Faculty Publications

Prof. Sianne Ngai to Address Relationship Between Aesthetic Judgments, Capitalism in Humanities Day Keynote

Sianne Ngai

An original literary scholar, Sianne Ngai has centered her work on unspooling the social and political histories that form the aesthetic judgments of novels, movies and photographs, as well as the lesser art forms of show tunes, YouTube videos, rubber duckies, stainless-steel banana peelers and emojis.

The author of three serious, philosophically dense books with deceivingly innocent titles, “Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form” (2020), “Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting” (2012), and “Ugly Feelings” (2005), she taps into American’s ordinary use of language to uncover political complexity and ambivalence.

Gaming Islam

Featured image is courtesy of Inkle Studios/Heaven's Vault.

The protagonist of Inkle Studio’s science-fiction adventure game Heaven’s Vault is an archaeologist by the name of Aliya Elasra who was born on the planet of Elboreth in a faraway nebula. Her name is Arabic, she wears a headscarf, and her planet looks a lot like the old quarter of an Arab Middle Eastern city. But Aliya is not Muslim and neither Islam nor any other earthly religion features in the game.

One of the central characters in Infinity Ward’s first-person shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is Farah Ahmed Karim, the commander of a liberation force battling the Russian occupation of her homeland. Karim’s name is also Arabic. The chemical attack on her city, her torture in prison, even the furnishings in her family home look like they were lifted from portrayals of the Syrian war. But Karim comes from Urzikstan, a fictional Caucasus country bordering the Black Sea whose name is probably a mashup of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, neither of which have sizable Arab populations.

What do video game characters like Aliya Elasra and Farah Karim teach us about the representation of Islam and Muslims in video games and the entertainment industry more broadly? Two professors at the University of Chicago, Alireza Doostdar (Divinity School) and Ghenwa Hayek (NELC), have embarked on a collaborative multimedia initiative sponsored by the Martin Marty Center to explore these questions.

September 18, 2023

Summer Program Expands Humanistic Research

Sam Remondi researches the Taschenbücher Collection in the University’s Special Collections

The College Summer Institute in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (CSI) provides UChicago undergraduate students with a research community and mentors like what their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) peers experience in the laboratory. In 2023, CSI paired 23 undergraduates with faculty research mentors for its immersive nine-week summer research program. The students presented a wide range of research projects during a celebratory closing symposium on Aug. 17, 2023.

“When I started my work with the CSI this summer, I had already conducted a fair bit of research at UChicago, though never related to the field of Assyriology,” said Sarah M. Ware,  a rising fourth-year student majoring in Classics and Medieval Studies. During the summer, she worked with a team of Assyriologists at the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures (ISAC), conducting research in preparation for their upcoming exhibition Back to School in Babylonia, which opens on Sept. 21.

“I had the rare opportunity of stepping completely outside my field and examining how those at the top of their field of Assyriology use text, media, and research archives, both differently from and similar to how I use them,” Ware said.

NEH Recognizes Three UChicago Humanities Scholars

New NEH Grants

Allyson Nadia Field is writing a transformative book about Black love in early American cinema, while Steven Rings is analyzing Bob Dylan’s overlooked musical sound. Through translation, Judith Zeitlin is capturing the literary merit of nearly 500 ghost tales written by a renowned Chinese author.

For their work, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Field and Rings as the first Public Scholar recipients at UChicago’s Division of the Humanities to each receive $60,000 grants and Zeitlin and collaborators at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to obtain a Scholarly Editions and Translations award of $298,954.

“These three humanities scholars are undertaking work that reverberates outside of academic circles and will enrich broader audiences,” said Deborah L. Nelson, dean of the Division of the Humanities and the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor of English Language and Literature and the College at UChicago.

Meet the Staff: Paul M. Goerner

Paul M. Goerner Headshot

More than 100 staff members work in the Division of the Humanities. We’ll introduce you to our staff in this continuing series.

Paul M. Goerner
Program Coordinator
Master of the Arts Program in the Humanities

What do you like most about your job?

I really appreciate being able to work in a place where I’m surrounded by curious people who are eager to learn things and engage with other folks about the things they have a passion for. Even though I’m not taking classes at the moment, I still get to learn about all sorts of fascinating subjects.

What was the last good book you read?

