Friday, September 15, 2017

Teaching Thursday: Graphic Novel Migration Architecture

The first week of my Migration Architecture class is over. With the anxieties of a new class and a new group of students waning, I am ready to talk about it. The class has three objectives, to introduce students to spatial analysis as a discursive tool, to explore the inherent tension between migration and architecture, and to compare the American melting pot of the 1920s to migration today. The ingredients are part GIS, part graphic novel, part civic-engagement, and part forensic archaeology. Yes, a crazy combination that tries desperately to throw the students into hands-on spatial representing and analyzing their own constructions. Yes, I’m terrified of what might happen if the students don’t follow the tutorials on georectification or geocoding. Teaching software to undergraduates, I have come to believe, is equivalent to teaching them how to write or draw. But I don't quite know how to do it right yet.

The first GIS exercise of the course begins next week. The students will take over data generated by my 2016 Summer Hackman scholars, Lizzy Wood and Cassie Garrison. We will take 16 blocks of ethnic Philadelphia, map all the buildings and link them with their occupants listed on the contemporary census. Rather than giving the students a handful of terrific books and articles on Philadelphia’s ethnic melting pot, I have assigned them a graphic novel, the re-issue of Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, which takes place in Bronx tenement in 1930. I have never taught the graphic novel, but I have participated in readings and seminars of a graphic novel course that my colleague Kerry Sherry Wright teaches at F&M’s English Department. The second graphic novel that my student will read is Joe Sacco’s Notes from Gaza, which dramatizes Sacco’s investigation on the events of Rafa and Khan Yunis refugee camp in Palestine. The Arab Comic exhibition that just opened at the Phillips Museum adds another point of reference for the students.   

Today, we discussed the three stories of Eisner’s Contract with God. We asked a simple question. What is the architectural dimensions in the book’s narrative. Visually represented in a graphic novel, those spaces are not just implied but a parallel narrative to the words. We talked about the history of tenements from the double tenement of the 1830s, the railroad tenement of the 1850s, and the dumbbell tenement of the 1879 legislation. Through Eisner’s illustrations, we could reconstruct the entire architecture, from the stoop to the superintendent’s basement apartment. In the initial discussion of the books, the students were a little dumbfounded by my questions. Professor, what do you mean by the architectural narrative? Going through the graphic novel and comparing one illustration across the other, the students realized that the novel gave a fairly complete vantage of most of the architectural studies. The subject of the stories was kind of rough, involving rape, suicide, theft, domestic abuse and promiscuous sex. The students were able to handle it. No trigger warnings were necessary. At the end of the day, I was relieved that this graphic experiment worked out OK.

Eisner was one of many elements introduced. In just one week, the students have analyzed archival city maps at our Library Special Collections, were lectured on the architecture of the Jewish diaspora from the Temple of Solomon and the Tower of Babel to the Roman ghetto and the Russian pogroms. They learned about space, time, and form in archaeological analysis. And they also created a house database of family residence across three generations (the houses of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents) -- here they learned how difficult it is to get data even in your own family; they also learned of the great migration history that each student has brought to the class.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States