2021-22 Undergraduate Thesis Prize Winners

1st Place: From Papyrus to Pixels: Optical Character Recognition Applied to Ancient Egyptian Hieratic - Julius Tabin

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) was used to investigate the morphology of Middle Egyptian Hieratic, a cursive form of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script used primarily in the ancient Egyptian Middle Kingdom and after. A data set of 13,134 individual hieratic signs was created from existing and new facsimiles and a novel, open-source program was developed to analyze them using an Image Deformation Model. This program can accurately identify individual characters and is also able to answer large-scale and longstanding questions about ancient texts, providing a starting point for future study in hieratic digital paleography.

2nd: The Financialization of the Music Industry: Songs as Assets in the New Economy - Annabelle Burns

This paper delves into the political economy of the music industry and explores the manifestations of financialization. Bringing together literature from the fields of history, economics, law, and media studies, this paper adds to our understanding of how capital flows and accumulates in the 21st century economy, arguing that music copyright has been leveraged to transform songs from commodities into assets. In examining the current landscape of the music industry, Burns demonstrates the profound impact that intellectual property, securities law, and financial activity can have on cultural output. 

3rd: Beyond the Neutral Point of View: Register, Ideology, and Community Among English-Language Wikipedia Editors - Eli Haber

Drawing on tools from linguistic anthropology, new media studies, Indigenous studies, STS, and beyond, Eli investigates the discursive practices of Wikipedia editors. He closely examines how they maintain and expand the website's articles, while simultaneously constructing the limits of their own community, and uncovers the ideological presuppositions that underlie both of these processes. Eli then applies this framework as he considers (and reframes) some commonly debated questions about Wikipedia, such as the quality of information within articles, and allegations of "systemic bias" on the website. He concludes that the sociolinguistic processes which are most central to the production of knowledge on Wikipedia are, at the same time, at the root of some of its largest problems.


2020-21 Undergraduate Thesis Prize Winners

1st Place: Der Tsoyberbarg un (d) Der Zauberberg: Bashevis’s Translation of The Magic Mountain and the Project of Yiddish Bildung

Jonah Lubin offers an extraordinarily erudite examination of the translation of Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg from its original German into the Yiddish Der Tsoyberbarg by the famed Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. Analyzing the motivations and outcomes of any translation is difficult, but here doubly so since it required mastery of both German and Yiddish. In the process, Lubin demonstrates not simply what the translator got right or wrong – the objective of most scholarship on specific translations – but how passages of narration and passages of dialogue differentially and self-consciously emphasized German or Yiddish phraseology as a means to contribute to the formation of a Yiddish intellectual culture during the interwar period.


2nd Place: Continuum: Time, Masculinity, and Death in Chicagoland’s Mexican Street Gangs

Emilio Balderas offers a timely analysis of how Chicago’s Mexican street gangs negotiate the specter of death that permanently haunts their communities. Although the final argument was certainly fascinating – that the ubiquity of death produces an ethos of masculinity that is grounded in melancholy – what was most appealing about this paper was the originality of its method. Rather than producing anthropological knowledge in traditional ethnographic fashion, Balderas created a process of both research and writing in which, by trading memories of his own experiences in this community with those of his interlocutors, together they produced a collaborative autoethnography that evokes the conclusions of the paper as much as state them outright. The final result was a lyrical presentation that effectively transitions between argumentation and semifictional narrative.


3rd Place: A Spectrum of Permissibility: Unrecognized Vaccine Hesitancy in American Smallpox Epidemics

Eleanor Cambron explores the by-now-familiar problem of vaccine hesitancy but does so in an unfamiliar venue: the smallpox epidemics that were chronic to the United States during early 20th century. Although the legal battles waged against mandatory smallpox vaccinations by white middle class men are often cited by scholars as essential moments in the country’s history of vaccination, she used meticulous analysis of original documents like newspaper stories to reveal an untold story of vaccine resistance from migrants, people of color, and laborers. By proving that the lower a resistance community’s social status was, the more likely it was to be abused by state authorities and forcibly vaccinated against their will, she brings to the fore social groups that have been neglected by historians of this subject, while also offering an implicit warning to students of the current “anti-vax” movement not to treat their subjects simplistically or insensitively.


