Neubauer Collegium selects new interdisciplinary projects

The Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago has selected 10 new faculty research projects to join the 32 interdisciplinary projects that are already under way.

In keeping with the collaborative mission of the Neubauer Collegium, the new projects bring together researchers in many disciplines and from schools across the University, as well as visiting scholars from around the world.

“From its inception, the Neubauer Collegium has worked to bring together the best minds to tackle the most important questions in the humanities and the social sciences,” said Jonathan Lear, the Roman Family Director of the Neubauer Collegium. “Some are of immediate national and international significance; others tackle longstanding problems in the humanities using new research methodologies; others address the meaning and value of the humanities.”

The announcement of the new projects comes as the Neubauer Collegium prepares to move into its permanent home at 5701 S. Woodlawn, which will feature meeting spaces for seminars and active collaborations, a larger space for public presentations of research and an exhibition gallery, as well as offices for Neubauer Collegium Visiting Fellows. The reconstruction of the 1933 neo-gothic building is expected to be complete in April.

Pressing questions, collaborative approaches

Legal historian Alison LaCroix and linguist Jason Merchant are among the scholars supported by the Neubauer Collegium to develop a new interdisciplinary field, law and linguistics. These fields have become intertwined due to the increased interest by legal scholars and the courts in the original intent of the Constitution’s framers.

One problem with this approach, LaCroix and Merchant argue, is that contemporary jurists rely too heavily on historical dictionaries that offer only a partial perspective. To understand properly how language was used in the past, it must be examined in a more nuanced and comprehensive context. Only then, they say, can legal thinkers come to a better understanding of what was meant by phrases such as “keep and bear arms.”

LaCroix and Merchant’s project, “Historical Semantics and Legal Interpretation,” will help judges and legal scholars do just that. Using the vast collection of historical texts available through Google Books, they hope to develop online tools that will allow users to study in a more rigorous and sophisticated way how language and meaning have changed over the past two centuries.

LaCroix and Merchant’s preliminary work has highlighted the vexed questions of historical meaning and usage. “A linguist looking at originalism can’t help but feel it offers a false sense of security,” Merchant said. Still, “if someone is going to pursue originalist analysis, at least let them do it right.”

In that sense, the project “meets originalism on its own terms,” LaCroix said. She hopes it will prove “enriching, rather than simplifying” to those using linguistics to answer legal questions.

The project was an ideal fit for the Neubauer Collegium because it “brings fields and areas of inquiry together,” LaCroix said.

“It’s the kind of thing neither of us could do on our own,” Merchant added.

Environments, communities and cultures

English scholar Benjamin Morgan will collaborate with historians Fredrik Albritton Jonsson and Emily Osborn on a project that offers a humanistic approach to a contemporary political issue. “Climate Change: Disciplinary Challenges to the Humanities and Social Sciences” is a one-year project that will culminate in a daylong symposium in spring 2016.

Climate change is often considered the province of scientists, but Osborn thinks that’s a misconception. “Human beings have become geological agents and our activities and material conditions have created long-lasting consequences for the world in which we live. Climate change forces us to rethink many of the categories and relationships that are fundamental to our respective disciplines,” she said.

Osborn, who specializes in African history, sees enormous potential within her own field: studying how West Africa’s economies became dependent on fossil fuels, for example, offers a new perspective on historical processes of change, as well as on the continent’s relationship to other parts of the world.

Morgan, who studies Victorian literature, says art and literature always have been interested in the relationship between humans and their environment. Some texts, like H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, directly explore environmental disaster: the novel imagines a future in which the sun dies and the earth grows cold.

“Personally, I’m interested in this long literary history in which we have repeatedly tried to envision the possible futures of humanity and to confront the fact that those futures might be finite,” Morgan explained.

Morgan and Osborn hope the Neubauer Collegium project will allow scholars and interested parties beyond the sciences the opportunity to think more deeply about how to answer those challenges as they come together for workshops throughout the year.

Defending the Humanities From Within

The fate and future of the humanities are among the most significant issues facing the academy.

The Idealism Project: Self-Determining Form and the Autonomy of the Humanities,” led by James Conant, Robert Pippin and David Wellbery, as well as collaborators at the University of Leipzig, seeks a new approach to the crisis in the humanities.

Rather than trying to justify the value of the humanities by encouraging scholars to embrace the methods and values of the natural and social sciences, the project team will find ways for the humanities to articulate and defend their own values. To do so, they will draw on the work of 18th- and 19th-century idealist philosophers, whose insights and analyses into forms of knowledge were critical in the formation of the first research universities.

“An enormous amount hangs on getting the self-understanding of the humanities in the modern university right,” Pippin said. “It would be a catastrophe if the modern university eliminated humanistic inquiry into its core topics: meaning and value.”

Native American heritage; Native American future

Anthropologist Justin Richland, an expert on Native American law and culture, is interested in the use and misuse of Native American material culture. He has brought together a team that includes Jessica Stockholder; Alaka Wali, a curator at the Field Museum; Jason Bartulis, a fellow at the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion; and tribal leaders and elders from the Hopi and Crow Nations.

Natural history museums around the country, including Chicago’s own Field Museum, have some of the best collections of Native American artifacts available. But many tribes have taken issue with how the artifacts are studied and displayed. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act tried to address these concerns by allowing tribes to reclaim human remains and funerary objects held in the collections of federally funded museums. At times, the law resulted in tense relationships between tribes and those museums trying to protect their collections.

Richland thinks there is a better way—bring Native leaders and museums together, and allow tribes to have new input into how their material culture is used. His Neubauer Collegium project, “Open Fields: Ethics, Aesthetics, and the Very Idea of a Natural History” will provide a forum for researchers, tribal leaders, Native artists from different tribes and nations, and museum curators to work together and share ideas. Over time this research group intends to include more people in its collaboration, including tribal leaders from Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“I want people to see that it is possible for tribes and non-Native institutions to collaborate productively and in a sustained way, and that they can find in each other resources to mutually advance their own interests,” Richland explained.

Richland sees the project as a perfect fit for the Neubauer Collegium both because of its interdisciplinary nature and because of the Neubauer Collegium’s support of research into new and evolving issues. “We’re tapping into something that is happening right now,” he said.

The Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society supports new and creative forms of collaborative research in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. The projects draw on researchers in all disciplines and from all schools across the University. In addition, leading scholars from around the world come to the University of Chicago as Neubauer Collegium Visiting Fellows to collaborate with faculty on these research initiatives.

The Neubauer Collegium has supported 42 faculty research projects led by more than 100 UChicago faculty fellows since its founding in 2012. It is named for Joseph Neubauer and Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer in honor of their $26.5 million gift to the University—among the largest gifts in support of the humanities and social sciences in the institution’s history.

A full list of faculty research projects is available at