Bios & Profiles
Cathy N. Davidson is a Distinguished Professor in the Ph.D. Program in English at the Graduate Center, The City University of New York, and Director of the Futures Initiative, a new program dedicated to envisioning the future of higher education. Davidson's main contributions have been in the areas of history of the book, history of industrialism and postindustrialism, and the impact of new technologies on culture, cognition, and learning. She has published more than twenty books including Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America' Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory, with documentary photographer Bill Bamberger; The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, with David Theo Goldberg; and, most recently, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.
Davidson is cofounder and administrative director of the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (hastac.org), a 14,000+ network committed to "Changing the Way We Teach and Learn." She is co-PI of the HASTAC/John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions that have awarded more than $10 million in grant funding to support ninety innovative projects operating in more than twenty countries.
In 2010, President Obama appointed her to serve on the National Council Humanities, and she is the first educator to serve on the Board of Directors of Mozilla. She received the Educator of the Year Award (with HASTAC cofounder Goldberg) from the World Technology Network in 2012. She is currently working on a book on innovation, social justice, and the future of higher education.
Michelle Fine, Distinguished Professor of Social Psychology, Women’s Studies and Urban Education at the Graduate Center, CUNY, has taught at CUNY since 1990. Before that I taught at the University of Pennsylvania for more than a decade. My research focuses on youth in schools, communities and prisons, developed through critical feminist theory and method.
2007 Willystine Goodsell Award 2007
AERA SIG, Research on Women and Education
Morton Deutsch Award 2005
First Annual Morton Deutsch Award
Teachers College, Columbia University
Bank Street College 2002
Honorary Doctoral Degree for Education and Social Justice
Gustav Meyer Award for Scholarship Dedicated to Social Justice 2001
with Lois Weis, for the book Construction Sites
Teachers College Press
Carolyn Sherif Award, American Psychological Association 2001
Division 35, Division for Psychology of Women
Selected books published in the past decade:
Cammarota, J. and Fine, M. (eds., 2008) Revolutionizing Education: Youth Participatory Action Research in Motion. New York: Routledge Publishers.
Sirin, S. and Fine, M. (2007) Designated Others: Muslim American Youth Negotiating Identities Post 9-11. New York: New York University Press.
Weis, L. and Fine, M. (2005) Beyond silenced voices (second edition) Albany: SUNY Press. 2006 AESA Critics’ Choice Awards (American Educational Studies Association)
Weis, L. and Fine, M. (2004) Working Method: Social justice and social research. New York: Routledge Publishers.
Fine, M., Weis, L., Pruitt, L. and Burns, A. (2004) Off white: essays on race, power and resistance. New York: Routledge Publishers.
Fine, M., Roberts, R., Torre, M. and Bloom, J., Burns, A., Chajet, L., Guishard, M. and Payne, Y. (2004) Echoes of Brown: Youth documenting and performing the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Fine, M. and Weis, L. (2003) Silenced Voices, Extraordinary Conversations: Re-imagining urban education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Anand, B., Fine, M., Perkins, T. and Surrey, S. (2002) Keeping the Struggle Alive: Oral Histories of School Desegregation in the North. New York: Teachers College Press.
Fine, M., & Weis, L. (1998) The unknown city: Lives of poor and working class young adults. Boston: Beacon Press.
Guinier, L., Fine, M. and Balin, J. (1996) Becoming Gentlemen: Women, Law School and Institutional Change. Beacon Press.
Selected journal articles and monographs:
Fine, M. and McClelland, S. (2007) The politics of teen women’s sexuality: Public policy and the adolescent female body. Emory Law Review, 56, 4.
Fine, M. and McClelland, S. (2006) Sexuality education and the discourse of desire: Still missing after all these years. Harvard Educational Review. Fall 2006, 76, 3, 297 – 338.