3rd Place: Removing the Scientific Self: Objectivity, Race, and Yellow Fever Immunity Theories in Nineteenth Century New Orleans

Cecilia Katzenstein examines the yellow fever outbreaks that plagued New Orleans during the 19th C. Katzenstein cleverly uses two prominent New Orleans doctors and their longstanding rivalry and competing explanations for the variation of outbreaks among locals and newcomers as a metaphor for the transition that the field of medicine was then undergoing. Ironically, by rejecting claims of acclimation, which allowed locals to erroneously believe they were somehow more immune to yellow fever, and replacing it with objective approaches to knowledge formation, the latter planted the seeds for structural medical racism to take root, in this case resulting in the seductive but racist assumptions of anatomical differences between races as the explanatory mechanism for populations’ different immunity traits.


2019-20 Undergraduate Thesis Prize Winners

1st Place: "He will swallow up the covering which is over all the peoples": Paschal Preparation in a Kloster Lüne Fastentüch

Clare Kemmerer's thesis is a remarkable tour de force. Its object of study is a single piece of embroidery, a Lenten veil produced at the Kloster Lüne in Lüneburg, Lower Saxony, but this description understates dramatically the range of learning and multidisciplinary insight that Kemmerer brings to bear, commencing from access that she negotiated with the convents in the region and proceeding to a deeply knowing account of the process of whitework embroidery. Kemmerer's skills as a reader and viewer allows remarkable insight into the theological and iconological domains of these cloths, at once modest and stunning, gendered and silent.


2nd Place: The Gilet Jaune Movement: A Crisis Point for French Democracy?

The power, range and insight of Camille Kirsch's thesis is all the more noteworthy as it was born of accident. Happening upon an early protest in the gilet jaune movement, she conceived a project to study its organization, impact and the background and aspirations of its participants. The research amounted to the study of a social movement in real time, and the amount of early literature and commentary that Kirsch assembles is matched by original empirical research. The effort to understand a broad, non-institutionalized social movement, one that declined to engage with intermediary institutions or intervene in "politics," now looks all the more timely. Kirsch rightly deplores a political science that declines to see such movements as political and is therefore unable to account for their power.


3rd Place: Ruinnetto’s Loaf: The Effect of the 1590 Famine on Sixteenth-Century Bolognese Dietetics

Lena Breda's thesis extends some of the splendid achievements of recent Italian historiography—in archival history, microhistory, and the history of food—to serve as the basis for sweeping and well-grounded conclusions about the intertwined histories of dietetics, class and taste. The project commences from archival research in Florence and in Bologna concerning correspondence between the two cities, and circles around the impact of a famine in 1590. Breda reveals how anxieties about social disorder, especially the changing relationship between town and country, were expressed in symbolic debates about who ate what kind of bread. This contributed to a shift in dietetic thinking that emphasized the good taste of (urban) elites as the basis for social distinction in an increasingly stratified Europe. A concluding chapter carries the inquiry and its implications forward into the historiography of the industrial revolution.


Honorable Mentions

Multivalence of Cure in the Context of Type 2 Diabetes (David Zhao)

David Zhao provides an exceptionally crafted and thorough study of the socially-constructed nature of understandings of scientific concepts. At an historical level, Zhao urges that the modern notion of cure derives from the experience of the application of antibiotics to infectious diseases. On the basis of this paradigmatic experience, "cures" are expected to effect a permanent resolution to a disease; they are expected to bring about more benefit than harm; and they are responses to acts of diagnosis. Zhao matched these historical insights with a sociological study based on surveys and interviews with patients and clinicians at the Medical Center. His work reveals a diversity of understandings according to the social and institutional position of parties, patient, clinician and researcher, and suggests, most modestly, that greater mutual understanding might lead to better outcomes of care.

