GEH1077 Metropolis: The City in World History – Cities as historical sites and traces

In this interview, Dr Portia Reyes tells us about GEH1077 Metropolis: The City in World History, a General Education module co-taught by several faculty members from the History Department. GEH1077 will be offered to undergraduate students in AY2021/2022 Semester 1.

Tell us a bit more about the module!

The module is a team-taught module, although I’m coordinating it. The title, on the whole, means what it says. The module is all about the metropolis: its evolution, as both a site and artefact of history. These two things have prescriptive and descriptive elements. As an artefact, it evolves across time and becomes an evidence that can be studied or read as a document. You could also see the city as a site of history, a place where historical experience and perspectives evolve across time and space. 

How did we conceive of the module? The world has been increasingly becoming urban. In fact, a survey from 2008, for instance, has claimed that today, more than ever, most of the population in the world are residing in cities and urban agglomerations. If you want numbers: there are about 500 cities and urban agglomerations; some 26 of those are what we know today as ‘mega-cities’. That means there are ten million or more people in its population. Put this into consideration with the fact that, 200 years ago in places like Edo (which is today’s Tokyo), there were only about a million people there at that time but it was already considered a mega-city. If you wrap your mind around it, you’ll see that the city is, like I said, changing across time, and that’s what we primarily monitor in the module.

This module introduces students of all backgrounds to History and the subject of studying world history. It’s designed such that students can hop into this learning journey at any time, regardless of what exposure they had to History in the past. We will walk students through different cities, and use those cities as a purview to monitor how cities can become an artefact and a site of history across time and space. 

There are different case studies. We’ll take a look at ancient cities, early cities, classical cities, imperial cities, medieval cities, the modern and postmodern cities, and finally we try to tackle the idea of the ‘global city’. What we intend here is for students to situate themselves and the city they came from in this study of different cities in different time periods. For example, if you’re Singaporean, we want you to take a look at these cities as somehow of a prism to understand Singapore a little better. There is self-reflexivity, still, in using the module content to think about the personal self.

Historiographically, what we also try to do is introduce students to different kinds of evidence that can be used to try and understand the city and its history, as well as its provenance. We take a look at not just documents and conventional sources, but things like travelogues, songs, or even Instagram to stimulate more interest in the topic at hand.

What do we expect from students? Since the module is designed to introduce the discipline and stimulate students’ interest in it, we try to introduce the rudiments of being a student of History. Not just reading – even though we do that a lot, as History students – but we also try to engage them in writing. There’s a writing component that is part of the module requirement, but it’s not a heavy workload.

What is unique about having a team of lecturers teaching the same module together? 

All the lectures that we have are pre-recorded. The lecturers involved in the module include Southeast Asian, South Asian, East Asian, and Singapore history experts on the team. What we try to do is to present our areas of specialisation in accessible ways through lectures. The lectures are not very long. The idea is to get students interested in History, and a challenge that we have is to present the content in a very short amount of time, yet can pique the interest of students. 

What we have done is to focus on ideas in each lecture. There are empirical components in each lecture, but they are secondary vis-a-vis the ideas we want to highlight every week. We’ll look at the city of Angkor, Rome, Melaka, Old Delhi, Edo, Manchester, London, Shahjahanabad, and so on. I’m sure a lot of students have never heard of Shahjahanabad. When you take a look at certain cities, they seem to suggest there are certain primary features across the board. These similarities in concepts can be manifested in the dynamics of these cities’ histories. 

Because we have a lot of lecturers, we each bring their expertise. Dr John Solomon, for instance, who has expertise in Singapore history, looks at popular culture in Singapore and its role in the city’s narrative. We take a look, for instance, at the idea of nostalgia and its role in the city’s history and historical orientation. At the same time, we examine old Shanghai and its popular culture too, which is also quite interesting. 

We’ll also look at my city – Manila! Manila is called the “Grand Old Dame”, one of the ancient cities that has pre-dated colonialism. We’ll look at cities as a place for social movements and protests – which is something that holds true even to this day. 

The idea is to introduce students to concepts that they can apply when they examine not just the city they come from, but other cities as well.

Could you share one cool trivia related to the module?

I’ve been getting some of the most creative projects during the semester. Students have written fantastic short stories and travelogues that take readers to Old Constantinople, for instance. A short story I received from students told the tale of a secret society in Old Constantinople that was tasked to protect the Christian city from invaders. The travelogue is situated at the very moment when Sultan Mehmed II was at the gates of Constantinople, about to storm the city to transform it into Istanbul, as we know it now.

I’ve gotten really good travelogues from students, actually. I’ve had a student submit a travelogue that took readers to old Vienna through the perspective of an opera house. The reader is introduced to the arts scene at the point in time before American music like jazz was introduced in the 1910s or 1920s.

And not to mention these posters – oh my gosh. They’re so creative, and that’s very impressive. In fact, when the COVID-19 situation gets better and we’re back on campus, we’re planning to show off the students’ creations, perhaps at the exhibition section in the Central Library. They are really good, and need to be seen by other people.

Finally, if students want to learn more about the module content, could you recommend other modules, readings or films for them to look at?

Well, we primarily rely on a particular book in terms of readings. It’s called The City by Joel Kotkin, and it’s accessible through the library portal. Students can take a look at it to see if they’re interested in the topic.

This interview is a part of the Humans of History series, which spotlights the stories of the people that make up the NUS History community.

Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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