Unusual classes: Students learn Pittsburgh’s secrets firsthand in English literature class on the move

In Allegheny Cemetery


On the site of the Civil War’s worst single day of civilian casualties — Arsenal Park in Lawrenceville, where a munitions factory exploded on Sept. 17, 1862 — students in the English department’s “Secret Pittsburgh” class, taught by Jessica FitzPatrick, gathered to understand exactly how it happened, why 78 young girls were the vast majority of victims and how it affected the neighborhood.

They had read “Life in the Iron-Mills” by Rebecca Harding Davis, the era’s first realistic portrayal of industrial labor, to get a glimpse inside such factories, where girls’ smaller hands were required to manufacture the lead bullets and other war materials. They had received a talk from another English faculty member, Kirsten Paine, to connect her collection of Civil War artifacts and knowledge of the park’s history to what they were about to see.

Paine and FitzPatrick led the students around the park’s periphery — up and down long, steep Lawrenceville blocks, pointing out what has changed and what remains — and then gathered them before the one factory building still standing. The class walked in through the same gate where the gunpowder once entered, then faced the original powder magazine.

“You can see just how close the neighborhood is to the factory,” Paine said. “All of Lawrenceville could hear (when it exploded).”

As a swing set stood quiet behind them on this damp fall day, students read from the sermon offered by a local minister at a memorial following the explosion: “Ever since the fatal day, persons have visited the Arsenal, either to inquire about the whole occurrence, or in the faint hope of learning something of their lost ones.”

Inquiry by the “Secret Pittsburgh” literature class has taken FitzPatrick and her students many places: on the Rivers of Steel boat tour of the city’s industrial legacy, to Schenley Park, the University’s Archives Service Center, Homewood Cemetery and elsewhere. After students’ walking tour of the Hill District, starting with the Hill House Association, FitzPatrick noted: “They had heard about this portion of Pittsburgh but they hadn’t been there.”

Students have not only been reading texts to accompany their journeys, but they’ve also used their experiences to build the class’s online guidebook, begun in previous semesters, which contains local history as well as the students’ personal stories.

Pairs of students are assigned to be site leaders in charge of compiling different guidebook entries. The class also learns to use archival materials to tell other Pittsburgh stories, and they design a class showcase for the end of the semester. In past terms, it has involved a collaborative art installation, a scavenger hunt or a community display.

“Secret Pittsburgh” is “a very unusual class,” volunteers one first-year student from New Jersey, trekking around Arsenal Park’s black stone walls. She says she signed up because she couldn’t have gotten a similar experience just from photographs or anything on the Internet.

Across several semesters, the class has covered 22 different neighborhoods — so far.

“We’re going to keep growing it,” FitzPatrick says, labeling the class “a joint teaching between me and the city. The city is like a textbook and a guest lecturer.”

After their visits to a city site, she adds, the students “have to re-frame what the city gives us,” based on that week’s readings.

The class was conceived with departmental colleague Hannah R. Johnson, FitzPatrick says: “We wanted to see how literary studies could function in real-world situations.

“Sometimes students are shocked with how much we read,” she adds. “We never go into a site without reading about it — or without reading something that will challenge the way we think about it.”

Marty Levine is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.