Inaugural CHESS Gala – Yale Club, New York 20 February 2014

Members of the CHESS faculty steering committee and outside supporters of CHESS gathered for a lively evening of wide-ranging discussion and lively conviviality in the Council Room of the Yale Club in New York City.

Julia Adams, professor of Sociology and co-founder of CHESS, emceed the affair, which featured short presentations of recent work by the professors in attendance, and an examination of its multidisciplinary influence and contemporary impact. Naomi Lamoreaux, professor of Economics and History, kicked off the evening by describing her somewhat surprising finding that U.S. legal concepts of “corporate personality,” based on research undertaken with Ruth Bloch of UCLA have a more complex and longer history than is usually assumed. Her presentation led Jonathan Massey a guest, to describe the ways this scholarship facilitated his filing (on behalf of Naomi and other scholars) of an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the recent Hobby Lobby case. Naomi emphasized that she hadn’t foreseen that her research would have such contemporary relevance, but that, in good CHESS fashion, one should always be open to such possibilities.

Professor Naomi Lamoreaux
Professor Naomi Lamoreaux

Lamoreaux was followed by Professor Steven Wilkinson of the political science department. Steven discussed his new project on the relationship between warfare and political upheaval. What role did veteran soldiers play in in major political change? Based on a soon to be published book comparing the role of the military in post-independence Pakistan and India, he hypothesizes that soldiers learn skills in the army that become politically relevant at home, ranging from combat experience to organizational techniques. He offered the example of French soldiers who returned from fighting in the American Revolutionary War to play significant roles in the French Revolution.

Professor Wilkinson
Professor Steven Wilkinson

Finally, Ayesha Ramachandran, who recently joined the Comparative Literature faculty, presented key ideas underpinning her forthcoming book on “cosmopolitan world-making”and the primacy of maps in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was in this period, rather than our own, Ayesha pointed out, that many begin to think about the world as a totality. Globalization, Ramachandran concludes, was emphatically early-modern in conception.

Professor Ayesha Ramachandran
Professor Ayesha Ramachandran

The presentations stimulated exciting discussion among the participants and collectively demonstrated what we are trying to do in CHESS. CHESS, I pointed out, seeks to bring the humanities and social sciences together – with potential input from the sciences as well – to think through problems of contemporary relevance in new ways by adding an historical dimension. While many other universities have responded to the “crisis of the humanities,” the problem of what role the humanities should play in the 21st century, by creating humanities centers, we think this poses the question too narrowly. We at CHESS are committed to the notion that we can best invigorate the humanities by bringing them together with the social sciences to address questions and problems of common concern.

I described our first year of regular Friday workshops held at Yale with pre- circulated papers by presenters ranging from sociology to law, from economics to comparative literature, bringing together faculty and graduate students. One week before the gala, we hosted the first annual CHESS lecture, by Professor Margaret Jacob of UCLA’s history department. Jacob spoke persuasively about the important contribution of education, particularly in the popularization of Newtonian mechanics, in triggering the industrial revolution. Jacob carefully shaped cultural and political evidence to tackle a major problem in economic history. The audience was remarkably engaged – and even more remarkably, present in large numbers given the snow storm that had closed New Haven schools and many local roads.

This discussion of what has already been done led naturally to a discussion of what more CHESS can accomplish in the future. Guests Cyril Smith and Emily Rose raised the issue of what CHESS could do for Yale undergraduates. Randy Nelson pointed out that Yale’s current undergraduates have a more robust and varied skill set than earlier generations. Many felt that CHESS needed to be able to attain the resources necessary to design and offer courses that would address well known problems in new ways — to teach courses on literature that would deploy quantitative measures and perhaps digital recognition software, for instance. Chuck Weller raised the question of how new techniques and pedagogical methods developed through CHESS can reach an audience beyond Yale. What role could MOOCs play, he wondered? Waring Partridge chimed in that CHESS’s imperative to reach beyond traditional disciplines will serve to equip Yale undergraduate and grad students with the problem-solving techniques so highly valued in today’s economy and world.

We all left the evening feeling invigorated and excited – feeling that we have already achieved a great deal at CHESS, but that there is so much more we want to be able to do. We look forward to continuing the conversation both at CHESS’s annual conference on Empires, Nations and States, in New Haven on 9-10 May, and then at the next gala, to be held at Tudor Place Historic House & Garden in Washington on the 12th of May.

The Yale Club in New York City
The Yale Club in New York City

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