Saturday, August 31, 2013

Friday, August 30, 2013


Okay, I'm officially excited to be teaching about New School history again - that is, grateful to have permission to poke around in the archives and libraries to deepen and complicate the stories we tell about ourselves. Look what I found today!

Sara Ruddick, you'll recall, was one of the defining personalities of the first two decades of what was to become Eugene Lang College. Well, today I was looking at a book she co-edited in 1984 called Between Women: Biographers, Critics, Teachers and Artists Write about Their Work on Women (Beacon), and think I may have stumbled on a wonderful new founding myth for us. Between Women is a sequel to Working it out (1977), a pioneering anthology Ruddick edited about women's experience with work, itself the outgrowth of courses she'd been teaching at the Adult Division of New School.

This book grew out a series of courses Ruddick taught at the same time in the Freshman Year Program, later the Seminar College, about Virginia Woolf and other powerful women writers. Indeed, it was initially going to be all about women's reactions to "reading and writing on Virginia Woolf" - proof, through its richness and variety, that Woolf deserved to be among the writers assigned throughout American academe. Between Women winds up exploring women's experience wrestling with many other women, but Ruddick's essay is about her complicated relationship thinking and teaching with Woolf (and Simone Weil and Charlotte Brontë).

But it turns out there's another, more intimate connection with Woolf here, too. Ruddick was a trained philosopher (a Wittgensteinian!), but what made her a lover of The New School was the Freshman Year Program's director's permission to venture beyond the limits of her discipline. That director was Elizabeth Coleman, and Ruddick's essay "New Combinations: Learning from Virginia Woolf" is dedicated to Coleman, "Dean of the Seminar College, 1982-84" (137). Its epigraph, explaining its title, is from Woolf's Three Guineas:

The aim of the new college, the cheap college, should be not to segregate and specialize, but to combine. It should explore the ways in which mind and body can be made to cooperate; discover what new combinations make good wholes in human life. (137) 

In the book's acknowledgments all these pieces fit together:

Elizabeth Coleman insisted that I could talk and write about Woolf although I was not trained to do so. At the New School for Social Research, she created a version of Woolf's "New College," the Seminar College where faculty and students were urged to "discover what new combinations make good wholes in human lives." (vx)

Coleman's still around. I need to ask her if Three Guineas was explicitly a model for our school. The passage Ruddick quotes from, Woolf's sketch of the sort of school which would produce peace thinking rather than militarism, sounds remarkably like us (except for affordability!):

Now since history and biography—the only evidence available to an outsider—seem to prove that the old education of the old colleges breeds neither a particular respect for liberty nor a particular hatred of war it is clear that you must rebuild your college differently. It is young and poor; let it therefore take advantage of those qualities and be founded upon poverty and youth. Obviously, then, it must be an experimental college, an adventurous college. Let it be built on lines of its own. It must be built not of carved stone and stained glass, but of some cheap, easily combustible material which does not hoard dust and perpetrate traditions. Do not have
chapels. Do not have museums and libraries with chained books and first editions under glass cases. Let the pictures and the books be new and always changing. Let it be decorated afresh by each generation with their own hands cheaply. The work of the living is cheap; often they will give it for the sake of being allowed to do it. Next, what should be taught in the new college, the poor college? Not the arts of dominating other people; not the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital. They require too many overhead expenses; salaries and uniforms and ceremonies. The poor college must teach only the arts that can be taught cheaply and practised by poor people, such as medicine, mathematics, music, painting and literature. It should teach the arts of human intercourse; the art of understanding other people’s lives and minds, and the little arts of talk, of dress, of cookery that are allied with them. The aim of the new college, the cheap college, should be not to segregate and specialize, but to combine. It should explore the ways in which mind and body can be made to cooperate; discover what new combinations make good wholes in human life. The teachers should be drawn from the good livers as well as the good thinkers. There should be no difficulty in attracting them. For there would be none of the barriers of wealth or ceremony, of advertisement or competition which now make the old and rich universities such uneasy dwelling-places - cities of strife, cities where this is locked up and that is chained down.... 
(Harcourt, 1966), 33-34

Wow! What a delightful discovery, especially the same week as our course explored other mission statements for countercultural educational institutions!

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Popped by the university's start-of-the-academic-year block party. Didn't think they'd post that photo with our new mascot Gnarls the Narwhal on the New School facebook page, though...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

New School history 2.0

First session of J and M's course on the history of The New School, this time entitled Who New. Much has changed since the first iteration, not quite two years ago: much more of the Parsons School of Design, including its traditions before the institutions merged in 1970; more on student experiences, including protests of various kinds; and more on the importance of women in the communities of students, faculty and administrators.

