Fall 2012 / Spring 2013

Photo: Andrew Nelles (BA '08)
Photo: Andrew Nelles (BA '08)
“Anybody who can turn garbage into scholarship needs to be at Columbia College. It’s really amazing that he hasn’t found his way to Columbia already.” -Len Strazewski, Interim Associate Provost and Associate Professor of Journalism at Columbia

King of the Heap

Meet Steven Corey—a social historian, seasoned administrator, professor of Urban Studies, and the new Chair of the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences.

Steven Corey has built his career on trash—and proudly so.

In fact, Corey’s dissertation was titled “King Garbage: A History of Solid Waste Management in New York City, 1881-1970.” But to call him the Duke of Debris or the Rex of Refuse would be incomplete: Corey holds the doctorate in American History; he is a social historian who studies environmental, cultural, and public policy issues in urban settings; and he is a chronicler of environmental pollution. A respected champion of inquiry-based learning, Dr. Corey emphasizes in person observation and fieldwork within the urban landscape. Most important, he is Columbia College Chicago’s incoming Chair of the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences.

For Dr. Corey, it is a little bit like coming home—even though he has never lived in Chicago. “I’m going to the homeland for the field. For Urban Studies, it’s sort of the epicenter,” says Dr. Corey in an interview from his now former office at Worcester State University in Massachusetts, where he was Professor and Chair of the Department of Urban Studies. “Chicago is America’s most studied city in many respects.”

Urban Studies, Dr. Corey says, is “a very broad lens of studying American civilization and world civilization.” Essentially, Urban Studies allows scholars to bring varied disciplines to an examination of modern city life. “So, for me, it’s the study of how we live … and how we shape our physical environment,” he says. “But it’s also about social structures, economic structures, and political structures.”

And, of course, it is about waste disposal structures. His forth-coming book, tentatively titled Islands of Garbage, is about ocean dumping.

“One of the problems with teaching environmental policy is that sometimes it’s really depressing. And so, I teach the ‘Oh, we’re [doomed] class,’” he laughs. “But I try to tell my students, ‘No, things can be good when I talk about sustainability.’”

Len Strazewski, Interim Associate Provost and Associate Professor of Journalism at Columbia, goes one step further. “Anybody who can turn garbage into scholarship needs to be at Columbia College,” he jokes. “He’s an accomplished historian, but he really has an understanding of culture. It’s really amazing that he hasn’t found his way to Columbia already.”

“Steve Corey has a type of leadership approach and an enthusiasm for teaching that makes him a perfect fit for our students, the department, the School of LAS, and Columbia as a whole,” says Dr. Deborah Holdstein, Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “He brings a lot of energy and a lot of credibility to the job he’ll be taking on.”

The precise nature of the job (including the classes he will teach) is still in a formative stage, but Dr. Corey already has some ideas, including examining the Windy City’s elevated train system. In Chicago last spring, he was searching for apartments with fiancée Alexandra Filindra, a newly hired Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of Illinois at Chicago. (Side note: Dr. Corey says that while garbage scholarship isn’t all that sexy, “it was a sign of true love when one of the very first things she did was to order a copy of my dissertation and read it.”)

On the way into town from an apartment they chose in Oak Park, Dr. Corey contemplated the longevity of Chicago’s “L.” “They didn’t tear it down after World War II, which a lot of cities did,” he says. “I’m curious about why Chicago still is a rail hub, in terms of freight and transit. I’m interested in the urban transportation network—having students do a comparative study about why the train network works the way that it does.” So, future students of his might be whipping out their CTA passes along with their notebooks.

Chicago promises to be a city of discovery for both Dr. Corey and his students. “I’ve been a tourist every time I’ve gone to Chicago, and I actually really enjoy that role,” he says. But now, he wants to be tourist in the neighborhoods. “I’m really looking forward to seeing the neighborhoods and seeing how people live outside of the Loop. And I think in cities, you can tell the success of urban areas by the neighborhoods.”

While at Worcester State University, Dr. Corey was awarded the 2012 George I. Alden Excellence in Teaching Award for his innovation and approach to active learning—a boots-on-the-ground approach that meshes perfectly with Columbia’s own educational ethos. He also made a name for himself by taking his classes to examine “brownfields”—property designated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as difficult to redevelop because of “the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” It is a field of study he would like to bring to Chicago, necessitating not only a CTA pass for his students, but also, possibly, boots and gloves.

And that’s not all. “I want to take some of the old studies that were done over the last century about Chicago, have students read them, and then go to those places and see what they look like today,” Dr. Corey says. “And that’s just going to be a starting point.”

Teaching students how to research and how to think about urban issues is paramount to Dr. Corey’s pedagogical practices: Discovery spurs further curiosity, further study, and creates a more engaged, excited class. “It’s always exciting when that happens, and it almost always happens,” he says.