Translating a Paradigm: Empiricism in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Chemistry (Mark Yushan Chen)

"Translating a paradigm" draws splendidly on Mark Yushan Chen's formation as a dual major in Chemistry and History. Chen commences from a model of scientific development based on Thomas Kuhn's notion of the paradigm shift. He then poses the question how such shifts should be studied and understood when they occur across cultural and linguistic divides. His specific topic is the arrival of Western chemistry in nineteenth-century Japan. The thesis is organized as an inquiry into text and practice, meaning both the history of a project of translation, and the history of an institute of higher education in chemistry. Chen concludes that Japan domesticated Western chemistry in a distinctive epistemological framework, and urges that the notion of the paradigm shift should itself by reframed in such contexts of cultural transfer, adducing the notion (and metaphor) of translation in fascinating supplement.


2018-19 Undergraduate Thesis Prize Winners

1st Place: Managing the Biocultural: Nature, Knowledge, and Governance in the Oaxacan Forestry Sector (Elena Peterman)

“Managing the Biocultural” considers how histories of indigeneity, constructions of the natural, and the making of authoritative scientific knowledge converge to shape forestry practice and delimit possibilities of governance and autonomy in southern Mexico. This thesis explores competing notions of nature and futurity in Oaxacan forests, drawing from three months of work and ethnographic research with a technical forestry non-profit. Leaning on participant-observation and attending closely to the aesthetic and the material, this research complicates assertions of ‘apolitical’ status among practitioners of technoscientific environmental management, asserting that 'neutral' technical practice is deeply rooted in neocolonial logics. In the context of looming climate crisis and expanding extractive industry, the case of technical forestry in Oaxaca evidences how mandates for conservation and sustainability may work to reinstate patterns of dispossession and marginalization. In a landscape defined both by ecological abundance and ongoing coloniality, how might better environmental governance be achieved? 

2nd Place: THE FORGOTTEN SOUTH: Race, Federalism, and Lingering Health Disparities in the Modern-Day Black Belt (Cole Martin)

Cole Martin’s “The Forgotten South: Race, Federalism, and Lingering Health Disparities in the Modern-Day Black Belt” (advisor: Ruth Bloch Rubin) at its core looks at what happens when a historically underserved region is forgotten and subsequently neglected by policymakers. Drawing on political theory, race studies, history, policy analysis, and medicine, this thesis more specifically analyzes the extent to which contemporary health outcomes in the South’s rural Black Belt region vary disproportionately by race. Ultimately, Martin finds that rural counties populated disproportionately by black residents suffer higher mortality rates from preventable diseases and face more hospital closures than similarly rural counties populated disproportionately by white residents. And rather than an inevitability assured by a long history of subjugation, these disparities are in part constructed by modern-day health policies that neglect the unique needs of one of America’s most vulnerable regions. Broadly, this research suggests that who policymakers set out to serve matters just as much as the actual content of policy itself.

3rd Place: Fundamentally Intertwined: John von Neumann’s Scientific and Mathematical Methodology Through His Works on Quantum Mechanics (Celia Wan)

In “Fundamentally Intertwined,” Wan argues that von Neumann established a scientific methodology that regards mathematics and physics as one inseparable research enterprise rather than two disparate fields, and the formation of this methodology was prompted by the chaotic intellectual atmosphere in mathematics and physics during the early twentieth century. Consequently, through the lens of this scientific methodology, we are able to achieve new understanding of von Neumann’s works on the mathematical foundation of quantum mechanics, not as an extension of his mathematical ambition but a realization of his methodological commitment. Under this methodological blueprint, mathematics could provide physical theories with a clear, unified formal framework, while physics could also further mathematical research by supplying it with empirical inspirations. The ultimate hope is that this mutually beneficial relationship that bonds mathematics and physics together could navigate mathematicians and physicists alike away from the philosophical confusion and ensures the continuous advancement of the scientific enterprise as a whole.

