Inaugural Mellon Collaborative Studies Seminar Focuses on Harlem and the South Bronx

From left, Travis Gosa, Noliwe Rooks, Earl Lewis, and Mary Woods

From left, Travis Gosa, Africana studies; Noliwe Rooks, Africana studies; Andrew W. Mellon Foundation President Earl Lewis; and Mary Woods, architecture, during Dr. Lewis's visit to campus. AAP / William Staffeld

June 18, 2014

An interdisciplinary group of students, faculty, and campuswide experts came together in the spring semester to study two neighborhoods in New York City.

Home and the World: Urban Representations of Harlem and the South Bronx, taught by Noliwe Rooks, Africana studies, and Mary Woods, the Michael A. McCarthy Professor of Architectural Theory, was the first in a three-year series of seminars funded by a gift from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As part of the Urban Representation Labs (which take place in the spring), the class focused on various methods of making, collecting, exhibiting, and studying urban representations in Harlem and the South Bronx, and brought in experts from architecture, Africana studies, American studies, art, and film, in addition to staff from the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, the Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, and the Catherwood Library Kheel Center.

Final projects from the seminar took a variety of forms, including Precarious Living, a documentary film that explores the personal histories of homeless residents of the South Bronx; There Goes the 'Hood, a website that highlights the voices and tactics of grassroots organizers from across the country in their struggle against gentrification; and Urban Migrations, a project that utilizes QR codes in key sites of Harlem to access a website, including an interactive map, videos, and photographs from three different lenses that reflect various moments in the neighborhood's history.

Earl Lewis, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, attended presentations of the student projects in April. "The projects that I saw demonstrate the importance of fusing theory and applied knowledge," says Lewis. "The students, during their presentations, carefully illustrated the ways in which scholarship, when done at the highest levels, produces new insights, discoveries, and questions. New questions are essential, and through them new knowledge is the product."

Students apply for admission to the seminars, and those accepted become Mellon Fellows, each receiving a $1,000 grant. In addition to course work, the fellows participate in a series of workshops customized to each semester's theme. Workshops for the spring semester included Researching Digital Collections; Analyzing Digital Collections and Text Corpora; and Methods, Challenges, and Rewards of Oral History, among others. Led by a variety of specialists from the Cornell University Library and other relevant areas, the workshops explored a wide range of tools and methodologies relevant to the seminar.

"The discussions and workshops with Olin Library were invaluable and made me think a lot more critically about knowledge production, access, and digital activism," says Diane Wong, a Ph.D. candidate in government.

"There was some concern that the workshops could be distracting; digital tools are great, but can be overwhelming," says Woods. "Luckily, this group of students didn't get too distracted by the bells and whistles; instead, they immediately started problematizing the tools, and using them as new avenues of inquiry into the assumed knowledge of these two neighborhoods."

"I appreciated the collaborative and interdisciplinary atmosphere of the Mellon seminar because it encouraged us to get out of our methodological comfort zones," says Anna Mascorella, a Ph.D. candidate in history of architecture and urban development. "As a result, the group projects forced us to think expansively about our tasks at hand in order to find particular themes or emphases that united our interests."

"Bringing scholars, curators, artists, and collectors together around a common theme created something unique," says Woods. "Our team of instructors and experts was extraordinary. And, we had an incredible group of students; they were serious, committed, and extremely ambitious in their projects. All the students are continuing to work on their projects, even though the seminar is done."

By Rebecca Bowes

About the Mellon Collaborative Studies in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities

The Mellon seminars are divided into two distinct types: the spring series, Urban Representation Labs, aim to bring students and faculty into direct contact with complex urban representations spanning a wide media spectrum and evoking a broad set of humanist discourses.

The fall classes have a different conceit. Focused on the expanded conceptual framework demanded by contemporary global urbanism, Expanded Practice Seminars bring students and faculty in the humanities and the design disciplines together at the heart of the design enterprise—the design studio. The first of the fall seminar series is titled Flux Navigations: Bio-Politics and Urban Aesthetics in the Contemporary Southeast Asian City, and will be taught by Jeremy Foster, architecture, and Arnika Fuhrmann, Asian studies. Seminar participants will participate in a customized version of the studio travel program, typically during the spring semester break, to experience the conditions under study, and meet with local experts, designers, and authorities.

Both seminar series have a collaborative, interdisciplinary nature. "Our goal going into this seminar was to establish a collaborative teaching and learning model that would extend beyond one semester; by getting to students early in their careers, our hope is that integration and collaboration with students and professionals in other disciplines will become a standard practice," says Woods.

Faculty from Arts and Sciences and AAP are encouraged to submit proposals for the remaining seminars.

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