The reversal of the flow of the Chicago River in 1900, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, and a stuffed gorilla. What do they have in common?
All three will come up for discussion when Colorado College professors William Davis and Eric Perramond lead the fall 2017 Newberry Seminar: Research in the Humanities. The tie that binds these seemingly random items is the seminar’s topic – Nature and Culture in the Metropolis – which grapples with the “nature” vs. “civilization” dichotomy and particularly the relationship of humans and nature in an urban setting.
During 15 weeks in Chicago, the students will explore the remarkable collections of the Newberry Library, develop skills in conducting research in the humanities, and ultimately create substantial research papers.
The seminar begins with an intensive investigation of the topic through readings and discussions. Along with this coursework, students will undertake a journey of discovery in the collections with the Newberry librarians, who serve as additional mentors and resources for the seminar participants.
“Our course will address the question of how artists, thinkers, and researchers have represented the dichotomy between human experience in bucolic, pastoral, and wilderness settings with life in the metropolis,” said Davis. “In some sense this is a question of city vs. country, but it is likewise an investigation of how the ideas of the urban and pastoral have become necessary complements to each other, particularly since the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century.”
“We will pair well-known works, such as by Thoreau, Wordsworth, and Rousseau, with primary sources drawn from the Newberry collections,” said Perramond. “We’ll ask, how do we use and interpret this material? How does this primary source address a particular point made by a modern author?”
While the library provides the core of source material for the students’ research, the faculty plan to go beyond the library’s walls, as well, to engage in place-based inquiry in a variety of neighborhoods and cultural institutions.
On tap are trips to the Chicago History Museum and the Field Museum of Natural History, home of the stuffed remains of Bushman, a gorilla that was a star attraction at the Lincoln Park Zoo in the mid-1900s.
Another excursion on the horizon is a tour of the Chicago River, which was engineered to reverse the direction of the river’s flow to keep sewage from flowing into the lake, the source of the city’s drinking water.
Such field trips are integrative exercises that add firsthand experience to the seminar materials and raise a variety of questions, Perramond noted. What does the Bushman exhibit say about our relationship with nature at that time? How have humans changed the nature, such as the river, that is around them in the city?
“We’re going to have fun with this topic in a way, we hope, that students understand the current relevance of humanistic perspectives,” he said. “It’s lively material and it’s not just about the past. Yet what you see today is very much structured by past experience.”
As the semester progresses, the focus will shift to the students’ research projects and papers. Perramond and Davis will provide individual research support and mentoring, organize peer review groups, and bring all the students together for a weekly discussion time to maintain the sense of a community of scholars, even as they are intently focused on independent work.
Overall, the professors emphasized, the Newberry Seminar presents a rare opportunity to experience the challenges and gain new skill-sets in comparative and interpretive research in the humanities, in a setting that mirrors many graduate-level seminars.