Home » Lost in “Wild” Cities in Search of Patterns, Connections, and Surprises

Lost in “Wild” Cities in Search of Patterns, Connections, and Surprises

Lost in “Wild” Cities in Search of Patterns, Connections, and Surprises November 30, 2011

“It’s easy to get lost in a city,” said Brian Bockelman, a history professor at Ripon College.

This is not the kind of “lost” where you ask a passerby for directions.

Rather, it’s getting lost in stories of immigrants and stockyards, jazz and tango, devastating fires and epidemics, riots and literary movements, social reformers and captains of industry.

Brian Bockelman and David Miller

Brian Bockelman (left) and David Miller will lead the fall 2012 Newberry Seminar

It’s being lost in times and places of great, relentless change – during the decades stretching before and after the dawn of the 20th century, when the burgeoning mega-cities of Chicago and Buenos Aires muscled their way onto the world stage.

And it’s becoming lost – immersed – in the vast resources of the Newberry Library in Chicago, where Bockelman and Allegheny College English professor David Miller will team up to lead a seminar next fall on “Wild Cities: The Nature of the Modern Metropolis.”

An advanced, semester-length program for juniors and seniors, the Newberry Seminar: Research in the Humanities engages students in a broad, interdisciplinary theme, through which they then explore the Library’s rich collections of primary source materials, develop their own research topic, and write a substantial scholarly paper.

More Information

Read a detailed description of the “Wild Cities” topic.
Visit the Newberry Seminar webpage to learn about the program and possible research areas.
Go to the Newberry website for more on the Library’s collections.

The interdisciplinary nature of the Newberry Seminar is a perfect fit for Bockelman and Miller, whose individual interests go far beyond their primary academic areas of Latin American history and American literature, respectively. They are planning the seminar’s readings, field trips, and discussions to range across academic disciplines, taking advantage of the breadth of the Newberry’s holdings.

“I always say literature is life, there are no boundaries there,” Miller said. “When you start looking closely at a text, it will begin to generate all kinds of possible meanings. The more you’re aware of religion or philosophy or anthropology or even science, you can bring those in. The way I approach any field is to see underlying patterns and connections, and those can build on themselves and proliferate in all kinds of surprising directions.”

“For us, it’s about trying to find ways to spark intellectual engagement and interest through the topic’s themes, while also [being] flexible,” Bockelman added. “That was the real key, to try to find a topic that would open up Chicago, open up the [Newberry’s] collections in a new way, and yet not seem like it was imposing really strong boundaries on what students might do. I feel like this is a topic that is going to connect to so many interests that students might have.”

Map of the Chicago Fire

Richard’s Illustrated and Statistical Map of the Great Conflagration in Chicago. (Map 6F G4104.C6 1871 R3)

Courtesy of the Newberry Library

The central idea of the fall 2012 Newberry Seminar topic is that the modern cities which developed roughly between 1850 and 1950 were “wild” places in important ways. One way was environmental. Despite their impressive human-built infrastructure, the cities still relied on the natural environment for resources to feed their people and industries, but were still subject to the fury of natural disasters.

Another way was cultural. The cities’ dynamic growth brought large, disparate masses of people into an urban “wilderness” that was turbulent and chaotic, experimental and energizing – and rife with new relationships and institutions.

The seminar’s case studies, Chicago and Buenos Aires, according to the two professors, roared to life in the latter half of the 19th century as exemplars of the Western Hemisphere’s modern mega-cities. Their parallel histories were in large part shaped by their roles as hubs of industry and commerce, tapping the rich natural bounty of the surrounding regions.

Newberry Seminar participants

Seminar participants, along with a bust of Walter L. Newberry, on the Library’s main staircase.

As these urban powerhouses grew, there emerged within them a tension between the desire to tame or contain the cities’ wildness – through social reforms, city planning, and policing, for example – and a desire to foster and celebrate the wildness as a creative force brimming with exciting new opportunities.

“We talk about the sense of the city as ecosystem,” Miller noted. “For me, that’s a really rich metaphor in general – ecology, as opposed to mechanization. Something organic, that grows, that we appreciate in different ways than we do machines.”

Using the metaphor of the “wild” city, Bockelman and Miller will draw on strands of history, literary analysis, urban studies, sociology, human ecology, and cultural geography to help seminar participants discover the patterns and connections underlying the landscape of modern cities. The students will also be discovering patterns, connections, and abundant surprises within the Newberry’s collections.

“The fact that you have all these resources right here, and that the students can browse, in a certain sense, this wonderful, vast collection for humanistic research – that’s so different from the traditional senior seminar on campus, where so much effort is spent on trying to help students find the sources they need,” said Bockelman. “[At the Newberry] usually it’s going to be that they find treasures in the collection, and they can go from that to something bigger.”

Field trip to Pullman

A Newberry Seminar field trip to the Pullman neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

Readings, discussions, field trips, and assignments during the first half of the semester will get students out into Chicago’s neighborhoods, as well as into the Newberry’s collections, for historical background and to stimulate ideas for research possibilities.

As the semester progresses, and in consultation with Bockelman and Miller, the students will narrow their focus onto the individual topics of their research papers. While the professors will be teaching the seminar, both are quick to point out the importance of the Newberry – one of the world’s foremost independent research libraries – and the role of its expert staff as partners in guiding the students.

“This is an unparalleled opportunity to be in the kind of environment where knowledge is created,” said Bockelman. “I can’t think of a better kind of community or place to be, for the small acts of close reading of texts up to the enterprise of creating a new work of scholarship. If students are interested in seeing what it’s like to be at the forefront of humanities or history work and get a taste of what it’s like, the excitement of it, the communal aspect of it, I think it’s the place they should be now.”

The Newberry Library

A view of the Newberry Library and the surrounding neighborhood.

“In my experience, certainly on my campus, students have become so distracted, pulled in so many different directions,” Miller observed. “This experience pulls them back to a concentrated kind of effort, where everything has the potential to connect to everything else. The Library is a place to get away, a kind of complete immersion.”

Though the immersion at the Newberry will end along with the semester, Bockelman pointed out that the patterns and connections that students make during the research process can be picked up again at another time.

“We’d hope our students will have the kind of attitude about history and humanities in general that it’s not just ‘you do your paper and you made it through and you’re done,'” he said. “You’re planting all these different seeds for yourself to continue to cultivate at different points [in your life], and you never know when things are going to come back.”


Share this page