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Advanced English Class Reimagines a Walk in the City

When second semester opened, English teacher Tom Owen aimed to make the most of Episcopal’s proximity to Washington, D.C., in his “Wandering the Literary City” class.

His syllabus featured a range of literature inspired by walking around cities, but his students also would engage with Washington as authors might, exploring its byways, architecture, and culture in order to imagine how people lived. Early on, he and his students walked through Adams Morgan, a culturally and economically diverse neighborhood far from the monuments and museums of the Mall. 

The pandemic and Episcopal’s shift to distance learning rendered Owen’s plans moot, of course, but he saw an opportunity in the disruption. Through contemporary reading and multimedia technology, he would use the crisis as a foundation for applied learning as well as a chance to virtually explore cities around the world. 

“Exploring a city on foot is one of the best ways to learn about how urban spaces work, so my course used the idea of walking as a tool for thinking about cities and as a subject of study in its own right,” Owen said. “The shift to remote learning initially seemed like an insurmountable obstacle given the nature of the course, but it ended up allowing us to dive deeply into two areas of study related to the larger goals of the course: first, learning more about how our experience of urban space is transformed by cataclysmic events; second, exploring how we might wander through cities when we can’t easily do so in person.” 

Initially, the class read essays and commentary about how the pandemic had undercut the fundamental nature of cities as gathering places. Among those: “The Great Empty,” an essay by New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman accompanied by photographs of desolate cityscapes from Bangkok to Times Square. Historically, Kimmelman argued, cities were born of economic necessity but also of the deep social need of humans to be together. 

“Pandemics prey on this relentlessly,” he wrote. “They are anti-urban.”

Owen and the class also read “Entrances & Exits,” a digital novella of fictional stories based in locations from London to Buenos Aires. Created with Google developers, the book uses Google Street View to set the scene and offer readers a choice of storylines to explore with a click. Students also watched videos showing how the varied, irregular landscape of city sidewalks, streets, and parks create challenging playgrounds for skateboarders as well as practitioners of parkour, a military-style discipline in which individuals run, vault, and climb through a series of obstacles. 

Shifting his emphasis from sight to sound, Owen also created an audio field recording from an Alexandria park during the pandemic and compared it with a similar recording made during a rainstorm in downtown Washington. Students also listened to avant-garde composer William Basinki’s 2002 project The Disintegration Loops, an experimental work created from deteriorating magnetic tape recordings that Basinski framed as a sort of sonic elegy for New York City in the wake of 9/11.

Ultimately, through his revamped syllabus, Owen gave students opportunities to consider the city at this moment of crisis but also explore urban spaces through a variety of media. 
In one reflection after reading articles about the quiet and emptiness of New York City, Lillian Jester ’21 considered Julius, the protagonist of “Open City,” a New York-based novel by Teju Cole that the class had read before spring break: 

“Julius walked the streets of New York for years before realizing that slowing down in the busy city helped him cope and destress with all of the pressures his job and life brought. This wake up call to pick up the act of walking in a more leisurely and wandering type of way gave him insight into the world that he had seemingly just passed through before without taking the time to appreciate it.

“Just as Julius had a call to stop and wander for his own mental benefit, I believe we can use the isolation and time that Covid-19 has given us as our wake up call to wander a little more. I think that with all that is going on we need time to destress about what is going on in the world and just go on a walk. It is safe to say that I have gone on more walks in the past two weeks than probably the rest of my life combined. Even though they were just around my neighborhood, I felt like I gained almost a new and refined perspective for a space I thought I knew so well. I think this ties into the second article, as walking, wandering, and appreciating what is around you gives us the chance to find beauty in spaces that we would have normally passed by.”