Neubauer Collegium selects inaugural research projects

Can digital games help reshape urban adolescents’ health decisions? How might economic models be challenged by rigorous economic analysis of historical societies? What new insights can we gain about the world’s literary heritage from inquiry into the early writing systems?

In a major milestone, the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago has selected an inaugural cohort of 18 ambitious faculty research projects that tackle these and other complex questions through cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Through its research initiatives and robust program of visiting Collegium Faculty Fellows, the Neubauer Collegium will unite scholars in the common pursuit of ideas of grand scale and broad scope, making the University of Chicago a global destination for top scholars engaged in humanistic research while also pioneering efforts to share that research with the public.

“Our faculty members have set their sights on areas of great complexity and deep importance, and reached out to their colleagues across the University in hopes of discovering newly collaborative ways of thinking about these questions,” said David Nirenberg, director of the Neubauer Collegium. “We are all eager to see the social and scholarly impact of this research, and to share it with our colleagues at UChicago and around the world.”

The Neubauer Collegium was founded in June 2012, and is named in honor of Joseph Neubauer, MBA’65, and Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer. Their $26.5 million gift to the University is among the largest in support of the humanities and social sciences in the institution’s history.

The inaugural cohort of research projects reflects the Neubauer Collegium’s commitment to supporting research into vital questions that can be better understood through collaborative research that brings diverse fields and methodologies to bear. A full list of projects is available on the Neubauer Collegium website.

Together, the 18 projects engage teams of faculty from 17 departments in the humanities and social sciences, as well as the Chicago Booth School of Business, the Divinity School, the Law School, the Pritzker School of Medicine, and the Oriental Institute—teams of faculty who had fewer opportunities for serious, sustained collaboration before the creation of the Neubauer Collegium.

New frontiers

The successful projects were selected from a pool of 49 proposals and include four large-scale research projects, 11 smaller-scale seed projects and three short-term projects developed in collaboration with visiting Collegium Faculty Fellows.

The diverse group of projects integrates the University’s traditional areas of strength and emerging subfields in order to discover new ways of approaching multifaceted questions in the humanities and humanistic social sciences.

The Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, for example, is part of an emerging collaboration between Patrick Jagoda, assistant professor of English, and Melissa Gilliam, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics at the Pritzker School of Medicine. The project focuses on the role of games and digital media in helping urban teens learn about the social and emotional aspects of sexual and reproductive health.

The creation of the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab will give Gilliam and Jagoda the opportunity to study the theoretical and practical questions surrounding games as an educational tool and the new forms of storytelling that emerge from them. The design lab will facilitate community participation in the creation of new games, allowing for experimental intersections between practice and theory.

Jagoda said that support from the Neubauer Collegium will ground the project in the intellectual culture of the University and allow for a multidisciplinary analysis of the games developed in the design lab.

“A number of questions about games and learning are, for us, still open questions,” said Jagoda. “With the support of the Neubauer Collegium, we can really study the design and play process of our transmedia games.”

New insights into the past

Other Neubauer Collegium projects will shed new light on the past in hopes of gaining insight into contemporary society.

The Working Group on Comparative Economics, a seed project at the Neubauer Collegium, will bring together faculty members from across the University with a shared interest in economic analysis of historical societies from ancient times to the modern period.

“Economists have mostly tested their theories on the detailed and reliable data sets generated by industrialized governments and firms in the last century.  While such data are more accurate and precise than that available in other societies and periods, it has much less variation in the underlying conditions and thus provides in some ways a much weaker test of economic theories,” explained E. Glen Weyl, assistant professor of economics. 

The working group will assemble leading researchers in anthropology, art history, classics, economics, history, Near Eastern studies, and political science for a two-year series of faculty meetings, lectures and conferences.

Through these events, lead faculty Weyl, Alain Bresson, professor of Classics, and David Schloen, associate professor in the Oriental Institute and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, aim to catalyze the formation of a new community of scholars and to test and challenge dominant theories in economics. In its first two years, the working group plans to focus on the concept of the “firm” and the relevance of the economic theory of the firm across societies.

“The Working Group on Comparative Economics will provide an exciting opportunity for economists to be exposed to information from a broad range of societies that will help sharpen our understanding of how economic behavior responds to social and technological conditions,” Weyl added.

The Neubauer Collegium’s three-year “Signs of Writing” project, led by Edward Shaughnessy, the Lorraine J. and Herlee G. Creel Distinguished Service Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Christopher Woods, associate professor in the Oriental Institute and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, will engage a diverse group of scholars in a study of the world’s first information revolution—the emergence of the written word.

“Signs of Writing” will examine linguistic, social and cultural contexts of early writing in Egypt, China, Mesoamerica and Mesopotamia in order to better understand conceptual issues that transcend space and time, such as the interaction between writing and scribal training, literacy and bilingualism.

“The Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society will allow us to pursue these cross-disciplinary conversations and to develop an ambitious collaborative research agenda around them that would not otherwise be possible,” Shaughnessy and Woods wrote. “It's a wonderful opportunity for us, and one that will make Chicago a major center for the study of written language.”

Currently operating out of space in the Joseph Regenstein Library, the Neubauer Collegium will be housed at 5701 S. Woodlawn Ave. in the former Meadville-Lombard Seminary Building. The University has selected New York-based Kliment Halsband Architects to undertake the renovation of the historic space.

“Designing the Neubauer Collegium in the context of the historic Meadville Seminary building is an extraordinary opportunity to give form to a new vision for global interdisciplinary study, to create physical spaces that encourage and enhance collaborative research, and to transform a historic place into an inspiring home for 21st-century thinking,” said Frances Halsband, FAIA, of Kliment Halsband Architects. “We are thrilled to be working with a distinguished group of scholars and look forward to exploring the design of new creative environments with them.”

The renovation is expected to be complete in time for the start of the 2014-15 academic year.

The Neubauer Collegium will be formally inaugurated in October 2013 with a series of lectures and workshops.