Six professors, six disciplines, 50 students, one Johns Hopkins classroom and a rather large laboratory--the city of Baltimore. Put them together and you have what Professor Stuart Leslie calls an "experiment in learning about American cities."
"The whole idea is that Baltimore is both characteristic and unique," Leslie says. "It shares problems with, and some of the opportunities of, other cities, but it has its distinctive features."
The undergraduate course, called Cities Under Stress: Learning from Baltimore, is designed to give students an intense, hands-on and interdisciplinary experience studying an urban environment. Funded by a grant from the Provost's Office, the course is an example of interdivisional cooperation, in line with the university's goals as outlined in the report of the Committee for the 21st Century.
Aside from weekly lectures en masse, the class will break down into smaller groups of about 10 each, and individual groups will focus on a particular Baltimore neighborhood: Canton, Inner Harbor East, Hampden, Locust Point or Sandtown/Winchester.
The students and professors will do field work in their particular neighborhood, meet with community leaders and ordinary citizens, research issues and problems, and ultimately produce a report that may give something back.
At least that's the hope.
"I think we have a lot to offer, and the students have a lot to offer," said Lee Bone, associate scientist in the Department of Health Policy and Management, School of Public Health, and one of the instructors. Already, the students have taken a bus tour of the five neighborhoods and enjoyed a lecture atop Federal Hill, as well as sampled each professor's teaching style as the professors one by one gave their backgrounds and described the neighborhoods they've made their focus.
David Harvey, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, spoke about his studying American geography as a 12-year-old in England and being fascinated with the fall line, that area along the East Coast where most settlements occurred because of water power.
Ultimately, he found himself living along the fall line in Hampden. He's been there nearly 30 years.
Matthew Crenson, the political scientist, is a Baltimore native who couldn't wait to get away and vowed not to return. "I grew up feeling that this was a stagnated, provincial backwater where nothing interesting ever happened," he said.
But after stints in Cambridge, Mass.; Washington; and Chicago, Crenson found himself dreaming about Baltimore. So he returned. "Six years after I swore I would never come back, I was back," he said.
Fondness for Baltimore aside, the professors hope to stimulate not only the students but each other with this interdisciplinary approach, and perhaps lay the foundation for future such courses and cooperation.
"I think there are two groups of learners here, the students and the faculty," said Bone.
Throughout the course, the Hopkins faculty will draw on the outside expertise of Baltimore residents, from government officials to neighborhood historians, and others.
"To bring the city alive for the students, you need to bring in the city experts," said Bone.
Depending on how things go, and how interested students are in the area of urban studies, Leslie said, there might be potential to add an urban studies minor or major to the curriculum. Bone said she is very excited by the course, and thinks it could be a model for other programs.
"Oh, I am excited," she said. "I think the future of education is going to be in interdisciplinary courses and interdisciplinary learning. The students begin to see how the world is very complex, and in order to really understand, one needs to have all the perspectives in a particular area."
Said Leslie, "The university is increasingly seeing itself as part of the community in its initiatives in East Baltimore and in its initiatives in the Greater Homewood community, and the undergraduates need to see themselves as part of the community, too."