Fine, M., Bloom, J., Burns, A., Chajet, L., Guishard, M., Payne, Y., Perkins-Munn, T. and Torre, M. E. (2005) Dear Zora: A letter to Zora Neale Hurston Fifty years after Brown. Teachers College Record. 107 , 3, 496-528
Fine, M. (2004) The power of the Brown v. Board of Education decision: Theorizing threats to sustainability. American Psychologist, Vol. 59, No. 6, 502–510.
Fine, M., Burns, A., Payne, Y. and Torre, M.E. (2004) Civics Lessons: The color and class of betrayal. Teachers College Record, 106, November, 2193-2223.
Changing Minds: The Impact of College in Prison. www.changingminds.ws (Michelle Fine, Kathy Boudin, Iris Bowen, Judith Clark, Donna Hylton, Migdalia Martinez, “Missy,” Rosemarie Roberts, Pamela Smart, Maria Torre and Debora Upegui) 2001. Executive Report on the impact of college on prisoners post-release.
Nicholas Freudenberg is professor in the Program in Urban Public Health at Hunter College, on the faculty of the Ph.D. Program in Psychology, and serves as Interim Director of CUNY's new Doctor of Public Health Program. He is founder of the Center on AIDS, Drugs, and Community Health at Hunter College and served as its director from 1987 to 1999 and again from 2000 to 2001. For the last 25 years, he has worked with community organizations in New York City to develop and evaluate interventions to reduce HIV infection, substance abuse, environmental threats to health, childhood asthma, and other conditions. He is lead editor of Cities and the Health of the Public (Vanderbilt Press, 2006). Since 1992, he has led several research projects at the Rikers Island Detention Center, New York City's main jail, assessing the impact of interventions to reduce drug use, HIV risk and rearrest among people returning home from jail. This work has been supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Institute for Drug Abuse, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Open Society Institute. In 2006, Freudenberg created Corporations and Health Watch, a project that links researchers, health professionals and advocates concerned about the adverse health impact of the alcohol, automobile, firearms, food, pharmaceutical and tobacco industries. Freudenberg also serves as co-director of the CUNY Campaign Against Diabetes, an effort to strengthen CUNY's capacity for teaching, research and service to reverse the epidemic of diabetes in New York City.
Biography Currently Unavailable.
Biography Currently Unavailable.
Dr. Parsons is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Public Health at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Dr. Parsons joined the Hunter College faculty in 2000 and served as Chair of the Department of Psychology from 2008 to 2010. Professor Parsons' work has shed important light on health behaviors, including HIV prevention, HIV medication adherence, sexual behavior, and substance abuse; as well as GLBT issues. His pioneering research has resulted in interventions designed to change risky sexual and drug use behaviors.
Since 1996 he has been the Founder and Director of the Center for HIV/AIDS Educational Studies and Training (CHEST; www.chestnyc.org), whose projects are based on theories of health behavior change designed to reduce the spread of HIV and improve the lives of persons with HIV. CHEST focuses on the identification and promotion of strategies that prevent the spread of HIV and that improve the lives of people living with HIV. Dr. Parsons has served as the Principal Investigator on numerous research grants with NIH and CDC, particularly focused on the development and evaluation of behavioral interventions. His current research focuses on gay male couples, sexual risk behaviors, drug/alcohol use, sexual compulsivity, and HIV medication adherence. He is an expert in the use of motivational interviewing as a strategy of HIV/AIDS-related behavior change.
Professor Parsons has been a member of the White House Office on National AIDS Policy HIV and Aging Working Group since 2010, when he was also named to the Social and Behavioral HIV Prevention Research Think Tank by the National Institutes of Health Office on AIDS Research. He served as Chair of the Behavioral and Social Consequences of HIV (BSCH) Study Section of the National Institutes of Health from 2010 to 2012. Since 2010 he has been a member of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene HIV and Alcohol and Other Drug Use Advisory Panel. From 2005 to 2007 he was President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS), Eastern Region. Dr. Parsons edited the book Contemporary Research in Sex Work (Haworth Press, 2005), has been editor of the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy since 2011, and is also an Associate Editor of Archives of Sexual Behavior and AIDS and Behavior.
A Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA), the Society for Behavioral Medicine (SBM), and SSSS, his many honors include the Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award from the APA in 2008 and the John Money Award from SSSS in 2011. In 2004 he was honored by the APA for Outstanding Contributions to the Advancement of Public Interest Policy. Professor Parsons received Hunter College’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Applied Scholarship in 2007. He received his BA in Psychology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA, and his MA and PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of Houston.
Professor Parsons lives in Teaneck, NJ with his partner Chris and son Henry. He is an accomplished SCUBA Diver and active with a number of non-profit organizations dedicated to GLBT families and parenting, including Family Equality Council and Men Having Babies (a group that provides support for gay men pursuing fatherhood).
Biography Currently Unavailable.
Robert A. Schwartz is Marvin M. Speiser Professor of Finance and University Distinguished Professor in the Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College, CUNY. Before joining the Baruch faculty in 1997, he was Professor of Finance and Economics and Yamaichi Faculty Fellow at New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business, where he had been a member of the faculty since 1965. Professor Schwartz received his Ph.D. in Economics from Columbia University. His research is in the area of financial economics, with a primary focus on the structure of securities markets. He has published over 50 refereed journal articles and fifteen books, including The Equity Trader Course (co-authored with Reto Francioni and Bruce Weber) Wiley & Sons, 2006, Equity Markets in Action: The Fundamentals of Liquidity, Market Structure and Trading (co-authored with Reto Francioni) Wiley & Sons, 2004, and Reshaping the Equity Markets: A Guide for the 1990s, Harper Business, 1991 (reissued by Business One Irwin, 1993). He has served as a consultant to various market centers including the New York Stock Exchange, the American Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, the London Stock Exchange, Instinet, the Arizona Stock Exchange, Deutsche Börse, and the Bolsa Mexicana. From April 1983 to April 1988, he was an associate editor of The Journal of Finance, and he is currently an associate editor of the Review of Quantitative Finance and Accounting, the Review of Pacific Basin Financial Markets and Policies, and The Journal of Entrepreneurial Finance & Business Ventures, and is a member of the advisory boards of International Finance and The Journal of Trading. In December 1995, Professor Schwartz was named the first chairman of Nasdaq's Economic Advisory Board, and he served on the EAB until Spring 1999. He is developer, with Bruce Weber, of the trading and market structure simulation, TraderEx.
By Erika Dreifus
In the end, we ramble a bit, but since there are so many interconnections at work here (the Judy Chicago biography, for instance, threads together Professor Levin's interests in and work on art history, women's studies, and Jewish studies), it all seems to make sense. Not surprisingly, given this professor's international reputation as a skilled biographer, we return frequently to the subject of biography.
During our discussion I dare to pose what I worry may be a hopelessly naïve question: I ask Professor Levin what "unauthorized" really means, when the adjective precedes the word "biography." I'm puzzled because as I prepared for our meeting, I'd read that Becoming Judy Chicago was an "unauthorized biography" of the famed artist, but I couldn't reconcile that description with all I'd also read about the ways Chicago herself facilitated the project.
"Unauthorized," explains Professor Levin, really means "written without any intrusion or censorship," noting that she'd never want to work on a biography that could only be written if "authorized"-vetted-by the subject. Chicago, she says, "has been a longtime fan of biography," and understands its value. Professor Levin only dedicated herself to the Chicago biography after ensuring that the artist was interested in the project and that Chicago would grant written permission to quote from all her published works and unpublished papers archived at the Schlesinger Library, and to reproduce photographs of the artist, her family, and her art. Without being asked, Chicago offered her would-be biographer access to personal papers and journals still in her own possession. All the artist requested in return, says Professor Levin, was the chance to read and comment on the first draft. As Professor Levin reports in the book's Acknowledgments, "I was then free to write what I wanted....[Chicago's] response upon reading was to ignore her critics and to offer only a few factual corrections and the comment: ‘It was very painful for me to relive so much-nevertheless, it was my life.' I have pried deeply and found in Chicago a person of integrity and strength."
