Relatable Themes Help Hone Essential Writing Skills

This fall, LAS freshmen enrolled in “Humanities 101: Understanding the Individual and Society” or “Humanities 102: Understanding the Past” developed their analytical skills, gained new levels of research proficiency, and honed their writing abilities. These humanities courses are just two examples of a buffet of freshmen-only course options designed to develop these skills and also create a space where first-year students can build community with peers and professors. Other freshmen-only courses offered through the College include Success in the City, Global Learning Community Seminar, LAS Major and Career Exploration, and First-Year Research Seminar.

Solheim and McManus confer

Jennifer Solheim (left) and Elizabeth McManus.

Students taking Humanities 101 and 102 receive credit for English Composition and during fall term, their critical competencies were advanced under the guidance ofElizabeth McManus and Jennifer Solheim, both of whom are visiting assistant professors in the Department of French and Francophone Studies. McManus and Solheim developed their freshmen-only courses with an eye toward engaging the students through topics in which they are already interested.

Imaginary Prison b Piranesi

The Prisons, plate VII, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi; from his imaginary prison images (1745-1750) depicting the transcendent or sublime.

Students in McManus’s Humanities 102 course, “What We Love to Fear,” read and analyzed medieval poetry, 18th-century art, 19th-century literature, philosophical works by Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, and psychological treatises by Sigmund Freud and Ernst Jentsch. They also used alternative texts including 19th-century pseudo-science and contemporary movies to explore the tropes and traditions of vampires, werewolves, haunted houses, robots, and “things that go bump in the night.”

“I want to help students understand that what they are interested in today has very deep historical and cultural roots,” said McManus. “The other value in studying vampires, werewolves, the sublime, and the uncanny is to teach the students to think more philosophically about those interests. For each topic, we have a set of essential questions that are inspired by the texts we’ve read and that pose broader questions about the world in which we live. For example, one of the questions about the werewolf archetype is: ‘How does it serve humans to differentiate themselves from the beast?’ Other questions would be: ‘Who is an outsider?’ and ‘What is the place of an outsider?’

Lon Chaney as The Wolfman

Lon Chaney as “The Wolfman” (1941).

“These inquiries have great resonance with many of today’s most pressing social and political issues, as well as helping us understand why these archetypes that have been around for so long continue to be so compelling,” she said. “Moreover, developing a curriculum around subjects in which many students are already interested helps us to more deeply engage the students and create a more student-centered classroom.

“While I want my course to be fun and I am very conscious of keeping the students engaged by switching activities frequently—from reading to discussion, to viewing slides, or doing a group writing assignment—I make it very clear that they are held to high standards.”

“I am also very honest in my feedback on their writing I really care about them improving their writing. It is absolutely essential for success in school and in life. Writing did not come easy to me, I had to work very, very hard at it.

Elizabeth McManus

Elizabeth McManus.

“Being able to make the process of writing clear and demystified—something that’s not all touchy-feely the way a lot of students think it is—is crucial. Writing is not about ‘being born with it’ or not,” explained McManus. “There is a craft of writing—rules, and stages, and steps, and when you follow them you can become a better writer. If you work on it and have guidance you can become a good writer. Because these classes are intentionally small we are able to work closely with the students and build relationships. And the students have an opportunity to really get to know each other and build community.”

Red line platform

CTA elevated stop along the Red Line.

Jennifer Solheim (2000, English) teaches Humanities 101, “The Red Line Project.” Students read a variety of contemporary and classic works by scholars including philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Ernest Renan, Chicago historian Dominic Pacyga, sports writer Ron Rappaport, cultural critic and novelist Aleksandar Hemon, journalist and arts critic Rosalind Cummings-Yeates, and cultural analyst Benedict Anderson.

Students consider these works in the context of geographic and cultural communities along the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line train line, which runs from Howard Street on the north end to 95th Street at the southern terminus. They research and write about topics such as immigration history, sports culture, LGBT activism, Chicago architecture, the great migration and the Chicago roots of jazz and blues, gang violence, and the importance of the humanities in the daily lives of Chicagoans.

“I view our approaches as rigorous engagement,” said Solheim. “We make it relatable, but students continue to learn both content and important skills such as close reading and means of analysis through a range of disciplines.

“When I was thinking about what to propose, I considered all the things UIC has to offer including being part of the cityscape and our cultural diversity,” Solheim continued. “The idea was to bring together the narrative of following an “L” line, seeing how neighborhoods are connected, how communities operate together and separately, and how we identify ourselves within this space. I also wanted to help the students realize that they matter here—their voice matters, their experience matters.

Wrigley Field

Home of the Chicago Cubs at Southport and Addison.

“’The Red Line’ course work includes site visits and  as far as I’m concerned that experience is part of our text. I was trained in performance studies, so the idea of experience being empirical evidence, and of writing from one’s own experience, has value here.”

Jennifer Solheim

Jennifer Solheim.

“UIC is a public, Research I institution, situated in a world-class city, with all the opportunities and resources that brings,” said Solheim. “However, for freshmen that can be a bit overwhelming. The First-Year Experience initiative, of which these classes are a part, is a wonderful idea because it provides us with the opportunity to give our students the kind of support that you might get at a small liberal arts school or private university. This support is so important; as a UIC alumna, this is a mission for me. I want to move the First-Year Experience initiative forward and help it grow.”

Photos of McManus and Solheim by Joshua Clark.

Recommended reading and viewing

McManus suggests:
The Horla, by Guy de Maupassant
The Sandman, by E.T.A. Hoffmann
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
The Others, a film by Alejandro Amenábar (inspired by the James novella)

Solheim suggests:
The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon
“No Man’s Land” in Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, by Eula Biss
The Interrupters, a film by Alex Kotlowitz and Steve James