Teaching The Material World of Modern Segregation (MWMS): A Conversation with Iver Bernstein and Heidi Kolk

Mr. Robert Green, former resident of Pruitt-Igoe and historian, presenting to AMCS 3190  "Material World of Modern Segregation"  class, March 28, 2017.

Máire Murphy, posted on July 07, 2017

In this post Iver Bernstein and Heidi Kolk, co-conveners of the MWMS project, discuss their experience teaching L98 3190: The Material World of Modern Segregation,  a course centered on site-based research and taught in conjunction with the MWMS symposium. They reflect on the indeterminate nature of studying sites in a state of evolution, the challenge of missing evidence and erasure, the connective role played by local experts, and the synergy between the course and the symposium.

Heidi: The course was experimental in the sense that we wanted to provide for the meaningful encounter with sites we were studying and to move beyond the readings we had selected. With the historical, political and social contexts that those readings provided, we wanted the students to engage with the sites and to think of these encounters as central to the experience of the course. There was a certain level of indeterminacy to our work as many of the sites are in a state of evolution, meaning their status and physical state, their political and social meanings, are quite literally being transformed as we speak. In the case of the NGA site, whose ownership has been contested over many years, we are talking about a real material transformation that we have to reckon with as part of the site’s various dimensions. 

The historical framing of those sites is really important, but engagement with the sites as they are evolving, and in particular as they are experienced by locals who are participating in the process of making meaning in those sites, was an important feature of the research. We were hoping our students would bring this view to the study of their own sites. This required an immersive approach in the sense that it meant students had to engage on multiple levels with a lot of the sites, think of their inter-connectedness with one another, realize the sites are part of a larger urban landscape, and understand that what is happening in one part of the city is related to what people are experiencing on the ground in another. Reckoning with a site means encountering broader, on-the-ground meanings that locals have as they come to understand the everyday realities of their domain - the stories they tell, the claims they make, the kinds of personal and political stakes that they name for these sites, those are all part of the broader data set we are studying in this site-based model. So engaging in this way means a certain degree of uncertainty about meaning, complicated by the fact that there were sometimes open disputes and different claims and viewpoints about the sites. There was also some uncertainty built into our visits. Sometimes we went with the idea we would see certain things, but our guides would take us to other places they thought were more important, as in the case of our trip to East St. Louis. Although we did not get to explore the historic downtown of East St. Louis and sites related to the race massacre of 1917, it ended up being one of the most revelatory trips we took. We spent a great deal of time at the Cahokia Courthouse and the mansion of Nicholas Jarrot, and we learned about the layers of context - the deeper histories of extraction, enslavement, and imperial land and power grabbing - that proved invaluable not just to understanding East St. Louis but the region as a whole. 

Iver:  There were other kinds of uncertainties. Some of the sites undergoing material transformation are sites of active human suffering and trauma, such as the Grace Baptist Church on the eve of its destruction by the federal government. At these times the indeterminacy of the sites challenged the analytical concepts we were using to engage them as those concepts broke down under the force of the emotional impact of visiting the sites and seeing first-hand that suffering. 

Our students were profoundly uncomfortable with the thought of having a fishbowl experience, the idea of looking through the window glass at places that experienced – and sometimes were still experiencing – profound trauma. It was heartening to hear a number of students report at the end of the course they never felt that way. Rather than merely looking in, students felt they were involved in rich conversations with hosts who were eager to share and to enter into a dialogue with them. 

Heidi: One of the important questions we had to answer was how to use readings to engage with sites we wouldn’t see or couldn’t engage with in a deep way but that we wanted to address. We decided to draw upon a repertoire of sites students already know about, such as Forest Park, and we had them read a variety of texts that dealt with the longer history of St. Louis and grounded them in that deep context. We resisted the temptation to view the urban landscape as a zone for tourist consumption, and instead we really prioritized the zoom-in approach, instead of talking about sites in a broad or generalized manner.

Iver: This is one of the skill sets students were learning in the class, that is, not just to observe but also to really engage and to look and see closely. At the same time they were involved in the work of the scholar and the historian as they tacked back and forth between site and context, between present and their versions of the past. So the students, most of whom had little experience with a course like this and some in the early stages of their college experience, were being invited into a pretty daunting and sophisticated engagement with historical literatures and experiential learning, both of these, together and in tandem. 

Heidi: A common theme of discussion was how to engage with the problem of absence, the problem of reading or interpreting features of sites that were no longer visible, and how to deal with the different levels of absence, erasures, and the mysterious traces that were ambiguous.  We would arrive at sites of segregation where the evidence of that history was either not available, or available only in a cryptic form, and students had to figure out what to do with that. They had to engage in creative speculation about what the remains say or don’t say, what it means that we see nothing, or, see efforts to manage a site without knowing the logic that led to decisions, and to infer from evidence we might have to get elsewhere. Perhaps the most dramatic examples of “invisible” landscapes of segregation that we saw—and they are quite different—were East St. Louis and Mill Creek Valley.   The East St. Louis massacre sites are not marked and have little trace.   Mill Creek Valley for all intents and purposes, has been rendered invisible.  What you see there is the evidence of redevelopment strategies that preceded and succeeded Mill Creek:   what you have to do as you engage with that evidence is to think on a number of levels about presence and absences, and what it means to make sense of multiple actions and layers of decision-making without having perfect records of all of them or a historic marker which tells you where something was located. That kind of inferential thinking is something not many students have had experience with, even if they have dealt a lot with historical materials. For these students it can feel a little like free-fall.

