Conservation, Culture, and Carp: Alison Anastasio on Learning in the Calumet

by Hannah Wilson-Black

Alison Anastasio’s long history as an ecologist has led her to the unique Calumet region, so it’s no wonder she’s excited to show the area’s landscapes to her students. Anastasio’s Urban Ecology course for the Calumet Quarter combines her conservation expertise and love of field trips. In this interview, she describes the value of the Calumet program’s experiential learning structure and the region’s “otherworldly” landscapes, from the Indiana Dunes to burned-over marshes. 

Hannah Wilson-Black: Please briefly introduce yourself. What drew you to the Calumet Quarter?

Alison Anastasio: I’m Alison Anastasio! I’m an assistant instructional professor in Environmental and Urban Studies and I’m trained as an ecologist. I became interested in the Calumet Quarter because a lot of my own intellectual and research interests moved towards urban ecology. I knew that the Calumet Quarter existed because a colleague of mine had taught in it, so I applied. I brought with me a lot of knowledge and experience with particular ecological systems in the area, and also lots of people who work with those ecological systems. I was very excited to use my connections with folks working on conservation and restoration issues in the Calumet to create my field trips!

HW: What sort of student would thrive in the Calumet program?

AA: Someone who is interested in the value of place-based experiences and research. We ask a lot of questions in my class: what is important and special about this place? What can that help us understand about urban planning, environmental justice, and ecology? Also, someone who is interested in this particular region—its combination of industrial, cultural, community, and ecological histories that are all intersecting. A student who is curious, ready to learn, and loves to go on field trips.   

HW: What do you think students gain from doing field work alongside class discussions and readings that they wouldn’t gain from doing either alone? 

AA: I think this combination is mutually reinforcing. You have an academic basis and an intellectual rigor—which is something we’re really familiar with at the University of Chicago—but also a connection to how that is actually working in the lives and communities of this particular area. Doing research and fieldwork alongside coursework means there is a firm foundation in the academic discipline and also a connection to how that manifests in the real world. You could do field research in the Calumet during the summer, but that wouldn’t necessarily have academic context. You could learn about the Calumet just by reading a bunch of books, but then you don’t get the lived experience of people and of non-humans in the area as well.

HW: Can you share a particularly hilarious experience you’ve had with students in the field during a past Calumet quarter?

AA: I have a lot of these, actually. So there’s a photograph of my student Hill Bonin holding a huge fish, and maybe it needs a little bit of context. That was during a really exceptional visit to Big Marsh Park. I had driven past the park many times and there was phragmites—the scourge of the Calumet—growing on it, so you couldn’t see anything. This trip to Big Marsh took place a week after there had been a controlled burn to get rid of it. It was a very otherworldly experience. I hadn’t ever seen what was beneath the phragmites. We realized that no one had seen back there in a really long time and so we were tromping all over, checking it out. 

Hill Bonin holding a fish

We went to Trash Island and Volleyball Beach, and since this used to be a site with extensive human dumping, there were all kinds of great treasures there. We saw a little stream that connected two bodies of water and the water was low at the time, so we could see carp trying to swim along it. And this student, an avid fisherman, said, “I can see their fins—they’re so close to the surface. I bet I can grab one.” And the rest of the class said, “We bet you can’t.” So he reached down and grabbed a carp! So that was a hands-on experience, if you will. It was one of the crowning achievements of that quarter. 

Another time, we went to the Indiana Dunes, where there’s a particular type of habitat—a panne—that’s fed underneath by the lake. It has a particular collection of plants and animals—it’s very special. On previous trips I had been able to walk to the panne, but this time, when I had 15 students with me, it was roped off. I thought, “Well, I’m a biologist, I’m from the University of Chicago, I know where I’m going. Let’s just go.” So we went underneath the little rope and went out to the panne. 

It was beautiful! It was very reminiscent of Henry Chandler Cowles and his field trips. We were sitting out on the sand and thinking about this gorgeous ecosystem. And then, as we collected ourselves and started walking back, I thought, “You know what, we really weren’t supposed to be here, so let’s pick up trash on our way back.” You can always diffuse challenging situations in parks if you’re picking up trash. So we started grabbing any trash we saw as we walked along.

Then we see, coming towards us, two park rangers with bullet-proof vests and guns. I turn to the students and say, “I’ll handle this.” Inside, I am very scared. But outside I’m like, “Hello, officers! It’s so nice to see you. I’m here with my class because we wanted to see the pannes—I assume you know about the importance of pannes in this ecological community. Now we’re on our way out, and we collected trash.” In fact, it did diffuse the situation, and they kind of rolled their eyes and said, “Well, you’re really not supposed to be back here.” And I said, “I understand, but I’ve been here many times before and I just wanted to make sure my class was able to have this experience.” And they were like, “Oookay.” So they accompanied us back to the parking lot. The students were really nervous. I could tell they were thinking, “What is going to happen? What is Alison going to do? Are we going to get in trouble? How are we going to get back home? Are we going to get arrested by park rangers?” That was another good one. 

The Calumet Quarter runs in Spring Quarter 2022 and is open to all University of Chicago undergraduates. Learn more.