The Chabraja Center: A Fresh Look at History
by Nancy Deneen
In the elegantly-paneled Leopold room in Harris Hall, an expert in European history attends a talk about researching Japanese history through maps. During the presentation, a spark of an idea is ignited: maps might be a fascinating way to explore uncharted territory in her own field. The Center for Historical Studies at Northwestern has been setting off such sparks for five years, prompting exciting conversations across subfields of history and related disciplines. In presenting their fine-grained research, speakers address the major problems of methodology, evidence, and interpretation that drive the historical discipline. The Center has also pioneered a series of international workshops and new opportunities for undergraduate research. In all its endeavors, the Center’s goal is nothing less than to encourage a fresh perspective on the study of history.
“We’re aiming for that broader and more abstract conversation,” says Timothy Breen, founding director of the Center, which sponsors about half a dozen lectures a year. “We bring in professors from around the world who are doing really distinguished research in a way that would interest historians beyond their own fields.” The most recent guest was Peter Perdue of Yale, tracing transnational environmental history through the trading of key commodities—fur, tea, and fish—in modern China.
“I learned something about my own field through Peter talking about his,” says Breen. “He invites us to imagine rich histories that flowed across traditional state and imperial boundaries. By focusing on complex commercial networks, he is able to weave stories about tea and fur producers that do not depend on the often self-serving histories of specific nations.”
The Center, housed in the newly renovated Harris Hall, has recently received a significant endowment gift from Nicholas and Eleanor Chabraja. The gift allows for expansion of its successful, and in some cases unique, programming. Conversations are crossing not only disciplinary borders but continents as well, and involving professors, graduate students, undergraduates, and, as guests, the non-academic community surrounding Northwestern.
Center programs also enrich doctoral training. Each year for the past few years, a select group of Northwestern graduate students travels abroad for a few days to meet their peers at other universities and learn how historians in a given country define their research projects. They also learn about that nation’s educational system. Workshops have taken place at the National University of Ireland in Galway, Ludwig-Maximillians-Universitat in Munich, Germany, and Cambridge University in England, with future collaborations planned in Italy, Ireland, and Turkey. A summer workshop took place in June in Brazil.
“The Rio workshop was about the perils and promise of oral history,” says Breen, the William Smith Mason professor of history and a scholar on the early American period. “In Brazil, which is as big and prosperous as the United States in some ways, scholars couldn’t do the kind of history that I do. Too many records are gone. They have been forced to rely heavily on oral histories as a central methodology, and, therefore, have a lot to teach historians working in other regions of the modern world.”
“For the graduate students, the workshops have been great in combating a certain kind of provincialism in American academics,” says Elzbieta Foeller-Pituch, the Center’s assistant director. “They go to Cambridge or the University of Dublin and see that their educational system is very different from ours, though we speak the same language. They see firsthand how history is practiced elsewhere and come away with a better understanding of what is going on outside their department, their university, their country.”
Andreana Prichard, a newly-minted Northwestern PhD in African history, remembers the first international workshop, an academic roundtable in Galway three years ago.
The topic was “Surprises in the Archives,” and—as with all Chabraja Center endeavors—it appealed to a broad array of budding historians. Prichard spoke with the group about its pertinence to her own research on African Christian women from the 19th and 20th centuries, since she had located colonial and missionary documents at a library in Tanzania in 2006, only to have them disappear by 2008.
“This prompted me to look at different physical repositories than I had expected,” says Prichard, “including an Anglican theological college, where, among personal papers, I found love letters from an Anglican priest. I was able to trace political change through unexpected sources such as these.” She shared her discoveries with her colleagues in Galway, and learned from them as well.
“We were able to have an interesting conversation about the methodologies of using sources from unexpected archives and the ethics that go along with that: How much do I divulge from the letters, some of which are quite revealing and scandalous. Do I use pseudonyms?”
The Africanist also learned a bit about obtaining a doctorate in Ireland. “It takes only three years, as opposed to seven for me here at Northwestern. But most people don’t go into academia afterwards because there just aren’t jobs. They end up teaching in secondary schools or doing museum or library work. Despite that, I was so impressed with their dedication.”
The year after the Galway trip, Prichard was selected one of two annual Chabraja Center graduate fellows. As a fellow, she arranged a public conference, “Emotions as History,” which brought together graduate students and eminent scholars and featured keynote speaker Kenda Mutongi from Williams College. During her recent job search, the experience helped distinguish Prichard from her peers at other universities, who seldom get such an opportunity. Prichard has just received a tenure track appointment in the Honors College at the University of Oklahoma, Norman.
Another Chabraja Center initiative, the Leopold Scholars program, propels a group of 15 undergraduates into doing research as an historian does it—delving into primary sources and painstakingly analyzing evidence, often with surprising and rewarding results. Leopold scholars are paired with a faculty mentor engaged in an ongoing research project, who teaches them how to interpret archival and documentary materials. The scholars devote substantial amounts of time to these faculty projects, in addition to carrying heavy course loads, writing honors theses, and engaging in other activities. They are paid a stipend, which in some cases allows for travel to distant archives. The program is supported by the Chabraja gift, and with funds from alumni who had studied with legendary history professor Richard Leopold.
“It’s a wonderful challenge, and even a little scary for undergraduates,” says Breen. “Leopold scholars are some of the best students at Northwestern, future Gates and Rhodes scholars, who are hungry for serious intellectual pursuits. I have a feeling that some of them suddenly entertain the possibility that historical research would be an interesting career path.”
Hana Suckstorff, a graduating senior, worked with Robert Lerner, history professor emeritus, on a critical and annotated edition of a treatise on the Great Schism of the West, a time (1378-1415) when the Catholic Church was divided between two men claiming to be Pope. Two texts existed—one had been discovered in the early 20th century and one recently had been uncovered in Prague by Lerner himself. The student’s challenge was to compare the texts, in Latin of course, and combine them into one.
“In the Middle Ages, there were no printing presses, so reprinting meant copying. Scribes made a lot of mistakes in the process,” explains Suckstorff. “When there were differences between the two texts, I had to decide what the better reading was. The better Latin wasn’t necessarily the most original reading. Professor Lerner was very helpful with that, a treasure trove of knowledge. I learned to read medieval Latin, which is just imperative for someone like me interested in pursuing graduate studies in the field.”
To complete the task, Lerner gave Suckstorff a crash course in paleography, how to decode ancient writings and inscriptions. Parchment was expensive, so scribes abbreviated whenever they could, resulting in manuscripts full of scribbles, dashes over words, and lines under letters.
“It’s really cool looking at the page,” says Suckstorff. “The script is flowery and beautiful. It’s even more thrilling to think, ‘I can look at that and figure out what it means.’
Suckstorff was delighted to be able to uncover a number of mistakes in the manuscripts. “I might be a lowly undergrad but I realized I can hold my own with some really smart men who lived a long time ago.”
Providing such insights and opportunities, and perhaps even launching some academic careers, has been gratifying for Nick Chabraja, a member of Northwestern’s board of trustees and the chairman and former chief executive officer of General Dynamics Corp., and his wife Eleanor. “Professor Leopold was very influential in how I approached thinking and problem-solving throughout my career, so Eleanor and I are very pleased to join other alumni in providing opportunities for today’s students.”