Paper 1: Observing City Scenes


Although this is a class about films, our first writing assignment is actually just about observation. Film is a wonderfully rich medium because it includes sound and vision in motion through space and time; but if you stop and think for a moment, you realize that actual real life features all of these elements as well. So before we analyze The City in Film, we'll turn our critical eye to The City Around Us.

For this assignment, you are asked to select, observe, and describe a single "scene" from the life of the city around you. Some examples might include:

  • A crowd of people lining up at rush hour to get onto the Red Line at Central Square;
  • a couple walking along Memorial Drive in the snow;
  • a slow pan down a Back Bay alley, exploring garbage, graffiti, back doors, and utility cabinets;
  • the view of the skyline from a roof of MIT, where a group of young astronomers have gathered to observe the Leonids;
  • a homeless person watching as people pass by; or
  • the contrast between the window displays of two neighboring stores: One advertising vodka, the other back-to-school supplies.

These are, of course, just samples—please don't write about these ones. Walk around a bit, think about a place or a time that really evokes something about living in the city to you, and write it up. Importantly, just describe it, as if this were an excerpt from a screenplay; don't interpret it for us. (One of the key rules of good art is "Show, don't tell.")

Before writing up your "scene," I recommend you re-read the "Looking at Cities" article by Allan Jacobs, as well as the sections from Corrigan listed in the syllabus (perhaps even skimming some of chapters 3 and 4). These former will help you think about how we observe places, the latter about how we observe scenes.



This is a short paper—please aim for a target of 2–3 pages (approximately 500–750 words). The goal is to present and analyze a few keen, focused observations, not a comprehensive analysis of everything about a city or a neighborhood. Decide what you want to say in advance, strive for tight writing, and revise as necessary to make every word count; remember the three keys to strong writing: trim, TRIM, TRIM.

Other Things to Include

  • Be sure you give your paper a title.
  • Number your pages and include your name on each one.
  • You don't need to include photos or diagrams, but you can if you want; both words and pictures can be useful when observing and describing cities (and films).

Deadline & Submission

This paper is due at the beginning of Week 4.

Student Examples

The examples below appear courtesy of MIT students and are used with permission. Examples are published anonymously unless otherwise requested.

The City's Heart (PDF)

Home (PDF)