Iver: It is interesting to compare the course’s challenge of engaging the Delmar Loop with that of engaging Mill Creek Valley:  experientially, one was a kind of inversion of the other.  The experience of walking down Delmar or visiting sites in University City was for the students an immersion in the hyper-familiar, an environment they think they know everything about.   In University City, the task of historical imagination is to de-familiarize the familiar.   Mill Creek Valley, by contrast, represented layers of unfamiliarity—one layer, the eerily orchestrated flow of educational/corporate campuses that occupy that space today, erasing a deeper layer, the community and structures of Mill Creek Valley, now hauntingly absent—the Mill Creek community’s vibrancy only accessible to students through historical photographs and one or two surviving structures.  One of the challenges of the course, then, was for students to learn to negotiate these very different kinds of encounters. 

"Mr. Robert Green, former resident of Pruitt-Igoe and historian, presenting to AMCS 3190 "Material World of Modern Segregation" class, March 28, 2017." Photo credit by Iver Bernstein.

Heidi: Crucial to the work of the course was to build relationships and trust with people in the communities we visited and among ourselves. One way of creating that trust and confidence was for students to pay attention not just to the perspective of residents and other locals who have claims on these sites, but also to their own responses. This is important on a few levels: to pay close attention and notice a wide range of things, what is and is not there, and to hedge against presuming you know what a site means before you have gotten there based on notions you had from readings or preconceived impressions. In addition, paying attention to their own experience of the site helps students grapple with the problem of vantage point – whose reality is available to them in the moment, and what are different understandings of the site they might have to negotiate with. As Iver pointed out, some of these places are sites of living traumas, which makes more difficult or troubling the tension between what they actually saw and what they thought they knew about a site going into it, and it also complicates the issue of insider-outsider viewpoints and status. We had to make sure we provided occasions to think through these issues together. The thing that was really heartening about making time for that, besides the good insights that came to them in the moment, was that in many cases they did some of this work in their final papers - negotiating points of view, claims of ownership, and competing narratives. Their arguments were more nuanced, and in the best cases they resisted the temptation to oversimplify the narrative and made room for multiple possibilities and ways of understanding, even as they tried to make claims about how these sites functioned and what the political implications of a particular kind of claim or use might be. Students were drawing on that domain of knowledge creation that is central to the site-approach of the course, even if it meant there was some instability in their own arguments.

Iver: As we were teaching, we, the instructors, were going through the same process with our own site research for our MWMS essays and symposium planning. What was astonishing about that universe of activities is it put the instructors and world-class scholars and students, all with different disciplinary backgrounds and levels of training, on the same plane as learners in some fundamental ways. It is a sort of model of what a university is or could be, as the symposium and course brought a lot of different members of the university community into productive conversation with each other. It was cross-disciplinary and cross-status as undergrads were in conversation with senior scholars they had not met before, leading to some productive connections. This was true among scholars, also. We hoped the interplay between the course and symposium would accomplish this and to some extent it did. From the teaching perspective, if the goal is to have at some level both the instructor and student experience something transformative the course accomplished this in many ways. We can see this in our own role as instructors and in the many successful student research projects that came out of long and noticeable arcs of learning and growth. 

Thinking back to factors that made the course successful, strong connections with local experts were critical to the work of the course. It was important, for example, to have a strong connection with a field contact - a local interpreter or historian - in East St. Louis.  So I contacted Anne Walker, a self-described griot (a griot is a storyteller and keeper of oral traditions). Anne is not only a storyteller but she also has a highly informed and very refined historical imagination. Anne brought a multilayered regional, national and international understanding of East St. Louis’s importance. It did not take long for us to realize we both had similar stakes, and we were very open to the learning available through our site visits together. One of the hooks that was particularly important for Anne and for me was the need to cultivate students’ ability to read the invisible, to read the landscape of erasure. On the tour Anne was nothing short of a force of nature, making sure the students and instructors got a certain kind of perspective on the landscape that allowed us to really see and to recognize layers of ecological and social differences and connections. Anne’s contagious enthusiasm and insights made the visit most rewarding. Hopefully some of the interpreters with whom we have started dialogues and begun to build relationships will be engaged with future AMCS classes and students. 

Heidi: Returning to the links between the symposium and the course, for me one of the bigger surprises was that our collaborators for the MWMS book project were challenged in many of the same ways as our students and they had to wrestle with some the same issues as they revised their essays. The idea that engaging with sites is an iterative process and that many of these sites are morphing right before their eyes, such as the Confederate Memorial in Forest Park, is a creative process that pushes many into new territory and with a quality of uncertainty that they must engage with productively. Students and researchers were not only in conversation with one another and in a position to learn from each other, but there is also a kind of humility factor we are learning as we engage with the students. 

Drawing the students into the conversation was a way of reminding ourselves of the kind of work and intentionality that site-based study of this kind requires. The questions students posed in class reminded us of the kinds of questions we need to ask, and they reminded us that we also make assumptions and bring pre-conceived notions to our work.  When we went on site tours at the symposium, we were inviting collaborators into the same processes, vulnerabilities, and conversations that students went through in class. These experiences, and bringing them together, helped us all acknowledge the complexities of this kind of research. 

Iver: I think one of the things that the symposium accomplished was a sense of release and joyful sharing, the joy of collaborative learning that the project represented.  This might have come in part from Heidi and me translating the experience of the course into the dynamics of the symposium. Due to teaching the course we were veterans of the process of iterative learning and gaining the kind of self consciousness and modesty that comes from going back again and again to a site and learning the different dimensions of one’s not-knowing. With our site visits and efforts to encourage a certain posture of not-knowing, I think we created space at the symposium for open-minded, creative thinking and collaborative sharing. The course and symposium proved to have connections expected, intended, surprising, and unintended but all very much welcome and important to the work of this kind of research. 

Visit the Contributors page to learn more about Iver Bernstein and Heidi Kolk.  For additional information about the MWMS project please go to our main page.

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