Posts Tagged Chicago

March 13, 2020 or The Day Everything Changed

q41hgP79RwOv9GcbyxFbKQNote: the photo above was taken from my office not long before I left it on March 13, 2020.


We knew that week that something big was on the horizon. Faculty had been told earlier in the week to prepare for the possibility of class cancellations and the need to teach from home. We knew that things were going to be different, but no one could appreciate just how much our lives would change.

The week before my wife and I had met her mother and step father for dinner out in Rosemont. She’d be leaving for a month in Spain the next day. I had misgivings. I told my wife “Are they really sure they want to travel. This coronavirus seems kind of deadly. A lot worse than people are saying.” I’d talked to my students from China. They were scared for their families. Not always getting accurate information on what was going on. Almost all of them had been wearing masks already back in January. I looked at my father in law, already frail from Parkinson’s disease, and wondered if I’d ever see him again.

But we pressed on. We pressed on because no one ever wants to believe that a calamity of this scale can happen. Especially to them. This is historic shit. It belongs in sepia tone. Not in my community. Not on my Facebook wall. But it happened anyway. It happened the week of March 13, 2020.

That week began with premonitions. I told my students to expect guidance soon from the university on what to expect in the weeks to come. I told them to wash their hands and clean their phones and computers regularly to help them stay well.

On Wednesday, I got home. My wife had a hair appointment so I drove the car. While eating dinner, I saw the President give a speech. The US borders closed to foreign travelers. I thought of my mother in law still in Spain. I texted my wife. “Can she get back in the county? What will happen? They better leave now.” Her mother decided to stay a few more days. It would soon blow over. No one seemed all that worried in Bilbao.

Then on Thursday sports leagues started to shut down. First the NBA and then the NHL. Suddenly it seemed real. Without sports to distract us, people began to freak out.

I decided on Wednesday to make Friday my first distance learning class for my First Year Writing Students. But I still had an exam to proctor for my American Literature class. I came to an eerily quiet campus, quieter than I had seen it since 9/11 and taught my comp classes on line from my office while waiting to proctor the exam.

Going into the classroom building, I discovered my classroom had been locked. An ominous sign. We took the room next-door because it was unlocked. Most classrooms already seemed empty. The custodians nervous. Wearing face masks and gloves as they swept and sanitized the building.

I gave my students the exam and they completed it in silence. Were they nervous about the exam or the possibility of catching what was now being called COVID-19? I have no idea. The last student finished around 3 pm. Those still remaining packed up to leave.

As I walked outside the classroom and prepared to head back to my office, a student stopped for a moment to talk to me. “What do you think will happen?” “I don’t know.” I said. “We’ll try to make things work on line, but I don’t see us coming back to campus this semester.” “I don’t know,” he said, “some classes don’t work well online. Like this one.” “Yeah,” I said, “but we don’t have much of a choice. We’ll all do our best. Just be patient with me and I’ll be patient with you.” I wished him the best and told him I’d pray for his grandparents with whom he lived. He worried about their health just like I worried about that of my family. My dad has COPD and my mom MS. Even a regular cold is a cause for concern. And this shit, ain’t no cold or flu.

Going back to my office, I started to pack things up in my bag. I wondered when or if I would ever see this space again. I’ve never liked the Brutalist architecture on campus, but I felt a sense of sadness at losing the routine of going to work and coming home again. I put away things I knew I would need and headed outside to wait for my wife to pick me up in the car.

Deserted. Quieter than 9/11. That was my impression as I waited. Today was the end of something. I didn’t know what. I just knew that what came out on the other side would never be like this again. When I got in the car, I told my wife “Let’s go out to eat. This will probably be our last normal meal for a long time.” We went to Portillos. To date, it is the last night we have been out to eat.

We then decided to go to the store. We thought that maybe Friday night would be quieter than Saturday afternoon. We were wrong. The Jewel was more crowded than I had ever seen it before. Store shelves decimated of the most random things. Someone had bought all the cheap frozen pizza, all the onions, all the flour. But they had left behind the TV dinners, the eggs, and the yeast. There was also a lot of alcohol to be had. But no toilet paper. Thank God I had bought some on Wednesday before the panic buying had hit high gear.

That night we brought our purchases inside in stages along with the items from work. My wife would still have to go to the office for a few more days. Then the governor would shut the state down, sending us all home for an indefinite period of time.

So here I sit. Writing this blog post today on April 3, 2020. Like many of you, I feel like I have lived more than a year in a few weeks. And yet, the bad news continues. Death upon death. Disaster upon disaster.