Today, as last time, we began by having the class break into groups and generate mission statements for The New School as they experience it, which we then wrote up on the board and did our best to synthesize into a single statement. Here's the raw material, and the final product.

In the discussion sections which followed, we had students read through the original "Proposal for a New School of Social Science for Men and Women" of 1919, noting more commonalities over 94 years than one might expect. (Discontinuities, such as the absence of the arts from the original proposal, were noted, too.) The "Proposal" is an argument, describing the new challenges of the world opened up by WW1, women's suffrage and the emerging institutions of modern welfare, and the need for an institution fundamentally unlike a university to meet them. If our rapidly generated mission statement seemed vague by comparison, we found it much more inspiring than the next thing we considered, the current university "Mission and Vision" statement.

This was, perhaps, an unfair comparison. Founding proposals tend to be tendentious and electric where mission statements tend to be safe and generic; what's most impressive about ours may only be an absence - the word "university" never appears. (Or another absence - for many a year we got by without any mission statement at all!) Where the "Proposal" imagines a radical (anti)institution, we sound pretty institutional now. More interestingly we no longer present ourselves as the solution to specific political, social and cultural problems of knowledge but rather offer a nice problem solving-focused curriculum which prepares students to understand, contribute to, and succeed in a rapidly changing society, and thus make the world a better and more just place.

That's hard to object to, but what does it mean? Will student success automatically improve the world? And do we all agree on what "better" means? Many in the New School past have called in question accepted ideas of social success, progress and even justice - starting with the authors of the "Proposal," who thought most thinking on political questions reeked of unexamined prejudices. We were never a Marxist school, but the possibilities of ideology, not to mention structurally-based conflicts about the good and the just, have always been themes.

Several of the students in my discussion section objected to the idea that New School students are or even should be oriented to improving the world. We're looking to find a job, said one. Said another: we're here to learn how better to express ourselves. Even an automatic dividend for the "public good" was baggage she didn't want to take on.

Such are our challenges, as a non-university with an eclectic mix of academic, artistic and professional aspirations. If a committee tries to find language capacious enough to accommodate all of these (as the Mission/Vision group did), it ends up as thin and flat as a pancake. What makes education exciting, necessary, unnerving, transformative needs more specifics - and perhaps a greater appreciation of the diversity and conflict of goods.

In any case, I think the students had a good first experience of the course. Their views are taken seriously, and brought into conversation with a history which raises difficult if inspiring questions about vision as well as implementation - questions which apply far more broadly than this particular history of this particular institution. How did we get from 1919 to 2013? Stay tuned!

Talladega in New York

By a happy accident I discovered today - the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington - that a famous set of murals from America's oldest historically black college (in Alabama), Hale Woodruff's murals for Talladega College, are on display at an NYU gallery on Washington Square Park. Dazzling in their restored colors, they remind of the long struggle for freedom, and of the work and hope that went into it.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

For good or ill

The new academic year is definitely underway! I was involved in orientation last week, but the actual first day of classes was yesterday, and my first class was this morning - an old friend, "Theorizing Religion." Nineteen interesting and interested students showed up, more than we've had in this required LREL course for years! The only problem, which turned out not to be much of a problem, was that the activity I'd again planned for this first session, BeliefNet's "Belief-O-Matic," was down. This was mystifying, since I'd tested to make sure it was operational just an hour before class! Happily I had my result to show the class. I just hope I offended noone in reporting (which was true) that I'd just put down random answers and was deemed a Unitarian!
What a beautifully absurd poem - or prayer - you are offered here: 

Quaker Jain Taoist Scientology
Mahayana New Age Christ Scientist New Thought
Liberal Protestant Theravada Reform Judaism
Sikh Baha'i Secular Humanist Hindu...

The Belief-O-Matic remains a great way to show a certain part of American culture's understanding of religion - so many kinds, but comparable, delightfully various but fundamentally overlapping. It also makes clearer, by contrast, what academic reflection on religion and religious studies is. I showed them BeliefNet's plug to advertisers. (It was acquired by NewsCorp a few years ago, and now hosts ads for loans, self-help products, Bible-based get rich schemes, etc.) I assured them we aim for different outcomes: feel good they might well not!

