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FACULTY TAKE NEW APPROACHES TO STUDY OF CITIES
STANFORD - The 1990s may be the best time since the 1960s to reexamine the metropolis, say faculty members who are teaching seven new courses in Stanford University's Urban Studies Program.
"We've got new data, new theories, new questions and many new answers and explanations. It's an incredibly exciting time for students to be in urban studies," said sociologist Susan Olzak, who will teach one of the new classes this spring on "The Urban Underclass."
Urban studies is a small interdepartmental program developed in the late 1960s to provide a broad grounding for undergraduates interested in urban issues, said program director Leonard Ortolano, a civil engineering professor whose research is on the implementation of environmental policies in cities of Asia and Latin America.
"The core of the urban studies major is in the social sciences, but it also includes physical design and planning courses," he said. "In fact, the core courses in the program are offered by three schools: Engineering, Earth Sciences, and Humanities and Sciences."
Some majors go on to graduate school in architecture or urban planning, while others decide to do advanced work in business, law and social science. Among current students, for example, there are some planning careers in art and architecture, health care planning, historical preservation and affordable housing development.
The new courses - three in political science, two in history, and one each in sociology and anthropology - provide students with updated social science perspectives.
"My interest is particularly in the global context. You can't understand Los Angeles without understanding international migration," said Paulla Ebron, an anthropologist who just finished teaching "Alternative Conceptions of Urban Culture."
"Analyzing migration breaks down old boundaries between the West and the Non-West, and between urban and rural spaces," she said. "We must look at what the meanings of city and country are and how these meanings are created in relationship with each other in both the First and Third World. I see the city as a locus of activity in a world network."
Ebron's course looks at the different ways urban culture has been characterized in writing on anthropology, philosophy and literature. Her own research deals with African music in the context of trans- national cultural flows.
Political scientist Luis Fraga researches American city politics with a focus on white, African American and Latino constituencies and electoral representation. He teaches new courses on "Urban politics" and "Urban Policy," as well as one on "The Politics of Race and Ethnicity in the U.S."
"Studying cities and urban areas allows us to appreciate how our nation as a whole will respond to the challenges presented by increasing levels of class, racial and ethnic diversity in our national population," Fraga said. "How these groups are treated, how conflicts among these groups are reconciled and how they have responded to opportunities and constraints provided by urban society has most often set the national policy and, especially, thinking regarding issues of diversity generally."
Olzak's new course is on the "urban underclass," a term that generates much controversy in sociology conferences, she said.
"This is because the concept of 'underclass' evokes a whole set of assumptions about the nature, the character, the content of the underclass and its persistence or even increase in social significance over time," she said.
"In my course, which I will teach for the first time this spring, I want to separate the two issues - the debate over the various definitions of underclass from the evidence we have on the trends in poverty and the underclass over the last 30 years."
Olzak's research is on contemporary racial conflict in the United States.
Paul Seaver's history class on "Early Modern London" is designed, in a way, to counteract the currency of the other new courses.
"We force the students out of a current policy-oriented time frame of months into one that goes for decades, so they can watch technology change the city," he said.
"The first thing I do is tell the students there are no census data before 1801; we use parish registers instead. It immediately puts you in a different frame of mind to look at a city by reading that so and so is married to so and so, and they have these children.
"Then, when you turn to the register of deaths, you discover most people are dying, and you become involved in a demographic regime that hasn't been experienced in America, I suspect, since Jamestown," Seaver said. "To go to London was to take a terrible chance that you'd die very shortly."
Karen Sawislak, a social historian of 19th-century Chicago, just finished teaching a new course on "Social Change in Industrializing America," organized around the question of how one writes the history of cities.
Urban Studies students come into the class, she said, with "pragmatic knowledge of how hard it is to plan something." They understand tax structure and eminent domain, but are "not always open to the complexity of urban life or the many ways to model it."
"As a historian," she said, "I see questions of agency, or the choices people are making. Some students think cities are all alike, that it's a question of human nature, and they are trying to fit what happens to cities into a [top-down] policy framework."
By comparing cities as well as interpretations of their political, economic and environmental development, Sawislak said, she hopes students come to appreciate their differences as well as the commonalities.
Before she took Sawislak's course, senior Christine Giviskos of Morristown, N.J., had taken the year-long earth sciences course in environmental planning. There students studied Pacifica, Calif., from many angles, mapping its biodiversity, hydrology, transportation, aesthetics and landmarks. She had worked summers in a Manhattan planning office and a museum, but she had yet to take a history course.
"It made me realize that cities are shaped by more [forces] than money, planners and politicians," she said. She was amazed, for instance, at how much the great south-north migration in the early part of the century changed Chicago.
Giviskos is not yet sure of her next professional move but says the urban studies program's emphasis on team fieldwork, written reports and visual presentations "provides transferable skills to almost anything," while the social sciences courses provide a general grounding.
The worst part about urban studies when you start is the best part when you finish, said Leslie Strate, a senior from Golden, Colo.
"At first, it's a drag to adjust to a new way to take a test or write a paper for each class," she said, "but by the time you are a senior, you've seen the same subjects from many perspectives."
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