Reading Chicago

One in a while I think that Chicago is a toddling town. (Ok, when I first moved to Chicago in the 1970s, everyone — and I mean everyone — sang a song to me that included the phrase “that toddling’ town.” I still do not know what that means. (Here is Tony Bennett singing that same song.)

More often, I think of Chicago as a windy city. The phrase, of course, has to do with weather.  Or, so many of us believe. (Wikipedia claims there are other reasons. Check them out here.)

Some people go with the city of big shoulders or other honorifics given to Chicago as a result of Carl Sandburg — and his poem available here. Think “Hog Butcher to the World,” and that likely will, today, send you off to a restaurant. Or not.

What, though, if we thought of Chicago as a campus? Or, what if we thought of Chicago as a curriculum? What then?

Obviously, Chicago is a city with many smaller campuses contained within it. These include the many museum campuses (when did they “appropriate” that word?) as well as the campuses of colleges and universities around the city and around the broader geography of Chicagoland. There are many colleges and universities in our city; how much real estate that accounts for, of course, I have no idea. Chicago certainly might be seen, in this way, as a conglomeration of campuses into a campus.

And yet, Chicago, I claim here, is itself our campus. What might that really mean? What does it mean to read Chicago?

A first reply might be curricular in the sense of “What would be our syllabus”? There are many important works — both texts and material objects such as art work and architecture — that are linked to Chicago. So, for example, Shimer has undertaken an experimental course on Chicago that reads (for example) some of the great books associated with our city and I have written about this theme elsewhere. Here, Chicago is in some sense the curriculum. Without, for example, the Black Metropolis, can we really understand race in Chicago? In the United States? At all?

Of course, education is also about engagement through internships or with cultural organizations like the Art Institute or the DuSable Museum. Campuses in another sense? Reading in another sense?

Another way to think this through is to ask ourselves: what enduring questions are asked by Chicago (in some sense)? Such questions might emerge from looking at the city — What do we learn about urban studies? About beauty? About poetry? About anthropology or political science because Chicago is our curriculum, our campus? About environmental studies — when we look at our lake, our asphalt, our vacant lots (and thus the lead in our soil and in our air)? What do we learn about economics?

Or, more broadly, and perhaps more importantly, what do we learn about what it means to be fully human? What happens to this question when we read Chicago? When the city itself becomes the reading, demographics matters. So too does how we visualize the city — through graphs and data, through photographs and documentaries, and more. (Here, the work Graphesis is relevant as it argues that there is, indeed, a visual epistemology. Hmmm.

Reading Chicago may be a key theme for all leaders — and all of us — when it comes to higher education in Chicago. Agreed?




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    Shimerprez is the 14th president of Shimer College at 35th and State. She also blogs at the Huffington Post and at a Shimer Blog called Evocations which can be found on line at She is a University of Chicago Ph.D. who works on religion, the social sciences, gender and sexuality. She reads murder mysteries, is fascinated by the world of food, and also loves the Finger Lakes Region of upstate New York.

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