History Department Launches Cities Program

Starting this semester, the History Department is implementing a new program on the topic of Cities and History as a department-wide initiative to allow students to focus their studies on one historical question.

The program will include regular course offerings on individual cities or multiple cities in comparison, as well as lectures, films, and even tours to nearby cities like Philadelphia to do some first-hand research. While the history department already offers several courses that focus on the history of cities (such as Professor Li’s course on Beijing and Shanghai), the new program will also provide an opportunity for the development of new courses.

The program resulted from a push to create a forum for cross-disciplinary discussions and an interest in working with specific interests of Swarthmore’s history faculty. A true colloquium, the program intends to be a learning experience for both students and faculty on a specific topic. Department chair Bruce Dorsey said, “We want to have fun and want to have conversations about doing the history of cities.”

Cities emerged as a natural choice of focus because, as Dorsey explains, “we’re a department full of people who have all written books about cities,” especially in recent years.

Cities beat out its sister concept of “urbanization,” which was considered too theoretical. “We liked the idea of cities better,” said Professor Tim Burke, “partly because it’s so concrete…’urbanization’ raises these vexed questions, [but] if you’re talking about cities, the question of comparison is a much less vexed one.”

Topics on cities also have larger audiences because it is a wider, more relatable issue. “[The history of cities] is a natural entry point if you’re interested in history,” says Burke. “It sells itself.”

Individual members of the faculty were also more interested in creasing new courses around the topics. “Each of us is thinking about devising a course on a particular city or comparative history of cities, or a thematic course to go along with the ones that we already have,” says Dorsey. Each semester the department will offer at least two city-focused courses.

While the program is not designed as a major, it would give students a way to focus their studies within the department. Although students “can’t have a major or sub major,” says Dorsey, “at the same time we’re going to make it possible to concentrate if you’re interested – or sample!”

Although there are no immediate plans to collaborate with other Swarthmore departments or with Bryn Mawr’s program in the Growth and Structure of Cities, there is a possibility that, if the Cities and History program is popular, more collaboration could occur. “We’ll start just with history students and faculty having conversations about what’s taking place among historians writing about the history of cities,” says Dorsey. “If something else happens beyond that, that’s great.”

The program’s kickoff event will be a lecture by Professor Lillian Li on “Beijing: History and Identity in the Olympic Age” on February 8. Future events will include a lecture by James Field, as well as a film and a tour of Philadelphia.


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