course
Paris: The Making of a Modern City

May 2014

I don't mean to be harsh by saying this (especially since I actually have a lot of respect for Professor Ferguson's work) but this class simply isn't a sociology course. While the opening lectures promise to walk the line -- Ferguson at first spoke a lot about how we'll be using the "sociological imagination" to extract the universal from the particular -- the reality is that the vast majority of the course is spent learning fairly specific information about cultural phenomena of 19th Century Paris. Don't get me wrong; I fully recognize the academic utility of a case study, particularly one that would seem to encapsulate so many of the points -- everything from high fashion to sewer systems -- that Ferguson wanted to include in a course. However, since so little class time is spent explaining how this case study actually helps us understand the present day (besides a couple of inane exercises in which we were asked to identify all the physical commonalities between a 19th century department store and present day one) it feels like everything I learned exists in a vacuum. Perhaps this would be less troubling if there was not in fact a wealth of literature on actual contemporary urban sociology that we could have been reading instead. No one can fault this course for being uncreative: we read novels, short stories, and even poems as a means of understanding the social world. However, any sociology major is going to take issue with treating Baudelaire as a sociologist and talking about "modernity" as if its a sociological term (in fact, your final paper does not have to be on Paris or the 19th century; it just has to be about modernity). Ferguson, interestingly enough, asked the class day one why the course was labeled a sociology class at all. When no one spoke, she answered her own question (something she often does), "because it's listed in the sociology department". Perhaps she was just being facetious, but she never actually clarified her point or provided another explanation for the course's listing. Ironically, I think she may have inadvertently communicated the biggest flaw of her course: it's painfully unclear where it even belongs. Grading is fair to easy and most of the readings are interesting in their own right, but lectures are excruciatingly boring. This is largely because Professor Ferguson spends most of the time asking the class extremely basic questions like, "What does one need to put in a gas lamp to make it work? What's the effect of not having electricity at night? What happens when you have a fever for a really long time and it doesn't go away?" (Please, please don't read any of those examples as jokes. She actually asked each one of them). However, if you can sit through enough lectures to not take a hit to your attendance grade, the class is probably an easy A.