ROCK ISLAND — The building boom at Augustana College barrels on. In February the private college announced plans to open a $16 million building for new academic programs and expanded athletics. This comes a year after the announcement of a roughly $9 million expansion to Hanson Hall of Science.
The face of Augustana is changing quickly. How does a liberal arts school adapt to a rapidly evolving world? Can an historic campus cope with change?
Matthew Fockler, an assistant professor of geography at Augustana, believes that answers to Augustana’s future lie in its past.
“Augustana has evolved almost constantly,” said Fockler in an interview with the Dispatch-Argus.
A historical geographer, Fockler has researched more than 140 years of changes at Augustana and its campus. “The great takeaway is that, from the get-go, Augustana hasn’t hesitated to adapt over time.”
In a presentation for the Augustana Historical Society on Wednesday night, Fockler used photos and maps to show some of those adaptations.
The presentation, entitled “Ten Views of Augie: A Historical Geography of Augustana College,” relied on a practice known as “repeat photography,” a sort of before-and-after process in which a place is photographed from the same spot over many years to show its changes over time.
“The goal is to try to understand the meaning of places with landscape transformation,” Fockler said on Wednesday. “We don’t change our landscapes just willy-nilly; we don’t do it just because. There’s a reason for it. There’s meaning behind it.”
The history of Augustana in Rock Island is one of dynamic adaptation, Fockler said. Over the last 14 decades, the school has built, renovated, and torn down dozens of structures: dorms and libraries, drug stores and sports fields, farmhouses and outhouses.
Augustana College was founded in 1860, in Chicago. Three years later, it moved to Paxton, Ill., a small town about 100 miles southwest of Chicago. It relocated to its permanent home in Rock Island in 1875.
Fockler’s lecture, which drew a crowd of around 50, sprung from a larger interest in college campuses.
“They’re the stage at which these most formative years are played out,” he told the Dispatch-Argus. “We’ve been hearing a lot that liberal arts campuses aren’t adapting to the environment. I’ve been at Augie for six years, and I feel like we’ve done nothing but adapt.”
Fockler said that, historically, Augustana’s expansions and construction projects have been “pragmatic. They have been for a purpose: to meet a need,” he said. “It hasn’t been a land-grab type of thing."
For repeat photography to achieve maximum effect, the new photos have to be taken at the precise spot and with the precise angle of the original photograph. The photography will sometimes require Fockler to climb trees or strike unusual poses to get the correct shot. Sometimes, after realizing later that he doesn’t have the image right, he’ll return to the spot and try again.
“When I take my new shots, there’s always people on campus,” Fockler said. “I include people in those new photos. You can almost see ghosts on the campus. You get that sense of these places as important landscapes where people lived and walked.”
Fockler’s side-by-side comparisons show how “the landscape’s been pretty dramatically altered,” as he said. By overlaying the new image over the old, viewers get a sense of the major alterations to the building or grounds. Often the old image will present a landscape or building that is unrecognizable, or no longer intact.
“It’s easy to think of college campuses as something that is fixed in time,” Fockler said on Wednesday night. “Augustana has not been shy to adapt. Perhaps those changes haven’t always been easy. Some may not have been popular. But the college has a long track record of moving forward.”