Skip to main content

Visiting the University of Chicago

Topics/tags: Autobiographical, rambly

About a month and a half ago, I was at the University of Chicago [1] to watch Middle Son give a research talk and to cheer on the Pioneers in the NCAA Division III volleyball tournament. I spent a good chunk of my life at the UofC, from September 1982, when I started, to March 1993, when I headed off for a visiting position at Dartmouth with a Ph.D. nearly in hand.

Why did I go to a visiting position at Dartmouth in March? In part, because Dartmouth is on the quarter system and has a spring quarter. But it’s really because Dartmouth had a mid-year resignation and I had applied for a tenure-track position and had put on my CV that I planned to graduate in March [3]. I wasn’t quite correct; while I did defend my thesis before March, I still had some changes to make and a Dissertation Secretary to satisfy [4,6]. I did manage to graduate in June 1993, at what I think was Hanna Holburn Gray’s last graduation.

Where was I? Oh, that’s right. I was back in Chicago, about a month and a half ago. While visiting, I found myself amazed at the number of changes since I was a student, changes to both the institution and to the neighborhood.

Two of the biggest changes, in my mind, have to do with the logo and the nickname. The logo remains similar, a phoenix in a shield with the Chicago motto, Crescat scientia, vita excolatur, which I have always translated as Let knowledge grow so that life may be enhanced. But the logo I recall has a date of 1892 on it. Now the logo has a date of 1890. Has history changed? No. My understanding is that the old logo used the date that classes started and the new logo uses the date that the institution was founded.

What about the nickname? Well, back when I was a student, we called it The UofC. However, in choosing a name for our Ethernet and then Internet domain, a committee chose [7]. So now everyone calls it UChicago. I suppose there were also other nicknames.
We referred to it as The College, making sure to pronounce the capitals. But I suppose other schools do, too. For example, Grinnell regularly capitalizes College when it refers to itself in official documents.

The school is much larger [8]. When Michelle and I were students, there were fewer than 3,000 undergraduates [9,10]. I see that the number has more than doubled, to a bit over 6,000. That means that there are a bunch of new dorms, which I did not visit. The dorms Michelle and I lived in (Woodward and Pierce, respectively) are gone.

I’m a bit sad that I didn’t return for an extended visit a few years earlier. When I visited this fall, Computer Science had recently moved to Crerar Library; I recall Crerar being the new library [12]. But the move means that I can’t visit my old digs in Ryerson. At least I got some good stories about Ryerson from Stu Kurtz. One thing that makes me sad is that the department had a collection of beautifully illuminated punch-card decks and they seem to have completely disappeared. I wish that I had taken them when I was a student; at least they’d be somewhere they were appreciated [15,16]. I hope someone preserved them.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a giant new physical education complex. It was certainly a fun place to watch the Pioneers. I also enjoyed walking through the historical exhibit in the lobby.

The bookstore, where I spent too much of my time, was in the same place. However, like many modern campus bookstores, it seems to have transitioned from selling lots and lots of books to selling lots and lots of logo-wear. I miss browsing the shelves and the clearance bin.

I went looking for my dissertation to take a picture. I was the sixth Ph.D. in CS at UofC and the first systems Ph.D. [17]. If you stacked all the previous dissertations next to mine, you’d discover that mine was larger than all of them combined. Mine was also two volumes [18]. The last time I visited, about six years ago, I went looking for it in Eckhart Library, a place I’d spent a lot of my undergraduate life and where it resided when I left. But I learned that it had moved to Crerar, and I was too lazy to look. This time, I went to look for it in Crerar. However, since CS took over Crerar, I had to go look for it in Mansueto, the library with underground storage and robotic retrieval. Hence, I could not see my dissertation on the shelf. In any case, I’m pretty sure that my dissertation is no longer stored next to the other CS dissertation. I did ask to have it retrieved and I enjoyed looking at it. I’d forgotten that I’d written an autobiography. Perhaps I’ll share it as a musing someday [21].

Of course, some things on campus felt the same. Many of the same buildings were there. The classrooms in which I watched Grinnell students present felt the same. Plastic or wooden seats affixed in lecture style. Sliding blackboard. No seats for left-handed people. Perhaps it’s time for an upgrade.