Who knows what the future holds. But my mother in law and her husband eventually got home before Spain and all of Europe shut down. They are both healthy. Thank God. As are my family so far.

I work from home now. Teach distantly. Grade papers as before. Looking over my shoulder as history happens. Reminded again of the tenuous hold humans have on their environment. We have always been mastered by our setting. It’s just that living in a city, one not prone to many natural disasters, has given me the privilege of ignoring this for a long time.

No more. Only God and our immune system can tell us what the future holds. May they both be kind to you and yours.


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My Spring Courses 2018 (Rhetoric/Composition)

Everything By Design–Writing About Chicago’s Infrastructure

ENGL 161 

Spring 2018

MWF 11-11:50 am (32287)

MWF 12-12:50 pm (14454)


Photo Courtesy of John Casey (2018)

Infrastructure is all around you. The roads you drive to work or school, the water that comes out of the faucet in your home, the lights you turn on when it gets dark, and even the schools you have attended are all examples of infrastructure. These intricately designed systems for organizing space are fundamental parts of our lives that we often take for granted until they malfunction. But what is the logic behind the systems that make up infrastructure and how were those systems created? What is the future for infrastructure, particularly in the Chicago area? These are just a few of the questions we will explore in this class as we use the subject of infrastructure to learn some basic skills of academic research and writing.




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My Spring 2018 Courses

ENGL 161 

CRN 14458 – TR 9:30-10:45
CRN 14460 – TR 3:30-4:45

Everything By Design: Writing About Chicago’s Infrastructure


Infrastructure is all around you. The roads you drive to work or school, the water that comes out of the faucet in your home, the lights you turn on when it gets dark, and even the schools you have attended are all examples of infrastructure. These intricately designed systems for organizing space are fundamental parts of our lives that we often take for granted until they malfunction. But what is the logic behind the systems that make up infrastructure and how were those systems created? What is the future for infrastructure, particularly in the Chicago area? These are just a few of the questions we will explore in this class as we use the subject of infrastructure to learn some basic skills of academic research and writing.



ENGL 109

CRN 24547 / 24548 – TR 11:00-12:15

You Were Never Here: Author’s Writing In And About Chicago


What comes to mind when you hear the word Chicago?  For some it’s stockyards and steel mills, but these have been gone from the city’s landscape for nearly three generations.  For others it’s the stories of violent crime, but Al Capone is a distant memory and many neighborhoods are not touched by the gang activity on the evening news.  Some see the city as a patchwork of neighborhoods with different ethnic backgrounds at their core, but rising rents and mortgage prices have turned many ethnic neighborhoods into urban shopping malls. The Chicago that seems ‘real’ to you depends on what you already believe before picking up the book.  In this class, we will examine the strong emotions that readers have about Chicago and the narratives that either seem real or fake to those reading them.  Readings for the class will include classic novels such as Sister Carrie and Native Son alongside more recent works by local authors such as  The Old Neighborhood.  We will also read poems by Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry slam founder Kevin Koval’s recent collection A People’s History of Chicago.  


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Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North (Newberry Library Symposium 10/17-18)

Newberry-Terra flyer-page-0

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Newberry Seminar on Women and Gender (10/18)

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2014 Newberry Library Undergraduate Seminar

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Event of Possible Interest (Newberry Seminar in American Literature)

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Shteir’s Complaint

(Note: This piece is also posted on my current events blog Man Without a Newspaper.)

By now I’m late to the discussion of the controversy surrounding De Paul University Theater Professor Rachel Shteir’s April 18th review of three recently released books on Chicago– Thomas Dyja’s The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, Jeff Coen and John Chase’s Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor’s Office and Into Prison, and Neil Steinberg’s You Were Never In Chicago.

Her article has started a heated debate between those who agree with her that Chicago has an unwarranted sense of self-confidence (i.e. “boosterism”) and those who feel that she’s a bitchy New Yorker carrying on in the age-old rant that Chicago is a provincial or “second city” in comparison to the coastal greatness and finesse of the Big Apple.

As fascinating as these critiques are to rehash (they are at least a century old), their writers have neglected to point out three of the largest flaws in Shteir’s piece.

The first is one of genre. Shteir is a terrible book reviewer. Perhaps she thinks that she has attained the status of an Edmund Wilson or Susan Sontag who could ramble on about whatever they liked while ostensibly “reviewing” a book or film. That, at least, is what Shteir does throughout much of her review. In fact, the only section that truly feels like a book review involves Thomas Dyja’s masterful book, which deserves a much more incisive commentary than Shteir can provide.

