Lects in the City

Although I have worked as a professor, my first experience with teaching has been through working as a walking tour guide in New York City, which I have done regularly since 2011. My experience as a tour guide has informed my style of teaching, and the two kindred practices enhance one another. Below are a few suggestions for teaching in the city.

  1. Preparation: Know your route

The amount of time spent in preparation always leads to a more fluid tour. Do whatever you can to know the neighborhood inside and out. The key difference between a classroom lecture and a walking tour is spatial: you will not be able to give as much information as you would in the controlled environment of a classroom, but that information is there around you. Learn how to highlight it. Plan your route, take extensive notes on the sites you will cover, see if you can find thematic links between stops that reveal the character of the neighborhood, its history, or your interest in it. Watch other people in the area: how do they use the space, what do they talk about, what sort of Jane Jacobs-y things are happening on the sidewalk? The better you know your route, the more you have to talk about, the fuller the audience’s experience. Treat the stops like a curated itinerary: each stop should reinforce your overall idea. For example, if giving a tour of the Financial District below Wall Street, each stop should in some way engage the economic history of Manhattan, while a tour of Greenwich Village would focus more on the (counter-)cultural/residential history of the city.

  1. Presentation: Always face your audience, often with your back to the site or object you are describing and make sure to keep the group condensed and close to you.

This seems obvious, but is important to stress, particularly on the street. Address your audience directly. Scanning the crowd and speaking to each member over the course of the talk engages them and keeps the group from being distracted. I’ve found that turning my back even for a second when pointing out architecture or a gesture in sculpture often makes me inaudible and the point is lost on the crowd. Cities are noisy and crowded. Facing your audience at all times (which means have a clear picture of what you’re describing behind you) is the only way to compete against the ambient noise of the sidewalk. Never tell your story walking: it is dangerous and ineffective. People will likely miss what you’re saying and may get hurt. Make use of street furniture and infrastructure (fences, curbs, steps, walls) to distinguish yourself and make yourself heard. They’re there to see you, so don’t be afraid to climb on top of a bench so that they can.

  1. Rhythm: Keep your stops short (5-10 minutes), keep distance between stops short (no more than a block and a half)

Here is where the key difference between lecturing in a classroom and lecturing with a group in a museum or sidewalk comes into play: because you are covering spatial distance, you will have less time to say what you want, so be succinct, be animated, and do everything you can to reveal or describe the significance of each stop in spite of that. It helps to follow the very simple tripartite essay form that we teach in class. Reduce every stop to a general story or point (your thesis), illuminate the specific features of what you are describing (your supporting paragraphs), and end with a broader view (your conclusion). Be able to describe each stop within 10 minutes, and don’t linger. Distractions are legion on the sidewalk, so keep your explanation short and dynamic. Spending more time walking than talking will tire your audience out and make them wonder why they are there, so be prepared to make many stops. On a two-hour walking tour, I make anywhere between 10-15 stops. Not all of them are equally significant, but establishing a rhythm of regular stops keeps your audience attentive.

  1. Bite-size binaries:’ Making use of the classic art-historical comparison on the street.

People are often overwhelmed by the multitude of things to see on the street. Your job is to help distill this information into something easily palatable. As art historians, we are pre-disposed to making formal and contextual comparisons. This correlates very easily to giving a walking tour on the street. Whether it is building types or styles, ways that space is used, statuary and shrubbery, or glitz and grime, finding these oppositional comparisons is a fun and easy way to condense a lot of information into an idea that your group can easily get.

  1. Chaos!: Weather, harassment, traffic, celebrities, etc.

There are so many ways that your urban walking tour can go wrong and descend into chaos. I’ve been followed and harassed by a drunken and vestigial Occupy protester while talking about Alexander Hamilton at Trinity Church to a group of Midwestern MasterCard employees, sent a Belgian high-school student to the hospital in a cab with a bag of ice from Chipotle and a sprained ankle, gave a tour of Central Park in a tropical downpour, and tried to keep people engaged—this just last week—describing the Washington Square Arch while, directly below it, a pink-haired, multi-colored pajama pants-wearing Jared Leto stood for a distractingly long time. Each instance requires a willingness to improvise and to openly acknowledge the weirdness of the situation. There’s only so much you can do. Try to be flexible and to relinquish control of the tour if you need to. You are the leader of the group, the host or the guide, but you are also part of the group, cultivating an experience that is reciprocal. Recognizing that you have less control and being willing to improvise is the most useful way to approach giving a tour.

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