Know no boundaries

The Neubauer Collegium grows into new leadership, programs, and space.

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With a new director and 16,000 square feet of new space, the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society has grown a lot this academic year—and with ten new research initiatives starting in July, it is prepared for more.

Jonathan Lear, the John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor in Social Thought, was appointed the Neubauer Collegium’s Roman Family Director in October, succeeding David Nirenberg, who became dean of the Division of the Social Sciences in July. While the Neubauer Collegium, founded in 2012 to address questions that span the humanities and humanistic social sciences, has already achieved a great deal with 42 faculty research initiatives, including the ten beginning this summer, Lear says, “it’s just at the beginning.”

Like Nirenberg, Lear has experience in interdisciplinary work. “My interest is in bringing together ancient Greek traditions and ethics with contemporary thinking about psychoanalytic treatment and therapy,” Lear says. “I’m the guy who thinks of these as one thing rather than two.” The John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought supported that way of thinking, he says, so “the Neubauer Collegium was a natural next step. It embodies these University of Chicago traditions that you don’t see at any other institution.”

Lear finds unpredictable combinations exciting. “We want to take risks. Some projects need a lot of work. Some might not work.” One new project he is particularly eager about spans institutions as well as disciplines. Open Fields: Ethics, Aesthetics and the Very Idea of a Natural History, Lear says, involves “not just an anthropologist from here and a professor of art from there, but the curator of the Field Museum, tribal elders from around the country, and young practicing native artists. “When it comes to certain kinds of research projects, we refuse to recognize boundaries.”

The renovated building provides a new space for scholars from around the world to collaborate, establishing the Neubauer Collegium as a locus for global engagement: 1. The building houses multiple suites for visiting fellows to set up office with adjacent versatile areas for collaboration. 2. The seminar room features advanced e-collaboration and videoconferencing capabilities. 3. The reading room, which showcases the building’s original wood paneling, is intended for informal engagement and reflection. 4. The exhibition gallery presents historical and contemporary art, films, and performances. (Illustration courtesy Kliment Halsband Architects)

When cross-collaboration goes well, Lear says, in retrospect, it seems like a natural pairing. He cites the new project Historical Semantics and Legal Interpretation, in which a legal historian and modern linguists will interpret sometimes-murky 18th-century legal rulings that are still invoked today, in cases as high as the Supreme Court, and create online tools to make that information available to law clerks and judges. “It’s a project of the highest intellectual importance.”

Alessandra Voena, assistant professor of economics, works on the project Unpacking the Value of Health Insurance in India: Fostering Dialogue Amongst Methodologies, which began in July 2014. The project’s researchers are surveying Indian citizens with no access to public insurance, asking how they would allocate the funds if they were given cash to purchase insurance at a premium.


A surveyor in Mysore, India, discusses that nation’s public insurance expansion with village household members as part of the Collegium project Unpacking the Value of Health Insurance in India: Fostering Dialogue Amongst Methodologies. (Photo courtesy Phoebe Holtzman, AB’10)

Anup Malani, AM’96, JD’00, PhD’03 (Economics), the Lee and Brena Freeman Professor in the Law School, was already evaluating India’s insurance system and expanded his research into a Neubauer Collegium project, bringing Voena on because of her expertise studying resource distribution in families. After her team conducted initial qualitative interviews, Voena says, “we realized we needed much more expertise in ethnology and anthropology.” Compared to economists, ethnographers approach problems using a much smaller sample size “but go a lot more in depth,” she says. “Ultimately the two approaches can be extremely complementary.”

The project is already far along. Researchers from other universities have been conducting in-depth field interviews in India. “We’ve collected an enormous amount of ethnographic material,” Voena says, “and we’ve already incorporated preliminary results in our design.” She predicts another year and a half of data collection and interpretation before the group begins to publish its findings.


Jonathan Lear compares the excitement of directing the Neubauer Collegium to “working on a start-up.” (Photography by John Zich)

Voena also looks forward to taking advantage of the Neubauer Collegium’s space. Its new home, which officially opened April 20 at 5701 South Woodlawn Avenue, provides room for teams like Voena’s to meet. With her office in Saieh Hall, Malani’s at the Law School, and other partners situated internationally, she says, “we are a diverse group of people, so the opportunity to be hosted there would be great.”

Like Saieh Hall, the Neubauer Collegium building is a work of adaptive reuse, maintaining the spirit of the former Meadville Lombard Theological School while updating it for 21st century needs. Lear looks forward to hosting guest lecturers such as Berkeley biblical scholar Robert Alter, who is coming next fall to discuss the meaning and nature of translation. “Guests of the highest intellectual caliber are going to be speaking on topics that will interest the whole University community.”

Alumni will have an advance opportunity to see the building and witness the Neubauer Collegium in action (see back page) during an Alumni Weekend UnCommon Core session on the project Past for Sale, where researchers from anthropology, art history, economics, law, and policy will discuss the illicit antiquities market and how to combat it.

2015–16 Social Sciences Neubauer Collegium faculty research projects

Literature scholar Benjamin Morgan will collaborate with historians Fredrik Jonsson and Emily Osborn on a project that brings 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.

The Idealism Project: Self-Determining Form and the Autonomy of the Humanities, led by philosophy scholars James Conant and Robert Pippin as well as Germanic Studies chair David Wellbery, in addition to collaborators at the University of Leipzig, seeks a new approach to the fate and future of the humanities.

Anthropologist Justin Richland and a team that includes Field Museum curator Alaka Wali and tribal leaders from the Hopi and Crow Nations explore the use and misuse of Native American material culture with Open Fields: Ethics, Aesthetics, and the Very Idea of a Natural History.

With Economic Analysis of Ancient Trade, economist Ali Hortacsu and archaeologist David Schloen are working with Kerem Cosar, Alain Bresson, and Gil Stein, specialists on the ancient world, to investigate the applicability of modern mathematical and computational methods to ancient trade.

With The Problem of the Democratic State in US History, sociology chair Elisabeth Clemens, AM’85, PhD’90 (Sociology), and historian James Sparrow plan to engage new faculty and graduate students in a broad-ranging set of conversations about the democratic state that was initially explored in the 2013–15 Neubauer Collegium project The State as History and Theory.

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