The biographer's craft itself is a subject that engages Professor Levin quite intensely. "Biography needs to be studied," she says. Having participated in the New York University Biography Seminar and CUNY's Women Writing Women's Lives seminar series, she is "heartened" by the establishment of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at CUNY, seeing it as a step toward fuller acknowledgment of the value of biography in the academy and the need for practitioners to emphasize the importance of standards in the field. Professor Levin considers herself a scholar with a mission to not only make clear the validity and importance of biography within the community of art historians, but also to "expose" biographies of artists which don't hold up to rigorous standards of scholarship. This concern for authenticity and integrity also informs Professor Levin's broader work on ethics in the visual arts; she co-edited a collection of essays on that subject with Elaine A. King, published in 2006 by Allworth Press.
Of course, teaching is also central to this Distinguished Professor's working life. She has called Baruch College her academic home since 1986 (she'd also served as a visiting instructor there in 1974). A graduate of Simmons College, where she took an honors B.A.; Tufts University, where she earned an M.A. in fine arts; and Rutgers University, where she completed her doctoral studies in art history, Professor Levin says that she has "really missed teaching" during the time she's been on grant-funded and sabbatical leave. She is especially fond of her Baruch students ("they are so terrific"). Although not many of the College's students may have realized it, she recently joined their ranks: In preparation for research in Japan connected with her Kuniyoshi project, Professor Levin audited a Japanese language class at Baruch. An avid global traveler, Professor Levin particularly appreciates the international backgrounds of her Baruch students. "Teaching at Baruch is like world travel," she asserts.
Professor Levin expresses special enthusiasm about the classes she teaches that introduce students to the arts within New York City. Not surprisingly, she has taken her students to see and write about Judy Chicago's famous feminist art installation, The Dinner Party, at the Brooklyn Museum ("And even the men-some decided to take their mothers along," she told an interviewer for the Windy City Times, with evident satisfaction.)
To the extent that some of her artistically-inclined students report that their families expect and want them to follow career paths that seem more "practical" and lucrative, Professor Levin can empathize. All her life, she says, she has painted, drawn, and taken pictures. When she was in college, her parents threatened to disown her if she pursued a career as an artist; her own painting teacher told her that painting was "dead." Her mother and father were only mildly placated when she turned her love of art into preparation for a career as an art historian. I suspect that these days, they'd be very proud of their daughter's choice.
1. Gail Levin, Becoming Judy Chicago: A Biography of the Artist (New York: Harmony Books, 2007), 459.
By Erika Dreifus
Poet and literary educator Grace Schulman began teaching at Baruch College of The City University of New York as an adjunct in 1971, during a phase in her life when she was, in her own words, “writing in obscurity.” The following year Schulman received a full-time appointment at Baruch; after more than a quarter-century of teaching and service there, she was appointed a Distinguished Professor in 1999. Today she is also the author of six poetry collections, most recently The Broken String (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), most of which was written on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the editor of The Poems of Marianne Moore (Viking, 2003).
Professor Schulman, who has cited Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, William Shakespeare, Dante, Hart Crane, and W.H. Auden among her literary models, was born in New York City. Her mother, who was also a writer, helped nurture an early affinity for the craft. “We played with words,” Professor Schulman recalls when we meet in her Baruch office, describing a joint notebook in which mother and young daughter pooled their pieces. At age 14 (through one of her father’s friends), Professor Schulman was introduced to the poet Marianne Moore, beginning a formative friendship.
Professor Schulman attended Bard College before earning her undergraduate degree from American University in 1955. She completed graduate study back in New York, at New York University, where she received her doctorate in 1971 and wrote a dissertation on the Moore’s poetry (that work was later published as Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement).
