In the Spotlight: University of Chicago

This issue the spotlight falls on the University of Chicago! Representing the university are Dr. Susanne Paulus and Andy Wilent, who have very kindly agreed to answer our questions.

Dr. Susanne Paulus, Assistant Professor of Assyriology

For someone interested in the Ancient Near East, the Oriental Institute is a dream destination.

Please tell us something about yourself!

Ever since I was young I was interested in ancient cultures and loved to spend my time in museums. In high school I taught myself to read Egyptian hieroglyphs, so studying Egyptology at the University of Muenster was a logical consequence. I chose Assyriology as a minor and got hooked. I did my undergraduate and PhD in Muenster, Germany, and worked as an Assistant there. Since 2015 I have been an Assistant Professor of Assyriology at the University of Chicago.

What makes Assyriology your passion?

I love to decipher archival texts from more than 3000 years ago that no one has read before, learning about the life and struggles of everyday people like us. One of my passions is reading old lawsuits and trying to discern what was going on in court. Often I discover that the problems like debt, crime and marriage problems are very similar to our own. I also enjoy teaching and hope to inspire more people to learn Akkadian and Sumerian.

If you had all the time and funding in the world, what would you like to work on?

At the moment I am working on a big project translating and evaluating the administrative and legal tablets of the Kassite period. I really enjoy this project and do not wish to do anything else. I would just love to have more time so that I could study more material. My dream would be to go to an excavation in Southern Iraq, especially in Nippur or Ur, and help as a philologist.

What would you regard as your ‘masterpiece’ until now?

… Surviving in Assyriology (and actually getting a job ). Although many people like my dissertation on the Babylonian kudurru-inscriptions. Travelling the world and translating those texts was really fun.

Can you tell the readers something about the University of Chicago?

The University of Chicago is a private research University established in 1890. It is one of world’s leading research institutions of higher education. We have about 15.000 students (roughly 6000 undergraduates and 9000 graduates) and a beautiful campus situated in Hyde Park near Lake Michigan. Our faculty is of international renown and our students are very dedicated. Classes are usually small and there is a high emphasis on free speech, discussion and scholarly disagreement.

What would you say are the strong suits of the University of Chicago in general?

For someone interested in the Ancient Near East, the Oriental Institute is a dream destination. We have a world class museum and extensive collection of tablets that are available for study. The Research archives, our library, are well equipped and beautiful. Assyriology is complemented by Hittitology, Comparative Semitics, Ancient Near Eastern History, Egyptology and a strong Archaeology program with projects all over the Near East.

What does a regular day in your work look like?

I come in, answer emails, teach – this quarter Semitic Languages, Cultures and Civilizations and Late Babylonian Texts about Family Law – and meet with students. Then there is hopefully time for research, mostly editing texts from Nippur, writing papers or preparing talks. An additional part of my job is being the Tablet Collection Curator. This includes providing access for other scholars to our cuneiform tablets, many of which are still unpublished.

Could you tell us a bit about the students at University of Chicago? How do they generally come to study Assyriology?

We offer a range of introductory survey courses that concern the history, culture, and literature of the Ancient Near East. Often these courses motivate undergraduates to learn Akkadian and then possibly focus on Assyriology.

Many students from all over the U.S. and beyond choose our two year MA program to deepen their knowledge about the Ancient Near East. Other graduate students come to us from Biblical and Classical backgrounds.

Our graduate program is a great opportunity for students (both national and international) who have at least a BA and knowledge of a Cuneiform language and the Mesopotamian culture. While the selection is highly competitive, the successful applicants get a full stipend for the whole PhD program covering the cost for studying and living.

How is Assyriology perceived in the U.S., and in Chicago in particular?

My impression is that Assyriology is not widely known in the U.S. In Chicago this is a little bit different as the Oriental Institute is a well-known institution. We have many outside visitors in the museum and at public lectures. Philanthropy is widespread in the U.S. and people support the Oriental Institute with donations or work as volunteers in different projects.

The Assyriological department at the University of Chicago has recently changed a lot of its staff. How is the ‘new’ department faring?

Our senior scholars consists of Dr. Martha T. Roth, a specialist in Mesopotamian law, and the Sumerologist Dr. Christopher Woods whose research interests are the Sumerian language and writing and the history, culture, and religion of the 3rd millennium BCE. The three new Assyriologists are complementing each other well: Dr. Hervé Reculeau is a historian of Syria and Mesopotamia in the second millennium BCE. His research centers on the environmental and social histories of the Ancient Near East. Dr. John Wee is a historian of medicine, astronomy, and mathematics, with expertise in Near Eastern as well as Classical and Late Greco-Roman antiquity. My own research focus is on the social, legal and economic History of the Ancient Near East, especially of the Middle Babylonian period/Kassite period.

