November 14: “Stories of the City”


Students will read and report on one of following (assignments have been sent via email):

For those who would like to write a Reading Response for Nov 14, here are three questions that you may consider to prompt your writing:

1. Eula Biss’ short essay “No Man’s Land” is our first foray into using a humanities-based approach (via nonfiction essay) to think about urban experience. How does this approach differ for you? How does Biss’ approach to telling her own story resonate with you? How does Biss’ story reflect your own experience of place?

2. Steven High’s introduction to the special issue of the Journal of Canadian Studies provides a rich overview: he guides us through a certain genealogy of community-grounded research practice; he points to the stakes of developing and conducting ethical research; and he illustrates his discussion with examples from the articles contained within this issue of the journal and from other relevant texts. As such, readers receive a broad and sweeping sense of the landscape that High describes, where special attention is given to what it means to approach research as a collaborative process of developing a shared authority and why this approach matters. Given that High covers so much in this text, those who write a reflection on it should address one element of the article in some depth. Likewise, you are welcome to reflect on how High’s argument relates to the other texts (Biss or the website that you explore).

3. Describe and discuss the website that you explored, making sure to comment on how the site relates (in principle or practice) to either Biss or High. What story or stories come to life in the site? What is gained and lost in the visual experience? Do such sites hold a promise for effectively sharing authority?

Lecture overview.

As I wrote earlier this semester, I approach the city as an amazing collection of stories. Far from a static repository or a depiction of the inevitable, the city is the very definition of potential. It is constantly becoming, an assemblage of places whose new stories emerge out of multiple histories, memories and experiences that have shaped the perception of (and attachment to) the city. One of the most rewarding parts of my work (as scholar/ teacher/ activist) is to carve out space for “other” stories to be told, where “other” is the stuff that is ignored or disregarded by dominant urban discourses. I try to ensure that “othered” stories are collected and saved, and that they are told. One of my hopes is that dominant discourses/ practices/ histories are disrupted and challenged and shifted in the telling of these counter-narratives.

Making space for the telling of “unpopular” stories… As a critical geographer, it strikes me that focusing on this act alone is overly romantic and cannot be an end unto itself. What we do with these stories is equally important. Yet, making space for these stories is a vital strategy and means for social change. It enables authors like Eula Biss to call out the everyday production of whiteness and sit uncomfortably with the ways that she is assumed to participate in systems that perpetuate racialized fear. Making space makes it possible to validate experiences that are different from our own, and grapple with our own complicities within unjust structural norms. Making space also demands a greater critical awareness of so-called “popular” stories and dominant framings of issues, and must compel us to demand changes in these “popular” framings. Here, the work of critical geographer and media studies professor Minelle Mahtani is a fantastic resource.

Part of our class period, then, will focus on making space for “othered” stories. First, we will have the opportunity to hear from youth members and Program Director Hawa Mire of Leave Out Violence BC. Our visitors will talk about experiences of inclusion and exclusion in Vancouver (and region), and Hawa Mire will talk about LOVE’s arts-based programs that provide spaces and tools for youth to build community. Following the facilitations, we will also share lessons from the oral history/ urban change websites that were assigned. The selection of sites is obviously partial (a function of those sites with which I am most familiar)—there are many, many stories that could have been represented and were not. If there are others that you know of that should have been part of this list, please share!

We will also focus on how these “other” stories are crafted and re-told. Here, our conversation will focus on Steven High’s discussion of sharing authority in the collection and preservation of oral histories. Student comments get to the heart of the issues High addresses: how do definitions and expectations of “objectivity” shape our research methods and outcomes? What are the ethics involved in community-engaged research where “community” is assumed to be a homogeneous category? What happens when “community-university partnerships” reify the very power dynamics that they set out to trouble? This text also returns us to topics that we visited at the outset of the semester, about how, and by whom, knowledge is produced. (High’s article also previews my course next semester on qualitative methods for feminist research. Those who are interested will be able to follow and join in on a similar open-source forum.)

