By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty
For undergrad, I went to a smaller, Christian-affiliated university in the Chicago suburbs, and all students had to take a handful of religion courses as part of our general education requirement. My senior year, I took a course in religious artwork to fulfill my final religion course. I was an art minor, so the topic sounded interesting, and I knew and liked the professor from a previous course. It was a good fit.
Mostly, we read our textbook, had discussions, and viewed examples of art that were projected onto a screen. The class was informative and enjoyable, and the professor was still very nice and knowledgeable. However, twelve years later, I have retained very little of the information. The fifteen weeks of classes seem to blur together as one, with no particular lesson or detail sticking out.
Contrarily, at the end of the semester, my professor asked us to meet him on Saturday in Chicago so we could visit various churches and cathedrals to examine them from an architectural and artistic perspective.
Twelve years later, I remember everything about that day.
For suburban kids, which is an appropriate description for all of us in that class, visiting the city was a rare event. Growing up, the city was only 35-40 minutes from home, and yet I would only be downtown once or twice per year, and always for some big event like the circus as a kid, or Bulls games when I got older. Even then, we’d drive in to our specific destination, attend the event, and then flee back to the suburbs as soon as it was over. Never was there any attempt to wander and experience the city. Everyone else I knew who grew up in the suburbs had, generally, the same experience. The city and suburbs, though separated by only a few miles, are two different worlds.
So, having the class meet at the Fourth Presbyterian Church, directly across the street from the John Hancock Center on Michigan Ave., was a different experience for all of us in class, and it took us outside of our comfort zones in a good way.
I still remember specific details about all of the locations. Our first stop was Fourth Presbyterian, with the wooden angels flanking the nave. At St. James, we took in the rose window. At Holy Name, we got a “behind the scenes tour” to see papal garments. I reference that day whenever I am near any of those spots, much to the delight (or annoyance) of anyone with me at the moment.
Being able to go out into the world and experience the subject matter, rather than just talk about it inside a classroom, made all the difference. I interacted with the material, I retained the information, and I had an experience I will always remember. The stuff inside the classroom: a forgettable blur.
After the class tour ended, I did something that seemed so wild to me at the time: I found my way to Wrigleyville, got a cheap ticket from a scalper, and went to a Cubs game. It was so much fun, and it just added to the day of memorable experiences in Chicago.
At Robert Morris University, all of the professors – myself included – try to get our classes out into the city as much as possible, as it is part of “The Chicago Experience” that we want to promote at RMU, but also because it’s just good teaching. We are so lucky to have our main campus right downtown. That trip I took in undergrad required all kinds of planning and coordination, and we had to do it on a weekend. Now, I could take my classes at RMU on the same trip with a quick walk or by hopping on the El, all during our regular class period.
Having such easy access to the city is not only a great academic experience, but it’s great life experience as well. When our classes head into the city, hopefully students learn the day’s academic lesson, but perhaps more importantly, they will be exposed to people, culture, and ideas they would have otherwise missed were they stuck in a classroom looking at PowerPoint slides or listening to a lecture.
For students who are from the suburbs and beyond, it’s exciting to welcome them to the buffet of awesome opportunities in Chicago. For students who are from Chicago, I never doubt that there is plenty more for them to explore and learn about in their hometown.
Since that undergrad course, I’ve spent so much time in the city, even aside from all the hours working at RMU’s downtown campus. I feel like I know the city fairly well, and yet I know I have experienced only a tiny fraction of what it has to offer. I want to keep exploring, and I like trying to pass that desire to explore on to my classes. I only have them in class for ten weeks, but they can venture out and learn from the world around them for the rest of their lives.