Humanities researchers receive NEH grants

Justin Leidwanger
Justin Leidwanger

The National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency that provides grants to support humanities research and education, has awarded a fellowship and a research grant to two Stanford faculty members for the 2016-17 academic year. Each year, the NEH bestows hundreds of grants on individual scholars and on programs at an array of cultural institutions.

This year, the agency’s 50th, the NEH conferred more than $79 million for 290 projects and initiatives, ranging from individual book projects to sponsoring research to revamping doctoral programs. Grants are awarded three times annually, most recently on Aug. 9.

At Stanford, JACK RAKOVE, professor of history, was named a fellow in the NEH’s Public Scholar Program, enabling him to conduct research for a book about the political life of the U.S. Constitution. A Collaborative Research Grant went to JUSTIN LEIDWANGER, assistant professor of classics, and his team of researchers to excavate and study a shipwreck from the sixth century off the southeast coast of Sicily.

In the Public Scholars Program, faculty and independent scholars receive support to craft humanities research aimed at the general public. Such research is nothing new to Rakove, whose Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution garnered the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for History. In the coming year, he will undertake a similar project, this time a history of the politics surrounding the U.S. Constitution, The Ticklish Experiment: A Political History of the Constitution.

The Ticklish Experiment project originates in Federalist No. 49, where James Madison rebuffs Thomas Jefferson’s idea that the best way to resolve a constitutional dispute is to convene a popularly elected convention. The reality of a constitutional republic based on popular decision-making was, in Madison’s words, of “too ticklish a nature to be unnecessarily multiplied.” Ticklish, a term suggesting fragility, for Rakove indicates that the “nature of the whole republican experiment is defined by the evolution of the Constitution.”

Rather than emphasizing constitutional law, as political historians are wont to do, Rakove will examine questions of governance underlying the Constitution by tracing its evolution in American politics from 1789 up to the modern day, with an epilogue on the outcome of this year’s general election.

Leidwanger’s “Marzamemi Church Wreck” excavation will dredge up insights about seafaring at the apex of Byzantine rule over the Mediterranean, its seafloor a trove of ancient relics dating back to the Bronze Age. The church wreck refers to a vessel that sank in the early sixth century while conveying prefabricated marble parts of a Byzantine church from the northern Aegean Sea.

“This shipwreck is tied up in this last gasp and Justinian’s failure to hold the Mediterranean world together as Rome once had,” said Leidwanger, referring to the Byzantine Roman emperor Justinian’s building campaign and imperial pretensions as the “last gasp of the Roman Empire.”

In collaboration with SEBASTIANO TUSA, an Italian archaeologist, Leidwanger has assembled a team of international researchers into the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project, an initiative dedicated to studying the ecology and culture of Sicily’s southeastern coastline. The
project enjoys broad support, not just from Stanford and the American archaeology community but also from key local institutions, such as Italy’s maritime regulator. Receiving a Collaborative Research Grant will allow Leidwanger “to incorporate a lot of different partners and do much more than excavation” – such as creating a 3-D rendering of the shipwreck and a museum designed to revitalize the local economy.

Marzamemi plays host to dozens of ancient shipwrecks and to teams staffed largely by students, several from Stanford, and researchers from universities across Europe and North America. Stanford undergraduates who participated in the project this year include ERIN ENGLAND,