The Once and Future City

“A cloudy evening on the bridge between Boston and Cambridge. In 2015, this course focused on the 100th anniversary of MIT’s move across the Charles River, from Boston to Cambridge. (Courtesy of nd-nʎ on Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA.)”

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Walk around a neighborhood in your city or town, and you might notice the different styles of buildings, the width of the streets, the kinds of trees or other plants, the open spaces, the way the wind whistles. Taking it all in, you might feel caught up in the moment. Ah!

But maybe you’re just trapped in the present.

Stretching your time frame is a major focus of 11.016J The Once and Future City, just published on OCW as taught by Professor Anne Whiston Spirn in Spring 2015.

 

Identifying the Pieces

“Cities are the products of the actions of millions of people and countless decisions, public and private,” Professor Spirn notes in one of her three videos that kick off the assignments. “How do all the pieces, styles, and times fit together?”

Early in the class students investigate maps of Boston, discovering how the city has changed over the centuries. “Who has the power to erase roads, to consolidate hundreds of properties?” a second video asks. “Why do some things persist and others disappear?”

A big part of the course is learning how to look, how to find “significant detail.” This process can be awkward for students accustomed to finding a right answer to a given question. The students are “not just taking a text and applying it, or critiquing something that already exists. They are developing visual thinking skills, and they have to make observations using their own eyes and mind. Many are not prepared for this.”

 

Stepping outside the Classroom Box

Professor Spirn helps them see for themselves by taking them on short field trips, where she asks provocative questions to get students thinking. As she explains in “Leading Productive Field Trips,” one of her Instructor Insights,

“The field trips are designed to give the students an introduction to methods of observation before they have to go out and perform field observations on their own at the sites they choose for their projects. We walk around and I show them how to look at things, how to find significant detail. But what is significant? Some students don’t see anything at all . . . Others see so many things that they can’t make sense out of what is significant and what is trivial. The field trip helps both kinds of students.”

 

Seeing Patterns Emerge

This form of teaching is very different from how Professor Spirn originally taught the course, back when she imparted knowledge through class lectures. Several years ago she decided to flip her classroom. Now instead of lecturing, she says

“I put together a series of images—mostly maps and photographs . . . Depending on the current assignment, the images emphasize different phenomena. But they always consist of puzzles . . . I’ll project an image on the screen and say, ‘What pattern do you see here?’ Sometimes nobody sees a pattern, so I say, ‘OK, do you see any anomalies? Does anything stick out or seem odd?’”

From the puzzles emerge patterns, and from the patterns, a hypothesis.

 

Opening the Mind’s Eye through Projects

The course site has extensive descriptions of the assignments, in which students select a site to explore, observe the natural processes at play in it, analyze its changes through time, and see what all of this bodes for the future.

Included on the site are examples of student projects from four different iterations of the course, among them papers on Coolidge Corner, The Bullfinch Triangle, and Boston’s West End.

11.016J turns the present into a portal for time travel. If it sounds fantastic, that’s because it is.

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