Together we have compiled an attractive program of studies covering nearly every aspect of Akkadian and Sumerian texts and cultures.

What are your hopes for the future of Assyriology?

I just hope that there is peace in the Near East soon.

If you could change one thing about the field of Assyriology, what would it be?

Making all cuneiform texts accessible to everyone who wants to work on them.

Together we have compiled an attractive program of studies covering nearly every aspect of Akkadian and Sumerian texts and cultures.

Andy Wilent, PhD-student in Assyriology

I was especially attracted to the idea that the vast amount and variety of textual evidence available made it possible to pursue a wide array of research questions.

Please tell us something about yourself!

My name is Andy Wilent. I am a PhD candidate in Assyriology. I am writing my dissertation on doors and their socio-cultural significance in Mesopotamia. I am also currently the assistant curator of the Oriental Institute tablet collection. I am originally from the east coast, but I have now lived in Chicago for five years.

Why did you choose to study the Ancient Near East?

I originally studied Hebrew Bible in college and was introduced to Assyriology through that. I was especially attracted to the idea that the vast amount and variety of textual evidence available made it possible to pursue a wide array of research questions. I was also fascinated by Akkadian and Sumerian and the exotic nature of the cuneiform writing system.

What are your ambitions for the future?

My immediate goal is to finish my dissertation! Eventually, I would like to find a job at a college or university where I can teach and continue to conduct Assyriological research.

How does one apply to study at the University of Chicago? Is it difficult to get in?

There is a standard application for graduate programs in the university’s Humanities Division, which includes the NELC department. Admission into the program is highly competitive, but with an influx of new faculty and a recent shortage of incoming Assyriology students, the prospects for applicants with some background in Near Eastern studies should be promising!

How are Near Eastern courses taught at the University of Chicago? What department is it part of?

Courses are taught in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC). The department houses programs in Ancient Near Eastern studies as well as programs related the medieval and modern Middle East. Most Assyriology classes tend to be taught as reading courses or seminars. Classes are usually quite small—sometimes so small that they are taught right in the professors’ offices—but I believe this creates a more active learning environment that ultimately benefits students.

There was a major shakeup in the staff at the University of Chicago. How did this process affect the students?

Most of the Assyriology students were in the dissertation stage at the time, so really only a couple of students including myself were immediately affected by the sudden turnover in faculty. There was a bit of a scramble to offer Assyriology courses, but I do not think our education suffered for it. The students also had some involvement in the process to hire new faculty and were able to provide some input. The hiring process took a long time—about three years—but there was never really much doubt that the program would be rebuilt. One of the biggest effects of the shakeup has probably been that the department has not admitted any Assyriology students for the past few years.

How is student housing organized?

While the university oversees a system of residence halls for undergraduate students, graduate students must find their own living arrangements. The university provides graduate students with a funding package that includes a stipend to cover cost-of-living expenses, but in terms of actual housing it rents out only a few apartment buildings and is essentially no different than other property management companies active in Hyde Park (the neighborhood where the university is located). Students live all across Chicago, but many choose to stay in Hyde Park, especially while in the coursework, due to its proximity to the university and relative affordability.

What does a regular day in your studies at the University of Chicago look like?

I am currently working on my dissertation, so I am no longer taking classes. When I was in coursework, I would typically spend my days attending class and studying at the Oriental Institute. Even now that I am doing research and writing, I still spend most of my time at the OI since it houses the Research Archives, a large, non-circulating library devoted entirely to materials of Near Eastern scholarship. The archives are not only an invaluable resource for study and research, but they are also one of the nicer (and quieter) workspaces on campus, so there is little reason for me to work elsewhere.

What does the typical student in Chicago do when it comes to social activities?

Chicago is a major city, so there are plenty of places (mostly outside of Hyde Park) to go out to eat and drink, visit museums, listen to live music, attend sporting events, and so forth. Within the department there is a weekly social gathering where students and faculty can interact outside of a classroom setting. In general, there is a nice level of camaraderie amongst the students, so parties or informal gatherings are not uncommon. Occasionally I have even seen some of my fellow students and faculty enjoying a drink (or two) at the campus pub!

What would you like to know from other students in other countries?

I would like to know more about the differences that exist between United States and other countries regarding the university structure generally and Assyriology programs specifically. I would like to know how/whether these differences are perceived to affect our training as Assyriologists and our approaches to the field.

The archives are not only an invaluable resource for study and research, but they are also one of the nicer (and quieter) workspaces on campus

Image courtesy of Susanne Paulus.