Learning for the City
by Warren Rosenberg
January 12, 2005
For 24 years, Professor Warren Rosenberg dreamed of taking students to his hometown of New York City—not just to learn about it, but to make the City their own.
As soon as I opened the door to Katz’s Deli, I knew that the students in my New York City in Literature and Film class were about to take a major exam.
We were all starving after our boat ride to Ellis Island, and I had forgotten that express trains can miss stops on Sundays; so we had just walked more than a mile-and-a-half from 14th Street at Union Square to the deli on Houston Street on the Lower East Side.
I had forgotten Sunday was the major shopping day downtown.
I also failed to recall that Katz’s has virtually no table service.
As all 17 of us piled into Katz’s we were hit by a wall of noise. Sophomore Billy Whited called it "a quintessential New York experience: people yelling on cell phones so that they could be heard over the murmur of the crowd; people cursing at each other seemingly for no reason at all; people jockeying for position in nonexistent lines. And the surly guys behind the counter wouldn’t let Professor Abbott have any soup. What a hellhole!"
Or, to put it more discreetly, getting a corned beef sandwich and a drink was tougher than solving a problem on an advanced calculus exam.
Yet in 30 minutes we were all polishing off our cheesecakes and feeling not only pleasantly full, but as if we’d aced the test. The students had figured it out. On Day One of their immersion trip to New York City, they had taken their first bite out of the Big Apple and hadn’t choked.
I had been dreaming of teaching a course on New York City since I emigrated from there to Crawfordsville in 1980. Born and raised in Brooklyn, I spent most of my first 30 years within a few miles of Times Square.
Although I have become somewhat of a Hoosier—visited Brazil, Peru, and even Lebanon right here in the Heartland, raised my daughter here, spent time on an actual hog farm, bought a riding mower, and even replaced my beloved Knicks with the Pacers—I am still, at my core, a New Yorker. I lose patience with native Hoosiers who stand behind me in Kroger, while my cart blocks their way, without saying a word.
Make some noise, I think, when I see them lined up behind me. Give my cart a little bump, do something that makes me feel at home. But they just stand there, silently, smiling, waiting for me to finish reading a label.
Most Hoosiers think of New Yorkers as brash, fast-talking, always moving, competitively seeking the main chance—and many are. We are, in general, the cultural antithesis of Midwesterners. I hoped my students would not only learn to appreciate these differences, but also see the deeper value of the City as a symbol of American creativity, diversity, and acceptance. My City is all about making it new—in art, in commerce, in social reform.
Yet the major reason I wanted to teach a course about New York City to Wabash students was to enable them to learn about its incredible mixture of people and culture. Rich and poor live steps from each other. Puerto Ricans, Russians, Dominicans, Koreans, Orthodox Jews, Italians, African Americans, Colombians, and Chinese share neighborhoods, public transportation, and schools. The area we stayed in, Chelsea, has the largest population of gays and lesbians in the City, over 50 art galleries, and incredible restaurants on every street. When we decided to read a New York novel by Michael Chabon, one of the students went online and found out that he would be reading from his work in a gallery two blocks from our youth hostel. As Jacob Rump ’05, wrote in his journal, "By the end of the week, I realized that New York is a sort of breeding ground for multicultural, multidisciplinary, artistic, and human discovery." His view was, as I had hoped, shared by all of his fellow students.
I couldn’t imagine teaching a course about New York without taking the students there. The problem had always been funding. With the College’s recent institution of class immersion trips, though, I saw my opportunity, and I decided to use it for an intermediate-level course called Literature and Film. That course focuses on the critical idea of "representation," which means that any rendering of "reality" in almost any medium must be seen as a "representation" of that reality, not reality itself. In fact, postmodern critics will tell you that reality does not meaningfully exist outside the "language" we use to describe it.
Now, having lived in New York City, I can say with some assurance that it is real, often too real, but I agree with the postmodern view that there is no way to definitively capture that reality, to say, "ah, this is the City," and reduce it to any one novel, film, or building.
So our class was based on studying, first, the difference between a novelistic and cinematic representation, and then a selection of representations of the City in both media. For their final project, students sought to create their own representation of the City in the medium of their choice—prose, poetry, film, photograph, or music.
Some students wrote traditional academic papers as their final projects, but the majority chose alternative projects. One shot a thematic photo essay, another wrote his own poetry and interwove with famous poems about New York, another recorded a "sound-scape" of the City, another offered a history of New York Hip-Hop, and one made a documentary film. They realized that the City could best be captured only as an extension of their own deeply felt experiences of it. As the assignment was titled, it had to become "MY New York City."
During the first half of the semester, students explored their preconceptions about the City derived from movies, TV, and books. They knew about Seinfeld’s Upper West Side, Spike Lee’s Brooklyn, and MTV’s images of Times Square. Like most people, they had memorized the famous skyline from the establishing shots of the City used in films and TV. They wrote in journals about the things they hoped to do on the trip and their fears about crime and crowds.
