Fall 2011 / Spring 2012

A Whole Way of Life

How three Cultural Studies alumni are using their degrees to inform and change their communities.

Finding a route between England’s University of Birmingham and Columbia College Chicago has never been a particularly difficult task, even in the days before Google applications were within arm’s reach.

But when that path detours through a century of art, an ocean of mass media, and is capable of connecting nineteenth century German philosophy to live improvisational comedy in Chicago—by way of cyberspace—one might say that an entirely different set of maps is composed.

This metaphorical atlas is the field of Cultural Studies.

While first formalized in the creation of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1964, Cultural  Studies emerged in the late ’50s as an intellectual project rooted in adult education, the politics of the New Left, and an interdisciplinary approach to studying culture as the “relationships between elements in a whole way of life.” In the simplest terms, it was a way to critically examine the connections between politics, popular culture, social norms, and identities.

Columbia College started its Cultural Studies program in 2002 with these same objectives in mind, and to provide students with a unique set of intellectual tools for analyzing and better understanding our complex world and the ways in which we collectively make meaning.

Housed in the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences (HHSS), the program draws on faculty from HHSS and the Department of English—faculty members whose diverse areas of expertise range from Polish-American neighborhoods to Appalachian literature, Puerto Rican music, and globalization in the Middle East.

“Our program is about breadth and depth, rather than focus and training in one specific field,” says Dr. Carmelo Esterrich, Associate Professor of Spanish, Humanities, and Cultural Studies, and Coordinator of the Cultural Studies program for the Fall 2011 semester. “With its interdisciplinarity, our program creates a foundation for students to enter a myriad of professional settings.”

In addition to offering a major, a minor, internship opportunities, and a yearlong Senior Capstone project, the Cultural Studies program publishes an academic journal (Cultural Landscapes), participates in a student exchange program with the University of East London, and, this past spring, hosted the 9th Annual (and international) Cultural Studies Association Conference.

The highlight of the program, however, is undoubtedly the alumni. They are a creative and dedicated bunch whose various experiences in the Cultural Studies program have distinctively informed their career paths as graduate students, teachers, social entrepreneurs, community activists, practicing artists, and workers in both creative industries and nonprofit sectors. Here are a few of their stories.

Erin Polley (BA ’08)
                                                                                         Photo: Tim Klein

Erin Polley (BA ’08)

Position: Program Director, Indiana Peacebuilding, American Friends Service Committee

At the Eyes Wide Open exhibition, it’s difficult not to be arrested by the sight of hundreds of pairs of empty military boots and shoes arranged into long rows, each pair commemorating a fallen U.S. soldier or a civilian killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Erin Polley, who graduated in 2008, first got involved with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the peace and social justice group that hosts the exhibition, to promote nonviolence as an alternative to war. What started as volunteer work in 2003, however, was expanded into a larger role when Polley was hired to coordinate the nationally touring exhibition and serve as the Program Director for the AFSC’s Indiana Peacebuilding Program—a position she proudly holds to this day.

In this same period, Polley entered the newly created Cultural Studies program at Columbia, becoming one of the first freshman to declare as a Cultural Studies major. Polley cites the enthusiasm of Dr. Esterrich as the initial spark that drew her into the program, although she quickly found herself surrounded by other faculty members who similarly broadened her perspectives and piqued her burgeoning interests in the relationships between culture and power.

In conjunction with her coursework for the minor in Black World Studies, Polley says that as a student, she “came to understand, at a much deeper level, the ways that racism, sexism, and classism function in our society.” She says these critical thinking skills were key to her engagement with social justice work, and moreover, she saw her efforts both inside and outside the classroom as “two things working in tandem.”

Now living in Indianapolis, Indiana, Polley spends the bulk of her time working with diverse communities to address issues that are at once personal, political, local, and international. Consequently, she consistently draws upon the valuable cultural and historical knowledge she cultivated while pursuing every possible opportunity as a student in Cultural Studies. That is to say, her transcript reads like a study abroad brochure: She went to the University of East London to help organize the Cultural Studies student exchange program as a student representative; she studied abroad in South Africa and Cuba; and she was sent by the program to Washington, D.C. to participate in the democratic process. Each of these endeavors taught Polley invaluable lessons about the world, in addition to the interpersonal and logistical skills she now regularly uses as a community advocate for peace and social justice.

Reflecting on her education, Polley says the Cultural Studies program gave her a set of powerful tools with which to “frame” issues and synthesize her unique experiences as both a student and in her current role as an activist. Cultural Studies “gives a context for art, work, and our worldviews,” she says.

