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Novel Knowledge Series Aims to Inspire Intellectual Flexibility, Discovery, and Creativity

Drs. Tal Arbel, Anastasia Klimchynskaya, and Katherine Buse (pictured from left to right) will serve as the Novel Knowledge Series’ inaugural instructors.

Tal Arbel, Anastasia Klimchynskaya, Katherine Buse

The Graham School and the Institute on the Formation of Knowledge launched the Novel Knowledge Series in March with the ambition of bringing the University of Chicago’s singular brand of rigorous inquiry to the masses.

Leveraging Graham’s longstanding record of community outreach with the Institute on the Formation of Knowledge's (IFK) efforts to question accepted perspectives, the Novel Knowledge Series aims to engage lifelong learners in multi-disciplinary courses that challenge conventional wisdom and encourage new ways of approaching timeless and timely questions.

Taught by IFK’s postdoctoral researchers, an elite roster of enterprising thinkers whose work transcends the typical academic boxes, the eight-week courses champion intellectual flexibility, discovery, and creativity.

“These courses will encourage participants to put on a different pair of glasses to view the world, knowledge, and oneself,” says Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, IFK director and Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Classics at the University. Bartsch-Zimmer promises “unusual, animated courses” that will provide students experiential learning opportunities and intellectual exploration beyond the traditional classroom environment. “Ultimately, we want to be a prism through which people can see the familiar, but also gain a greater willingness to think beyond tired categories.”

Graham School dean Seth Green calls the new series an “incredible opportunity” to carry the IFK’s boundary-defying work beyond the walls of the University of Chicago.

“For us to bring these innovative ideas to learners is transformative and fits Graham’s desire to be the ‘front door’ for the University of Chicago’s ground-breaking ideas,” Green says. “At the same time, it’s an opportunity for IFK fellows to engage with learners from diverse backgrounds, so that they can gain energizing new perspectives on their own work.”

Bartsch-Zimmer and Green hope the partnership generates a compelling case for the intellectual impact a university can have on its environment. With Graham serving as the bridge to the general public, the IFK has a rich opportunity to share its innovative ideas with a wider audience and promote new ways of looking at and thinking about the world.

“This collaboration is a wonderful way to amplify our voice and foster greater involvement with the intellectual life of Chicago, which is incredibly exciting,” Bartsch-Zimmer says.

Launching this spring and summer, the first three courses in the inaugural Novel Knowledge Series include:

Normality: A History with Tal Arbel (current Spring 2022 course)

While the conventional, usual, and standard are often taken for granted, Arbel’s course inspects the idea of normality by investigating the theories and methods psychiatrists, criminologists, sexologists, child development specialists, and other experts have devised over the last two centuries to distinguish the normal from the pathological.

“We often think normality requires no special consideration or elaboration since we all know what it is,” Arbel says. “And yet, normality has an extraordinarily powerful effect on how people behave and think.”

Planets in Science and Culture with Katherine Buse (Summer 2022; registration now open)

What do scientists think about “driving” Mars rovers? How has the idea of space as a frontier been reflected in television, film, and video games? How have science fiction writers tested our ideas of outer space? Buse’s course ponders how contemporary understandings of planets have evolved both within scientific practice and in the public imagination.

“I find it exciting to explore the entanglement between scientific knowledge and a wider culture, including the arts, law, and popular culture,” Buse says.

Man and/as Machine with Anastasia Klimchynskaya (Summer 2022; registration now open)

A researcher who studies fiction’s role in shaping the world’s technologies and our ideas about them, Klimchynskaya’s course explores human ideas about machines over time, which she takes to include AI, machine learning, robots, and cyborgs. It is a complicated, tense history, she notes. While modern conceptions of the machine tend to position it as unemotional, efficient, and productive, it has borne many other significations throughout history. How has this modern conception contributed to automating bias while promising to deliver objectivity? Is the AI uprising a threat? Why have some ideas—and concerns—about the machine stuck while others have evaporated?

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Daniel P. Smith

Freelance Writer

Daniel P. Smith is a freelance writer at the Graham School.

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