‘Freaks of Fortune’ Author Leaves Princeton for U. of Chicago

September 08, 2015

Jonathan I. Levy

An Intellectual Home

It wasn’t an easy decision for Jonathan I. Levy to leave the history department at Princeton University, where he earned tenure last year. This fall, however, the acclaimed young scholar will return to the institution that guided him toward his academic career: the University of Chicago.

Mr. Levy, who will teach four courses a year as an associate professor of U.S. history, earned his master’s degree in history at Chicago in 2003 and his Ph.D. in the subject in 2008. He then joined the faculty at Princeton, which was "a great place to start my career," he says. "I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else besides Princeton in the last seven years."

While there, in 2012, he published his book Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America.

Chicago’s appeal, Mr. Levy says, stems in part from its attractive opportunities for research and collaboration between departments, which he considers essential for his area of expertise, economic history. The field is "at a really important moment" stemming from the 2008 financial crisis, he says; the disciplines had largely split apart, but since then, historians’ interest in economics has been renewed.

Mr. Levy considered offers from other institutions, but Chicago’s interdisciplinary workshop series helped win him over. The workshops involve faculty members and graduate students across departments in the social sciences and humanities who meet to discuss their works in progress, including dissertation proposals and articles.

"History needs economics," he says. But as economics moved toward math and models that didn’t account for historical change, he says, it became clear that "economics needs history, too."

As Mr. Levy continues to develop his second and third books — one on the history of American capitalism, the other on nonprofit and for-profit corporations — he sees another aspect of Chicago that will support his work: The university has a law school and a business school, which Princeton does not.

Among his new colleagues in the history department are his two Ph.D. supervisors, Thomas C. Holt and Amy Dru Stanley. Mr. Holt wrote in an email that Mr. Levy’s work "is informed by a broad, eclectic historical imagination." He praised Freaks of Fortune for its synthesis of social and cultural topics as well as legal and economic history, and he predicted that Mr. Levy "will be intellectually at home at Chicago."— Sarah Brown

An ‘Old School’ Historian

David Hackett Fischer

To write a compelling historical narrative, David Hackett Fischer says, he follows three steps: First, go there. Second, do the research. Third, tell the story.

Mr. Fischer, a professor of history at Brandeis University, won this year’s Pritzker Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing, an honor given by the Pritzker Military Museum & Library that includes a $100,000 honorarium.

On the path to writing more than a dozen books, Mr. Fischer has tracked down the origins of American regional accents through research in local British county record offices and has retraced the routes of the French explorer Samuel de Champlain. He continues to teach the American Revolution to Brandeis undergraduates at the age of 79, after 104 semesters on the job.

Kenneth Clarke, chief executive of the Pritzker museum, says the purpose of the award is to encourage the study of military history. The subject became unfashionable in academe after the Vietnam War, he says, when "professors who persisted with it were viewed as being pro-war, or pro-soldiers, or pro-violence, or whatever it is that they were pro." He says Mr. Fischer was chosen for his "incomparable" writing on the American Revolution, as well as for teaching military history.

Mr. Fischer has written two dedicated military histories — Washington’s Crossing and Paul Revere’s Ride. He also counts sections of his book Champlain’s Dream in that category. The professor’s scholarship also concentrates on social, cultural, and economic history.

"I think of myself as a historian of the old school, and by old school, I mean the school of Herodotus," he says.

In the spirit of Herodotus, the ancient Greek author and geographer, Mr. Fischer always begins his research with an inquiry, as opposed to a hypothesis, he says. His research often requires "big data." In the 1970s, he investigated regional wealth distribution in the United States, using IBM punch cards to analyze data. His findings were included in his 1989 book, Albion’s Seed.

Now, he says, historians have greater access to data, which has enabled links with other disciplines, like economics. Meanwhile, the profession has also come to embrace "contingency," which Mr. Fischer defines as "people making choices, and choices making a difference in the world." The intersection between contingency and data is a feature of his book in progress, on Afro-European cultures that formed in America. It will draw from two recently completed databases of slaves and slave voyages.

"I believe that we are all African, but in many different ways, and I want to celebrate that, even as I want to condemn slavery and the horrible, destructive consequences of racism in America," Mr. Fischer says. "But to celebrate what Afro-European people did in America is what that book is all about." — Isaac Stein

From Stanford to Lincoln

Stephen C. Cooper

Stephen C. Cooper doesn’t like being "smack dab in the middle of things." He’d rather be out at the edge, he says, and trying to go in different directions.

So the associate professor of computer science plans to leave the tech mecca of Stanford University to lead the Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Mr. Cooper, who has a background in computer-science education, is well known for his work with Alice, a 3-D-software program originated by Randy Pausch that was used to teach visual programming. As graduate students, Mr. Cooper and Wanda Dann approached Mr. Pausch, then a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, with their ideas on how to use Alice to teach programming. (Mr. Pausch died in 2008.)

"We met with Randy at 10 p.m. at night and we thumped down this textbook that we had already written on the table," he says. "That’s when he realized we were serious."

Mr. Cooper won’t be showing up at Raikes in January with a textbook of ideas, though. It’s too early to have big plans, says Mr. Cooper, who adds that this is his first leadership role and he needs to learn more. But he is excited about the opportunity to put his stamp on a program, especially one that is interdisciplinary and offers courses in technical communication and writing. "I like that it’s a program that’s in comparatively good shape, so I’m not picking up pieces or trying to lay off half the department," he says. "But it’s also an administrative position where I can grow and learn and can effect change once we decide what the changes will be."

His executive-director role is somewhere between those of a department chair and a dean. He reports to the dean of arts and sciences but is in charge of a relatively small group of people. "So you have the ear of the upper administration but not the size that makes it harder to respond to all your constituencies," he says.

For computer science, there might be no place like Silicon Valley, but Mr. Cooper is enthusiastic about Lincoln, a city he says is poised for growth. "Lincoln has its own strengths in being small and having a tighter community, but also having the business environment and the university," he says. And, he adds, "the housing is affordable." — Angela Chen

A Rare Honor

Warren F. Motte Jr., a professor of French and Italian at the University of Colorado at Boulder, will be decorated this month as a chevalier, or knight, in the Order of the Academic Palms. The award, from the French government, is granted not only to French citizens but also to foreigners who promote French education and culture outside France.

Mr. Motte has written several books on contemporary French literature, focusing on emerging writers. He has also helped some French authors have their work translated into English and published in the United States.


Cancer Researcher Dies

Sidney Mirvish, a cancer researcher who had taught at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, died on August 18. He was 86.

Mr. Mirvish was a professor emeritus at the university’s Eppley Institute for Research in Cancer and Allied Diseases. His work, which was supported by the National Cancer Institute through 2013, led to changes in how lunch meats, hot dogs, and sausages are made, a university news release said. He found that adding Vitamin C to those products inhibited the formation of carcinogenic N-nitrosamines.

He became interested in carcinogenesis while working at the Weizmann Institute, in Israel. He then worked at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at the University of Wisconsin before joining the Eppley Institute, where he served as interim and associate director from 1981 to 1986. — Anais Strickland

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