As Professor Schulman noted in a 2004 interview on the Leonard Lopate Show , Moore herself was far more interested in Schulman’s development as a poet than in her progress as a literary critic and scholar. No doubt Moore was pleased to see Professor Schulman’s poetry published in journals and anthologies as well as in the individual collections. Publishers Weekly described Professor Schulman’s most recent book, The Broken String, as one that “goes all-out in attempting to represent joy: the kind that comes from works of art, in classical music, in jazz or on canvas, and the kind that comes from attention to everyday details.” At the same time, the magazine noted, “Schulman…sounds most convincing when her palette grows darker,” pointing to one poem, “Death,” that “belies its stark title by presenting, in dense five-line stanzas, many cultures’ ceremonies of mourning, from the Jewish ‘Kaddish that sanctifies and praises being’ to a New Orleans brass-band funeral.” Musing on her recent work, Professor Schulman herself notes recurrent themes and subjects: New York City, immigrant life, and her own family background.
In addition to the critical study of Moore, Professor Schulman has edited a collection of Moore’s poems (the aforementioned Poems) as well as one of Ezra Pound’s criticism. She is also an accomplished literary translator. Besides the Guggenheim award, her honors include fellowships from the Karolyi Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, and the New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as multiple fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony and New York University’s Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award.
Even beyond the time and energy she has devoted to her own work, and to writing about others’, Professor Schulman has sustained an intense and multi-layered engagement in the world of contemporary poetry. She is recognized for 35 years’ dedication as Poetry Editor for The Nation magazine as well as for her years directing the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y. She has also served as a vice-president of the International PEN organization and founded a major literary competition, Discovery-The Nation (now known as the Discovery/Boston Review Award), honoring emerging poetic talents. Asked how she managed to balance her multiple commitments to the poetry community for so many years, she responds simply: “I love reading poems [by others].” She has taken particular pleasure, she says, in discovering the work of new poets.
Always, her commitment to Baruch has remained steadfast. She notes that during her service at the 92nd Street Y the poets she invited to appear there also visited Baruch (she made their Baruch readings “a condition” of the offers to appear uptown). She currently serves on the advisory committee for Baruch’s Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program, which brings distinguished writers to the campus each semester as visiting professors.
“I love doing things for Baruch,” Professor Schulman says, and that love is evident when she speaks of her courses and students. She expresses a sense of being “privileged” to teach her undergraduates (“they are unspoiled,” she explains). Currently, she teaches two courses each semester. In one, “Great Works of Literature,” students read works by writers from various eras and cultures: Jonathan Swift, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Keats, Walt Whitman, Ueda Akinari, Frederick Douglass, Anton Chekhov, and Chinua Achebe, among others. But, drawing on the diversity and internationalism of the Baruch student population, Professor Schulman also solicits student participation in designing the course, asking the class members to bring in contemporary poems representing their own cultural backgrounds for group study.
In the second course, a poetry workshop, Professor Schulman emphasizes her role as helping her students see, observe, “pay attention” in new ways. To that end the class includes a number of specially-designed exercises as well as illustrative readings. For example, an exercise titled “No Ideas but in Things” asks students to study an item selected from a list (a hammer, two cut lemons, four oranges, a window, blue). They must, according to the instructions she gives them, “concentrate on what [they] see, but use taste, smell, touch, if they help. Then write about it, putting in lots of particulars.” Schulman refers them to model poems by William Carlos Williams and William Blake for inspiration.
“I want to write poetry for the rest of my life,” Professor Schulman says, and to help make that possible, she has recently cut back on her editing and critical writing projects. In the meantime, Baruch College and the CUNY community are indeed fortunate to count Grace Schulman as a Distinguished Professor.
