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Instructor highlight: Melissa Rovner,PhD., Urban Internship Program

We're thrilled to introduce you to Melissa Rovner, PhD., our new Urban Internship Program Instructor. From delving into the complexities of socioeconomics and urban development to digital storytelling in the spaces of architecture and urban history, Melissa brings a rich tapestry of experiences to the Chicago Center team and students.

Chicago Center: Can you share a bit about your background and what led you to join the Chicago Center?

Melissa Rovner: After studying Architecture in Los Angeles, graduating, obtaining licensure, and practicing, I was curious about the deep entanglements between socioeconomics, inequality, and the built environment (that in many ways, I recognized architecture contributing towards). My dissertation, which I completed at UCLA this March, explores systems of labor exploitation and disparate housing typologies that underpinned the divided expansion of the Angeleno metropolis during the Progressive Era. As one of the nation’s most segregated cities, Chicago speaks to the relationships between racial inequality and urban development in ways that echo, but also are unique from, L.A.’s developmental history. I am interested in expanding my research through teaching and learning with the Chicago Center - by further investigating the unique urban morphology of Chicago, and speaking with people working in and against the divided city. 

CC: What is your teaching philosophy, and how do you approach creating an engaging and inclusive learning environment? 

MR: By incorporating multimodal opportunities for engagement, I try to create a polyvocal space for learning. This might involve collectively annotating a map, reading creative non-fiction and dissecting poetry, or visiting a site and performing a spatial ethnography with students. This way, students from different backgrounds and disciplinary interests can connect to the content in tangible ways. As a historian by training, I try to connect with the source of analysis, whether through the reading of an archival image, or listening to an oral history. I am especially interested in the Urban Humanities, connecting the places we share in the built environment to the human experience. It is through this scalar shift, I think, that students can see themselves as both shared members of society, and radical change-makers. 

CC: How does your expertise contribute to the unique learning experience that the Chicago Center offers?

MR: I am especially interested in how the Chicago Center challenges preconceived notions about the city and the confines of the institution by foregrounding diverse public spaces, communities and cultures as knowledge-creators. As a scholar of Architecture/Urban History and a practitioner of the Digital Urban Humanities, I am always looking for ways to contribute to public histories through layered mapping and digital storytelling. In learning from and showcasing the work of organic knowledge-producers from a range of communities, we can challenge traditional, oppressive, dominant, or mainstream accounts of the city.

CC: Can you share a memorable experience from your career that has had a significant impact on you?

MR: While working as a Research Fellow at CityLAB-UCLA, I led a series of focus groups with students experiencing housing insecurity and/or long commutes to campus. I learned that a shocking amount of students had experienced homelessness or food insecurity, getting in the way of their studies. Many students were living far from campus to be close to their families, to be able to afford rent, or to avoid the narrow definitions of being and belonging that they experienced in the neighborhoods around campus. This experience changed how I think about suburban/urban divides and housing more generally. What are the ways we show up for each other in crisis? I think about this as a teacher, and in teaching students who may themselves become teachers or designers. 

CC: What are you most excited about in joining the Chicago Center, and what expectations do you have for your students?

MR: I am most excited to meet with leaders in various communities of Chicago, to see the work they are doing to share their stories and improve the spaces and experiences of Chicago. I expect my students to share in this excitement, to co-direct their own learning experiences in the course through engagement with the people we meet and places we visit. Whether at the Chicago Public Housing Museum, among the Murals of Pilsen, or at the Emmett Till And Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument (among those we will be visiting collectively), I want students to be able to connect what we are reading and learning in the classroom to their observations of the city. 

CC: If you could give one piece of advice to students embarking on their learning journey at the Chicago Center, what would it be?

MR: Allow yourself to change.

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