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Field trip memo: Boston Reworked

13 June 2016

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The best way to get to know a city is to dive right into it, exploring different neighbourhoods and engaging with the people and places that make it unique. In April, 40 Geography undergraduates spent six days doing just that in Boston — one of America’s most historic cities. The trip was the second run of the module Boston Reworked: The Making of a North American City, and it was undoubtedly memorable experience for everyone involved.  

The learning started in London with ten weeks of seminars and lectures. Students examined how Boston was built and transformed over three dramatic centuries of political and industrial revolutions, mass immigration, economic decline and reinvention. Looking archival material, historic maps, films and academic literature laid a solid foundation of understanding, but the immersive experience of being in Boston brought it all to life.

Based in Chinatown for the week, students covered the city in an ambitious way. The first few days involved heritage walks, museum visits, boat rides, a tour of Harvard University, a photography competition and independent explorations of different urban neighbourhoods. Students then got involved in academic research, joining up with a staff member to address intellectual questions aligned with their own expertise.

Professor Alastair Owens’ group investigated Boston’s African American heritage and considered the politics of memory. A key highlight was a visit to a live excavation at the childhood home of Malcolm X. Those working with experimented with ethnographic methods at the vibrant Quincy Marketplace, exploring how creative forms of social observation and descriptive writing can help to refine and extend urban scholarship. Doctoral researcher Kristin Hussey led students on an investigation into Boston’s history of medicine, examining how developments in health knowledge established the city as a key site of scientific innovation.

It was perhaps ’s group that had the most memorable experience. As part of a look into Boston’s knowledge economy, the group was fortunate to have an extended conversation with one of America’s most important public intellectuals: Noam Chomsky. Visiting his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), students were able to talk with Professor Chomsky about issues ranging from the political economy of scientific innovation, the changing nature of academic research, and the pressing global issues of our time including climate change and the risk of nuclear disaster.


Adam’s signed copy of Professor Noam Chomsky’s book. © Adam Packer

“One of the most exciting opportunities of visiting Boston was the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet and interview Professor Noam Chomsky. Producing over 100 books on topics such as linguistics, war, politics and democracy, Chomsky is a famous name on the bookshelves of academics and being given 40 minutes to discuss with him the political economy of science was insightful and enriching” – final year geographer and GeogSoc president Adam Packer reflected on the trip.

He added that “fieldwork enriches the whole university experience at Queen Mary especially as the Boston course is available as a second and third year module connecting geographers together from both years, as well as working outside of the computer room or lecture theatre. Without the efforts of our lecturers organising such a diverse range of exciting activities, we would never have been able to experience what we did on the field course and that’s the unique quality of the field courses at QMUL”.


The last day of the trip was a brilliant culmination of the weeks’ activities. Students assembled original podcasts of their research topics and shared them as a group. There was an Italian feast, and then a funk performance at one of the South End’s historic jazz venues, Wally's. It was an intellectually engaging, fun-filled week: geographical learning at its best.

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