Loyola University Chicago

Department of History


Graduate Students Attend Newberry Seminar Series

Graduate Students Attend Newberry Seminar Series

Ph.D student Kelly Schmidt participated in a full-day lecture and seminar series at the Newberry Library on November 5th. This series, conducted in association with the Chicago Humanities Council and the Karla Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture at the University of Chicago, brought together graduate students from around the Midwest for lectures and seminars with three distinguished scholars from a variety of fields. Kelly provides her reflections on this experience below. 

On Saturday, November 5, I joined graduate students from around the Midwest for a full-day lecture and seminar series at the Newberry Library in association with the Chicago Humanities Festival and the Karla Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture at the University of Chicago. We enjoyed three lectures, each followed by a seminar with the speaker.

In the first lecture, “How Taming Sleep Created our Restless World,” Benjamin Reiss discussed his forthcoming work: a book about why so many people feel frustrated by sleep in their attempts to track and manage it, because they believe that they’re “doing sleep wrong.” He described how efforts to regulate and consolidate sleep to “conform with the momentum of the industrial economy” in the nineteenth century resulted in a series of social parameters about where, when, and how one sleeps, which gradually made sleep “abnormalities” less of a spiritual affair and more a concern of science. Reiss made striking observations about how control over “normal” sleep and who was able to conform to conventional sleep patterns became a means of justification for keeping people of color, women, and impoverished laborers in states of oppression.

Following the lecture, graduate participants continued the conversation gathered around a selection of materials from the Newberry’s collection pertaining to the topics of the day, including a nineteenth-century account about Rachel Baker, a young woman who prayed aloud and discussed theology in her sleep, and a play about sleepwalking from the same period. Highlights related to the subsequent lecture were a braille-writing stencil and some of the earliest forms of books for the blind, featuring embossed script rather than braille. Perhaps the most popular item on display was Thomas Jefferson’s annotated copy of the Federalist papers.

In her lecture, “Accelerating Speech: How We Learned to Speed Listen” Mara Mills discussed the history of technology developed to increase the speed of a sound recording without altering the pitch. She elaborated on how blind scholars, who sought to read their audio textbooks more efficiently but found the resultant high pitch irritating, were instrumental in the research and implementation of high-speed listening devices.

During the seminar component, Mills introduced us to Marit MacArthur, who shared with us Gentle and Drift, two open-source tools for performative speech analysis. As she shared statistics on the number and length of pauses, pitch by genre and gender, and words per minute for different categories of spoken word, I couldn’t help but imagine how a historian might use these tools to analyze emotion or other patterns in a corpus of oral histories.

The lecture and seminar discussion with Annette Gordon-Reed centered on her recent publication “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, as well as her previous work, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. Her latest work, coauthored with Peter Onuf, looks through Jefferson’s eyes to understand how he imagined his world and his role in it, in an attempt to analyze many of his apparent contradictions over slavery and how he viewed himself (and wished to be remembered) as a part of the legacy of democracy. In the seminar we discussed Jefferson's contemporary reception (both positive and negative) in popular culture and on college campuses. Gordon-Reed further elaborated on her role in mediating many of these campus conversations. She also remarked that she hadn’t expected to be answering so many audience questions about Hamilton when she wrote the book!

Overall, I found the opportunity to be a richly rewarding experience. The lectures and conversations with scholars and peers were friendly and engaging; through them I gained appreciation for areas of scholarship about which I formerly knew very little.