Monday, August 26, 2013

That fire near Yosemite... We learned earlier this summer that Sequoias are fire-proof - their remarkable longevity wouldn't be possible otherwise. Let's hope they're not put to the test.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


At the big supermarket at Bathbatheni, where I was staying in Kathmandu, just over a fortnight ago, I noticed this colorful bag of nine kinds of beans. It's for Kwaati, a special dish prepared around the full moon in August when the monsoon ends. We've had no monsoon here in New York, but the moon was full a few nights ago and tonight's Sunday so I tried my hand at assembling a Nepali meal around it. The beans took some prep time - not only to soak, but they need to be sprouted before cooking - perhaps in evocation of the explosion of shoots and leaves ushered in by the monsoon. I gave them the better part of three days. They are then pressure cooked with cloves and bay leaf, ginger-garlic paste, onions, ground coriander and turmeric, then cooked with chopped tomatoes and assorted peppers, and served with tomato slices and cilantro.

To flesh out the meal I made some eggplant with fenugreek seeds, loosely following a recipe from my friends' cook (in fact, sizes and strengths of things vary so much it wound up being a distant cousin), sautéd chard, and - especially nice - a sort of achar of bitter gourd (bought especially for the occasion at Little India Stores in Curry Hill) with tomato, onion and lime juice. It all worked well, and worked well together, too! Beyond the pleasure of sharing some of the summer's bounty with my friends here, it's very satisfying to be cooking again.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


A good approximation of the amazing blue of the early night sky as I emerge from the subway (it was still light when I got on at 28th & Lex).

Stone faces of the Upper East Side

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Exhibit up!

"Masterpieces of Everyday New York," composed of objects suggested, collected or lent by faculty from across the university, is up! Mine's not the most interesting but it's one of the most colorful, as this roundup noticed. "Masterpiece" and "everyday" are slippery terms but in their very slipperiness have allowed the subjectivities as well as the disciplinary slants of participants to emerge. Fun fun, full of surprises and intimations of secret knowledges, too. As much as a tour of the City it's an introduction to three score and some ways of making sense of telling its story, and one's own story within it.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Marriage gaiety

Got a curious e-mail from my colleague K yesterday, entitled "Very odd favor (8:30 on Wed. morning)?"

Warning: this is a totally strange request and feel free to blow it off.

A [her partner] and I need to get married ASAP - at the Manhattan Marriage Bureau. It has to do with the kids and enrolling them in school etc. 

The only time we have is early Wed. or Thurs. morning but we need a witness...since you have to be at work on Wed. morning too and because I thought you might find this to be an intriguing ethnographic experience, would you be willing? It opens at 8:30 and it should only take a hour (the actual ceremony is only 2 minutes but you have to account for other people rushing in before work to wed). 

I know...this is probably one of the odder emails you have ever received from a colleague – what can I say? 

I was surprised - K and I are not close, just collegial, and while I know her partner, we've never socialized together. But I was curious to see the Marriage Bureau... and marriage equality is, after all, one of the great realities of our age. (K and A are both women.) I have been far away whenever close friends of mine got married, but by a remarkable coincidence yesterday was the day some dear friends in a distant city had decided to add freshly available legal benefits to their relationship of decades. I wish I'd been able to be their witness!)

In K's case, the fact that we are not close was, I figured out, key. None of their friends was invited, not to mention A's children. As a work colleague I fit what they intended to be no more than a bureaucratic formality. If I wasn't free, they told me, they could easily pick someone off the street as witness, something apparently often done. But

I think this will appeal to your ethnographer side but it’s not at all religious – it’s really radical secularism at its best. Picture the DMV or social security office but with a dingy gift shop (nb, one can purchase bride, groom and witness trucker caps... just in case anyone is confused about their role)

I was a little bemused at how this was to be of strictly professional use to each of us, but of course I said yes. It was more than ethnographically interesting.

It was like the DMV, though the space is a bit grander, a long marbled hallway lined with clerks behind counters. I thought that the registration for transatlantic ocean liners must have been like this. People came in groups of three or more, some a little dressed up, most not. There were several other same-sex couples. There was no sense of excitement, on the part of clerks or anyone else, no giggles or whoops or tears. Instead, each group waited for its number to be called to one of the desks (ours was C357), where IDs were confirmed and forms signed. Then there was the 2-minute job, for which one had to wait again. It was in Station 5, a circular room with a curved green leather sofa, access to which was barred by a heavy-set man who looked like a bouncer with the improbable name Angel. Once or twice, applause had been heard from the round room.

From the round room, parties were eventually invited into one of two "chapels" - an interesting religious vestige, I thought. The one we were led into had purple walls, a somewhat gaudy abstract painting, a big display case of marriage registries nearly a century old, and a solid brass door. K was busy explaining how little all this meant to them, how opposed they had always been to the institution of marriage, that this was just a legal formality. How to get the state's recognition of their reunion without endorsing the state's right to do such recognizing? I echoed their ambivalences - beyond the care of children, what interest has the state in private relationships? They seemed relieved at the bureaucratic banality of it all.

