Even in childhood, Agnieska Topur had the mind of an investigator. Roaming her Polish-speaking Chicago neighborhood, Topur was an observant and curious child. That orientation served her well when she moved to the suburbs and suddenly had to adjust to an environment where English was the only language heard. This experience sparked Topur’s interest in the ways in which cities and neighborhoods shape and influence the lives of their citizens. Captivated by her reading of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in high school, she began to ask questions about the motivations for human behavior and the social origins of crime.
After earning her Sociology degree from DePaul University, Topur joined the Chicago Police Department. “I found the investigative aspect of police work fascinating,” she recalls, “how detectives on a case will pull apart something that happened, in order to come to a conclusion about why it happened.” She became a specialist in crime statistics, analyzing data on violence in Chicago, and is now in her 13th year of a career in law enforcement.
In 2010, Topur’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge led her to seek a further angle on the study of the roots of crime. While continuing to work fulltime for the city, she enrolled in the Graham School’s Master of Liberal Arts Program. “I thought it would be refreshing to switch gears from the police department,” she recalls. “I wanted to walk into a classroom, open up my knowledge and start thinking in a different way.”
Several factors drew Topur to the University of Chicago’s MLA in particular. Chief among them was the reputation of the MLA faculty. “I had read Professor Doniger’s work as an undergrad, a decade before I even met her,” recalls Topur. In addition, the MLA program is designed for non-traditional students, the vast majority of whom are adults with full-time jobs. Topur found that the MLA program to be more flexible than other Masters programs she looked at “in terms of just dealing with an adult life.”
Topur didn’t know exactly what to expect. But she knew she wanted to explore some of the questions about crime and human behavior that had absorbed her since her schooldays and that now spoke directly to her police work. The MLA Program’s rich array of courses promised a chance to examine these issues through the lenses of a range of disciplines, including History, Religion, Literature, and Classics. And as an added benefit, Topur saw the MLA degree as a valuable credential that might help to qualify her to teach at the community college level post-retirement from the police force.
After only her first week in the Graham School, Topur realized her experience in the program would prove even more transformational than she had imagined. Topur says, “I realized the MLA would be so much more than simply a basis for another career after this one is finished. By starting this program, I understood I was devoting something new and significant to myself, and changing the person I would be in the future.”
Part of what made the MLA program so transformative, in Topur’s estimation, was the diversity of viewpoints her fellow students brought into the classroom. “It was great to engage with students with so many different backgrounds—I had a guy with a doctorate in Mathematics sitting next to me, and then a corporate lawyer, so the different personalities and professions in the classroom obviously escalated the conversation, and made things really interesting.” This aspect of the MLA program was evident in a conversation she had with a fellow student in one of her first classes. “Someone who had retired and was reading a book in one class commented, ‘If you read a story at one point in your life, and then you read it again many years later, it is a different story the second time, because of everything you’ve experienced in between.’ Having that many different levels of experience in the classroom gave it a depth that wouldn’t exist in undergrad or anywhere else, because you’re not getting that particular mix of people.”
Topur’s five years at the Graham School were an eventful intellectual journey, transforming her in unexpected ways, adding new dimensions to her professional life, revealing abilities she did not know she possessed and enlarging her understanding of the history of the city she served as a policewoman. For her Master’s thesis, Topur investigated a long-forgotten but crucial episode in the city’s law enforcement history: the decision at the turn of the last century to shut down the brothels that were the sites of Chicago’s sex trade. To get at this story, Topur launched a path-breaking research project, unearthing vice statistics collected a hundred years earlier by her distant predecessors on the police force, officers who had patrolled Chicago’s Red Light District from 1900 to 1920 and implemented the city’s new laws against prostitution.
Topur’s discoveries in the archives, and the conclusions she drew from the historical data, she says, “changed the way I approach my professional work and think about the city where I live. My research helped me understand how closely the work I do is intertwined with the past. They say if we forget history, we are condemned to repeat it. From that perspective, it is important for me to know how prostitution was dealt with in Chicago a hundred years ago, and to carry that knowledge into the future.”
How Officer Topur came to write a history of prostitution in Chicago is a case study in the creative possibilities of the Graham School experience. MLA students are free to build a thesis project around any topic of their choosing, and they are invited to use the program’s wide-ranging menu of classes as grounds for inspiration. From the outset, Topur remembers, “I always knew I wanted to write about something related to the history of Chicago,” but the diverse subjects she explored in her MLA coursework energized her search for an innovative, original thesis idea. “My classes woke up all the dormant aspects of my intellectual life and created new areas of interest for me that had never existed before,” she recalls.
Topur found it “exhilarating” to move from to discipline to discipline in her class schedule. She tackled Chaos theory and Marxism one quarter, tragic drama and ancient Hindu law the next. The latter pairing—David Tracy’s “Greek and Modern Tragedy” and Wendy Doniger’s “Religious Law, Secular Law and Sexual Deviation in Ancient India”—was particularly inspiring. “The timing of those two classes together,” she recalls, “was the moment of clarity when I discovered my thesis topic.”
Both courses raised questions that connected directly to insights and experiences Topur had gained in over a decade of police work. Professor Tracy’s discussions of women’s sexual misconduct in tragic literature started Topur thinking about prostitution cases she had handled. When Professor Doniger discussed the origins of ancient Hindu laws regulating sexual behavior, Topur wondered how the city of Chicago had developed policies to address the problem of prostitution.
“Being a part of the Chicago police department definitely gave me a perspective on these topics,” Topur explains. “Because of my work, I saw the different viewpoints involved. Yes, prostitution is a crime, but it is a crime where the victims include both the parties involved and the prostitutes themselves. I decided to look at prostitution’s history in Chicago, and examine the ways we have tried to contain and control it.” With the guidance of Professor Doniger, who served as her thesis adviser, Topur focused on police department records from the years from 1900 to 1920, when Chicago’s mayor moved aggressively to shut down the city’s brothels, displacing the sex trade that long had flourished in opulent establishments in the Red Light District. “My project,” Topur says, “was to find out what happened after the city got rid of the Red Light District.”
The University of Chicago’s library’s vast collections proved invaluable to Topur’s research: “what surprised me was how easy it was to do this in-depth research. The University of Chicago library staff helped me navigate everything. The amount of resources they have is amazing—whatever question you want answered, you will find the answer there.”
The story she uncovered in the archives was unexpected. “Shutting down the brothels drove sex work onto the streets,” Topur explains. “There was an increase in streetwalkers, followed by laws against streetwalking and fees for engaging in that behavior. Those fees forced the women to work even more, driving them back onto the street to earn money to pay what they owed. It was a very vicious circle.” Topur’s analysis of the data revealed not only a sharp rise in prostitution arrests, but also a higher rate of disease transmission, particularly syphilis. “In the end, my conclusion was, the housing of prostitution was less damaging for everyone. Once it was on the street, everything became worse—in terms of arrests, the spread of illnesses, and the well-being of the prostitutes themselves.”
Topur had been daunted at first by the magnitude of her ambitious project, but enthusiastic support from mentors and guides —and her own fascination with the material—carried her along. Above all, Topur says, working closely with her faculty mentor, the world-renowned religion scholar Wendy Doniger, was central to her success. “Professor Doniger was there for me every step of the way, reading drafts and encouraging me to find my voice as a writer.” Topur had learned statistics as an undergraduate sociology major, and her statistical prowess was further honed after years of work on the police force immersed in crime statistics. Professor Doniger helped Topur situate her statistical analysis in a broader theoretical context. As Topur states, “Professor Doniger helped me make my thesis not simply a recitation of facts, but a work driven by my argument, my narrative and my unique point of view.”
Looking back on her years in the Graham School, Topur says the MLA Program gave her “a sense of confidence that no other experience could allow.” She developed new abilities as a writer and researcher while engaging in creative work that drew equally on her intellectual passions and her professional expertise. “When I started out in the Graham School, I wondered, ‘How will I ever write a thesis?’” Topur recalls. “And I ended up realizing, yes, I can do this level of academic work—and if I can do this, maybe I can do something else even bigger. After this, you feel like you can do anything.”
The relationships she built with University of Chicago faculty, Topur says, have strengthened her desire to pursue a teaching career after retirement from the police department. “If I can pass on to students in the future even five percent of what I have learned from my professors in MLA,” Topur says, “I’ll be happy.” For now, Officer Topur is resolved to continue striving for fresh challenges. “The MLA Program introduced me to something that I now cannot envision living without: the state of always discovering something new.”