Tuesday, July 12, 2016

My letter to the first-years

Source: nydailynews.com
This fall I'm teaching a course in Coe's first-year program called The Future of the City. I don't know the students' backgrounds, of course, so we'll start with the basics: Suburban Nation and a very good reader on "Urban Society" compiled by Annual Editions. If I can get them into some of the excellent urbanist blogs out there over the course of the semester, I'll consider it a success. If they join Strong Towns, I'll consider it a triumph.

The program jump-starts with some summer reading. This year, for the first time, faculty were given a list of four books from which to choose; I chose Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates as the most relevant to the topic of urbanism. Little did I know how timely it would prove to be.


Last week we faculty got our provisional class rosters. I have 14 students so far, with one or two last-minute types expected later. Now I know their names and home states (6 IA-2 IL-AZ-CA-FL-MO-TX-WI), but not much else. We were asked to write a letter to the class. Given last week's tragedies, my letter was less chatty than usual. This is what I wrote:

July 11, 2016

Welcome to Coe! And welcome to the first-year seminar class, The Future of the City. Thank you for making it one of your top four choices. I came to the study of cities out of my study of American politics, as well as an interest in places, which was the subject of my previous FYS. Cities of all sizes are some of the most interesting and challenging places on Earth!

This week we’ve seen one version of the future of the city: police shootings on back-to-back days in Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul, followed by a sniper attack on police in Dallas that left five dead and seven injured. That version sees each of us in more-or-less constant battle threatened by whoever we encounter particularly if they seem dangerously different. This version features a lot of conflict, leading inevitably to violence. People protect themselves as well as they can, and hope for the best.

There’s also been another version of the future of the city on display, albeit hasn’t gotten as much attention. This one also features a lot of conflict, but it’s conflict tempered by recognition of each other’s common humanity. That enables a conversation about seeking solutions, working towards common goals like peace and prosperity, and how we’re going to live together in the space we share. That too was on display in Dallas, at the protest rally that the sniper attacked, where blacks and whites, civilians and police talked across their differences and helped each other to safety.

I bring to the study of cities a few assumptions, all of which I freely admit are arguable: the nature of the global economy makes individual economic opportunity more challenging even as we need it to sustain our communities; environmental realities increasingly limit our ability to access and use resources (like any source of energy); government finances at all levels are so constrained that suburban development can’t continue to be built and maintained on the scale of the last two generations; but diversity in its many dimensions can be a source of strength if we as a species can learn to embrace it. The bottom line assumption is that Americans are probably going to live more compactly in the next 75 years than they have in the last 75, partly out of choice, but partly out of necessity.

So what do we do? I don’t have all the answers, or even very many of them, but am fascinated and perplexed by the questions, and I hope that they will intrigue you as well. I’ve chosen a couple of texts that cover a lot of the basic issues, and which should get some good conversations started, not to mention inspire your own explorations through paper-writing and giving presentations. [I don’t know what your high school experiences have been, but college in general relies more heavily on reading and discussion of text than on memorizing the truth. Back in the day I was very good at memorizing the truth, so I had some adjustments to make when I got to college… maybe you will, too. Anyway don’t expect me to do all the talking.]

Which leads me to the summer reading: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates (Speigel & Grau, 2015). You should buy the book, or borrow it from your local public library, and read it before you get to campus. It’s short but tough and timely, an unflinching look at contemporary America written by a black father of a teenage son (who also happens to be a columnist for The Atlantic Monthly). For some of us, Coates’s arguments will be alien; for others they might be screamingly obvious. Read it—but don’t, in spite of its brevity, try to read it in one or two sittings--and see what you think. We’ll spend the first couple class sessions talking about some of the themes he raises. He doesn’t bear as directly on cities as what we’ll read later, but he raises some important issues. You don’t have to agree with everything he says, but it’s important to listen (visually?) and respond.

Another short-but-powerful book I read this summer is Tribe by Sebastian Junger (Twelve, 2016). Junger looks at the way we design, build and live in our places from the perspective of troops returning from a war zone. He notes that American veterans are diagnosed with PTSD at far higher rates than our allies, and wonders if our historic emphasis on individualism affects the design of our places such that it leads naturally to isolation rather than the close connection we might experience in a military unit in danger.

I’ve read other books, too… But you want to know about college!! So here’s some college stuff, starting with your other courses. We will choose those once you’re on campus, and by “we” I mean mostly you with some help from me. In addition to being the instructor for your FYS, I will also serve as your academic advisor during your first year at Coe. We will meet individually during orientation to make out a schedule for your other courses for the Fall term. The choices will be yours, but I will make sure that we put together a solid program for your first semester. 

We’re going to be spending a lot of time together this fall. In addition to having seminar four times a week, our class will participate in cultural activities throughout the semester, starting during orientation. To help first years acclimate to their college experience, every FYS is assigned a College Adjustment Peer (CAP) who will assist you as you make your way through the labyrinth of college life. Our CAP is Hanna Koster, a junior Physics major. She was a CAP leader for a different class last fall and is looking forward to meeting all of us. We also have the services of two consultants from the Coe Writing Center, Marissa Bouska and Allison Bryan.

Speaking of writing, you should have received a link to a questionnaire from the Writing Across the Curriculum program about your experience as a writer. Please respond! It will help them shape their programming for the coming year.

So, again, welcome to Coe and to the class on The Future of the City! Enjoy the rest of your summer, and I’ll see you in six short weeks. In the meantime, if you have any questions, I’ll be here all summer so send them my way!

Bruce F. Nesmith
Joan and Abbot Lipsky Professor of Political Science

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