But we had been moving from progressively more public to more private, and from colorlessly cold to warmer spaces. Outsiders petitioning at first we were now insiders entrusted with privileged access. The brass door opened and who should come in but Angel, now smiling. As he walked up to a little podium we realized he was the one who was going to marry them! Station 5, with its barrier, circular vestibule and two chapels, is a one-man show.

Angel told us it wouldn't take long, and it didn't, especially as K and A had dispensed with rings, etc. Still, the quite personal language of the vows - to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, until death do you part - came as a surprise, as did the official encouragement to seal the marriage with a kiss. A kiss! What interest has the state in such things? K and A seemed happier in a hug.

And that was that.

My religious studies colleague who designs liturgies for interfaith couples says that the sign of a successful service is if nobody asks "so, are they married?" This one was successful, maybe even a little beyond what little was expected. In one sense - and this must be true for many same-sex couples - the legal imprimatur adds nothing and may even seem to take away from a commitment and a shared life which have established themselves as real and true without official support, indeed, despite official rejection. But I sense that something more than a formality happened today, more than the conferral of precious legal benefits. Recognition was given to the public value of private commitment. Even unsought, some kind of permission was given for something to live itself out more boldly and gladly.

Giddier than they'd expected to be, K and A decided this all merited a celebratory cup of coffee and a pastry. The witness had a croissant.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

HIlltop experience

Bearded from travel, I think I look like I've been distant places, done big things over this long summer. Where am I telling people I've been? Nepal and Tibet get most of the report. I'm careful not to claim any spiritual epiphanies I didn't have around Kailash - in my somewhat disappointingly nerdy way, my insights were second-order, third-person - but there's no question that spending that time in vast, occupied Western Tibet was powerful and disturbing, and that Kailash, humming with circumambulators, has now, if belatedly, become a fixed point in my geography if not my cosmology. But it was my first real stint in Nepal, too, where I had a more personal and full-bodied encounter with mountains and people, and the two experiences abut each other, as Nepal and China do at that strangest of borderlands, Kasa/Zhangmu. Don't be too surprised if I wind up back there sometime... More pressing decision for the moment: how much of the beard do I keep?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Something to sing about

Orientation for new students started today, with a bang! I've been to a lot of these, but this one really wanted me to be a student starting at Lang. The dean recited poems about New York. The president of the university held up yesterday's New York Times Magazine, whose cover story profiles the journalists who helped Edward Snowden in his whistleblowing - the woman on the cover is a New School alumna! And then one of our own alumna spoke (a tradition I started two years ago). This time it was Jean Rohe, a folk singer who was also the student speaker at university commencement the year she graduated in 2006 - the year our then president controversially asked John McCain to be the main speaker; Jean reclaimed the graduation for the graduates (and made the news, too), in part with a song.

We got a song today, too. After some beautiful reflections on environmental, artistic, cross-cultural and exisential questions she picked up her guitar and sang us - actually, led us in - one of her songs. A radio station a few years ago challenged people to write a new, more relevant national anthem, and this was her response. It's quite lovely, and in its truthfulness very moving. I can't share with you the experience of her, alone with her guitar on the stage of the New School's famous auditorium, drawing us into her song. But she did just recently record a video of the same song, with a band and choir at Judson Church, which you can see here.

What a terrific way to start a college career!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Last leg

The endless summer - I can hardly think back through all of it, from Yosemite to Adelaide to Mansarovar to Paris - is coming to an end. A budget carrier I've never heard of called XL will take me and my 17kg pack from CDG to JFK this evening. Back to New York just in time for Sunday dinner and for new students' orientation, which begins Monday.

Memory lane

Found my way to the neighborhood where I lived 2001-2 - that's the building above. I came via Place des Vosges, but also had to check out my old supermarket, a Monoprix, with its amazing array of yogurts. 
The family friend I stayed with has been forced to move and is now in Place d'Italie, a quite different neighborhood than the 11th - but her new apartment still feels, looks and even smells the same.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Paris scenes

(Clochards early morning on rue de Rivoli, the inverted Pyramide drilling into tourist throngs, veritably Seussian chinoiserie at the Musée Carnavalet, a mysterious medieval past peeks through subway billboards, pedestrians framed by a grafitti-tagged Pont Neuf.)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Paris eternal

