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Archive for Friday, April 17, 1998

STORY

April 17, 1998

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A Kansas University professor believes there's no place like home.

Dennis Domer's class on the history of Lawrence defies traditional academic wisdom.

While others may focus their research and teaching efforts on Rome, Athens, Greece or even New York City, this Kansas University professor prefers studying what's in his own back yard.

But then, Domer also has been known to lead students as well as some of the nation's top historic preservationists through the alleys of Lawrence's 19th-century business district.

``Being knowledgeable about the larger world but ignorant about where you live doesn't make much sense,'' claims Domer, associate dean of architecture and urban design and associate professor of American studies.

``Universities tend to ignore their local and regional history. To be promoted, professors are supposed to have a national reputation,'' he says. ``That encourages faculty to ignore places like Lawrence.''

Domer began developing the course, ``Biography of a City: Lawrence,'' about a year ago. He carefully selected 30 speakers -- from the university and the Lawrence community -- to cover a wide range of topics and points of view.

The lecturers and students are exploring the history of the city's cultural, social, economic and political life

See KU professor, page 8A

and interpreting the effect of that history -- from approximately 1854 to 1998 -- on contemporary Lawrence and on the future of Lawrence.

Textbooks were harder to come by than speakers.

Required course readings include "Not Without Laughter" by Langston Hughes, who spent part of his childhood in Lawrence, and "The Cat Inside" by William S. Burroughs, who did much of his writing while living in the city. But Domer could find no books that adequately addressed the richness and the depth of city's history.

That's about to change.

The 30 lecturers have agreed to write papers on the research they did for the class. Students must conduct independent research and write about their findings. Domer hopes to use those papers to publish an anthology on Lawrence as early as next fall.

"Lawrence has always been a radical and outspoken city. People who came to found this city came in protest of slavery ... much to the chagrin of much of the nation and especially our neighboring state of Missouri," Domer notes. "In my view, Lawrence is still a city of protest, a relatively liberal island in the vast, conservative sea of Kansas, my native state."

Among the events he cites is the Aug. 21, 1863, raid by Quantrill's Raiders on Lawrence, a stronghold of support for abolitionists during the Civil War. During the raid, 150 men were murdered and most of the city burned to the ground.

Interestingly, though, Domer says a far less famous event in the 1970s has probably had a more lasting effect on Lawrence. That's when city leaders adopted Plan '95, which successfully helped keep shopping malls out of Lawrence and preserved the city's historic downtown as the city's central business district.

Domer admits that 30 years ago, when he was an undergraduate at Baker University in Baldwin, Kansas was the last place that he wanted to study. But Domer has changed and, perhaps, so have the times.

"Perhaps this has all changed in part because these faraway places are so accessible to us now. ... I can e-mail my friends in Europe instantaneously," Domer said. "It may be also that we've traveled the world extensively, and the excitement of going someplace else just isn't there as it used to be."

Domer may be onto something.

The course on Lawrence's history, offered Tuesday nights, has attracted approximately 60 traditional KU students as well as long-time area residents.

The 15 classes are being taped by KU's division of continuing education and aired weekly on local Sunflower Cable Channel 6 (8 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays through May 6).

The Lawrence Journal-World offers a web site (www.lawrence.com/biography) where viewers and others can post comments. Officials in Lawrence's sister city in Japan, Hiratsuka, are also interested in viewing the series.

The television segments, made possible by a $2,000 grant from the Kansas Humanities Council, will also be available on tape to schools and other community organizations, according to Barbara Watkins, curriculum and projects manager for the division of continuing education.

"We need to have a strong sense of place. No matter how long you are there, the most important place is where you are at that moment in time," Domer says. "It's important for town-gown relationships that universities -- their faculty, staff and students -- become engaged in their communities."

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