Damiano Benvegnù, lecturer in Italian, and Elizabeth Lhost, lecturer in history and postdoctoral fellow at the Society of Fellows, received scholarships from the American Council of Learned Societies. They join a cohort of 60 early-career researchers in the humanities and social sciences to receive the prestigious award this year, selected from nearly 1,000 applicants.
The fellowships, which provide $30,000 to $60,000 for six months to one year of research and writing, support “outstanding scholarship in the humanities and interpretive social sciences,” according to the ACLS website.
Damiano Benvegnù: Seeing the political forest for the trees
In the late 1930s, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered the planting of 20,000 fir trees on a hill to commemorate the construction of a new aqueduct. Mussolini’s regime fell in 1943, but his forest – which spells DUX, its Latin title – remains.
“This forest is a unique case of a political landscape that has survived the political circumstances in which it was created,” says Benvegnù, who is using his ACLS fellowship to study the cultural, political and environmental ramifications of this living monument to Italian fascism. “You can travel to central Italy today and see these three giant letters on the side of a mountain 100 kilometers away – from Rome, in fact.”
In addition to exploring archival documents, Benvegnù, who holds a doctorate in Italian studies from La Sapienza University in Rome and in comparative literature from the University of Notre Dame, will conduct ethnographic interviews with members of the local community and plans to team up with ecologists to better understand how the forest has affected its environment. The research will contribute to Benvegnù’s second book.
Benvegnù is part of a growing interdisciplinary field known as environmental humanities, which seeks to explore “the particular cultural component that is inevitably embedded in any kind of ecological concern,” he says.
“I go back to the root of the word ‘ecology’, from the Greek oikos, which means “dwelling”. Every environmental concern is not just a matter of physical science, but really relates to how we live as a human community with other non-human communities on this planet.
While conducting research as a fellow at the University of Cambridge, Benvegnù became interested in critical animal studies – “how we treat non-human animals, but even more deeply, how we define ourselves as human often in opposition to what is non-human, and how that definition is not just biological, but deeply cultural and political,” he says.
This research became his first book, Animals and animality in the work of Primo Levi, which explores how Levi, a Holocaust survivor, incorporated animal images into his writing. “During the Nazi genocide, the Nazis made a distinction between what was human and what was not, and categories of humanization, even animalization, were applied to certain human groups,” explains Benvegnù.
On receiving the ACLS Fellowship, Benvegnù says, “As a non-tenure track researcher at Dartmouth, I don’t have many opportunities to focus exclusively on research. So I am extremely grateful that the scholarship gives me the opportunity for a year to do just that.
Elizabeth Lhost: At the intersection of religion and modern finance
A historian of South Asian law and religion, Lhost plans to use her ACLS scholarship to explore what happened when colonized societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries were forced to adopt European financial vehicles and Americans such as insurance and the legal pitfalls that surround them.
The invention of insurance – structured cover against future losses – was one of the engines of global maritime trade that helped spur industrialized capitalism, turning uncertainty itself into a commodity that could be bought and sold.
“We think insurance is quite simple, but for some Muslim figures I studied, the question of what insurance protects against raised the question of whether it was permissible according to the Islamic understanding of risk,” says- she.
Lhost, who earned her doctorate at the University of Chicago, became interested in these different conceptions while researching her first book, Daily Islamic Law and the Making of Modern South Asia, which was released this summer.
“I began to wonder what was happening when global commerce, largely dominated by European and American businesses, encountered other approaches to managing risk, financing business ventures, engaging in cooperative business ventures and collaborative.”
The project takes him to archives across the Indian Ocean region, from British Burma – now Myanmar – to Mauritius, investigating colonial court proceedings and corporate records as well as documents “from civic associations such as cooperative credit societies and Islamic organizations that were trying to provide alternatives, to see what the other side of the conversation looked like,” she says.
“One of the things I investigate is how the law worked to support individualized financial instruments that were popular among European and American traders and to delegitimize other forms, alienating individuals from communal forms of risk mitigation that people had counted on in the past.
The ACLS fellowship gives her the freedom to follow the threads of her research wherever they lead, Lhost says.
“A scholarship like the ACLS provides time for reflection. I have a clear idea of what I want to accomplish, but I know that I will find things in the archival sources that will take me in other directions. Achieving this requires patience and understanding that it’s okay if the research doesn’t go as originally planned.
Lhost and Benvegnù are grateful to Dartmouth’s grant proposal support initiative, known as GrantGPS, for helping them navigate the application process for the ACLS Fellowship.
Led by Director Charlotte Bacon and Associate Director Allan Bieber, GrantGPS helps faculty across disciplines identify funding opportunities, develop competitive proposals, and connect with colleagues who share similar interests.
“The team is very helpful in helping communicate ideas,” says Lhost. “They helped me clarify the central core of this project and frame it in a way that resonates with people outside of my field.”
Benvegnù, deputy director of interdisciplinary studies at GrantGPS, encourages professors interested in external funding to take advantage of the initiative. “Even if your application isn’t ultimately ready, going through the process is extremely valuable,” he says.