American Cities class thrives on College’s proximity to Chicago

From an educational standpoint, there are no downsides to being close to Chicago. Especially when you teach a class called American Cities.

Lecturer in History Mimi Cowan is like many instructors who bring their classes on field trips to the city a few times a semester to tour museums, religious buildings, neighborhoods, and even cemeteries to bring their lessons to life. Cowan, who refers to urban history as her “particular wheelhouse of study,” has taken two trips so far, each packed with activity and learning from start to finish.

A train ride into town one Saturday, for example, started with a stop in north-side neighborhood Ravenswood, the first planned suburban area of Chicago. The students saw firsthand how transportation - the train and, later, street cars and the “L” - changed the area from a rural farming area, to an exclusive suburb, and finally to a diverse and thriving urban neighborhood.

The class also visited Graceland Cemetery, built in the 19th Century, where they discussed landscape and how the function of cemeteries has changed over the years. The tour ended in Boystown, where students examined the ideas of gender and sexuality, urban space, and urban regeneration.

The larger question Cowan wants her students to explore is, “What role have cities played in the development of the American cultural, economic, and social life, and how do we apply those lessons in today’s urban areas?”

“I want them to look beyond face value of what they see in cities. Things we take for granted,” she said.

Power, architecture, and human culpability – all are themes she brings to focus through conversation about people and events of the past, including September 11.

Chicago has helped her to show students what they’ve been talking about in class, even if the discussion is about another city, such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, or Los Angeles, or Phoenix.

And students don’t always know what they’re going to get when they walk into the room. It’s what keeps the class fresh and relevant.

For example, an early November session that was supposed to be about the Depression era, according to Cowan’s plans, shifted to a more relevant topic: Hurricane Sandy and the urban resilience of New York City in the storm’s wake.

“Four weeks into the class, I changed my plans for the semester because I wanted to meet the needs and interests of my students,” she said.

No matter the subject, Cowan’s main priority is to keep her students engaged and to keep them thinking.