Bumming around Paris, trying to catch a glimpse of the me who lived here in 2001-2, a joyful rediscovery of the incomparable church of St. Etienne-du-Mont, beautiful not only in itself but as the only survivor of one of the less-celebrated periods of European architecture - late gothic-into-Reinaissance. The resting place of Blaise Pascal, this is where I went to mass during my Parisian year, and also attended a concert of some Duruflé (he was organist here) and the performance by one Eugène Green of one of Bossuet's funeral orations from the pulpit.Also had an encounter with a new tradition I recall reading about somewhere. Padlocks of love, the keys thrown festively into the Seine, have transformed the Pont de l'Archevêche and the Pont des Arts. I'm curious when and how this tradition began - a quick internet search suggests it might have been an East Asian thing - but now it's part of tourists' experience of Paris, the eternal city of undying love. I didn't check to see if any of the names written on the padlocks were of same-sex couples, so recently recognized in France... But, especially since most of the locks are quite hefty, there seems something a little brutal in the whole thing: a vignette for a future history of the institution of marriage in a rapidly dissolving Europe?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Grande Gallerie de l'Evolution

On something of a whim, went to see the great gallery of evolution at the Jardin des Plantes - a place I've wanted to see since encountering Chris Marker's remarkable 1963 sci-fi film "La Jetée." It was closed during my Paris stay for renovations, so it was the newly appointed one I saw today. Marker's post-apocalypic story plays with the museum's display of animals (18:53ff), and the sense of doom remains, though the concern now is the anthropocene rather than nuclear armageddon: the great parade of living animals, the extinct dodo and thylacine, some doomed-looking seals, quarreling monkeys, and, in tiny little boxes, human innovations; the rifle, the tractor, the Concorde, a factory...

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


I've been waiting for years to see the Musée du Quai Branly, the Chirac-sponsored national museum of, er, nonliterate? or do we mean nonwestern? cultures? or is that art? I'd read appreciative and also critical reviews, but had to see it for myself. I have, now, and have no idea what architect Jean Nouvel (most of whose other work I love) was trying to do. The big space is shapeless and dim, objects appear to float in the gloaming, clustered casually in not-quite-geographical or historical ways, radiating their own light, but it's hard not to feel you're in one of those halflit places where Europeans fled the bright sun and vitality of the tropics, or - and - a big warehouse of colonial loot where enervated Europeans explored the dangerous allure of the "primitive." Maybe with time this will become a beloved space for Parisians, enjoyed for its vague amorphousness in a city otherwise so clear and geometrical. But if the intention was to transcend exoticism, think again! But maybe that wasn't the intention.
On the other hand, the Aboriginal art doesn't look half-bad against black - at least the old bark paintings. The new acrylic works (more than any museum in New York can boast), which were, after all, made for galleries, look a little odd spotlit in the semi-darkness.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Kailash trip roundup

All my Kailash trip pictures in one place! Click for some maps, the trip there, the first, second and final day of the kora, animals and plants...


I'm on the last stop of my round-the-world summer - la belle France! Hard to believe it's been 8 years since I visited Paris (and a dozen since I lived there). But for today it's the charms of the Soissons region...
After the teeming streets of Nepal, I must confess it all seems rather depopulated (the hollow façade of Saint Jean-des-Vignes isn't of course representative!); but it's also August, when all who can go on holiday.

Kora day 3 and back to Nepal

Departed before dawn again, making for lovely views behind us
Up ahead we saw the clear blue of Rakshas taal
Our final valley is full of glorious, garish colored stone... Gurla Mandhata appears ahead of us, its peaks shrouded in cloud
It was becoming clear that we would not see Mount Kailash again, either, but some levity was provided by this clueless sign (at the wrong end of the kora for most people), which went from the Tibetan name, Kan Rinpoche (snowy teacher), by way of Chinese transliteration to arrive at the sublimely wrong English name "Kernel Pochin Hillock."
A stretch of the path back to Darchen was accompanied by a long stone fence covered in engraved "mani" stones.
A familiar plant shows how it paints Tibetan hills purple
Darchen, its southern end growing by the day
The open road home
Orderly sheep near Prayang
Precipitation makes us aware snow has fallen on hills along the road
A big storm gathers over a lake behind us
In the time we've been away, Saga has paved half of its main street
Undistracted by distant himals (concealed by clouds) we notice that whole landscapes are composed of eroding mountains and valleys
A perfect location for a tiny town
The stretch down from Nyalamu was as misty and mysterious as before
The view from our hotel in Zhangmu down across the border to Nepal
The clocks in the hotel lobby: choose your reality!