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Size Matters

Claire Romaine's picture

Philadelphia is a massive city, and one of our tasks this semester is to familiarize ourselves with the unique metropolis that is Philly.  More than that really, we are supposed to become intimately and individually involved in some aspect of the city during each and every sojourn.  The largest hindrance to personal exploration, as I have experienced it, is not unfamiliarity, boredom, or even complete disinterest, because these themselves can reveal something about our experiences in the city.  Rather the size of the group is the greatest obstacle.  The larger a group is, the more self-contained it becomes, directing its focus inwards and glossing over the scenes of the city around us as mere tourists rather than explorers.  Obviously this happened when we first journeyed into Philly with the entire group of twenty-eight people, and it was admittedly necessary for the safety and peace of mind of people unfamiliar with the area.  However, this concept applies readily to the classroom as well: Twenty-eight people having a discussion rarely results in any meaningful conclusions if only because no individual has the time to go into detail about their ideas and experiences.  Furthermore, discussions between the two sections often seem pointless since we take part in very different lectures and discussions in our separate classes.  Even though both Anne and Mark try to coordinate their discussions, they have different expectations of their students and different aspects of any given topic that they focus on.  This has relatively little impact on the day to day operation of the class, but once in a while I notice the class abandoning an interesting and applicable line of thought for the sake of matching the other section.  It would be a much more fruitful conversation if we followed where our arguments led us rather than constantly adjusting for Mark’s section.  I understand that college courses, even discussion based ones, must follow some sort of outline, but constantly focusing on coordinating with the other class seems like an inefficient use of our time.

Of course, large groups aren’t the only size-related issues because sometimes even tiny groups can cause consternation.  Our small writing groups often seem pointless.  None of us are ever sure what we are supposed to be discussing mostly because the instructions aren’t clear.  Anne wants us to discuss each other’s articles without taking into account the author’s intentions, without saying what we like or dislike and without offering suggestions for improvements.  It seems like a lot of things we can’t do and very little explicit instruction about what we should be doing.  I often find myself sitting and staring at my peers as we vainly try to find another topic to discuss.  Of course, the issue is even further exacerbated when we are paired up with students from Mark’s sections because both professors want us to focus on different aspects of writing.  One week, Anne might ask us to focus on the structures of our essays, Mark’s class is asked to do something vastly different.  It is difficult to have a useful discussion with people who are analyzing a paper based on different standards.

Looking back on my evaluation so far, I realize that I should say that I do not condemn this class as a waste of time.  Far from it; it introduces an invaluable familiarization with the surroundings we will be living in for the next four years, and Anne is managing to slowly coax us out of age old habits of story and essay writing, which have little use in a college setting.  Anne herself is often demanding to the point of being intimidating to some students, but she also gives some of the most practical and useful writing advice about essay structure and the development of ideas that I have ever been given.  In class, however, I sometimes feel like she is pointing us towards a foregone conclusion rather than encouraging a discussion of the validity of the arguments within the texts.  Particularly during our discussion of the structure of cities, I felt that she wanted us to simply accept the truth of some articles without letting us decide for ourselves what their value was. 

As a beginning college course, the fundamentals that Play in the City is teaching us are sound.  It’s an interesting topic and promotes useful skills for both college and life, it is only the particulars that need adjusting.  Given time and a little bit of effort, the kinks in the logistics will work themselves out, and the course can become a fascinating discussion about recreation and entertainment in the modern metropolis.