History of the Division

History of the Division

In 1890 world-renowned faculty and research resources (a library, an academic press, and laboratories) were gathered to form a new university near the southern tip of Lake Michigan. The nonsectarian, coeducational institution was modeled on the graduate research universities of Germany, but also maintained ties to the growing metropolis of Chicago through an adult extension program and pioneering research of the city itself. A refusal of a priori ideas came to characterize Chicago, both the city and the university. The University of Chicago's progressive faculty were known for actively questioning the organization of knowledge into existing scholarly disciplines and restructuring knowledge into new disciplines. In the 1920s alone, art (1925), linguistics (1926), and sociology (1929) established themselves as newly distinct disciplines at UChicago or redefined the nature of their research. Humanists guided these efforts from the beginning: the University's first president, William Rainey Harper, was a scholar of Semitic languages, and six of the University's thirteen presidents have been humanists.

In 1930, President Robert Maynard Hutchins further encouraged disciplinary innovation by creating four graduate divisions: the humanities and the three sciences—social, physical, and biological. Rather than follow the typical arts and sciences model where all graduate studies are combined, disciplines were grouped together based on those most likely to collaborate in research pursuits. To this day, the divisions have encouraged sustained criticism of knowledge by like-minded faculty that continues to inform the University's intellectual culture.

Hutchins's second achievement was to introduce disciplinary inventiveness and new research to undergraduates. A series of general education courses in the College (now called the Common Core) provides the best introduction to a set of fields possible, because the curriculum is developed and taught by the best scholars in their fields. A UChicago liberal education is conducted from the standpoint of multiple disciplines but beholden to none, which provides opportunities for critical inquiry, the discovery of knowledge, and fluency in foreign languages. Faculty in the Humanities teach seven core sequences as well as over fifty foreign languages for our undergraduates every quarter.

Time Line

1890 Incorporation of the University of Chicago, founded by John D. Rockefeller and the American Baptist Education Society.

1892 First classes held at the University. The humanities are taught within the Graduate School of Arts, Literature, and Science.

1909 Department of English grants the first UChicago PhD for a dissertation on a topic in American literature; previously, dissertations had been firmly rooted in the British tradition.

1921 Georgiana R. Simpson (c. 1866–1944), AB 1911, AM '20, PhD '21, is awarded a doctorate in German literature for "Herder's Conception of 'Das Volk'"; hers is one of the three first PhD degrees awarded to African-American women in the United States. Simpson taught at Howard University from 1931–39.

1926 The first modern department of linguistics in the United States is formed at the University. Variously named the Department of Linguistics and the Department of Comparative Philology and General Linguistics, the names reflect both a debt to the older discipline of philology and the newer field of structural linguistics. Scholars of Native American languages recognized a need for a general theory of linguistic structure to aid analysis of languages that differed from Indo-European languages. Two of the three scholars responsible for the new theory—Franz Boaz, Edward Sapir, and Leonard Bloomfield—were affiliated with UChicago: Sapir joined the Humanities faculty in 1925 and Bloomfield came in 1927.

1930 Under the leadership of President Robert Maynard Hutchins (1929-45), the Division of Humanities is established as one of four graduate divisions, with the other three being branches of science: biological, physical, and social sciences. The reforms gave divisional deans greater fiscal and administrative authority over departments and stimulated curricular innovation across traditional academic boundaries, which remains a hallmark of higher education at Chicago to the present day.

1931 Martin A. Ryerson (1856-1932) donates a rare copy of the Canterbury Tales (the "McCormick Manuscript") to the University Library. Discovered by Professors John M. Manly and Edith Rickert in the course of the Chaucer project (1924-40), this mid-fifteenth-century codex is one of fifty-seven relatively complete manuscript copies of the Tales and one of only two containing a passage from the "Tale of Melibeus." Ryerson, a noted Chicago philanthropist and collector, shared his administrative talents and fortune with several of Chicago's noteworthy cultural institutions.

1931 The University's Radio Office produces The University of Chicago Round Table. From 1933 to 1955 the program aired nationally on NBC and at its peak was broadcast on more than ninety NBC-affiliated stations. The show featured professors and others discussing issues of the day. Edward "Ned" Rosenheim of the Department of English moderated and produced the Round Table in the midfifties.

1932 The Documentary Film Group, the oldest college film society in the country, is established. Doc Films shows avant-garde and mainstream films every night of the academic year in the Max Palevsky Theater. Directors and critics such as Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Pauline Kael, and Arthur Knight have all presented films or lead discussions. Especially notable are Doc's quarter-long film series, such as the silent films of Oscar Micheaux, "Queer Heroes," or a "History of Animation," which arose from proposals made by individuals and groups.

1943 As part of the national effort to train the military and civilians, the University of Chicago housed two intensive language programs funded by the government. The Army Specialized Training School and the Civil Affairs Training School both offered three-month language training courses that proved surprisingly effective. The wartime experiences pushed universities toward curricular relevance in international studies and brought the government and the academy into new relationships. Perhaps no fields were as strongly affected by this newly developing relationship as were humanist and social science research concerned with the non-Western world.

1946 The prestigious latke-hamantash debate is established. Each November Nobel laureates, University presidents, and distinguished scholars consider the question that ranks among the most enduring of human history: latke or hamantash? Is the muscular potato pancake or the prim Purim pastry the worthier food?

