Reality Studies

The new Raether Chair in American Studies challenges his students to examine their world with fresh eyes.

If Davarian Baldwin had to boil his message down to one sentence, it would be, “Decisions were made.” Culture, explains the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies, is not an accident. It is designed, manufactured, marketed, sold, consumed, rejected, recycled, and remixed. Likewise, the built environments in which we live—cities, towns, and suburbs—don’t just “happen.” They are planned, zoned, constructed, retrofitted, maintained, and even leveled.
Baldwin believes his job as a cultural studies and urban studies scholar and teacher is to help Trinity students look at the world critically with open eyes.
“Giving students the skills to better see and engage the world opens up greater possibility to change the world,” says Baldwin.
Since joining the Trinity faculty in 2009, Baldwin has trained his students’ critical gaze on subjects at the core of Trinity’s distinctive urban + global focus: globalization, urban space, culture, and race. On a good day, he hits them all at once.
One example is “Race and Urban Space,” a class Baldwin designed with the idea of conducting fieldwork in different Hartford neighborhoods to show how urban planning, real estate markets, zoning laws, and other “decisions” help draw the racial map of a city. But Baldwin decided to take a different tack. Instead of bringing the students into an unfamiliar urban space that had clearly been “built,” he opted to begin with the most familiar, most “organic” place of all: the students’ hometowns.
“I surprised them a bit,” smiles Baldwin, who had the class write the same paper three times during the semester. The first version was a dry, “chamber of commerce”-style summary of their town. Next, after studying urban planning and policy, they were told to interview town historians, consult urban planning documents, and write a second paper analyzing the long trail of decisions that resulted in this place called “home.”
“Then they added race to the equation,” says Baldwin. “How do land use and spatial practices become expressions of racial identity; how do race relations literally shape the built environment? Many of my students are from suburbs where there is little racial diversity and they say, ‘I can’t do a paper on race because there is no race in my town.’ And I say, ‘Well, that’s the point.’ I challenged them to examine if your town is relatively racially homogenous—and white is a race—how is the composition of your town expressed or preserved through spatial practices?” The students were floored.
“Students in this generation believe that ‘things just happen,’ but decisions were made,” says Baldwin. “They’ll say, ‘I just lived in this town. I had no idea that it was the product of people’s plans.’ What really blows them away is to think that they are products of those plans, too. It’s a powerful opportunity for self-reflection.”
Baldwin’s classes are full of these kinds of “revelatory” moments, often fueled by the students’ own research. In his cultural analysis class, groups of students choose a different cultural artifact—the bra, the iPod, Woodstock—and examine the history, design, marketing, and consumption statistics that make these objects and ideas socially significant.  In his globalization class, Baldwin asks his students to trace the history of American foreign policy to think critically about the U.S. as a “global actor.”
For his new senior seminar, “American Empire,” Baldwin asks students to select an American cultural product of an iconic corporation with international reach—Nike, Starbucks, Exxon-Mobil, the United Fruit Company—analyze its origins, production, distribution, and other key factors, and decide if it constitutes the product of an “empire” or merely a successful business. He holds the bar high in the level of original research and independent analysis he expects from his students.
After eight years at Boston College, Baldwin and his young family are excited to make Trinity and Hartford their new home. As an urban studies scholar, he’s very much in his element, enlisting students as research partners on an upcoming book about the role that colleges and universities play in the shaping of urban development. He can’t wait to make Hartford an even bigger research partner.
“It’s about getting students out beyond the campus walls,” he says. “Doing work, talking to people, asking questions, and listening…and hopefully even acting”
Learn more about Trinity’s American studies department and the new Center for Urban & Global Studies.