Be Here Now

First-year students map their Chicago experience in associate professor Sam Weller’s City of Stories class.

On December 2, Sam Weller, three students (Jade Moreno, Carlos Douglas Jr. and Bella Crum) and graduate teaching assistant RS Deeren were interviewed on WGN radio about their First Semester Experience class.

If you tweet at Sam Weller at two in the morning, he’ll probably respond. Weller, an associate professor in the Creative Writing Department, is trying to foster a “communication pipeline” between himself and the 162 first-year students in his City of Stories class—one of twelve First Semester Experience “Big Chicago” courses. “This class is about doing things a bit differently by using the language and technology of Millennials to embolden the learning experience,” says Weller.

Using social media as an engagement strategy is strongly encouraged in all Big Chicago courses, according to Senior Associate Provost Suzanne Blum Malley, who helped lead the planning of the courses. Doing so “activates student learning beyond the walls of the lecture halls.” Students connecting with one another through the classroom is crucial, especially in the first semester. “With such large classes as these, it’s important for students to feel connected right off the bat,” she says.

Blum Malley notes that when designing these courses, faculty are encouraged to envision the city not just as a backdrop to learning, but more as a “a site of inquiry.” She believes that there’s a potential for deep understanding that can only happen when one engages their community. “By going out of the classroom and into the city, students cannot avoid issues of diversity, equity and inclusion—these things make up the fabric of the Chicago.”

Field Notes
Four times during the semester, Weller required his City of Stories students to explore parts of Chicago that were unfamiliar to them. These “dispatches” became source material for the class-generated blog. Some wrote about the camaraderie at the Cubs’ rallies, visiting Columbia’s own Center for Black Music Research or protesting the election on Michigan Avenue. Student Henrikas Genutis used a drone equipped with a GoPro to capture aerial shots of Chicago in a video piece addressed to his ailing father. Student Lizette Capili wrote a song about leaving her strict Catholic suburban childhood for the city.

“Everyone has a different mindset and the exposure to these outlooks has helped me in seeing art in ways that I may not have ever thought of before,” says first-year student Jade Moreno, one of Weller’s students. Another City of Stories student Carlos Douglas Jr. says, “the class has taught me about how Columbia’s network is formed. Everyone comes to this school for a very different reason. Our peers teach us a lot about their fields of study.”

Off the Page
With the help of five graduate teaching assistants, Weller encourages the students from various majors to understand that storytelling is part of all creative pursuits, not just writing. “Storytelling is at the bedrock of everything we do at this college, from designing a game to putting together a fashion collection to writing music.”

The course reflects the diversity of interests in the class as well as the wide range of storytellers Chicago has to offer. The syllabus mixes familiar names like Studs Terkel and Gwendolyn Brooks with more unexpected offerings like John Hughes’ film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, blues musician Buddy Guy, Chance the Rapper and graphic artist Chris Ware.

Full Circle
Interim Associate Provost Neil Pagano reports that student evaluations showed that the courses were well received by students who came from outside Chicago as well as by those who have lived in the city their entire lives. A common comment from Chicago natives was that they re-discovered the city through a “brand new lens.” Moreover, “these courses highlight and showcase some of our very best faculty in the fields they are scholars in,” says Pagano. So, Weller was a natural fit to teach the class. His first book was Secret Chicago: The Unique Guidebook to Chicago’s Hidden Sites, Sounds and Tastes.

Teaching first-year students isn’t always easy, but being one isn’t either. Weller, who was once a Columbia first-year himself (BA ’90 and MFA ’01) can empathize with many of their struggles. But more importantly, he is energized by them. “They’re like creative sponges and sometimes more fearless than older students. They’re more closely connected to a sense of childlike creativity. As we get older and we get more serious about our craft, I think we lose some of that whimsy. What excites me is their level of curiosity and the quality of their work.” Weller is the last person who would call Millennials lazy or uninspired. “This is the most activist generation of students in my lifetime and it’s exciting how they are charting what it means to live in Chicago right now.”