.E.B. DuBois’ The Philadelphia Negro and wanted to do some comparisons between his time and our time. It was sometimes difficult for some of them to push through his book because it is very statistical. Combine this with the fact that some of my students are parents, work long hours and are enrolled in this accelerated program. What you have is a group that is easily irritated in a program that is intense because the hours are long and the semester is short. So my idea is to get them outside the classroom to reinvigorate them and put a human face on the statistical data and theories.
I noticed as we went through the tour that most of them were visibly moved by the stories they heard. Some of them even talked about their own struggles as teens. Lots of questions flooded out of the students for the staff. Then I saw something that was amazing: After a 2 hour tour, they had assumed ownership of this organization’s mission. As the organization made its needs known, the students began brainstorming about how to help them. Some offered their time and services while others offered to connect them to other organizations that could meet some of their needs. We were not able to interact with the actual residents for good reason. Considering that the shelter was temporary, it is important that we respect the space of the residents.
In the next class, I saw the students come alive when talking about this experience. Their papers reflected this excitement as well. Even though they are no strangers to poverty, they recognize that many of them are in a better place than the youth in this shelter. I saw introspective analysis about the role of individuals and city government in helping the less fortunate. I saw anger at the apathy towards poverty in the richest nation on earth. I saw joy that this shelter exists and is making an impact. Some students even shared their own personal journeys toward wholeness. Much of the academic terms and theories became practical and personal and therefore, digestible.
I recognize that sometimes students have to observe and see what you are talking about along with a powerpoint or book. In this instance, W.E.B. DuBois began to make sense to them. The difference is that he did not offer any solutions, he simply catalogued the issues. My students want solutions!
Humans have interesting ways of reacting to trauma and crisis as we learned at the shelter. Some withdraw and some seek help. As I observed my students, I was excited that they did not turn a blind eye to poverty issues. They moved towards the issue with compassion in their eyes and concern in their faces. Some used this experience to evaluate their own spiritual beliefs as well. I look forward to seeing them move into positions that demand care and concern for the least of us. I really believe a job worth doing should be overwhelming because it demands that we give our best. So I will continue to observe people experiencing city life and hopefully I won’t be found out. These field experiences remind me of just how unique human beings are and how much of what we discern in life is not verbal at all.
About this Adjunct: Ron Tinsley is a Communications Director by day and an Adjunct Instructor by night. He teaches classes on Urban Youth Culture, Media Literacy and Urban Studies. He has a BFA in Graphic Design from The University of the Arts and a MA in Urban Studies from Eastern University. For the past 20 years, he has worked with children, youth and families from disadvantaged communities. He is nervously entertaining the idea of getting a Ph.D.
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