Reflections on the West Side: Lessons from Semesters in the City

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Reflections on the West Side: Lessons from Semesters in the City

On April 23, the Ivan Allen College Westside Communities Alliance (WCA) will convene a symposium that celebrates five years of progress, and the future promise of this signature initiative, which is led by Dean Jacqueline Royster. Royster set out in 2011 to bring a strategic framework, coherence, and continuity to Georgia Tech’s interactions with our West Side neighbors. Above all, she sought to establish and sustain relationships.

A core thrust of the WCA initiative is curricular engagement. In this special piece for the Ivan Allen College Newsletter, Greg Nobles reflects on Georgia Tech’s longest standing class focusing on the Westside, “Semester in the City,” an Honor's Program class in the Ivan Allen College School of History and Sociology. Nobles’ experiences evoke the perspectives and synergistic collaboration that are at the heart of the WCA.


Notes on my West Side Semesters in the City

By Greg Nobles, professor in the School of History and Sociology

The road from Georgia Tech to Atlanta’s Westside can sometimes seem like a long, uphill struggle, but you can get there if you go the right way. Here’s the path I took, anyway.

First, a bit of background:  Some years ago, when I worked somewhere in the administrative ranks of Ivan Allen College, I found myself the subject of one of those 360 reviews, in which suits in a similar situation offer evaluations of your labor, leadership, and that sort of thing. One of the comments I received said something to the effect that “Greg seems not to have accepted the fact that he works in a technological university.” I think that had been intended as a criticism, but I took it as a compliment.  I’ve always felt decidedly, even defiantly, liberal arts — which is to say, I’m happy enough to take time to puzzle through the various ambiguities of society, even if the “right” answers don’t readily present themselves.  I offer that as context for my approach to the Westside, which I first followed in 2008, teaching a course called “Semester in the City: Engaging English Avenue.” 

And credit where credit is due:  It was Anu Parvatiyar, an exceptionally enlightened SGA President at Tech, who initially asked me to teach a course about English Avenue.  I guess I gave her some degree of puzzled agreement, but then I was relieved to learn that she had also asked Andrea Ashmore, the director of Community Partnerships in the president’s office, to team-teach the course with me. Andrea and I had been professional pals for a while, but over several iterations of “Semester in the City,” we became fast friends.  (When Andrea left Georgia Tech a year or so later, her successor, Chris Burke, stepped seamlessly into “Semester in the City.” I can only marvel at the enormous good fortune I found in working with Andrea and Chris, two of the best teaching partners I’ve ever had.)  The deal was that I would be the Professor of Record — the academic guy who does the syllabus, selects the readings, and assigns the papers — and Andrea and Chris would be the ones with the energy and community smarts to take the course off-campus.

It worked. Each time we taught, we started with an opening-week tour of the English Avenue neighborhood — once with an official of the English Avenue Neighborhood Association (EANA) as our guide, once with a member of the Atlanta Police SWAT team. Better still, we managed to have some leading community people come to the classroom and, equally important, we also got several local political leaders — including Mayor Shirley Franklin and Fulton County Commission Chair John Eaves — to meet with the students and community people together in EANA headquarters. On the whole, making that human and intellectual connection between classroom and community came to be one of the true hallmarks of the course, and I’m convinced that it needs to remain at the heart of our ongoing engagement with the neighborhood.

That engagement played itself out in sometimes surprising ways. I offer two examples of smart student-initiated projects, both from that first year, 2008. Audrey Plummer, a slyly sharp architecture major, came up with a plan to create some yard signs for the neighborhood association, saying “Welcome to English Avenue. Member of EANA,” the idea being to create some identity, maybe even community energy, from house to house and street to street. Audrey got the signs made and took them to English Avenue, but then EANA sat on them, doling them out only to people who paid their association dues — not a bad strategy for the organization, perhaps, but not a good way to get them on the streets in big numbers. Another 2008 classmate, Trey Birch, a sunny and energetic economics major, had a well-meaning idea to create a tutoring activity called Youth Enrichment Program, or YEP. As Trey first explained it to me, YEP would get Tech students to go to English Avenue each weekend and work with teenagers on building computers and other tech-y projects, with an end result of helping the neighborhood youth think more about finishing school, even going to college. Nice try, I told Trey, but no way — far too complicated to get Tech students to commit Saturday time on a sustained basis. To his credit, Trey ignored me and started YEP anyway, and it eventually became a well-established, SGA-supported organization. (It also became yet another chapter in my already big book called What Do I Know?). I am happy to report, by the way, that creating YEP in the “Semester in the City” course might well have changed Trey Birch’s life. Instead of doing what economics majors might typically be expected to do, he went into Teach for America and then became a special education teacher in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Another soul saved from investment banking.

I can also recall some glorious moments in the classroom, those times the proverbial lightbulb came on. When Chris Burke and I taught “Semester in the City” in 2012, we had the students read a large chunk of Kevin Kruse’s White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, which discusses the much-contested history of the Westside in the postwar era.  At one point, trying to pull a few conceptual teeth to get the discussion going, we asked about the definition of the term “community.” After a short period of classroom silence, Caroline Gwynn, a very perceptive Ivan Allen College student, said simply, “It depends whether you mean ‘community’ as a physical space or as a group of people.” Thank you, Caroline, I thought, and class dismissed — we can stop there, because that’s all we need to know for the day.  Instead, we went on to have a fine conversation about place and people, one of the best intellectual experiences of the semester.

On the other hand, some students seemed so committed to “service” that they had little interest in the “learning” part. Chris Burke and I once had a student, only a sophomore, who came to the course with an already impressive record of volunteer activity and an apparently ready appetite for doing something — something! — in English Avenue. When it came to reading and thinking about the bigger social and historical context, though — trying to understand why the conditions in the English Avenue community had become what they had become over time, and over a long period of time at that — this student mostly engaged in impatient, sort of bored, eye-rolling, waiting for the service bit to begin. Chris and I eye-rolled each other, wondering if our attempts to promote serious and frank discussions about race and class might ever register. Even now, I’m not sure they did — at least with that student.

And therein, I think, lies an enduring issue that goes back to the approach we take, particularly in an institution that does so much to promote pragmatic, hands-on problem-solving. “Progress and Service” is our motto, and there’s no doubt that Georgia Tech has “Progress” all but down to a science, so to speak. But even the “Service” side of the equation can be problematic, perhaps especially as we now commit ourselves to embedding service-learning more deeply and broadly in our curriculum, maybe even in our campus culture, through our new Serve-Learn-Sustain initiative. As much as I value service, the actual doing that gets things done, I now also reflect more on the learning, the attempt to understand the bigger picture of whatever problem we hope to solve. 

And in my standard role as Professor of Record, the guy who does the syllabus and so forth, let me be clear:  I don’t suppose for a moment that all of our learning comes from books and other scholarly sources. It also comes from the people we engage as our partners, the people who live on the Westside, the people who have so much to tell us about what we — we at Georgia Tech, but also we who want to work together across lines of community, class, and race — can do to make a meaningful difference.

In the end, that’s what I’ve learned best from my Semester(s) in the City:  Before we get so active in service-learning, we might first think about doing more listening-learning. The Westside community has much to teach us, but like all good students, we need to go to class and pay attention to what the West Side “professors” have to say.


  • Workflow Status:Published
  • Created By:Rebecca Keane
  • Created:03/31/2016
  • Modified By:Adelle Frank
  • Modified:11/22/2016


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