As Bryan wrote earlier this week, we decided to end our Writing New York class on a dystopian note, with Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns rather than on a more hopeful note as we’ve done in recent years — with the blessing that concludes Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America.
There’s a way, though, in which we did manage to give Kushner the final word — or, perhaps more appropriately, the final question. Because the final question on the final examination for the course was framed by a quote from Kushner:
This city is an example of a fantastic and completely unworkable variety of cultures, and consciousnesses, and generational differences, and sexual preferential differences, all living together in one place and forming a peaceable kingdom, a workable government, a real democracy, and creating a city that is genuinely an exciting civic space.
The quote comes from the supplementary materials included on the DVD version of Ric Burns’s New York, and we invited the students to think about its implications in one of a number of different ways.
One topic arose from the idea of New York’s “variety of cultures”: we invited students to talk about ways in which different works on our syllabus had represented the interactions of enclaves, subcultures, or countercultures.
The second topic focused the idea of variety around the idea of cosmopolitanism, asking students to think about the promises and limitations of cosmopolitanism as dramatized in works we had read or seen during the term.
Students could also elect to talk about the implications of Kushner’s idea of the “fantastic,” by discussing the use of “realism” — whatever they took that to mean — and alternatives to it that we encountered over the course of the semester.
Finally, a fourth topic picked up on the slight tinge of uneasiness implicit in Kushner’s statement. We suggested that, optimistic as it seems at first glance, Kushner’s quote does suggest that there may be something dark or “unworkable” about New York City, and we invited students to thinking about works on our syllabus that dramatize New York’s failure to make good on its utopian promises.
I guess we did end on a dystopian note after all.
Which of these questions did most of our students choose to answer? And what were some of the most interesting things that they wrote in response to the exam as a whole? We’ll let you know later in the week.