Honorable Mentions

Unholy Trinity: Edward Aveling’s Atheism, Darwinism, and Socialism in late Victorian Britain (Andrew Cohen)

This intellectual biography follows the life and works of writer, socialist, and playwright Edward Bibbins Aveling (1849-1898), one of the foremost popularizers of Darwinian evolution in late Victorian Britain. Apart from his role as a scientific educator, Aveling married Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor and became a strong influence on the British socialist and secular movements, promoting the idea that evolution could provide a scientific foundation for leftist politics. Through a close analysis of Aveling’s diverse body of works, which span from scientific educational diagrams and lectures on Marxism to one-act comedies, “Unholy Trinity” traces Aveling’s intellectual development and evaluates the coherence of his ‘scientific socialism.’ 

ZÀO: A History of Chinese Dishcourse through Famine and Revolution (Siri Lee)

Siri Lee's ZÀO: A History of Chinese Dishcourse through Famine and Revolution (advisor: Patrick Jagoda) combines archival sources with her own original writing and drawings to form an overtly false historical epic that satirically and critically restages modern Chinese history. Through text and images, it reimagines events leading up to and during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), movements launched by the Chinese Communist Party and which cumulatively took 20-40 million lives through state-sponsored famine and violence. A central concern of ZÀO is how, be it as its descendants or bystanders, we can begin to understand traumatic historical pasts across boundaries of time, culture, and politically-motivated ignorance and amnesia. As strange fiction, ZÀO itself functions as such an attempt to and form of speculative knowledge.

White Minds, Red Lines: The University of Chicago and Racial Capitalism from 1925 to 1940 (Claire Hagerty)

Claire Hagerty's "White Minds, Red Lines" looks at the University of Chicago not only as a property owner, but as an idea generator. Specifically, the paper examines how the sociological theories of the Chicago School permeate through local and national government, real estate firms, and the University administration. These theories which established a wide-spread stereotype which associated race with property value laid the groundwork for segregationist policies which excluded Black Chicagoans from the neighborhoods nearby the campus.

2017-18 Undergraduate Thesis Prize Winners

In the 2017-18 application cycle, submissions were so strong that Stevanovich Institute faculty offered a total of three prizes, as well as three honorable mentions, to recognize outstanding undergraduate theses dealing with topics related to the formation of knowledge. 

1st Place: "Clinical Concresences: Integration in Contemporary Chinese Medicine Gynecology" (Colin Garon)

Colin Garon’s “Clinical Concrescences: Integration in Contemporary Chinese Medicine Gynecology” (advisor: Judith Farquhar) draws from three months of ethnographic research in Beijing hospitals, alongside readings of contemporary Chinese medicine textbooks and other Chinese-language publications on Chinese medicine, in order to explore the integration of biomedical visual technologies and disease entities into the practice of Chinese medicine gynecology. Through a close analysis of the mechanics of clinicians’ translations between biomedical uterine growths and zhengjia, a classical Chinese-medical disease category meaning ‘concretions and conglomerations,’ Colin argues that the processes of condensation by which these masses form within the body operate also as a theory of integration as ‘concrescence,’ or novel coming-together, elaborated across historical, ontological, and practical planes.

2nd Place: "Self-Evidence: Mathematical Certainty in Early Modern Europe (1600-1750)” (Julia Tomasson)

Julia Tomasson’s “Self-Evidence: Mathematical Certainty in Early Modern Europe (1600-1750)” (advisors: Lorraine Daston & Andrei Pop) demonstrates that the definition of self-evidence changes over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Looking at the works and intellectual contexts of René Descartes, John Locke, Gottfried Leibniz, and George Berkeley, this thesis shows an evolution in the standards of self-evidence, in a meaningful “self” to whom these things are known, and in attributes of universality which were essential in the premodern period but lose their charm and claim by the middle of the eighteenth century.