While our class time tomorrow will only afford conversation of the week’s texts, and thus of “stories” as they are conventionally understood, I want to close here with a reminder that our ability to think broadly about what constitutes “stories of the city” can help us to intervene in urban change. As I noted earlier in the semester, our explanations and theorisations of urban life are certain kinds of stories, as are the policies we create, as are the discourses we adhere to and challenge. Policies tell us one kind of story, but other stories are evident in efforts to change policy. Here is a place where meaningful participation matters: these efforts bring people together to share stories, identify issues, generate ideas, and leave the events charged with a responsibility to bring those ideas to their friends, their neighbourhoods, their City Councillors. This is the model behind Women’s Safety Audits, community asset mapping, and the Women Transforming Cities initiative, among others. As we discussed several weeks ago with the Pollock & Sharp article, participatory processes are not perfect, but it is important to acknowledge that these processes have the potential to engender a new set of stories about the city that give value to people’s sense of place and belonging.

22 thoughts on “November 14: “Stories of the City”

  1. Students: please use this comment feature to claim one of the story project sites. All of the sites should be claimed before a site has two reviewers. For instance, Manvir claimed the NYC Taxi Driver Oral Histories site, so no one else should choose this one until all other sites have at least one reviewer. (You are, of course, welcome to spend time on as many sites as you wish. However, you need to claim one as your responsibility for reporting to the class.)

  2. I would REALLY love to review Welcome to Pine Point as well!

    But I would also be happy to review Act Up: Oral History Project 🙂

  3. Sorry, I just realized Manvir already claimed the NYC one, so I’ll do Memoryscapes and Public History.

  4. Discussion Questions:

    What social forces were at play in the rejection of the Komagata Maru and her passengers? How did these social forces cause them to be seen as totalized outsiders? If this situation were to be repeated in present times with the social forces at play towards so-called outsiders and immigrants, how would the response to these people differ? Would it differ today from one hundred years ago?

  5. Pre-meeting Qs from students for the Nov 14 class meeting

    Overarching question
    Participants attending a 2008 international conference on collaborative inquiry claim that “[s]ome of the toughest [questions] relate to issues of power and community definition” (High, 2009, p. 14). In a collaborative exchange, who are the insiders? Who are the outsiders? Can history innovate change and work to draw community together? Or, vice versa, can it work to alienate community members? Similar to democratic discourse, the process of collaborative inquiry is painful and messy. Does the freedom of digital access which “endlessly celebrate[s] the open-endedness of process, the multiplicity of sources, and the unlimited questions these can support” (Frisch, as cited in High, 2009) serve to help collaborative inquiry?

    On Biss, No Man’s Land
    After reading the piece by Biss, I found myself reflecting upon ‘fear’ quite a bit, and thinking about the different ways in which fear has been enacted throughout the years via certain laws or policies – i.e. racial segregation (which is something that Biss also discusses), and/or through wars (both ideological and physical warfare) – i.e. the cold war, and now, as I’m sure we are all familiar with, and as the author also mentions on page 157: the “War on Terror” (which has resulted in a drastic rise in Islamophobia and fear of/animosity toward Brown folks – especially those who look and are Arab). As history has shown us, “[f]ear is promoted by the government as a kind of policy” (p. 157), and because we are constantly being told which places and people we should supposedly avoid, is it then safe to assume that fear is something that will always exist in our society?

    In Biss’ article we see how residents of a Chicago neighbourhood deal with their fear of ‘the other’ through the creation of a ‘hostile fantasy’. The overarching narrative of Rogers Park romanticizes the historic role of pioneers, and ‘how things used to be’, in effect ignoring the tragedy of Native American displacement, and excluding residents who do not conform to white, middle class standards. Simultaneously, as we saw in Kern, the threat of ‘the other’ is calmed through commodification and purification, as developers boast the ‘diversity’ of the neighbourhood as a selling point. While both work to exclude the often racialized ‘other’ they are not the same story. Can a community celebrate the pioneers (while ignoring the history of Native American inhabitants) and at the same time promote ‘diversity’? What types of tensions might emerge among residents or community planners who hold conflicting visions for Rogers Park? For example, Biss and her husband clearly were uncomfortable with the interactions they had with other residents who would say things to them such as ‘ we need more people like us here’. As we can see for Biss, there is also internal tension as she navigates her day to day encounters in the neigbourhood as a white woman.

