by Mark Pohlad
I like to say that Discover Chicago is where barriers are broken down — between the university and the community, between staff and faculty, and, most meaningfully, between instructors and their students.
Students are more successful at DePaul when they’re engaged beyond the boundaries of the campus. In fact, DePaul has always had a special relationship to the city — we are Chicago’s university, after all! — and that has always been one of the big attractions of DePaul for our students.
In the Discover Chicago program, we’re not just taking the students on field trips, not even on intellectually rich field trips. We’re also teaching them how to observe and understand the environment that surrounds them. In every class, within each department, the site visits in the program require inductive reasoning and careful note-taking; students learn to work in groups and articulate what they've experienced, while the material covered provides both context and data for the classes’ final papers and/or projects.
In this way, Chicago itself functions both as an object of investigation and as a laboratory for learning. Many of our students come to DePaul to be immersed in "real life" — Discover Chicago gives them a guided way to experience the urban landscape in all its rich complexity. At the same time, they’re introduced to a values-based education that is closely linked to DePaul's mission.
In fact, I’m convinced that Discover Chicago is a model of making an urban education relevant. We’re definitely not an ivory tower; what our students read about in class they experience in reality. This is particular true during Student Service Day, when Discover and Explore Chicago students go into the community for a day of giving back. If students are studying homelessness, for instance, they might work in a shelter. They’ll learn what homeless really means, they’ll see what it looks like, and meet community experts who describe their experiences. This is the very spirit of the program.
What’s true for students is also true for faculty: we’re better teachers when we’re engaged beyond the boundaries of the classroom.
My area of expertise is the history of photography, particularly images of architecture. Being in Chicago — so rich in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, and others — has allowed me to see architectural masterpieces first-hand. This close-up view enables me to gauge how photographs of the buildings function as art. I’ve also came to learn about preservation heroes, like Richard Nickel who died while trying to photograph Sullivan's Stock Exchange building. Since I started teaching Discover Chicago, I've written several articles on architectural photography which would never have been possible without experiencing the structures themselves.
These days, just about all my research topics — including Abraham Lincoln and American Art — begin with Chicago, whether as an idea or as an actual place.
Discover Chicago can also provide a teacher with a number of rich professional connections within his or her own field. By participating in the program I’ve made contacts with other scholars, publishers, cultural institutions, and grant-awarding organizations.
But just as important, in the Discover Chicago program faculty gain a unique opportunity to work closely with a staff member and a student mentor in a dynamic “teaching team” approach. In doing that, I’ve gained a lot of perspective, and
I now understand both these other worlds — the staff world and the student world — much better. I also appreciate the value of the work being done by Student Affairs, particularly Student Life, University Ministry, and Residential Education.
Simply put: as a result of teaching Discover Chicago I’m tied to the university in a much more meaningful way. This, in turn, makes me a better instructor. And, in the end, it’s all about the students, isn’t it? I once heard a colleague say: “This program helps us love our students more, and to teach them effectively, you truly have to love them.”