Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

portrait of William Nickell
portrait of Neil Brenner

William Nickell

Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization (CEGU)

William Nickell works in comparative cultural history and Tolstoy studies, and is completing books in both areas. His forthcoming companion volume for War and Peace will be a guide for its lone readers, offering background, close readings, and interpretive strategies. It follows The Death of Tolstoy: Russia on the Eve, Astapovo Station, 1910, which uses media coverage of the dramatic story of Tolstoy’s death as a lens for examining Russian culture in the years between the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and which received honorable mention for the MLA’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Studies in Slavic Languages and Literatures.

His work in cultural history focuses on media studies and cultural production, with close attention to the effects of large-scale social, economic and technical change. The Soviet Cure, an analysis of the role of rest in a workers’ state, is part of a larger project on medical aesthetics—the application of literary and cultural analysis to medical practice. Whereas the field of medical humanities is traditionally devoted to literary and artistic representations of illness and treatment, he examines the impressions shaped by medicine in practice (diagnosis and therapies, illness narratives, and health care systems) and explores the powers that are supposed to be screened out by double-blind trials. He has been teaching “The Art of Healing: Medical Aesthetics in Russia and the United States” with doctors from the University of Medical Center, and in Winter 2021 offered a new iteration, with Dr. Brian Callender, devoted to the COVID pandemic.

He has also begun work on a study of urbanization and industrialization in Chicago and Moscow, comparing the effects of large-scale social, economic and technical change under capitalism and socialism. It will examine these two cities during their periods of mercurial growth, with attention problems of poverty and prejudice on the American side, and efforts to eliminate these issues in the Soviet case. This project is being shaped by bicycle rides through the South Side of Chicago, where he encounters the ongoing effects of transient capital and social immobility.

This fall he will teach a course based on this method of engagement, exploring the South Side, but also the changes in perspective that take place when we enter the communities surrounding our campus.  His teaching focuses on this sort of experiential learning, including his 2020 course, The Commune: The Making and Breaking of Intentional Communities, which was run on communal principles: the students determined the topics, helped choose the readings, moderated discussion, and determined the assignments and grading criteria.

He works closely with Chicago Studies, IRHUM [Inquiry and Research in the Humanities], and IFK [Institute on the Formation of Knowledge]. His current projects include supervision of the Slavic Undergraduate Research Cluster in immigration, the Oakwood Cemetery project, and the international research forum on “The Soviet Production of Knowledge,” sponsored by IFK.