We read Henry James’s Washington Square, saw two film versions, and then watched Scorcese’s Gangs of New York to get a sense of 19th Century New York.
We read an Abraham Cahan novel and saw the film Hester Street, based on the novel, to understand and visualize the turn-of the-century Lower East Side immigrant experience, shared by my grandparents on both sides. Dead End offered an image of depression-era New York.
One of their favorite films was the gritty Saturday Night Fever, where John Travolta as Tony Manniero dances in sleazy discos but dreams of crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to the promised land of Manhattan. Each week we also saw a segment of Rick Burns’s evocative documentary history of the City.
And then it was Spring Break and we landed at LaGuardia airport in Queens after a horrendously bumpy flight, during which the students saw their professor in less than professorial condition. They also saw from the lurching plane a magnificent fog-shrouded City, the tops of skyscrapers poking through the clouds, that no movie had ever captured.
Once on the ground I had walking tours and meals and museum trips and shows all planned. In fact, I’d overplanned the week in fear that the students would somehow miss something vital to the experience. I also feared that my "control" over the students and of the class would be lost in the City, but I soon realized that not only was that loss inevitable but it was actually the point of the trip. Immersion meant letting them go. I stopped worrying about making every moment a scripted learning event and let the City take over, as I knew it could.
The students’ journals reveal just how much they experienced and learned on their own in the City. From the first steps out of our hostel, when they didn’t know the East Side from the West, to the same evening when several students used their subway passes to visit friends of friends in Brooklyn, to the hours of wandering they did on foot and by bus, sometimes ending up in after-hours clubs, they were constantly learning.
We did so much in those six days, but two linked events can stand for the odd and interesting interconnections made between a college course and life in the City after college. We were sitting in the balcony of a Broadway theater watching the hit musical Avenue Q, the story of a group of college grads (played by puppets!) who come to the City to find themselves. The second song was "What Can You Do with a B.A. in English?," the implied answer being "not much."
As the lyrics began to sink in, I noticed the whole row of students lean forward and stare at me with accusatory grins. They were mostly senior English majors and they had been wondering about the very question the song was raising.
We joked about it after the show, but it wasn’t until our last night in the City that an answer presented itself. Before the trip I had called Rich Calacci ’91, a former student of mine and now a vice president at CBS, to see if he could get us tickets to the David Letterman show. When he found out the show wasn’t taping that week, he offered to take us out to dinner. When I reminded him that we were 18 people, he just laughed and said he would pick a place.
The students put on their jackets and ties and we met Rich at one of the huge new restaurants on 14th Street on the outskirts of Chelsea. The food was Belgian, and the students, taking their lead from Rich, ordered exotic appetizers—mussels and frites, whole lobsters, steaks, exquisite desserts, and a range of Belgian beers.
Almost three hours later, after much talk and revelry, and a bill the size of which I can only imagine, we left the restaurant, and I asked the students, "Do you know what Rich majored in at Wabash?"
It turns out that the CBS VP, who has a house in Connecticut and an Upper West Side apartment down the street from Steven Spielberg, was an English major.
The excitement generated by our week in the City carried through, I believe, until the end of the class in May. Each student’s final project presentation was informative, moving, and memorable in its own way.
When I didn’t have a clear idea of what common text to end the course with, I decided to ask the students, who now seemed to consider themselves quasi-New Yorkers. Biology major Micah Reese ’04, now in medical school, said he had the perfect film—Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, starring Ed Norton as a New Yorker about to enter prison for drug dealing. The others agreed that this would be an ideal capstone for the course.
I had seen most of Lee’s films but not this one, and, again being the person in control, I wondered whether the film would work. It turned out to be an ideal final "representation" of the City for the class. The students loved seeing the streets and neighborhoods with which they were now familiar. An extended scene shot in front of Ground Zero moved all of us, but especially those of us who had visited the site together.
What was most reinforced by the film, though, was the diversity of New York. During one scene, Norton stares into a mirror and angrily insults many of the City’s ethnic groups. Images of Italians wearing gold chains, Orthodox Jews working in the diamond district, and African Americans playing basketball cross the mirror as he vents his frustration. During the post-film discussion, students realized that each vignette went beyond stereotype to a kind of affectionate awareness. The Norton character (and Lee) at least had enough firsthand knowledge of these groups to satirize them effectively, and by the end of the film, it is the diversity of New York that Norton is shown missing most as he leaves the City for prison—or escapes to the American Heartland; the film is ambiguous about what actually happens.
So although for the students the architecture of the City was breathtaking, the culture world-class, the food endlessly varied, and the nightlife nonstop, I think what they appreciated most from the class and from the immersion component was the City’s people. I’m left with an image from Russ Harbaugh’s film of a woman playing a guitar on the subway. Russ shoots her from the back through the scratched glass of the subway car. We never see her face, only hear her playing and her wistful, beautiful voice. It’s just an image, but one that somehow captures the City—at least for a moment.
Warren Rosenberg is professor of English at Wabash and the author of Legacy of Rage: Jewish Masculinity, Violence, and Culture.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org