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Course profiles: ENG 357

What are the markers of New York City modernism at the turn of the twentiethcentury? What would they look like placed on a map? Part of it could follow the A train on its route through Manhattan. Another part could stretch from Harlem in the bloom of its Renaissance down to the Greenwich Village haunts of artist John Sloan. Maybe some parts of it have yet to be imagined.

In ENG 357/HUM 357/URB 357: Mapping NYC Modernism: Literature and Art, David Ball GS ’07, visiting associate professor of English, guides students through NYC’s literary and artistic history. Students will spend the semester researching art, artists and cultural settings in NYC from 1880 to 1930 and mark points of interest on the class' shared Google Maps rendering of the city. For their final projects, students will create their own topic-specific walking tours of NYC using some of the 90 Google Maps waypoints the class will have placed on the map by the end of the semester.

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In the first meeting of the course on Monday, Ball urged his ten students to approach their study of NYC modernism with perspectives that transcend chronology or standard affiliation.

The class is “not abandoning more conventional notions of literary art history, but thinking about contiguity in a way that puts ideas, figures, cultural sites [and] cultural works into communication with one another in ways that we might not have expected,” Ball said.

The class will take two day trips to New York. The first walking tour, Ball said, will take students to the Lower East Side and the Village. The second will take them to the “institutions of midtown modernism,” such as Harlem and the Museum of Modern Art.

ENG 357 is one of five classes being offered through the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities this spring. According to its website, the Initiative encourages the creation of interdisciplinary courses that focus on the cities of North and South America and considers questions such as, “How are quantitative and qualitative, text and visual, and other methods, integrated?”

Ball noted that another Mellon grant supports ENG 357, one that is provided to professors who design courses that use the University Art Museum’s collections. The class will have the opportunity to plunge “elbow-deep in the guts of the museum,” Ball said during class. Many of the works being pulled for the class from the Museum’s archives have never been exhibited.

In fact, Ball said, “What [students] write about some of those artworks may be the first thing that’s written about some of those artworks ever.”

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In the latter half of the course, students will choose for themselves research topics that interest them, adding their findings to the growing collection of waypoints on their map.

“It’s asking students to take ownership over the shape of their own intellectual interests. It’s not about what I know —it’s about what they learn,” Ball said. “I have no idea what that map is going to look like at the end of the semester —not a clue, which is fun. I’m going to learn a lot as we go along.”

This semester is the first semester Ball is teaching the course. It may also be the last, as he is finishing up his two years as visiting professor and will be returning to Dickinson College in the fall. For students who are interested, as of this article’s publication, there are still two spots left in the seminar.

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