    Biss explores the many ways in which her neighbourhood is both experienced and imagined, and how notions of “community” are cultivated and/or complicated. At one point, she describes how gangs are experienced as both “real” and “conceptual” (p.149). What are the implications of this statement in relation to fear and segregation? How does Biss’ community of Rogers Park operationalize, justify and codify fear into their landscapes?

    Eula Biss’ short essay is intriguing. At first I hesitated reading Bliss’ writing style but I have grown to like it reading the second time around. An overarching theme in her writing is how fear is portrayed. In this chapter Bliss’ describes the fear of the unknown and how that is disseminated in society. For example she describes how she was warned about moving to Rogers Park because according to other people around the author Rogers Park seemed as dangerous. Bliss also gives the example of her friend traveling to South Africa and how sheltered she must remain to stay “safe” and the fear they cultivated in her in the name of safety (p 150). Bliss’ experience in New York City as the only female riding the metro late one night doesn’t fear her but rather fury’s her. What do you think of Bliss’ idea that government policies promote of fear and that fear is some sort of “accepted” intelligence?? Or is it some sort of act of violence??

    On High, Sharing Authority
    “When taken for granted, community becomes a static category that exaggerates differences with the world without and erases the differences within” (Steven High). This is a very powerful and important statement that can be applied to our classroom and the communities we address and research. The Sharing Authority article comes off very positively and I completely endorse it’s anti-oppressive and empowering characteristics however, I think that it is also essential very to note that when doing community based research it is vital to acknowledge that not all members are homogenous and may not agree with next. What challenges may this pose in research that wishes to share the authority, are there any examples you can think of from our readings? On the other hand what are some ways that these internal differences can be accommodated for in a shared authority research process?

    In High’s article, the shift of authority from university researcher to the greater community being researched is said to serve multiple purposes, one of which is described as “Engaged Scholarship”. It is shown that through this process, both researchers and community members can have higher levels of satisfaction with the process and results of the research. However, as mentioned in the article, researchers may also run into more problems with ethics using these alternative methods (pg. 23). Being in a research methods class at the moment, I can think of a whole multitude of issues that would arise in this method of research that would not match up with the scientific method that is considered the holy grail of all methodology. I suppose my question is, what sort of controls can be put in place to protect the validity and reliability of results that stem from a shared authority of knowledge? Are there specific ways we can lessen the “distance” between researchers and the community without running the risk of biased, unethical, or irrelevant results?

    How effective is collaborative community based research, what are some examples? How do we measure the success of the research?

    High stated “that community is more of an “evocative symbol” than an “analytical tool.” What does this exactly mean?

    • One more pre-meeting question!
      Steven High suggests in his article Sharing Authority: An Introduction (2009) that efforts are being made to connect formal academia and the institution of with community based knowledge, research and personal engagement. This is a difficult process with many questions still up for debate including who represents academic authority what privileges do they hold and how does this effect the way in which community engagements is facilitated. Further, what does community consist of and who is being heard? Who gets to represent the community and how is engagement and research being conducted? Where are we closing the gap?

      One area that speaks to distributing power and sharing institutional authority is brought up in the discussion with Nichole Lang on The New Brunswick Labour History CURA project, which highlights the benefits of collaborative work between Universities, Community leadership and organizations. This type of involvement between academic institutions and youth with the community at large establishes a sense of power, pride, access and ability to shape city development rather than maintaining a powerless and disengaged gap between academia and community when really should they should be working hand in hand. So is this something we could begin implementing on a larger scale?

      I’ve spoken with a lot of students over the years who have suggested the benefits of a practical component to our studies outside of the very competitive and at times disconnected university co-op. We have Breadth requirements to meet perhaps there should be a practical engagement requirement as is demanded for many masters programs. It would be interesting to take the idea of a praxis portfolio and implement it as a required block for social science and humanities students. This could consist of one entire class space dedicated to community engagement, somewhat like a smaller scale practical. This would be great to grant students time to be involved in the community, build their resume, have hands on experience and create a wide bridge between the academic and community research and engagement gap. Further grants and different funding opportunities exist for co-op programs, perhaps the same sort of structure should be formed for this program- as utopian as that may sound.

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