By Sara Patterson
Compelled to make the humanities relevant to UChicago students’ lives, Timothy Harrison focuses on creating and nurturing an intellectual community—within and outside the classroom. For his scholarship and his engagement with students, Harrison received the inaugural Chair for the Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Assistant Professor of Renaissance and Early Modern English Literature: Masterpieces from 1500–1700.
The new chair honors a scholar whose research and early career trajectory focus on the study and teaching of Renaissance English literature, showing a deep respect for primary sources and texts while reflecting a scholarly expertise in and passion for the multifaceted literary heritage of authors like William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Edmund Spenser.
“By every measure of scholarship, pedagogy, collegiality, service, and impact, Tim is worthy of this named professorship,” said Anne Walters Robertson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities and the Claire Dux Swift Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Music. “He brings great distinction to the Division of the Humanities, and I am delighted that we now have this public recognition of his accomplishments.”
When teaching English literature, Harrison burrows deeply into a given text to open up, for example, Shakespeare’s world. “I work to cumulatively build a full picture and illuminate the multiple aspects of his world,” Harrison said. “Throughout the quarter, I unpack the details of Shakespeare’s language with the students in order to introduce how the plays draw from and engage with literary, intellectual, and political history, theological and legal debate, and categories like gender and race.”
He strives to animate Renaissance and early modern literature for his students as his professors did for him when Harrison was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. “I like to get the students as actively involved as possible, with the classroom as both the learning base and a humanistic laboratory for research,” Harrison said.
His road to becoming a tenure-track professor at UChicago was unusual. Born and raised in Canada, Harrison barely passed high school and became a fashion model, working first in Canada and then pursuing assignments in such places as Milan, Italy, and Cape Town, South Africa. In Cape Town, he met his future wife, Christina Smit, who comes from the Netherlands.
“We promised each other that we would return to school and change careers," Harrison said. After a failed attempt to immigrate to the Netherlands, we moved to Canada.” There he entered an Academic Bridging Program for older students to pursue a college education, discovered that he liked to write, and was accepted at the University of Toronto.
“I had a knack for writing literary criticism, which I find intensely rewarding,” Harrison said. After earning both his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees, he obtained his position in 2014 at UChicago.
Perhaps because Harrison’s path to becoming a scholar was singular and almost accidental, he is passionate about inspiring students to study the humanities. “I am intrigued with how I can make the humanities relevant for students’ lives, something that is especially challenging when I’m teaching older texts,” he said. “That’s how I think of teaching—helping students to understand how the procedures of humanistic inquiry can both shed light on our current historical moment and enable us to become more reflexive about our own ways of thinking here and now.”
Outside the classroom, for the past five years Harrison has led a reading group for many UChicago PhD students and faculty. The group works through challenging books from authors like Robert Burton, Philip Sidney, Francesco Petrarch, and Michel de Montaigne. “I am eager to create and nurture an intellectual community at UChicago,” he said. “I want to work with as many people as possible in order deepen our shared understanding of texts, their contexts, and what they mean today.”
Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin are Chicago philanthropists and longtime supporters of the University of Chicago. In addition to funding the new Chair for an Assistant Professor for Renaissance and Early Modern English Literature, they created the Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Professorship in the Development of the English Novel to the First World War, which is currently held by Maud Ellmann, and the annual Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Family Lecture series. Randy Lamm Berlin, AM’77, is a former lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and a member and past chairperson of the Division of the Humanities Council. Melvin R. Berlin (March 23, 1929–July 26, 2019) was Chairman Emeritus and founder of Berlin Packaging, LLC.