A second flaw manifests itself in her categorical confusion between literary writing and public policy. Rahm Emanuel and his staff are indeed”swaggering” in their boostership for Chicago. So are local businesses and developers. That’s their job. Chicago literary writers, on the other hand, are beholden to their own idiosyncratic ideals. Part of our problem as a city is that the published writers who are labelled “Chicago authors” are so divergent that a clear picture is hard to assemble. What is the common thread that links Gwendolyn Brooks, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko, Ida Wells, Aleksandar Heman, and Brigid Pasulka? Immigration is about the best I can do, but that applies to many U.S. cities.

This leads me to my final point, and that is Professor Shteir’s silence on the role the publishing industry (most of which is located in her beloved New York) plays in skewing the image of Chicago writing and culture that she purports to explain to NYT readers. I can think of many Chicago authors, quite a few of whom are close friends, whose works answer Shteir’s charge that Chicago needs to be more self-critical. Yet they can’t find a publisher willing to take a risk on their fiction or they publish in small presses who hardly ever come under scrutiny by the likes of the NYT book review.

Shteir’s review should remind cultural critics that public intellectual work has standards of its own. Just because you’re not under the unrelenting microscope of the peer-review process doesn’t mean that you can get away with sloppy reasoning and evidence. It should also remind us that generalizations about cities (or anything for that matter) are limited by thousands of qualifiers. “Chicago literature” or a “Chicago style” are simply heuristics.

On a more personal note, I’ve lived in Chicago for 13 years. A transplant from Vermont, it took a while for me to get used to how flat the landscape is in the city. I’ve grown to love Chicago over that time in the complicated way described by Nelson Algren in his book Chicago: City on the Make–“Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

Like any city, town, or village, a resident needs to learn how to take the good along with the bad if they plan to become “part of this particular patch.” I’ve learned how to do this in my time in Chicago. Shteir apparently is still deciding if its worth her time. I wish her luck.

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March 1st National Day of Action on Behalf of Higher Ed

This week is one of those rare occasions in which the blog post for both sites I manage is the same.  My reason for this overlap is the severity of the crisis we face in Higher Education in the United States.  In the last thirty years, public funding for Higher Education at the state and federal level has consistently been reduced.  Private colleges have also been squeezed more each year by a decline in alumni giving and the investment returns from their endowments.

With colleges and universities living in a constant state of budget crisis, students are more dependent upon loan debt rather than scholarships and grants to finance their education.  A recent study conducted by the non-profit Institute for College Access and Success indicates that the average student indebtedness in the United States is around $26,000.  In my home state of Illinois, 62% of college graduates reported owing some form of debt upon graduation.  That is up from 46% in 1990.

Students are also becoming part of the low wage economy through work-study jobs that not only have no connection to their studies but have unwittingly helped dismantle blue-collar employment on campus.  Who wants to pay $45,000-$65,000 a year to clerical and service workers when the same work can be done by an undergraduate for pennies on the dollar.

Colleges were forced by circumstances to find ways to “economize” and “monetize” their existing assets, but inviting corporate logic into the realm of Higher Ed was like welcoming the fox into the hen-house.  Higher Education has now become a factory that turns out graduates while remaining agnostic about their fate subsequent to graduation.

In order to address this crisis, Occupy Education, a branch of the larger Occupy movement, has called for a National Day of Action to be held on March 1st throughout the United States to draw attention to the problems we face and hopefully prod those interested towards crafting a solution.

Here in Chicago a number of rallies are planned throughout the city. I will be at events taking place in the Loop beginning at 8:30am and ending around 4pm.  Here are a list of those events:

8:30am– A panel led by Diana Vallera, the president of Columbia College’s Part-Time Faculty Union (P-Fac), and Curtis Keyes, the lead organizer for the union at East-West University will be held as part of the National Education Association (NEA) convention taking place at the Palmer House Hilton.  That panel will address the current crisis in Higher Education and the work that unions have been doing to combat it.

11:00am–A rally will meet outside the Palmer House as Curtis Keyes speaks with members of the student group C.A.C.H.E. (the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education) prior to marching south to the main offices of Columbia College at 600 South Michigan Avenue.

1:00pm–C.A.C.H.E. will continue its march to Congress and Michigan and hold a rally.

These are just a few of the events occurring that day.  Hundreds more will pop up all over the city so keep your eyes open.  If you are unable to find or participate in one of these rallies, check out these facts on Higher Ed and share them with a friend or coworker.  Together we can insure that college education is available for all who want it and maintain the educated citizenry necessary for a healthy republic to survive.

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