In the evening, I went to try and get food from favorite hangouts, Harold’s Chicken Shack [22] and Ribs and Bibs seem to have disappeared. That makes me sad. I did eventually pick up some Giordano’s to bring back to Grinnell, but it didn’t feel the same. And the area near Giordano’s has gone upscale. There’s still a laundromat, Mellow Yellow, and even Salonica [23,24], but everything else feels much fancier. Back near where Harold’s used to be, Second-Hand tunes is gone, but there was a record store next to where it was. I enjoyed browsing the bargain bin [25].

I am happy to report that Powell’s bookstore is still there. Since I lived half a block west of Powell’s for three years, I passed by it at least twice a day and went inside regularly. My book collection grew significantly from the free book pile I passed each time I went by. I picked up a spare copy of David Barron’s American Eclipse. On the way out, I saw W.E.B. DuBois’ Data Portraits, which has long been on my wish list, and picked it up too. However, the visit was not perfect. The basement, which is where I liked to spend time because of the science fiction and fantasy, the mysteries, the clearance, and the cartoons, was closed.

My apartment, by the tracks, is still there. I did not try to go inside. I do see that it looks much nicer, with multi-colored paint. Parking seemed easier, too. That doesn’t make sense to me, but perhaps some things do improve.

As I suggested, a lot had changed. Hence, I’m surprised by how much like home the whole place felt. I prefer living in Grinnell, but it was nice to be back [26].

Postscript: I forgot to check if the place that Michelle and I had our first date is still there. I can’t remember the name, but I think it was on 55th a bit west of the tracks.

Postscript: My brother-in-law and sister-in-law took me to Moon Palace in Chinatown for one meal. While it’s not in the place it used to be, I’m pretty sure it had moved before I left. And the food felt right.

Postscript: It’s hard to believe that I’ve reached the stage of life when I reminisce about what things were life when I was in college and in graduate school [27]. At least I didn’t say The Common Core was much more comprehensive when I was an undergraduate [28], I can’t believe that they compromised that core value.

[1] In Hyde Park, Chicago, Illinois, United States of America, Planet Earth [2].

[2] I have no idea why I felt obligated to write all of that. At times, my muse enjoys playing with my brain.

[3] Chicago has four graduations each year, one at the end of each quarter.

[4] The Dissertation Secretary was responsible for ensuring that your dissertation met particular criteria, such as margins, line spacing, footnote position, page numbering, paper choice [5], and such.

[5] University of Chicago watermark, of course.

[6] Stu Kurtz claims that the transition to programs like TeX, in general, and my dissertation, in particular, helped eliminate the power of the Dissertation Secretary’s office. I’m not sure the latter is true. In any case, it makes me sad to know that the office has been weakened, particularly since I will always associate the office with Kate Turabian, even though she retired long before I started. The Dissertation Secretary was also generous in his interactions with me; I recall that he knew that I wanted to retain copyright in my work and gave me instructions for doing so.

[7] My friend Chris Johnson tells me that he had a strong role in this choice.

[8] And much more expensive.

[9] I asked Michelle. She said I think it was fewer than 3,000. Look it up. Conveniently, the Registrar’s office has a page giving historical enrollment. I see that there were 2,870 undergraduates in the year we started.

[10] My three-year high-school [11] had more students than UofC did.

[11] Newton North.

[12] I also recall doing a double-take seeing Harrison Ford wheeled through Crerar. I’m not sure whether or not that’s a false memory but I also recall seeing part of an Indiana Jones movie that showed an old Harrison Ford being wheeled through Crerar [14].

[14] I’m wrong. It was in The Fugitive.

[15] Either in the Grinnell CS museum or at the Computer Museum in California.

[16] I am happy to report that the math sculptures I rescued from the trash at UofC are now on loan to Grinnell’s math department, although they have not yet been restored and hence are not yet on display.

[17] That statement assumes that you consider applied Programming Languages research to be Systems research.

[18] The one I have in my office is one volume; single-sided, double-spaced text [19] takes significantly more space than double-side, single-spaced text [20].

[19] As per Dissertation Secretary standards.

[20] My home dissertation.

[21] Annotated, of course.

[22] In one of my less intelligent moments on campus, I created an account for Harold the Chicken King on our Unix system.

[23] See your food!

[24] I should have eaten there.

[25] I bought a lot of vinyl at Second Hand Tunes. One of my favorite purchases was a white label promo of Big Star’s #1 Record, back in the days in which it was nearly impossible to find the record.

[26] In contrast, I seem to have no desire to return for a reunion, even though my thirty-fifth (!!) reunion is this coming spring.

[27] Or perhaps at The College and The University.

[28] Although it is.

Version 1.0 of 2019-12-26.