Finding Comfort in Discomfort

A random walk through a city like Chicago can evoke a panoply of sensory experiences:

Mist halos a streetlamp as it flickers to life at dusk. The whooshing of nearby cars mingles with the scrape of pant legs as they cross and re-cross down a neighborhood street. A figure emerges from a building a few doors down, fumbles with the lock on the front door. As they pass on the sidewalk—a brief smile, an acknowledgment, a feeling that slips between; a notebook emerges as their footsteps grow faint…

In the fall of 2018, Dr. Averill Curdy, associate professor of instruction and director of the English Major in Writing at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, offered a freshman seminar titled “Pickpockets, Poets, and Other Sad Marvels of City Life” as she has three times before. But unlike those previous iterations, this version of the class integrated new approaches gleaned from Prof. Curdy’s recent experience as a participant in the Digital Humanities Summer Faculty Workshop, offered annually by the Kaplan Institute, the Weinberg Media and Design Studio, and University Libraries.  

After some initial readings, students in the seminar are sent out to explore Chicago and develop an idea that engages in some way the notion of walking in solitude and urban life. As they explore – what Prof. Curdy coins “productively lost” – the students collect materials related to their topic. These materials are then digitally curated for a final project that tells their story, either as part of an original creative work or as the underpinnings for a future research project. 

“One of the reasons for the first year seminar is to prepare students for an independent intellectual life,” said Dr. Curdy. “The city landscape offers so many creative opportunities to see how people represent themselves—who is the self that you put on to be out in public and who are the selves that you observe—those kinds of things are really interesting and useful for first year college students.”

One of the students in Prof. Curdy’s seminar, Abeje Schnake, praised the seminar’s experiential approach.

“I feel like every English class is going to talk about symbolism and metaphor, but Professor Curdy wanted us to think about and interpret things in a way that you wouldn't initially expect,” she said. “The creative aspect is what drew me to it.”

The above video, produced by the Media and Design Studio and named for the class, provides an unvarnished glimpse into real learning, and how fraught that process can be when pushing students outside of their comfort zone. However, through that discomfort, the students allowed themselves to find unexpected connections to others—a valuable takeaway to jumpstart their academic experience at Northwestern.