Links to information about and work by Grace Schulman:
Grace Schulman bio-bibliography from the Poetry Foundation
Grace Schulman in the News “Poet’s Choice,” (column by Robert Pinsky), The Washington Post, July 8, 2007
“Poems of Praise from a ‘Baruch’ Life,” article on Grace Schulman, CUNY Matters, July 2003
“Apples,” from The Broken String (2007), featured on National Public Radio
“Waves,” from The Cimarron Review (Fall 2006), featured on Verse Daily
“American Solitude,” from Days of Wonder: New and Selected Poems (2002)
by Erika Dreifus
1 Anne Lundy, “Conversations with Three Symphonic Conductors,” The Black Perspective in Music 16.2 (1988), 213-226.
The Person Behind the Pulitzer: Getting to Know Professor John Matteson
1 Eden's Outcasts, p. 52.
2 Eden's Outcasts, p. 305.
3 Eden's Outcasts, p. 260.
By Emily B. Stanback
It is telling that Douglas Whalen graduated from Rice University with multiple majors: in English, German, linguistics, and anthropology. In a recent conversation in his Graduate Center office, Whalen, who was named a CUNY Distinguished Professor in early 2011, credited conventions of the times for this early academic feat. It seems highly likely, however, that his innate intellectual enthusiasm also played a part. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the undergraduate who mastered four major fields of study has since built a diverse career as a linguist, leading researcher in speech production and speech perception, and founder and president of The Endangered Language Fund (ELF), which supports efforts to document and preserve languages that are in danger of extinction. "I get restless and it's all interesting," Whalen tells his interviewer, but in talking to him one senses an intuitive coherence to the ideas and issues that he has revisited over the course of his career.
Whalen suspects that his interest in language was piqued by middle school Latin—"I had a terrific teacher," he recalls. After his formal introduction to linguistics at Rice, Whalen decided to pursue graduate studies in the field. It was while working towards his Ph.D. at Yale under Alvin M. Liberman that Whalen became intensely interested in phonetics and began researching "speech sounds," which our brains recognize as auditory elements of linguistic communication. It may seem like it's easy to distinguish between speech and other kinds of sounds, from the patter of rain to the blaring of a car horn. Yet, Whalen suggests, when you try to get machines to recognize and interpret speech, the complexity of the process becomes evident.
Befitting its intricacy, speech perception has inspired a vigorous scientific debate, in which Whalen has long been an active participant. There are those who have asserted that speech is processed first and foremost as any other sound would be, before the brain begins to recognize or understand it as linguistic communication. There are also those who, like Whalen, have long asserted that speech sounds are immediately processed as, well, speech—and that the perception of speech is fundamentally related to the production of speech.
In a 2006 paper published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Whalen compared the brain's reactions to speech sounds (in this case "nonsense syllables" like "ta" and "tog"—the building blocks of language, one might say) and non-speech sounds (in this case, piano notes and chords, as well as percussion instruments including the slapsnare and swishsnare). The nonsense syllables and the musical sounds registered differently in the brain. According to Whalen, moreover, the same would be true even if one were to hear people speaking in a language completely unknown to them. Thus the brain of an English-speaking listener would immediately register Mandarin Chinese words as speech, even on a first exposure to the language. The one known exception? The clicks that are common in some South African languages. For Zulu speakers, the clicks register in the brain as speech sounds, but for English speakers they register as non-speech sounds.
In the early 1990s, Whalen attended a meeting of the Linguistics Society of America on endangered languages, which, unlike English, Mandarin, and Zulu, are likely to die out in the very near future. "I expected to hear good things," he recalls, but instead was introduced to the alarming state of language preservation. He saw an acute need, and, Whalen wryly notes, "unlike most linguists I don't mind asking strangers for money." A few years after the meeting he founded the Endangered Language Fund (ELF), which finances projects that do everything from create vocabulary lists to record native speakers to support language revival efforts. Whalen estimates that in the next 80 years, 5,000 languages will stop being used on a regular basis—but partly because of ELF, many of these languages will be saved "at a useful level."
