Captivating Courses: Spurring Curiosity About Urban Spaces, Museums, and Philadelphia’s Past

Whitney Martinko, PhD, assistant professor of History, teaches a course called "Philadelphia: A Global City History?"—which covers Philadelphia’s growth from Colonization and global trade, to race, city planning, labor and reform, politics, industry, redevelopment, the city’s bicentennial, and globalization.

Martinko enjoys getting students to look critically at the world around them and hopes her class will spur curiosity about urban spaces, museum exhibits and depictions of the past in popular media that will prompt them to look for complexities in what might at first appear unassuming. One of her favorite things is hearing from students that they saw something in the city and made a connection to the class material on a volunteer trip or during their daily routine.

“I really love the problem-solving aspect of doing History,” she says. “Some students come to my class with the conception that History is about memorizing facts about what happened in the past; but doing History is really about analyzing evidence to make arguments about why and how things happened. And that is an endeavor that demands creative problem-solving. I’ve always been fascinated about what we can – and can’t know – about past lives. I really love thinking about new ways to find and analyze evidence—whether that means spending time in archives reading manuscript letters, studying old photographs, or thinking about what close looking at objects or buildings can teach us about the past.”

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Some students take the class because it fulfills a core history requirement but, by their own reports, many of them find that close looking at primary documents is more interesting than the textbook reading that they remember from high school. Martinko makes it a central point of her class to introduce students to thinking historically about a variety of primary sources that include maps, paintings, photographs, posters, buildings, films and written documents.

“Students tell me their favorite part of the class is working as a group to analyze these visual sources. What might first appear to be a simple illustration of a person or a place becomes a visual argument that – when evaluated in its historical context – can give insight into the person who made or used it,” she says.

Martinko says the most challenging part of the course is not being able to spend more time in the city. Students are required to travel into the city to do close looking at least once during the semester to fulfill an assignment. Often, she tries to arrange for a class trip so that she and the students can look and talk together, but student schedules make it difficult to find a block of time to do so, and it’s tough to navigate streets and chat as a group of 25. “I keep experimenting with ways to get students into the city more often while recognizing the limits of everyone’s busy schedules.”

The course includes group trips or assignments that take students to the Philadelphia History Museum, the Rail Park, Independence Seaport Museum, Penn Center and the Italian Market.

Though she’s a specialist in the early national era (1780 to 1860), Martinko really enjoys teaching students about the history of Philadelphia from 1950 to 1990. “Students are always interested in learning about Frank Rizzo and debating his legacy as police commissioner and mayor in an era where his racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-media, and law and order rhetoric are strikingly familiar,” she says. “Students are likewise shocked to learn about the MOVE bombing and confront the fact that residents of Philadelphia continue to live with the consequences of this event in very immediate ways.”

Though Martinko pushes students to contextualize these histories in broader contexts of colonization and decolonization in the 20th century, she thinks that the lesson that they take away most from these topics is thinking about how historical thinking is one that demands an evaluation of multiple perspectives of different historical actors.

“I love teaching this recent era because I am fascinated by the history of deindustrialization in Philadelphia and the ways that some city residents tried to package the city’s history as a commodity in this era,” she says. Plans for the national bicentennial in Philadelphia are a great example of how residents came into conflict over these different ideas about how to use the city’s past to push for urban change – either to celebrate the past as a strategy for tourism or to use it to raise consciousness of injustice and push for social change among city residents. It’s a tension with a long history and one that continues to shape the city today – most prominently in Philadelphia’s status as a World Heritage City. Martinko always ends the class by asking students to evaluate this status, which was declared in 2015, the same year that she started teaching the course.

“On the one hand, this status celebrates the historical character of Philadelphia. On the other hand, Philadelphia is in the middle of a preservation crisis, where the city’s historic fabric – buildings, neighborhoods, and historical collections – is being destroyed at a rapid pace.” Her goal is to get students to step back and evaluate what exactly History is – and is not – and to see the critical importance in bringing historical thinking to bear on decisions about shaping the world today.

“Captivating Courses” is a feature introducing readers to some of the unique classes offered at Villanova University. Numerous courses across the University’s six schools and colleges provide students the opportunity to examine interesting and relevant topics. These features will give you a glimpse into some of these courses and the experiences they provide students. Find all of the Captivating Courses here.