On handshakes and aliens: two pedagogical lessons for the urbanist classroom

When you observe two people sitting at a park bench, or walking down a block wearing suit or a dress or jeans – what assumptions do you attach to their bodies? How do these assumptions inform how you read people in urban space?

When you think of a city you’ve visited or lived in, what adjectives do you think of? When you think of a city you’ve never visited before (I, for example, have never been to Cape Town, South Africa, and Berlin, Germany, and Buenos Aries, Argentina, and Hanoi, Vietnam, among many other cities) what adjectives do you think of?

I ask these questions to frame two brief pedagogical lessons for the urban cultural studies classroom. Each asks how discourse – produced knowledge that circulates – attaches to (urban) bodies and ideas of cities.

I learned the first exercise at a 2013 ATHE conference (panel: “The Games We Play”) and came up with the second exercise a few years ago. I have taught both, and shared and further developed both exercises earlier this month with input from other participants and under the direction of Professor Carrie Preston at the Mellon School of Theater and Performance Studies at Harvard University which had the theme: “Research, Pedagogy, Activism.” I offer these exercises here as in-progress pedagogical tools.

Handshake Exercise: “What do you see?”

Goal: To have students identify the type of assumptions attached to bodies and roles people play in urban space.

(pre-step). If possible, go to an urban setting such as a park bench or an area near a bus stop.

1. Ask for two volunteers from your class — lets call them A and B. When they come up to front of the classroom (or to the park bench, etc.), ask the two to shake hands.

2. As A and B shake hands, ask the other students “what do you see?” or “what type of assumptions might we make if we saw these two people shaking hands here?”

3. As A and B continue to shake hands, listen to responses from the class.

4. After a few moments, substitute out one volunteer for another such that A and C are now shaking hands.

5. Again ask, “What do you see?” and listen to responses.

6. Repeat this exercise several more times, such that different pairings of students are shaking hands (C and D shake hands, D and E shake hands, E and F shake hands, F and A shake hands and so on), and with each pairing, ask the rest of the observers “What do you see?” The combinations are often such that two men shake hands, or two women shake hands, or two people of the same or of a different race shake hands, or of similar or different ages shake hands, or similar or different heights shake hands.

7. When the exercise is over ask your students: “what didn’t you say?” The exercise ultimately asks what meanings do we have and make about raced, gendered, aged bodies, and combinations of those bodies, in urban spaces?

Alien Exercise: “What does it look like?” “How do you know?”

Goal: To explain the concept of discourse, and have students think about how and where knowledge about concepts (such as cities) is produced and circulated within society.

1. Ask students: “Draw an alien.” (Give students about 2-3 minutes to do so).

2. Next ask students: “Share your alien.” Give willing students a few moments to describe their alien.

3. Then ask: “Have you ever met an alien?” “How do you know what an alien looks like?” “Where have you seen aliens?” Use this prompt to make students name the specific sources where they’ve seen aliens (television, movies, magazines) that have influenced their ideas of what aliens look like.

4. Use their naming to introduce the concept of discourse. (Here are some sources: The Chicago School of Media Theory, University of Chicago; Michael Foucault, “Discourse on Language”; Social Theory Re-Wired, Routledge.)

5. Re-explain this concept of discourse, now through meanings we attach to cities. Ask students to describe cities they may or may not have been to: “How would you describe New York City?” (or another city if you teach in or near New York City).

6. Then ask students, “Raise your hand if you’ve been to New York City.” For those who didn’t raise their hands, ask, “where have you learned ideas of New York City?” For those who have been to New York City, ask, “how do those ideas compare to and contrast with what you’ve experienced in that city?”

7. Repeat with other cities.

8. Discuss how discourses of cities circulate in dialogue with and beyond the embodied experience of a city – and what this means for power/privilege (how discourses of cities center and privilege certain people and knowledge over others) and what this means for various methods (ethnographic, archival, aesthetic) of studying cities that may or may not address those differences in power and privilege.

I used this exercise last semester in my Urban Ethnography class, linking it to Michel de Certeau’s ideas of place and space.

What exercises do you use to have students think about how meanings are produced and circulated in urban spaces?

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