One suspects that "useful" is a humble underestimation of the foundation's impact. ELF's projects and archival materials, for example, may prove useful in attempts to explore the connections between language, cognition, and society—another topic of heated scientific controversy. Noam Chomsky has famously argued that all languages are fundamentally the same, while others assert that different languages reflect—and, indeed, produce—important differences in thought, experience, and culture. Whalen is circumspect on the issue. He asserts, matter-of-factly, "It's clear that there are differences between languages," citing the innate credibility of those who contend that their language captures the "spirit or soul of their culture." There is also the fact that there are some words—in Plato's major texts, for example—that translators generally refuse to translate from the original language, suggesting that some languages do a much better job of describing and discussing certain ideas than others do. "You can think about anything in any language," Whalen says, "but some languages make it easier" to think about certain things.
Endangered languages may be key to advancing this debate: if there seems to be something "deeply different" between Mandarin and English, for example, Whalen asserts that this difference is nothing compared to the difference between English and Piraha, a language spoken in the Amazon. Linguist Dan Everett has compellingly asserted that the Piraha language—which consists of a mere three vowels and eight consonants coupled with a nuanced, song-like system of pitch and rhythm modulations—avoids abstractions, including, for example, no fixed words for numbers or colors. In a 2007 article in The New Yorker, Everett offers the example of how the Piraha might describe a red object. Instead of relying on an unchanging word to describe the color—e.g. "red," "rosso," "rouge"—a Piraha would use a comparative statement like "This looks like blood" or "'This is like vrvcum'—a local berry that they use to extract a red dye."1 Whalen notes that it is precisely such "smaller"—and, typically, endangered—languages that are the "repositories of the most different" linguistic elements and features. And because "we don't yet know how to ask the right questions" about what makes languages like Piraha different and how those difference might matter, "we're in a race against time" to learn what we can learn from them—or at least document them sufficiently to make future analysis a possibility.
For the speakers of endangered languages, too, ELF's impact extends far beyond the utilitarian. Language is not just a way for humans to talk to one another, Whalen aptly reminds us. It is a "social institution" with broad consequences—and because of this, language preservation and revival programs can "reaffirm the value of a whole culture." Describing ELF projects with American Indian populations, Whalen explains, "parents gave up their native language for financial advancement" but were unable to claim full membership in the dominant culture. Thus they were left with, in effect, no culture that they could fully participate in and identify with. The situation was often worse for their children, who typically grew up with little or no contact with their parents' native language, or the culture and traditions it could have transmitted. The American Indian suicide rate is remarkably high; because of this fact, Whalen says it is no real stretch to say that that children and young adults are literally being saved through their participation in language revival and preservation programs. Not only do they gain valuable contact with their cultural roots, but they are also shown that their culture is important, something worth saving.
Although Whalen has served as the president of ELF for well over a decade, and although he also served as the director of the Documenting Endangered Languages program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) from 2006 – 2008, it was only recently that he began conducting his own research in endangered languages. Partly through the support of an NSF grant, Whalen is currently researching Tahltan, which is native to British Columbia and is the only known example of a language that relies on what's called "three-way consonant harmony." He's been collecting ultrasound images to examine the shape of the tongue during Tahltan utterances, and hopes that the data will help linguists better understand and record the language. Whalen is simultaneously working on a project on "baby babbling," and it is easy to detect again the enthusiasm of a quadruple major in this era of Whalen's career, as he weaves together his interests and expertise in individual languages, anthropological concerns, and the structural and scientific study of language.
When asked what brought him to CUNY in spring 2011, Whalen makes reference to a "miraculous" concurrence of events. He indicates that "kind of everything" led him here, including the Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences Department's desire to reestablish ties with Haskins Laboratory, "a private, non-profit research institute" in New Haven that focuses on "spoken and written language." Since 2000 Whalen has served as the institute's Vice President of Research, and plans are underway to facilitate a "regular exchange of students between the Graduate Center and Haskins." Unsurprisingly, Whalen was also drawn to the Graduate Center's academic strength and its commitment to preserving endangered languages—and, Whalen notes, he was also keen to supervise dissertations. For its part, CUNY is lucky to have Distinguished Professor Whalen, who eloquently underscores why language matters.