Alex DiGiacinto (BA ’07)
                                                                      Photo courtesy of Alex DiGiacinto

Alex DiGiacinto (BA ’07)

Position: Improvisational/Sketch Comic and Actor The Second City National Touring Company

Alex DiGiacinto is a funny guy. But unlike a wisecracking friend or some run-of-the-mill office jokester, he actually does comedy for living. After years of simultaneously working as a Development Officer at Planned Parenthood of Illinois and making his way around Chicago’s thriving improv comedy scene, DiGiacinto is now affiliated with one of the premiere comedy institutions in North America: The Second City. He is currently an understudy with the Second City National Touring Company, which is a role that sees him substituting for company members in performances in Chicago and on the road.

Though DiGiacinto says comedy is something that he always wanted to do, it wasn’t always something he was actively pursuing. “It is an absolute blast to make people laugh,” he says. “The spirit of play and experimentation in improvisation, and sketch specifically, is a unique trait. As far as wanting to be on stage professionally, that was a very gradual process.” While working on his comedic chops in his new home of Chicago, DiGiacinto started attending Columbia because he thought it seemed to be a place where one could work independently and for the right reasons. “I like feeling invested [in school] because I actually am, not because I’m being forced,” he says.

His desire for a liberal arts degree and his love of reading and writing led him to the Cultural Studies program, which he found to be a natural fit. “It was very much a happy accident,” he says. Apparently so, because in 2007 he wrote his Senior Capstone Thesis on the spatial and philosophical aspects of cyberspace, and then went on to present his work at the 3rd Global Conference on Visions of Humanity in Cyberculture, Cyberspace, and Science Fiction at Mansfield College in Oxford, England.

Despite the seeming lack of intersection between his academic work and his career in sketch/improv comedy, DiGiacinto draws an explicit bridge between the two. “As a cultural studies student, you find yourself absorbing a lot of information, reading a lot, listening a lot, and eventually drawing the best conclusions you can,” he says. “A big part of comedy is observation, the processing of information and the ability to draw your own conclusion while also peppering in your own point of view or unique voice… especially when writing a sketch.” He adds, “I think scholars in general make for great improvisers and sketch writers—by far the smartest people I’ve met in my life I’ve met doing comedy in Chicago. They seem to go hand in hand.”

Katie Cooper (BA ’09)
                                                                         Photo: Andrew Nelles (BA '08)

Katie Cooper (BA ’09)

Position: ESL Teacher/Organic Farmer

While food has always interested Katie Cooper as a cultural and political issue, it is probably more accurate to describe it as a passion. Just prior to attending Columbia, Cooper spent a semester studying in Costa Rica, where she first “witnessed how people survived off their land and how corporate agricultural policies, whether local or foreign, could drastically affect a family’s livelihood.”

Intrigued by the do-it-yourself aspects of subsistence farming, Cooper immediately began work on a small organic farm upon returning to her hometown of Lowell, Indiana. Over the next few years she pursued a degree in Cultural Studies, in part, because she felt that the program “opened doors for creatively applying theory to practice.”

In fact, her intersecting interests in Chicago’s Latino community and the politics of food production led her to an internship at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, where she helped to facilitate a community gardening project. These connections were further articulated in her Cultural Studies Senior Capstone project, which used her internship as a case study for how communities can both empower themselves and fight to eradicate the phenomenon of “food deserts” (urban areas with no stores selling fresh food, fruits, or vegetables).

While Cooper’s summers are still dedicated to a small organic farm in Lowell, her primary focus these days is her role as an English as a Second Language (ESL) tutor for the Chicago Public Schools’ Refugee Education Program. She initially applied for the job thinking it would simply be a great learning opportunity, but she is now entering her third year and loves her students. Cooper works primarily with Spanish and French speakers and describes the Chicago Public Schools’ Refugee Education as a “mobile bilingual program for five schools [that] either do not have enough students or enough funding for a full-time bilingual program.” She sees the program as an invaluable resource that helps prevent students from slipping through the proverbial cracks of an educational system saddled by budget cuts and ever-increasing class sizes.

“It has been awesome to see dramatic changes in children’s behavior just a few weeks into ESL sessions,” Cooper says. “They gain social confidence and motivation to actually try in class. Learning a language can be so difficult, especially for children who are dealing with so many environmental, cultural, and family changes that are far from their control. A little assistance goes a long way.”

Cooper feels a profound sense of social responsibility with her work as an ESL teacher, which requires her to be attentive to individual students and to understand their unique struggles as they adjust to the new world in which they now live.

“My background in Cultural Studies demands that I critically examine the need for my position in the schools, and that I also look at the structural issues that cause people to immigrate to Chicago from other parts of the world,” she says. “In addition, I am constantly formulating ideas to expand the ESL program. By making these various connections to my students, I strive to really make a difference for them and their families. I aspire to help them participate in their communities and help others.”

Dr. Zack Furness is Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies in the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences at Columbia College Chicago. He holds the PhD in Communication from the University of Pittsburgh, and his primary interests in Cultural Studies lay in the intersections of communication, geography, technology, mobility, and radical politics. He has written for numerous academic and non-academic publications. He is also the author of One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility (Temple University Press, 2010).