Placing Illinois in History

by Clare Crowston (Professor and Chair, History) and Bob Morrissey (Associate Professor, History)


There seems to be no better time to mark the sesquicentennial of the University of Illinois than at this paradoxical moment when state support for the university has been radically thrown into question and enrollment hits a record high, in part through the university’s draw to international students. As good humanists, celebration and commemoration take the form of probing questions rather than balloons and high-fives (although we definitely like those, too). As we hail the 150th anniversary of the land grant institution of the state of Illinois, we thus ask: what is a public university? What was it good for in the past and what is it good for now? What vision of higher education did Abraham Lincoln inaugurate when he signed the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act in 1862? Why did the first president of the university, John M. Gregory, believe that an institution devoted to agricultural and industrial education must teach its students history, classics, philosophy, art and literature? How has the very notion of the “public”, one of the central values of the American republic, become so denigrated and devalued and how should universities and colleges respond?

The History Department is devoting the sesquicentennial year to debating these questions in dialogue with faculty, students, staff, alumni and the public of the state of Illinois. Bob Morrissey, associate professor of History and upcoming Mellon Faculty Fellow in the Environmental Humanities, will steward programming in his role as director of the department’s nascent “Center for Historical Interpretation”, (now in the tenth year of its informal existence as the intellectual heartbeat of History). We will kick off the year on September 21 with a happy hour event at the Illini Center in Chicago in honor of a collection of essays edited by Swanlund Professor emeritus Frederick Hoxie. Entitled, Engine of Innovation, the book’s 27 essays celebrate and critically examine the university’s unique legacy of sponsoring innovation across the sciences, arts, and humanities. This event – which reprises an earlier rendition on our own campus in April 2017 – will feature Morrissey and Hoxie alongside some of the book’s authors, who will present their findings on the achievements – and challenges – in transformational research in our campus history. You can read one take on the book at the Big Ten Network website.

The year will continue with a series of guest speakers presenting different aspects of the University, organized by the University Archives in cooperation with History. Visit the University of Illinois Archives website for the schedule of talks and events. We will also host a monthly seminar focused on “Teaching the History of the University of Illinois”, which will rotate meeting venues through the University Archives, the Spurlock Museum, the Prairie Research Institute, and Gregory Hall. The seminar will combine discussions with tours and presentations, all geared to help participants design classes and lessons around aspects of the university’s history. For more information and to sign up, contact Bob Morrissey at: rmorriss@illinois.edu.

To showcase the department’s vision of this pedagogy, in fall 2017 we debut a new 200-level course on the History of the University (developed by Dana Rabin with support from the Ethnography of the University Initiative). This will become a permanent element of our curriculum and allow students to use our exceptional archival and library resources to conduct independent historical research on myriad aspects of our campus. To help bring these lessons to elementary and secondary educators, a professional development workshop each semester for K-12 teachers will offer content coverage, teaching resources, and sample assignments to help area teachers incorporate these histories into their classrooms.

The History Department’s digital documentary publishing unit, SourceLab, led by John Randolph, will provide another venue for us to encourage both students and the larger public to explore Illinois’ role in the history of innovation. One problem the University faces is that many of the transformative contributions we have made—to scholarship, civic life, technology and commerce—are poorly understood, in part because no one has access to materials that document them. To have a living sense of history, people not only need to hear scholars talk about it: they need a window on the past they can look through themselves.  As part of “Placing Illinois in History”, students from SourceLab will work with local and visiting experts to create exciting digital editions of select sources documenting Illinois’ place in history. The result will be a new set of sources the public can read alongside the Engine of Innovation commemorative volume.

All things Illinois do not end at the end of the coming academic year. For 2018-2019, the CHI will shift its focus to the bicentennial of the state of Illinois, broadening our inquiry into the “public” of Illinois to address issues of memory, spatiality and history. On the 200th anniversary of Illinois, how do we understand our state’s past? It is an interesting intellectual problem given our status as a – if not the– quintessentially Midwestern state. While other regions have been the subject of important historical interpretations (the U.S. South carries “the burden of Southern History” while the U.S. West lives with its “Legacy of Conquest”) Midwestern history and memory have received less critical attention. Our program will aim to reexamine burdens and legacies in the past of Illinois, exploring the ways in which the popular image of the state’s and region’s past often obscures historical realities that shape our present. In critically examining history and memory in Illinois, we will reprise the activities of the founding generation of professional historians in Illinois, people like Clarence Alvord, UIUC professor, founder of the Journal of American History, and organizer of the Centennial History of Illinois, which brought Illinois history to light on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary.

We greatly appreciate the generous support of the President’s Office, the Vice-Chancellor for Corporate Relations and Economic Development, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Center for Advanced Study, which has made these two years of exciting programming possible. We urge you all to join us in Placing Illinois in History at our events in the coming years.

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About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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