By Mary Abowd
Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center

There are only a few universities that can claim schools of thought within specific disciplines, and Chicago is one of those few.”
—Antoine Jones
Third-year doctoral student in sociology

On a hot summer afternoon, five graduate students cram into the closet-sized “vault” in the University Registrar’s office. The room is filled from floor to ceiling with Convocation records that date to the University’s 1890 founding. As the students scrutinize the large, time-worn books, they begin to assemble pieces of history that evolved over 125 years.

They are part of the University’s Departmental Histories Fellowship Program, a pilot project initiated as part of UChicago’s 125th anniversary celebration, which challenged graduate students to research and document the histories of 17 of UChicago’s 87 academic units. The anniversary themes of “inquiry and impact” shaped the students’ approach as they conducted interviews and delved into archives about their assigned department or school.

“Our task was, how can we empirically show inquiry and impact?” says Antoine Jones, a third-year doctoral student in sociology who oversaw the project and managed a team of 19 fellows. “There are only a few universities that can claim schools of thought within specific disciplines, and Chicago is one of those few.”

The students have produced narratives and innovative, visual representations highlighting key historical moments within a department or school. Their results will be available on a dedicated website to coincide with Fall Convocation, which takes place Dec. 11.

“We’re pleased to have begun the work of documenting University history, department by department, marshaling the talent of the best and the brightest young researchers—our own graduate students,” said Sian Beilock, who leads UChicagoGRAD and is vice provost for academic initiatives and professor in psychology. “Their work makes the University’s collective story widely accessible to our community, to outside researchers, and to the public at large.”

Researching academic genealogies

Departments that date to the University’s founding were often best visualized using interactive timelines, says Zain Jamshaid, a third-year doctoral student in cinema and media studies, charged with researching the Department of Surgery.

“One of the challenges was to trace the origins of the department itself,” says Jamshaid, who noted that surgical classes were held at locations throughout Chicago, such as Rush Hospital, before consolidating on campus during the 1920s. “There were contradictory narratives about when exactly the department got started.”

Jamshaid then began a series of interviews with Prof. Edwin Kaplan, an internationally recognized endocrine surgeon who joined the faculty in 1968. Together, the two identified key data points and photographs from the department’s history.

“Those conversations were by far the highlight of this experience,” Jamshaid says. “In the end, I had more information than I needed—not a bad problem to have.”

Nabanjan Maitra, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Divinity School, created an academic family tree of sorts for the Institute for Molecular Engineering, tracing the lineage of its 10 faculty members and their advisors. Maitra says the genealogy highlights the department’s “rich traditions of scholarship and interdisciplinary currents.”

“The academic genealogy is fascinating,” says Matthew Tirrell, dean and founding Pritzker Director of IME. “We have eight Nobel Prize laureates among our academic ancestors, including Pierre and Marie Curie, and Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt). Perhaps surprisingly, we all go back to just three European countries: England, France, and Germany—an indirect reminder of how much more international the world of science and technology is now.”

Collaborating across disciplines

In addition to visual representations, students were charged with the daunting task of finding the names and years of every professor who ever taught in their given department, and every doctoral student who ever graduated from it.

Some departments did not possess comprehensive lists that spanned their entire histories. “A major feature of this project was to build a searchable database that digitizes information that, in many cases, is found only on paper and is scattered in different places,” Jones says.

That quest landed most of the students in the Registrar’s vault, where faculty and student names were painstakingly gleaned from decades of commencement books. Faculty names were then matched with dates, titles, and promotion information found on handwritten index cards stored in the Provost’s office.

The graduate students say the takeaways from the experience have been too many to count. “The project has forced me to work outside my comfort zone and beyond what I’ve traditionally been exposed to,” says Rachel Farell, a master’s student in Middle Eastern Studies, who investigated the Department of Chemistry. “I’ve learned skills in archival research and how to distill information down into a format that is accessible but still really meaningful.”

Others say they have valued the chance to meet and work with other graduate students from diverse disciplines. “I was very excited to be part of a project that highlighted collaborative research,” says Nadia Chana, a fourth-year doctoral student in ethnomusicology. “I’ve done many musical collaborations, but academic collaborations are newer to me. It was fascinating to experience how other people strategize and approach their work.”

For Jones, the project signifies an important beginning for the University’s next 125 years. “This is foundation building,” he says, “something people can build upon and keep expanding for years and decades to come.” 

Originally published on December 7, 2015.