Students go back in time to 19th century Chicago

A new freshman seminar immerses students in the history of urban America.
October 06, 2011

Students in Evan Roberts freshman seminar are immersing themselves in a different time and place — 19th century Chicago.

Roberts, an assistant history professor who usually teaches economic and demographic history, said he has always been fascinated with history and cities. So when the opportunity came to design and teach a freshman seminar course that combined the two, he jumped at the chance.

The course, HIST 1907W: “Living, Working, and Dying in Chicago,” is one of the many unique courses being offered to freshman students this semester. The class focuses on understanding urban growth and history in late 19th and 20th century America.

“I’ve been enthusiastic about history and cities since I was in high school and this class is fun because I can combine those interests,” Roberts said.

The course, based mostly on readings and discussion, introduces students to the views of people at the time and the views of historians and others looking back at the past by examining original material from that time period.

“The course is essentially about how people in the late 19th century understood the sort of changes that were taking place in large cities,” he said.

The focus is on Chicago because it’s more removed and also where universities and social reformers did a lot of work at the time to better understand the lives of people in growing cities, he said.

But Chicago is also vital to the themes of the course because the city was “unique in its scale of expansion and it exemplified things that were going on around the country including Minneapolis and St. Paul in terms of immigration and the growth of industries,” he said.

Getting the topic approved as a freshman seminar course was no easy task for Roberts, but he said he was adamant in bringing the course to life.

The process is long. He first had to have his outline approved by those in the College of Liberal Arts who are in charge of freshman seminars. Then, it goes to other faculty in different departments for another round of approval.

“They ultimately decide if it gets approved or not,” Roberts said.

‘Going back in time’

Roberts said he is pleased with the small group of 20 students who are taking the course this fall and says that they are engaged and are interested in the curriculum.

Maggie Marion, a freshman business major, said the title of the course was what caught her eye.

“I’m originally from Chicago so I thought it would be cool to learn about the social history of that area,” Marion said.

She said Roberts makes the lectures enjoyable and they are “easy to listen to” because of his New Zealand accent.

Students in the course also get to do something that many college students rarely get the chance to do; they get to take a field trip.

To think about Chicago’s history compared with Minneapolis, the class is headed to the Mill City Museum, located on the Mississippi riverfront.

For many freshman students, like psychology major Geoff Tomaino, freshman seminars are a way to fulfill one or more liberal education requirements. But that was the second reason Tomaino took the course.

“I’m a huge history fan and I especially like discussing it with people in small groups and this course has that element,” he said.

Tomaino also credits the course for helping him transition into college academics. The small class size combined with the specific course material make it a “really good buffer” between high school and college courses.

Tomaino said he enjoys the challenge presented to him by the large amount of reading in the course.

“We’ve been doing a lot of reading, some from the time period we’re discussing and some that look back,” he said.

“The course has this ‘going back in time’ type of feel to it, which is really cool.”

Comment Policy

The Minnesota Daily welcomes thoughtful discussion on all of our stories, but please keep comments civil and on-topic. Read our full guidelines here.
Minnesota Daily Serving the University of Minnesota Community since 1900