This page focuses on the course 11.139 The City in Film as it was taught by Ezra Haber Glenn in Spring 2015.
Using film as a lens to explore and interpret various aspects of the urban experience in both the U.S. and abroad, this course presents a survey of important developments in urbanism from 1900 to the present day, including changes in technology, bureaucracy, and industrialization; immigration and national identity; race, class, gender, and economic inequality; politics, conformity, and urban anomie; and planning, development, private property, displacement, sprawl, environmental degradation, and suburbanization..
Course Goals for Students
- Critically examine cities, films about cities, and cultural attitudes and perspectives about urban life and urban issues depicted in films
- Use techniques of close-reading and textual-analysis to interpret meaning (both implicit and explicit) in the language of cities and films
- Learn to think about the changing nature of cities over the past 100 years – initially in an American/European context, but with implications and extensions for other rapidly urbanizing areas
- Express and discuss ideas about both films and cities through written and oral arguments, using visual evidence to support arguments
11.139 can be applied towards a Bachelor of Science in Planning, but is not required.
Every spring semester
Below, Ezra Haber Glenn describes various aspects of how he teaches 11.139 The City in Film.
This course grew out of the MIT Urban Planning Film Series, which I’ve curated since about 2008. Roughly every other Thursday, we’d show films on topics related to urban planning. The screenings were open to students and members of the community. In 2014, I created this course to give more structure to the series and to provide an option for students who wanted to delve more deeply into what films could teach us about cities.
The first year I taught this course it was a “pilot” and was only open to graduate students – about twelve in all, most of whom were enrolled in Urban Planning and Architecture programs. Based on feedback from these students, the course grew into its current state.
Role of Humor
I try to use humor as a tool to loosen people up, get them thinking, talking, and prepared to take some risks, which is really what learning is all about. It also helps, of course, that a number of the films are quite funny – Chaplin’s “Modern Times” or Tati’s “Play Time,” for sure, but even tragedies like “West Side Story” or “Midnight Cowboy” have a good deal of humor mixed in to help give the audience some perspective on the kind of thing that is a city. The trickiest thing with humor is that if people don’t catch it just right, it can seem odd or even snarky.
Facilitating Classroom Discussions
I tried to structure our classroom discussions around observations about cities and the common themes, parallels, and contrasts that emerged over the semester. This focus helped avoid falling into the pitfall of talking about what we liked, what we hated, and whether we thought the films were “good” or “bad,” and so on. The key is to be a critic – thinking critically about the issues the films present – and not simply a reviewer.
I try to make sure everyone contributes right at the beginning of each discussion. To do this, I often run the class as a brainstorming session during which we all throw ideas up on the board before deciding which ones to dig into as a group. This way, we can quickly hear from everyone and gather a wide range of possible topics, without the danger of taking positions too soon, which can often stifle good deep discussions.
Another technique for facilitating discussions is to break up into pairs or small groups to discuss a question or analyze a theme, and to then reconvene to bring all the ideas in the room together, looking for common responses or unique perspectives.
Student feedback is crucial to a subject like this, which is fundamentally about how we – plural – think about and react to both cities and film. There are probably some places in academia where the authority of the professor or other expert is important, but cities tend to be much more diverse and multi-faceted than that. Films, which have been one of our most democratic and populist art forms since their invention, share in this pluralist tradition. So student input is important, both in any particular discussion and also in the overall shaping of the course.
Over the past few years, it’s been clear that students are interested in including in the syllabus very recent films, as well as films from non-Western cities. I’m still tweaking the lineup – which admittedly emphasizes the European and American world, where both film and the modern city began. To compensate for this emphasis, I include a “viewer’s choice” at the end of the semester.
In addition, in the final written assignment, I encourage students to bring their own interests, backgrounds, and questions to the topic. I learn a lot from reading students' assignments and will integrate their ideas into future iterations of the course.
The students' grades were based on the following activities:
Breakdown by Year
Half undergraduates and half graduate students
Typical Student Background
The graduate students were all from Urban Planning and Architecture students, but the undergraduates came from a wide range of majors including urban planning, computer science, engineering, and anthropology.
How Student Time Was Spent
During an average week, students were expected to spend 12 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:
- Met 2 time per week for 1.5 hours per session; 24 sessions total
- Analyzed the film and the accompanying readings for each week
- Discussed paper topics, oral presentations, readings, and additional film clips
- Met 1 time per week for 3 hours per session; 13 sessions total
- Watched the film of the week
Out of Class
- Completed course readings
- Composed writing assignments