Chicago 101: The University of Chicago has a new classroom–the city itself

South Side Bike Tour. Photo by Sam Bowman
“The University of Chicago” can be a four-letter word. Pundits use it as a symbol of Barack Obama’s alleged aloofness and professorial remove from reality, while South Side activists have often accused the UofC of being primarily concerned with itself–to the detriment of its neighbors. The core of these accusations center around an image of the UofC as an army of navel-gazing students that stay firmly entrenched in the Regenstein Library or their fortress-like dorms, occasionally emerging to head downtown for a Friday night dinner or to Lakeview for shopping.

Chicago Studies, a new interdisciplinary program spearheaded by Dean John Boyer in collaboration with the College and the University Community Service Center (UCSC), wants to change that. The program is “meant to create more of a dialogue between the University and the surrounding communities,” says its new director, public policy professor Chad Broughton. “We want it to be more of a positive force.”

The program will encourage the academic study of Chicago through courses and lectures like “Introduction to Black Chicago, 1895 to 2005” and “Chicago Film History,” as well as offer extracurricular opportunities for students to access parts of the city that might not be on their usual itineraries. “We want to provide opportunities to take advantage of their time in one of the world’s great cities–an opportunity to treat their time here in Chicago akin to a study abroad experience,” says Broughton, who teaches courses like “Anti-Poverty Policy in the U.S.” that use Chicago as a case study.

The program follows in the tradition of Chicago-focused curricula, like DePaul’s Discover Chicago and Explore Chicago programs. DePaul, which has a strong focus on learning through service, requires that all first-year students spend one quarter taking a course on Chicago that involves time in the field as well as time in the classroom. Discover Chicago students come to school a week before regular classes start to participate in a week of immersion in Chicago’s “metropolitan community, its neighborhoods, cultures, people, institutions, organizations, and issues,” according to the program’s website. They, along with Explore Chicago students, are then required to enroll in a Chicago-related course for their autumn quarter, with options like “Chicago in Sound,” “Biking and Politics,” “Breaking the Glass: Privilege in Chicago,” and “Race, Politics, and Housing in the City of Neighborhoods.”
The UofC has its own version of the Chicago Quarter in the works: Kathleen Morrison of the anthropology department and Justin Borevitz of the biology department’s ecology and evolution department are working together to create the Calumet Quarter, an interdisciplinary study of Chicago’s southern neighbor, Calumet City. Like a study abroad program, students will devote an entire quarter’s worth of classes to the economically-depressed city and will study it from ecological, anthropological, and economic perspectives. It’s aimed at environmental studies undergraduates and will take place in the Spring. “It’s the perfect example of what Chicago Studies is about,” says Broughton.

Last Saturday, Chicago Studies sponsored the South Side History Bike Tour as its first extracurricular exploration of the city. Over one hundred cyclists, including college and graduate students, faculty, and staff, showed up to hear Dean Boyer and professors Terry Clark and Mark Hansen talk about the political, cultural, and architectural history of important South Side locations. Stops included the Stockyards, the Stephen A. Douglas Tomb, the Harold Washington Cultural Center, and Mayor Daley’s family home. Passers-by waved as we rode by and stopped and listened to stories about Alderman Dorothy Tillman, the Chicago Fire, and the billionaires in the Prairie District. The ride not only exposed the participants to new parts of the city, but it encouraged a form of transportation that allows riders a more intimate portrait of their surroundings: “How is the world different if one experiences it from a car seat or from a bicycle saddle?” asks DePaul professor J. Harry Wray in his book “Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life.” “[The car] makes the environment outside the car subservient–and less relevant–to the primary mission of moving persons inside the vehicle from one point to another. . . Because the world is experienced in a different way on a bike than it is in a car, the rider inevitably thinks of that world differently than does the driver.”

A Chicago Studies website (, launched in September, reinforces the participatory ethos of the program. It will serve as a “connector” for existing and new Chicago-related programs at the UofC, says UCSC liaison and assistant director David Hays, with links to courses, internships and volunteer opportunities, faculty and student resources, events, and more. But it won’t just be an information hub: it will also serve as a way for students to share their experiences in the city. There’s The Blog That Works, a Flickr pool, a Wikipedia-style resource guide that students can contribute to, and a YouTube group that is in the works. “We want to move towards being an authoritative site that people turn to when they want to learn about, say, the Chicago School of Sociology,” Broughton says. “We want to balance that with a Wikipedia idea with reader participation.”

So what’s in the future for Chicago Studies? On November 14, the first edition of the Chicago Studies Annual Journal, a journal of undergraduate BA theses about Chicago, will be released. Faculty are currently reviewing submissions for the second Chicago Studies Annual; organizers hope that this opportunity to be published will encourage students to use Chicago as a case study in their BA projects. Broughton says that they’re trying to organize a Chicago film festival for the winter, with panels of movie critics, filmmakers, and actors and tours of Chicago movie locations. They’ll continue to host smaller events and tours throughout the year.

Chicago Studies may be seen as a deviation from a long history of purely theoretical study at the UofC, but that characterization isn’t entirely true. Robert Park, one of the founders of the Chicago School of Sociology, instructed students in 1927 to “go and sit in the lounges of luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of the flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and on the slum shakedowns; sit in the Orchestra Hall and in the Star and Garter Burlesque. In short go and get the seat of your pants dirty in real research.” Broughton says that Chicago Studies “hearkens back to a hands-on past at the University of Chicago” and hopes that students will “go out with the outsiders and the outcasts and learn about the world from the inside out.” His academic evolution here reflects that, too: Broughton came to the UofC as a PhD student in sociology in the ’90s, when he planned on studying sustainable development in Africa. He took a class on urban poverty with William Julius Wilson that redirected his research interests towards the South Side. “I met a lot of people in the surrounding neighborhoods and got a very different view than I got from the books when I was doing ethnography,” he recalls. “I was uncomfortable at times, but that can be a good thing. I had some stereotypes dispelled. It was a complete experience…it was academic, but visceral and real.” ­

As we biked down Lake Park Avenue during Saturday’s tour, an older man emerged from his apartment building to watch. “What are y’all biking for!” he shouted. “There’s already a cure for cancer, and it ain’t at the University of Chicago!” He trailed off. He knows that you can’t find all the answers by staying within the confines of Hyde Park. It looks like we’re finally starting to accept that, too.

Photo by Sam Bowman

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