The Cultural Shades of Los Angeles, ANT 3130/ SOC 3130
by Malia Gaffney
Walk. Observe. Take notes. Analyze a snack. Analyze a snack? Buy one petty artifact. Eat lunch alone but in public. Report back.
Rosa Garza-Mourino’s course introduces students to the urban setting observation tools used to grasp and record the unique social patterns of each visited zone.
Students love it.
The Cultural Shades of Downtown Los Angeles workshop was added in 2007 to the BA in Liberal Studies curriculum. The course is offered every Spring, and open to all students enrolled in AULA’s BA degree program. It provides one unit for the Social Sciences domain, and it also counts towards the Urban Studies concentration. This course, which connects social theory and direct experience of the City of Los Angeles has been greeted enthusiastically by both faculty and students.
The eight-hour scavenger hunt-like journey begins with a conversation about the ethics and stance of a “keen outsider-observer” or flaneur. The difference between a person who approaches their surroundings as an “inspector or tourist”, and one who assumes the mantle of “nimble learner on the go” is distinguished at the onset of the journey, and students are instructed to be learners, first and foremost.
“This is elegant learning,” says Garza-Mourino, “it is both playful and rigorous.”
Over the past ten years, more than 100 students have participated in the class, and many have returned to take on the role of volunteer teaching assistant. Garza-Mourino has seen remarkable student documentation of the class, with vivid descriptions of the learning activities, photographs, and artifacts collected through the day, all supported by quotes from assigned readings. She says the success of the class is owed to the great drive of curiosity and learning resolve of her students, and also to the initial sharp input when she was designing the course, provided by Kirsten Grimstad, one of the program Chairs.
As with many of her courses, the implementation of this class gives Garza-Mourino the opportunity to merge her core knowledge base in cultural studies and field methods, with her passion for Los Angeles as a unique experiential lens. She has lived in and studied LA as a subject extensively for many years, and finds that the downtown in particular lends itself (through its unique ethnic, economic, and buried historical layers) as a setting for many different types of analytic experiences within a relatively small territory.
“This is a city historically positioned as extraordinarily forward thinking, but is also built upon relentless insularity, displacement and sharp inequality. It is a true paradox.”
This unique experience of the “learner” set loose in downtown LA, facilitates a variety of discussions and questions for students and teacher alike. How we fit into the larger picture of the city? How do we better inform our moral imagination in building a common future?
“To me, downtown since its inception in 1781 to date,” says Garza Mourino, “holds the ‘DNA’ of our Angeleno identities, in both their soundest and most terrifying versions.”
Intrigued? I know I am.
Photos courtesy of Olivia Schlichting.