March 9, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 13

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    The learning channel

    Students build skills, create valuable resource with research on Illinois & Michigan Canal Once a year in the fall, Michael Conzen, Professor and Chairman of the Committee on Geographical Studies, leads a class of College and graduate students on a field trip along the Illinois & Michigan Canal Corridor, an area stretching 120 miles west from Chicago to LaSalle-Peru, Ill. Conzen takes his students there to describe such geographic concepts as place, space and environment, using the landscape and towns as illustrations of the role geography has played in the history of American civilization.

    Back in Chicago, Conzen runs an auction of research topics he has identified as providing the students with an opportunity to "make an argument supported by evidence they've personally collected," he said. "I know beforehand they will have to look directly at the records people and society have made: the newspapers, the court records, the buildings. And I know that at this level students can learn real research skills."

    While they're building their research skills, Conzen's students are also providing a valuable service with their studies of the I & M Canal Corridor, a region with a 150-year-old history virtually uninterpreted until 20 years ago. The students' work often results in the first geographical surveys of a particular I & M town or historical development, providing local historians with new "authoritative source material," Conzen said.

    With this value in mind, Conzen has been publishing his students' research for the past seven years in "Studies on the Illinois and Michigan Canal Corridor," a series of volumes of collected essays. In January, Conzen released Looking for Lemont: Place & People in an Illinois Canal Town, a 21-chapter volume written by students in his autumn 1993 Roots of the Modern American City course.

    The publishing program began when Conzen began to see a demand for the work his students had done. "The students wrote papers and they ended up in my file cabinet," he recalled. "Librarians who had been consulted by the students for local material to do those papers would often beg for copies. So, in this era of desktop publishing, I decided that once a year, in either the Roots of the Modern American City course or my Historical Geography of the United States course, I'd make it an objective to produce a cleaned-up, presentable, collected, single-volume set of these papers, and then the librarians could have their copies."

    Today the publications are more than just cleaned-up, single-volume sets. They are edited to full professional standards, copyrighted and registered in the Library of Congress. Conzen says they are turning up as citations in scholarly footnotes and in support of nominations of buildings and sites to the National Register of Historic Places. The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation recently provided a grant for the publication of the latest installment, Historical Geography and the Life of the Mind in the Upper Illinois Valley.

    For Conzen and his students, the I & M Corridor has been a perfect backyard lab. "It's an area so close to us, it's practical to visit, " Conzen said. "We can easily drive there to explore archives, to meet people, to collect information, to look at the landscape. It's all within reach.

    "And this kind of outdoor, real-life connection is not a bad thing for our students to encounter," he continued. "In addition to all their Core courses, I think it's refreshing and balancing for students to have a course experience in which they are immediately applying some large new ideas to very tangible places and situations."

    When the course work is finished, the students have what is for many their first scholarly, professional publication.

    One reason the students' work has such significance is its contribution to the future of the I & M Corridor.

    "The realization by these towns that history can be an asset is contemporaneous with these volumes," Conzen said. "The rise in historical consciousness and cultural tourism in the area began in 1984 with the designation of the I & M Corridor as the nation's first National Heritage Corridor. Six areas have followed the I & M Corridor, and there are now more than 80 applications for historic designation pending. The trend started right here."

    Conzen said the I & M Corridor is a particularly rich area, with towns every four or five miles. "The canal corridor has communities with a history," Conzen said. "There's the canal and the old towns of 3,000 or 10,000 people. There are the places where Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke on Sunday afternoons. You have Joliet, you have Ottawa, you have LaSalle-Peru.

    "Thoreau, Mark Twain -- all these luminaries came through the I & M Canal Corridor on speaking tours. Ottawa is the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate. So there are historical resources -- buildings and records of past events and personalities -- that reflect much of the area's development experience and are thus of great use to geographers."

    This rich historical heritage has become a tourist commodity. "With factory jobs disappearing, many of the towns are slowly realizing that, while it's not a total solution, part of the future involves accommodating and catering to the tourist," Conzen said. "And they're using the built environment and the historical associations of the sites within the towns as a resource for that purpose. In the meantime, our students provide a good deal of useful historical research and connective tissue in expressing and interpreting this historical character."

    For the town of Lemont, historical heritage is a particularly relevant subject these days. "The big story in Lemont," Conzen said, "is that the town is being swallowed up by the housing developments spreading outward from Chicago. The fields around Lemont, up until the last two or three years, were green, and it was its own little town. But soon -- within the next five years -- the last open land will be gone.

    "This is a critical moment," Conzen continued. "Our book on Lemont catches the community at a time when the old guard is having to accept a whole new population of taxpayers, and of course that's changing the local politics. But unlike most suburbs, Lemont has been around for a century and a half. It has a past that has shaped its social, cultural and economic character. For Lemont that will be an asset in a metropolitan sense as the community retools for the 21st century."

    Conzen predicts that as more towns along the I & M Canal Corridor look toward the future, his students' research on the past will become even more significant. "I wouldn't be too surprised if down the road, in the next 10 to 15 years, these collections of ours were to show up more and more as source material for historical interpretation by park rangers and other local-history preservers," Conzen concluded. "Retrieving, analyzing and portraying the geographical nature of places to those who interpret historical heritage in their jobs is certainly one of the incidental benefits of our undertaking."

    -- Carmen Marti