London Streets: Reflections On A Summer Study Tour

By Becky St. Clair

For three weeks this summer, Peter Katz, director of the Honors Program and professor of English, led a study tour for honors students in London, UK. Their course, “London Streets” took them throughout the city, personalizing literature they’d studied in previous courses and bringing history to life. Together, professor and students considered the ethics and obligations of seeing poverty both in Victorian times and now, interrogated the intersection between scientific regulation of health and governmental power, and traced the geographic and cultural impact of industrialization. 

“This trip was the best possible way I could have imagined my first excursion into Europe,” said honors student Sebastian Anderson. “It was the perfect balance between checking off the typical tourist attractions and activities while also getting to explore London in a more intimate way through our class trips and our readings.” 

Two participating students agreed to share their reflections on specific parts of their trip with us, so we could share their experiences directly with you, our readers. 

Isabel McMillan, history major

After a walking tour about the crimes of Jack the Ripper, I commented that his story was a female-centric story. I wished that when we told the stories of his victims we didn’t have to focus so much on the men, and could talk more about the women and their stories. One of my classmates pointed out history is male-centered, and society is misogynistic, and our storytelling of history has to be male-centric. 

Contemplating this perspective, I came to the conclusion that while it is not entirely wrong, it’s also not entirely right. 

I remembered this exhibit on a ship I saw in a Swedish museum once. The exhibit’s storytelling began with two of the women who were on the ship when it sank. The researchers did as much research as they could on these women, and learned quite a bit. Part of what they found included records of a woman who was in charge of building the ship, and how she met with the king about its progress. They also discovered records of another woman who ran a business vital to the building of that ship, as well as court documents detailing stories of women involved with court cases (there were laws against women being involved in court cases, and yet..). There was so much more. Most of this history was pre-Victoria. What I’m trying to say is that researching women and their lives is possible. Hard, but possible. 

Another thing I realized in all of this was by saying history is misogynistic and society is created for the white man, it gives people an excuse to not even try researching women. Allowing people to say the only way to tell women’s stories is through the point of view of the men in their lives allows people to not try, and to not feel guilty about their lack of effort. And that is not acceptable.

Sarah Tanner, English major

In looking over notes from this trip, I realized beginning on July 9, I switched from titling my class journal entries “reflections” to “reactions.” It wasn’t a deliberate move, but it matched the intensity of my interaction with the class and topics as we worked through some genuinely difficult discussions. 

 If I could distill this class into one key point, it would be, “bodies matter.” Politics, institutions, and good intentions all have their place, but unless we prioritize human bodies, their needs, and their desires, our ability to successfully empathize and care for those around us will forever be stunted. I want to believe on some level, most people recognize the truth in this, but until one is confronted with the immediacy of this need, it’s easy to overlook. Personally, it took almost stumbling over a homeless man outside the underground in Camden for me to recognize the necessity of enacting care for these bodies. And even then, when faced with the reality of his fraught situation, it was clear not everyone in our group processed the experience in the same way. 

 This class instilled in me a sense of urgency, an impulse to look more closely at the people around me and consider how I can help. And as much as I love modern literature, I have learned to stand in defense of the Victorian optimism that maintains that something can be done for these bodies. It just requires a degree of awareness (I’m convinced) results from trips such as this one. 

 Checking in with a structure or area’s effective gravity and reading it against one’s own response to that place is a practice vital to the optimist’s project. It requires constant self-reflection and comparison to the world beyond what is immediately available in a physical or bodily sense. Paradoxically, it creates a simultaneous drive for introspection and increased connection with others. While seemingly contradictory, I think this oscillation is important; to empathize, one must have a personal attachment to the shared effect, and that requires a degree of knowledge of self and others.  

 This practice is something I will definitely carry with me long after we all fly home; Victorian optimism has taken a piece of my heart. I want to be more aware, to see myself and others as more than separate components of a larger system, to seek out individual bodies in need of physical and emotional care. And more than foundational awareness, I want to be available to anyone who feels that need as well. 

 

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