I absolutely love fiction, particularly of the genre variety. I tend to be one of those distractable folks who is usually doing a bad job reading three or four things at once. A couple things that have really stood out to me particularly recently include Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and Kazuo Umezu’s Cat-Eyed Boy series.

You might work with me if …

… You have any business coordinating events or other engagements with the Master of the Arts Program in the Humanities. I’m here to oversee schedules, coordinate, and support all of our events, and handle most of our immediate logistical processes. If we haven’t worked together yet, I’m definitely looking forward to meeting you.

What's the best piece of advice you've heard or received?

Here is a short video interview with the amazing artist and musician Laurie Anderson, which I like to reference because she discusses the work of essayist George W.S. Trow. She questions our current global culture’s tendency to erase the awareness of communal space that surrounds the individual, in favor of an impersonal, globalized stage modeled after celebrity media. Anderson asks us to examine the importance of recognizing the immediate connections around us and challenges us to refocus our energies there. I’ve found that advice to be a persistently valuable reminder.


Four Questions with Robert Morrissey

Robert Morrissey, the Benjamin Franklin Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, teaching in a classroom

As construction continues on the University of Chicago’s John W. Boyer Center in Paris, slated to open in autumn 2024, preparations to get its operations up and running on day one are well underway. 

To wit, Robert Morrissey, the original Center in Paris’s inaugural director, is knee-deep in his new role as executive director of the International Institute of Research in Paris (IIRP).

“[When planning for the first Center], we were building on a robust study abroad program that [former dean of the College] John Boyer did so much to foster,” Morrissey said. “It quickly became a place where faculty from a diverse range of disciplines could organize conferences and workshops, and where students could challenge themselves academically.”

Humanities Visiting Scholar Is an Artist in Exile

Fazel Ahad Ahadi photo by Matthew Gilson for the Chicago Reader

Fazel Ahad Ahadi expected to spend his whole life in Afghanistan with his extended family. At 40, the mild-mannered founder of the cinema department at the University of Kabul had recently finished building his own home, with his own hands, near the campus. His wife, Nasrin, was decorating. Baby Sana, the youngest of five children, was learning to walk. 

But in summer 2021, Ahadi found himself hastily dismissing class and speeding home to raise a bonfire of books in his backyard. The Taliban had reclaimed Afghanistan’s capital city, and a 20-year artistic renaissance had come to an abrupt and violent end. Cinema houses across the country were being demolished, Ahadi’s department would soon be disbanded, and his 150 students—almost all young women—would be expelled. Only in exile could Ahadi be safe and continue his work. It was time to go.

Media Mentions July 2023

The latest media mentions, quotes, profiles, and writings from Division of the Humanities faculty, students, staff, and alumni. Visit us on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook for more updates.

AsiaNow Speaks with Michael K. Bourdaghs
#Asia Now
Michael K. Bourdaghs (East Asian Languages and Civilizations), discusses his book, "A Fictional Commons: Natsume Sōseki and the Properties of Modern Literature," and what led him to research and rethink the fiction and literary theories of Natsume Sōseki, often celebrated as Japan’s greatest modern novelist.

Have we ruined Sex?
The Wall Street Journal
Agnes Callard (Philosophy) explores what philosophy can teach us about the value of reciprocated desire, and the significance of sex as the ritual that enacts that desire.

‘Somehow I failed to clock her magnificence’: was the world’s first literary hero a woman?
The Guardian
Jana Matuszak (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations) discusses why the ancient goddess Inanna might be the world’s oldest literary hero—older than Gilgamesh—the legendary warrior of ancient Mesopotamia.

Humanities and History Scholar Elected Fellow of the British Academy

Dipesh Chakrabarty photo by Alan Thomas

Renowned historian and Humanities scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty was elected as a Corresponding Fellow to the British Academy—the highest honor for an academic not based in the United Kingdom. Much of his career has focused on rethinking working-class history in Bengal, considering how postcolonial thought has provincialized Europe, and examining the habitations of modernity through subaltern studies.

Since 2009, however, in several published articles and books, Chakrabarty has written about a fundamental problem: Why is it so difficult for human beings to respond to climate change?

“It is very interesting and puzzling that we are not doing enough to combat climate change,” Chakrabarty said. “It is a tragic problem that human beings cannot change their attachments and respond more adequately to a dire problem."