From the file cabinet of a professor comes a small treasure—more than three decades of insights into life in Normal.
That treasure, carved from 36 years of student legwork and writings, arrived in the fall at the McLean County Museum of History Archives as the Michael D. Sublett Collection.
The collection contains more than 1,000 student essays from Sublett’s geography classes, almost all based on interviews with residents. The collection explores topics such as the quality of life in rural subdivisions, the attitudes toward public transportation, and thoughts of residents in Old North Normal. Most essays create a unique picture with photographs, maps, diagrams, and interviews.
Sublett, who began teaching at Illinois State in 1970, chose to save the essays in 1979 as a way to keep students honest. “I needed a culminating project for Field Geography [then called Techniques of Field Work], so I designed the quality of life assessment for residents of McLean County subdivisions—both urban and rural,” said Sublett. “It worked out really well, and I decided to repeat it the next year. But I didn’t want the old papers floating around to tempt future students to live off the good works of the 1979 class.”
For years, Sublett repeated the process of gathering up graded papers and tucking them into a filing cabinet in his office. “Finally, I just quit marking the papers themselves, and gave the students a one-page summary of my comments,” he said.
By the mid-1980s, Sublett realized the essays were beginning to tell a story of life in McLean County. He contacted Greg Koos, at the McLean County Museum of History, wondering if the essays could become a collection. “He told me to hang onto them and see where it went, so I did,” said Sublett.
Over the years, the collection expanded and evolved. Not only did students interview residents, but county and town officials as well. “There is little that is more traumatic to a young person than to have a structured conversation with a stranger,” said Sublett with a small smile. “But the students went out there, even ones who had never been in a rural area before. They really got into it, and some came back with pictures of themselves by tractors.”
Through it all, Sublett saved the essays of what he calls the Subdivision Project, which ran from 1979 to 2014. “It’s great that people can go down to the Museum and find out what subdivisions were like in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s,” said Sublett. “The librarian and I have speculated who might come and ask about these papers.”
“The Michael D. Sublett Collection represents a treasure trove of secondary source material relating to Bloomington-Normal and McLean County,” said Bill Kemp, librarian at the McLean County Museum of History, who noted the collection would benefit museum staff, students ranging from middle school to Ph.D. candidates, local historians, genealogists, “and those who simply have an interest in local history.” Kemp added he hopes “others at ISU will follow the lead of Dr. Sublett.”
The collection grew beyond subdivision-resident interviews in 2003, when the Town of Normal created the Old North Normal Historic District. The resulting Old North Normal Project assessed the quality of life of those living in the district, lot by lot. “Geographers study all sizes of regions, and house lots are a mini-region,” said Sublett. “So the project fit in well with our classes.”
A few years later, the Old North Normal Project ran alongside a bit more mobile project, gauging the opinion of those who ride city buses. “I was a little worried about whether people riding the buses would want to be interviewed,” said Sublett, who began the Transit Project in 2005 for his Geographic Techniques class [later renamed Doing Geography]. “But riders got into it. Students said people were even asking them to be interviewed.”
The public bus system, now known as Connect Transit, assisted Sublett’s students by helping line up interviews with bus drivers and city officials. “They really appreciated the information we gave them,” Sublett said of Connect Transit.
Department of Geography-Geology Chair Dagmar Budikova noted Sublett’s work is a key example of reaching beyond the classroom. “We are taking pride in continuing the practice of involving our students in the practical side of our discipline,” she said.
Other student essays include projects on rural square miles, urban intersections and city blocks, and segments of the Constitution Trail. The essays continued into the spring of 2015, when Sublett began to prepare for retirement. He became a professor emeritus of geography in August 2015.
Sublett hopes the collection not only gives residents a picture of what life was like, but also inspires other faculty to save students papers. “I say, ‘Why not?’ Think of what we could learn from those classes, from those students.”
A list of what can be found in the Sublett collection is online.