Travel Course: Chicago


Chicago Skyline
Last night there was informal junior faculty mixer at a local restaurant in the old train depot that’s near our campus. Since I do love me some trains, I was thrilled with the venue. And at one point in the evening when my social veneer had dropped a bit, I began to reveal just how fascinated I am by railroads (for those of you who don’t know me, let’s just say that when I bought my kids a toy wooden train set it was probably more for me than for them–and I won’t reveal here how much I enjoyed setting up elaborate railway systems around our living room)…

In the midst of my railroad enthusiasm a colleague mentioned to me that I should construct a ‘travel course’ around the theme of 19th-century American railways (my university offers many very popular travel courses during the interterm and summer) with Chicago as the ‘hub’ of the course.  In that vein, here’s my idea:

We would take the train into Chicago, following in the footsteps of so many Americans during the 1890s who were using that mode of transport to get to the ‘big city.’ Depending on time constraints we might take the Coast Starlight up to northern California and then the California Zephyr all the way into Chicago. If that was too much train-time, we could fly to Denver and take the train from there.


Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

Sister Carrie

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

The Pit: a Story of Chicago

Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930

 We’d use HistoryPin to map historical happenings and perhaps also Hypericities (which I’m hoping will have a mobile-device component soon) to drill down through layers of spatial history as we navigate the contemporary spaces.

My questions for you:

Do you have any suggestions of readings or of tools that I should use for this hypothetical class?

If you were leading a travel course where would you take your students?

What advantages can you see of actually going to the place that you’re studying rather than simply learning about it within a classroom setting?

3 Responses to “Travel Course: Chicago”

  1. Justin Bengry Says:

    I am a historian of Britain because in 1998 a professor at the University of Lethbridge offered a course in the popular culture of Victorian Britain *in* London. So, I absolutely LOVE this idea!
    Before going to London, I was on track to complete a degree in ancient history. I enjoyed the material, but one trip to London changed my interests and my life, exposed me to questions and possibilities I had never considered, and remains one of the richest experiences of my life. Naturally, if I was to do a travelling course, I’d take my students to London. (As a side note, my current department regularly offers history courses on ancient Italy and South Africa in those locations.)

    The greatest advantage to studying in location is the opportunity to experience, in some way, the places, sights, and sounds of the sources and people you research. Our course was broken up so that half of each M-TH morning class was spent in lecture time, while the other half was an excursion based on the lecture. When studying the working class we explored East London, and when studying popular leisure we went to Brighton, for example.

    Books and readings become a bit tricky. You don’t want to overload students with so many readings that they will lose the opportunity to explore the city. On the other hand, first and foremost this is a university course for which they earn credit. Assign readings well in advance so that some students can finish them before leaving home. Perhaps focus on a reader of articles rather than too many books, which will further break up the readings. And one thing that our professor did was assign a period novel that took place not far from where we were staying. It was more powerful reading about the lives of working-class Victorian Londoners when I was walking down their streets every single day.

    Good luck with this project. It sounds exciting, as much for you as your potential students. But, you never know, you might change someone’s entire life.

  2. lkboehm Says:

    I have taught this course at Indiana University! In fact it was the first course I ever taught on my own. Out of the course came my first book, Popular Culture and the Enduring Myth of Chicago (Routledge, 2004), now available on Kindle for those of us who love electronic books.

    I assign Sister Carrie all the time, and cannot get enough of it. I also love The Pit, although I have never used it in class. I find that Nature’s Metropolis, while wonderful, is situated a bit outside the city for most of my courses of this nature. And I have used Devil and in the White City frequently, the students tend to like the “devil” portions far more than the coverage of the White City, and I think the full force of the book is somewhat lost on them. (I think I am pandering to them by assigning it, but then they say they don’t really like the book, so it does not serve its purpose!)

    I really love Carl Smith’s book, Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief. I have used this many times and get wonderful reactions from it. Smith came to American Studies and Urban History from English, and his prose is lovely. Twenty Years at Hull House is always appropriate. I also adore Hilda Satt Polacheck’s book about growing up at Hull House. I can absolutely go on and on here!

    I direct our Honors Program at Worcester State University. In honors we urge students to visit cities, and a whole course ideology was developed by the National Collegiate Honors Council called City As Text (TM) that you might want to check out.

    Feel free to contact me for more discussion on teaching Chicago.

  3. Sheila Steinberg Says:

    Great Idea! Yes, I would definitely take my students on such a course. Most importantly I really appreciate the juxtapositoning of the history with the modern spatial experiences. What a great idea and what a wonderful way to learn!!!
    Sheila Steinberg
    Visiting Professsor
    Chapman University

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