3rd Place: “Learning to Read Persian After the Persianate: The Politics and Poetics of Classical Persian in Colonial Bombay, 1870-1900” (Darren Wan Jian Yong)

“Learning to Read Persian After the Persianate: The Politics and Poetics of Classicism in Colonial Bombay, 1870-1900,” by Darren Wan Jian Yong (advisors: Thibaut d'Hubert and John Woods), examines the reception of classical Persian texts and the construction of Persianate literary knowledge by way of high school textbooks that were published in late nineteenth-century Bombay. Once the language of law and governance in the Mughal court, Persian ceded the prestige it once enjoyed to English in the early nineteenth century. The revival of Persian as a classical language in Bombay’s government schools in 1870, then, may seem incongruent with institutional hostilities toward the language. Yet the vision of Persian literary history projected in government-sanctioned textbooks was an attenuated one. In particular, the framework of classicism remolded the process of reading and learning to read Persian, severing Muslim, Parsi, and Hindu students from their once intimate connection to the subcontinent’s Persianate past.

Honorable Mentions

“An Inquiry Into the Politicization of Texts: The Piketty Contradiction and the Overlooked Relationship Between Neoclassical and Serial History” (Pablo Balsinde)

Pablo Balsinde’s “An Inquiry Into the Politicization of Texts: The Piketty Contradiction and the Overlooked Relationship Between Neoclassical and Serial History” (advisor: Robert J. Richards) discovers the role of disciplines in making or obscuring the transparency of works of scholarship. Thomas Piketty’s recent Capital in the 21st Century is most often read as a contribution to political economy in the vein of Karl Marx’s still more famous Capital. What the reading of this work as political economy obscures, however, is its debt to an entirely different intellectual undertaking, the “history of the long term,” deliberately short of dates and personalities, advocated by the Annales school of historians. Restoring the Annales background of Piketty’s work relieves the reading of the book of one of its major contradictions, surrounding the importance or irrelevance of institutions. This essay argues for precisely the kind of multi-disciplinary strategy that the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge seeks to foster.

“Statecraft, Race, and the Ethics of Care: US Army Recruiting in Chicago” (Alyssa Rodriguez)

"Statecraft, Race, and the Ethics of Care: US Army Recruiting in Chicago,” by Alyssa Rodriguez (advisors: Darryl Li and John Kelly), is an intimate ethnography of scenes from our own back yard. It gives space and narrative agency to participants in a negotiation that all sides know is not absolutely free and unconstrained, and where some information asymmetry is bound to occur: namely the decision of a young person to commit to several years of military service, and the decision of the army to confer on this young person the benefits of service and the rudiments of a career. Death, wounding, and a scarcity of jobs hover around the discussion without being explicitly evoked (or needing to be). The result is a fine piece of participant-observer analysis. 

“Classical Scholarship in the Early Modern World: An Examination of Erasmus’s Editions of Seneca” (Timothy Cunningham)

Timothy Cunningham’s “Classical Scholarship in the Early Modern World: An Examination of Erasmus’s Editions of Seneca” (advisors: Ada Palmer, Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer) demonstrates that text-editing in the sixteenth century was both a highly technical and a potentially unsettling business. Erasmus’s editions of Seneca cleared away many old fallacies, including some that had been convenient for bridging the classical and Christian worlds, and gave moderns a new ancestor. Their role in nascent print culture is here shown with precision and learning.

Jonah Lubin, BA Comparative Literature, German and Jewish Studies

Thesis advisors Na'ama Rokem, Associate Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature & Comparative Literature and Jessica Kirzane, Assistant Instructional Professor in Yiddish in the Department of Germanic Studies

Emilio Balderas, BA Anthropology

Thesis advisor P. Sean Brotherton, Associate Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences in the College

Eleanor Cambron, BA History

Thesis advisor Michael Rossi, Associate Professor of the History of Medicine, the Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science and the College

Cecilia Katzenstein, BA History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science and Medicine

Thesis advisor Emily Webster, History, University of Chicago

Clare Kemmerer, BA Art History and Religious Studies

Camille Kirsch, BA Political Science and French

Lena Breda, BA History, Minor in Italian Literature and Culture

Eli Haber, BA Anthropology and Linguistics

Julius Tabin, BA Biological Science and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations 

Annabelle Burns, BA Law, Letters, and Society