UChicago class takes students on Chicago River

Creative writing course features kayak trip for inspiration outside classroom

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a new series called UChicago Class Visits, spotlighting transformative classroom experiences and unique learning opportunities offered at UChicago.

The October air was crisp and the leaves just starting to yellow, a perfect day for a class kayaking trip. The water looked inviting on Bubbly Creek, though that hadn’t always been true.

In Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle,” the author describes the southern branch of the Chicago River as “a great open sewer” where “the filth stays there forever and a day.” Today the former dumping grounds of the city’s stockyards are much cleaner, though the waterway’s ability to inspire creativity would remain unchanged—this time a muse for UChicago students.

In “Intro to Genres: The River’s Running Course,” students explored fiction, nonfiction, poetry and even musicals all guided by the theme of the river. For their final project, they were tasked with writing a creative piece inspired by the Chicago River in the genre of their choice.

For Asst. Prof. of Practice, Stephanie Soileau, it was important that students not simply read about the river, but also experience it firsthand.

“Sometimes students of creative writing need to be reminded a little bit to stay in their bodies and smell and look—just be in the world and honor their point of view,” said Soileau, who led students on excursions to the riverfront, including the kayak trip down Bubbly Creek.

“This was a great way to get experiential research and be able to engage all your senses,” said Riley Hamilton, a fourth-year biology and cinema and media studies major who joined the paddling group. “It definitely helps get your creative juices flowing.”

There be bubbles

Though kingfisher birds swooping alongside the kayakers made the creek feel like a natural oasis, a lingering foul odor exposes its industrial past. Bubbly Creek branches off from the southern arm of the Chicago River at Archer Avenue and winds down to bisect the Bridgeport and McKinley Park neighborhoods.

Over 100 years ago, Chicago’s famous meatpacking houses lined its banks, often using the river as a dumping ground for all manner of waste.

“The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name,” Sinclair wrote. “It is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths.”

As students paddled along the creek, they speculated about parts of Sinclair’s passage or where historical photographs of people and animals walking across the polluted creek may have been taken.

They were also quick to point out bubbles, though today those may be from mussels or other wildlife rather than decomposing meat by-product.

“It was nice to read all the secondary and primary sources in class and actually see where the text was talking about,” said Winter Bell, a third-year biology and economics major.

The creative writing course is cross-listed with Chicago Studies, which aims to build connections between the College and city. A Chicago Studies microgrant helped fund the kayak trip as well as another field trip to the Wild Mile—an urban renewal project around Goose Island to restore river habitat and create public green space.

“I’m a senior, so I’ve lived here for four years, and have yet to take a Chicago Studies class until this one,” said Hamilton. “I’ve really appreciated learning about the history of the city and the river.

Charting a new course

As indicated by its name, Soileau’s course is meant to introduce students to different genres of creative writing, including how and why authors use them. It’s also part of the Arts Core, courses designed for students of all interests and experience levels to engage with the arts as part of their College curriculum.

Soileau invited several guest speakers to talk about their own genres, including Kerri Arsenault, author of “Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains.” In her investigation, Arsenault tracks the boom and bust cycle of the paper mill in her Maine hometown and its lingering effects on the people and environment.

Andrew White visited the class to discuss his musical “Eastland” based on the tragic 1915 sinking of the S.S. Eastland. While docked in the Chicago River, the boat rolled over on its side, killing 844 passengers and members of the crew, most of them employees of Western Electric. The founding ensemble member of Chicago’s famed Lookingglass Theatre spoke about how the unique form of the musical sparked novel connections and ideas.

Soileau is also no stranger to using rivers in her own fiction.

“In my own writing, I've been interested in the ever-changing hydrology of the Louisiana coast and the massive coastal erosion,” Soileau said. “It loses a football-field-sized swath of land every hour—we’ve already lost the size of Delaware.”

In addition to reading each genre, students were tasked with crafting their own creative work—concluding with a final piece inspired by the Chicago River.

“I want it to be something that grows their confidence as writers and generates material and enthusiasm for later forays into writing,” Soileau said.

After a successful trip up and down Bubble Creek, turtle spotting and bubble hunting, the students felt more prepared to delve into writing.

“I got really inspired for my final project,” said Serrano, who plans to write a piece from the perspective of the river. “[The trip] put scenes in my head based on what I was seeing; I have a grasp of what I want to write about now.”