Aaron Shkuda: Teaching a pandemic in real time

Teaching a pandemic in real time, part 2

Denise Valenti, Office of Communications and Jamie Saxon, Office of Communications

June 28, 2021 

The pandemic changed not only how Princeton University students were learning after the transition to remote teaching in March 2020, but also what they were learning — especially as the impact of COVID-19 opened new lines of humanistic and scientific inquiry across fields of study. In this second installment about teaching the pandemic in real time, four Princeton professors share how they incorporated the coronavirus and the pandemic’s effects into their course material during the spring 2021 semester.

Wall Street and Silicon Valley: Place in the American Economy

Aaron Shkuda, lecturer in architecture and program manager of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities

Is this a new course or an existing course?

I first taught this course in 2018, and again in 2020, as the University went into lockdown. In that version of the seminar, and in spring 2021, the pandemic brought new urgency to the core questions that shape the class: How and why does place matter in the American economy? Why do traders commute from expensive New York neighborhoods and exclusive suburbs to offices in Lower Manhattan when all their transactions are electronic and no longer rely on a trading floor like the New York Stock Exchange? Why do chartered buses take thousands of engineers to office parks in Silicon Valley when they are the ones creating technologies that make virtual work possible?

How did you incorporate the COVID-19 pandemic into your curriculum?

We didn’t have a separate COVID-19 unit in the class, but the pandemic and the move of the bulk of highly skilled, white-collar work to remote settings shaped our discussion in nearly every session. The students read news articles about the changing nature of work and the future of cities to supplement our academic texts. So many of the ideas that frame the course, from Richard Florida’s idea of the creative class to Saskia Sassen’s work on the global city, are based on the idea that the workers who are critical to contemporary economy need to work in close proximity. This allows them to share ideas, drive innovation and have fulfilling social lives that complement their work. The pandemic has thrown all this into question. How does our understanding of cities change if you do not have to live in the New York area to work “on Wall Street?” If engineers at companies such as Google no longer need to commute to Silicon Valley, will they want to live in the Bay Area? What is going to happen to the skyscrapers and amenity-filled corporate headquarters that define finance and tech, and help companies attract workers, if the bulk of the workforce is working remotely?

What are the advantages and/or the challenges of teaching a subject that is unfolding in real time?

The advantages are that we all have experienced what we are studying. Students can speak to the experience of having a remote internship and can compare it to the experience of being in the same building as their coworkers or peers. I even have a student who is going to work for an all-virtual company next year that has created a virtual office that seeks to mimic some of the dynamics of built office space. The downside is that, after more than a year, the students are tired of talking about COVID-19 and want a return to normalcy. But the topic of the course didn’t allow us to turn away from this issue for too long.

What resources have been especially useful to you or key to your teaching?

The class is organized in collaboration with Princeton’s Program for Community Engaged Scholarship (ProCES), and for their final projects the students completed research in conjunction with nonprofits in New Jersey. The students engaged with how the pandemic might change our state in the long term. For the most densely populated, suburban state in the U.S., what will happen if fewer commuters travel to New York and Philadelphia in the future? Will it help make our air cleaner and preserve our infrastructure, or will it bankrupt our transit agencies and local governments? Might there be opportunities to encourage the development of smaller, walkable regional centers if fewer people commute? What will happen to inequality after the pandemic? New Jersey is profoundly divided by race and class across its cities and suburbs. Tools like online mapping programs and digital archives have also been critical in helping the students engage with the material. 

How does the COVID-19 pandemic speak to larger issues in your field?

The pandemic has raised many new questions in urban studies, but it’s also brought us back to fundamental issues in the field. Though there was some misattribution of the severity of the pandemic in New York to the city’s density, it’s clear that urban life does not cause (or exacerbate) the pandemic. Just look at how Seoul and Tokyo have fared over the past year. Yet, it is clear that racial inequality in the city, and the increasingly stark contrasts between highly compensated white-collar work and “essential” service employment, shaped the unequal ways that the pandemic has affected low-income communities and communities of color. Living in overcrowded housing, or not being able to access park space, also made a difference in outcomes. We are now facing a looming eviction crisis, and it’s unclear how low-wage work in sectors like hospitality will rebound. These questions, along with the long overdue reckoning with racial justice in so many cities and suburbs, will shape the way we study cities both in the short and long term.

For the full story, click here https://www.princeton.edu/news/2021/06/28/teaching-pandemic-real-time-part-2

Photo: The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation