Dante scholar receives unique fellowship from Donnelly Foundation

Wherever Laurence Hooper goes, he finds people who share his enthusiasm for Dante.

“When you tell someone you work on Dante, they always say, “Ah, I love Dante!’”—this happens to me at every seminar I go to,” Hooper said. “There’s always been a pull toward [Dante], and the more you study, the more you feel that pull.”

That same interest led Hooper to the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Research Fellowship, a unique postdoctoral exchange program for recent PhDs at the University of Chicago and Cambridge’s Corpus Christi College.  The three-year fellowship allows early career scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and religious studies to focus exclusively on their research—a valuable opportunity given the scarcity of postdoctoral programs in those fields, scholars say.

The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation established the $4 million fellowship, which alternates between UChicago and Cambridge, in 2008. The Donnelleys maintained active ties to the University of Chicago and Cambridge throughout their lives: Gaylord Donnelley studied at Corpus Christi College after graduating from Yale and served on the University of Chicago Board of Trustees from 1947 until his death in 1992. His wife Dorothy was a member of the University of Chicago Women’s Board.

Hooper is the first Donnelley Research Fellow from Cambridge and the second fellow in the program’s history. The first was Assyriologist Jacob Lauinger, PhD’07, now an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Hooper, who received his PhD in Italian Studies in 2009, is currently at work on a book based on his dissertation titled Exile and Authorship in Dante. The book explores changing views of authorship in the late medieval period, examining Dante’s treatment of the theme of exile.

“There are whole reams of medieval scholarship that tend to put aside literary theory,” he explained. “Many medieval scholars have read Dante as a kind of crypto-theologian who just puts out philosophical or theological [ideas], whereas I’m trying to look at how he gets those ideas across, via literature and literary theory.”

Hooper said the fellowship is “a bit of lifesaver. It’s increasingly difficult to get a tenure-track position straight out of your PhD, so some kind of mechanism to keep people in the profession is necessary. This [program] is a really big deal.”

Having three full years to focus on research is especially valuable. “It’s very different to have no teaching,” he said. “It works well with the University of Chicago because there’s a very strong culture of workshops and seminars here. Earlier today, I was at a lecture on medieval music, which is obviously not something that my research focuses on, except for the medieval aspect. That kind of stimulus is wonderful.”

“The Donnelley fellowship is an exceptional opportunity for our students and the campus as a whole,” said Cathy Cohen, Deputy Provost for Graduate Education. “First, our students are provided the chance to take time after receiving a PhD to really work out and refine the ideas in their dissertations, as they prepare for what often is their first major publication.

“Second, the broader campus is enriched by having extremely talented, young scholars from Cambridge working among us and contributing to the intellectual exchange that defines the University of Chicago. We are very honored to be a participating institution in the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Research Fellowship.”

Helping to bridge the gap between doctoral work and a tenure-track position was one of the primary aims of starting the program, said Judith Stockdale, the Donnelley Foundation’s executive director.

“The humanities were a strong interest of Gaylord Donnelley’s, and there are hardly any fellowships for post-doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences,” Stockdale said. “We felt that creating such an unusual one over a long period would be prized, and would be a wonderful memorial to Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley.”