1947 Chicago Review founded. One of the oldest and most innovative literary quarterlies in the United States, this graduate-student edited and managed journal has featured the work of Susan Sontag, Allen Ginsberg, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, and Tennessee Williams, among others. Each issue contains poetry, fiction, and criticism from established and up-and-coming writers. The Review celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2006-7.

1951 Anthropologist Robert Redfield begins the Comparative Civilizations Project. Redfield aimed to combine the efficiency of the military-style area programs, which were designed to give people "particular competencies to do particular kinds of things," with the objectives of university education, which was "to make intelligent citizens, or to train the mind for intelligent action." With its initial focus on South Asia, the project expanded into the establishment of other "area institutes," which developed over the following decades as interdisciplinary centers for the integrated study of non-Western cultures.

1955 Improvisational comedy is born at the University of Chicago. Mike Nichols, Elaine May, David Shepherd, and Paul Sills adapted children's theater games to an idea they had, partly inspired by Berthold Brecht, for a politically and socially relevant form of cabaret theater. This was the Compass Players and the precursor to Second City, founded four years later.

1955-6 The University produces The Humanities, a thirteen-week, noncredit course broadcast on Chicago's new public television station, WTTW, whose studios were then located in the Museum of Science and Industry.

1957 Joshua C. Taylor's slender Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts is published; it will go on to sell over 300,000 copies and help two generations of artists and art historians develop a comprehensive view of the visual arts. Taylor (1917-81) joined the Department of Art in 1949. He was appointed director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art in 1970, but continued as a professor at Chicago until 1974. His tenure at the National Museum was marked by advancing the role of museums as scholarly training grounds and avoiding "blockbuster" shows: he once quipping that "more than five people in front of one painting is a mob."

1961 Publication of the first edition of Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction, which transformed the criticism of fiction and soon became a classic in the field. One of the most widely used texts in fiction courses, it has become a standard reference point in advanced discussions of how fictional form works, how authors make novels accessible, and how readers recreate texts. Booth's concepts and terms-such as "the implied author," "the postulated reader," and "the unreliable narrator"-have become part of the standard critical lexicon.

1962 Language Laboratory and Archives is established by Professors Norman A. McQuown and Eric P. Hamp, with funding from the Ford Foundation. It is described as "probably the most complete and best equipped language laboratory in the country."

1976 Saul Bellow (1915-2005) is awarded Pulitzer Prize for Humboldt's Gift, and the Nobel Prize in Literature "for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work."

1979 Humanities Day (originally called the Humanities Open House) is inaugurated by Dean Karl J. Weintraub, AB 1949, AM '52, PhD '57 and Annette Cronin, AM'88, Director of the University Office of Special Events, as a way to put the Division's scholarship on display for the public.

1982 Amidst a nationwide decline in graduate enrollment, President Hanna H. Gray mandates the Baker Commission to examine local and national trends in graduate education and to provide a rationale for the improvement and reform of the graduate programs at Chicago. The commission's major recommendations were implemented within the year. The commission noted that following the completion of courses and formal admission to doctoral candidacy many students were left largely on their own, "with no real opportunity or impulse to expose their ideas or written material to critical discussion." To remedy this deficiency, the University established regular faculty-student workshops for discussions of ongoing doctoral work. By 1988, more than six-hundred students were enrolled in workshops. Spurred by the reforms, Chicago's four graduate divisions began registering steady gains in applications and enrollments.

1990 A humanities institute is founded at Chicago to consider the changing notions of a liberal education and to be a genius loci for the critical examination of ideas and free-ranging argument among scholars and the public. In honor of a 2.5 million dollar gift by Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke, the center was named the Franke Institute for the Humanities in 1998.

1991 Shulamit Ran, Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor, wins the Pulitzer Prize for Music for Symphony.

1996 Center for Gender Studies is established by a group of faculty from across the University to consolidate work on gender and sexuality, as well as feminist, gay, lesbian, and queer studies. Along with fostering teaching, research, and discussion at the University, the center seeks to reach out into public areas where gender and sexuality come together with political, artistic, and intellectual concerns. The center's interdisciplinary approach draws faculty from departments as diverse yet interconnected as literature, history, sociology, anthropology, cinema and media studies, law, and medicine.

2002 Joseph Neubauer, MBA 1965, and Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer give 5 million dollars to endow the Neubauer Presidential Fellowships in the Humanities. Reflecting on their gift in 2006 Mr. Neubauer said: "Everything Jeanette and I have in life, we owe to our education... That is why so much of our philanthropy is about furthering education." To date, their gift marks the single largest donation to support the scholarship of Divisional graduate students.

Deans of the Division

Graduate School of Arts and Literatures

  • William Rainey Harper 1892-1893
Henry Pratt Judson 1893-1906

  • Albion W. Small 1906-1923

  • Gordon J. Laing 1923-1930
  • Division of the Humanities

  • Gordon J. Laing 1930-1935

  • Richard P. McKeon 1935-1947
Robert M. Strozier, Acting Dean, 1947-1948
Thorkild Jacobsen 1948-1951

  • Napier Wilt 1951-1962

  • Robert E. Streeter 1962-1973

  • Karl J. Weintraub 1973-1983
Stuart M. Tave 1984-1989

  • Philip Gossett 1989-1999

  • Janel Mueller 1999-2004

  • Danielle Allen 2004-2007

  • Martha T. Roth 2007-2016
  • Anne Walters Robertson 2016-2023
  • Deborah L. Nelson 2023 to present