The Curious Space Between Death and Desire

Students in Robin Whatley and Ames Hawkins' Death and Desire course explore the MoCP's 'Disruptive Perspectives' exhibition. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08
Evolution, cultural studies, and Chicago history provoke curiosity in the "Big Chicago" course taught by Robin Whatley and Ames Hawkins.

After reading the nonfiction bestseller Devil in the White City, Associate Professors Robin Whatley and Ames Hawkins bring their “Big Chicago” Death and Desire first-year students to a site of curiosity central to Chicago: the Field Museum. The museum offers more than taxidermy and fossils (although it has those in spades). While the scholars use different approaches to ask questions and unpack the world around them, the museum serves as a location where death and desire coexist, and a place where their areas of expertise commingle.

Whatley, a paleontologist, brings her literal, scientific understanding of evolution, life, and death to the classroom, while Hawkins employs her expertise as a cultural rhetorician to help students expand their understanding of desire, the erotic, and Queer theory.

“At the Field Museum we talk about the cases the animals are in, how they were moved from the world’s fair,” says Whatley. The museum is explored as an enduring product of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, with collections that live on well after the fair's end. “We look at totemic statues–and the artwork that was made specifically for the fair–all as part of a legacy.”

The examination of legacy is an examination of death and desire: our want to live beyond our deaths through what we leave behind. This takes students to a surprising next stop on their journey, Graceland Cemetary in Uptown.

Graceland Cemetary is where Daniel Burnham, Chicago city planner and one of the architects behind the Columbian Exposition, is buried. “The monuments are built to portray what their legacy should be,” says Whatley. “[It’s] what they want you to think about when you see their monuments.” Both teachers hope unexpected experiences like this produce more questions than answers in their students’ learning. “We’re trying to give them methods to inquire, to ignite their own curiosity,” says Hawkins, “and to find out where that starts.”

“Teaching with Robin, I’m pressed to think differently,” says Hawkins. The work they do together is something Hawkins calls “radical” collaboration. “[Scientists] try to be objective,” says Whatley. “But to recognize our take on desire is a different way of thinking about things. It’s pushed me to think about desire in the context of other living beings, not just humans.”

This semester we're covering Columbia’s “Big Chicago” courses – classes designed to connect students with the city of Chicago led by top scholars and practitioners in their fields.