1 John Colapinto, “The Interpreter.” The New Yorker (April 16, 2007). Article is available on The New Yorker's website.
By Erika Dreifus
By Erika Dreifus
2008 is barely half over, but already it’s proven to be a pretty good year for James Oakes, an American History specialist who teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. In January, the Board of Trustees approved his appointment as a Distinguished Professor, capping a CUNY career that began when Oakes, born in the Bronx and raised on Staten Island, entered Baruch College as a freshman in 1970. And in February, the Lincoln & Soldiers Institute at Gettysburg College announced that that his latest book, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (W.W. Norton, 2007), had won the prestigious Lincoln Prize, an award recognizing the year’s best books on the Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Keep in mind that as the 2007-2008 academic year began Professor Oakes had already received another significant honor: He has spent this sabbatical year as a Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library, close enough to return to his Graduate Center office to meet with students and with colleagues and, one sunny afternoon in May, with me.
Our conversation began by tracing Professor Oakes’s personal CUNY history. His ties to the University go back to his undergraduate years. As he explained to the Board in January , he arrived at Baruch College 38 years ago anticipating that he’d spend his college years preparing for a career in international banking. But for reasons that remain somewhat opaque to Professor Oakes, a freshman English composition professor called him to her office at the end of his first semester and told him that if he majored in business he would “be bored to tears.”
Whether his composition professor’s prediction was correct will remain an unsolved mystery because, as Professor Oakes told the Board, “she was followed shortly thereafter by a teacher of American history, Selma Berrol, who told me in the first weeks of her introduction to American history that I had the makings of a good historian and two years later suggested to me that I get a Ph.D. I was not even sure I knew what a Ph.D. was at that point. I was a Catholic school working-class boy from Staten Island.”
It was during this time at Baruch as well, Professor Oakes says, that he discovered and became inspired by the work of historian Kenneth Stampp, known especially for his scholarship on slavery, the American Civil War, and Reconstruction. And when Oakes indeed began that graduate training Professor Berrol had recommended, he did so at the University of California, Berkeley, where Stampp became his advisor.
After Berkeley, Oakes taught at both Princeton and Northwestern Universities. During these years he published his first books, including The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (Knopf, 1982), and Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (Knopf, 1990). He had also devoted much thought—and energy—to considering elements of a sound graduate education in history. By the end of the 1990s, he had returned to CUNY, where he has been able to not only continue his stellar scholarship, but also to implement his ideas about the roles of reading, research, and writing in the training of new historians in a top-flight graduate program.
As he told the Board, it has been a rewarding return:
The admiration is mutual. At the January Board meeting, President Kelly described Professor Oakes as “one of the Graduate Center’s most effective teachers and most dedicated citizens.” President Kelly also lauded Professor Oakes’s scholarship, calling Oakes “one of the world’s most distinguished authorities on the history of American slavery” and noting that the most recent book, The Radical and the Republican, “is well on its way to becoming a classic text in antebellum political history.”
In his own introduction to this lucid, lively, and engaging book, Oakes writes: “Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass are among the people I most admire in all of nineteenth-century American history. It frustrates me that it took so long for them to come together. So I’ve brought them together in this book, standing them side by side, so as to measure them in each other’s light and see them from each other’s perspective. ”1 He states outright that his book is not an effort to offer a dual biography of the men, “much less a study of their lives and times.” It does, however, throw new light on the relationship between two key strands of those lives and times: radical abolitionism and political antislavery. The book is grounded in strikingly attentive close readings of their words, of “the things Lincoln and Douglass had to say about slavery and race, about politics and war, and about each other.”2 And on these subjects, they had quite a lot to say. Grappling with all this material, and making sense of the undeniable contradictions, inconsistencies, and less admirable pieces of the story, is no small feat.
I asked Oakes to explain how, exactly, he developed his skills in textual analysis. “Historians are good at context, but not always good at text,” he concedes. Early on in his graduate teaching career he began to insist that before students criticize a book they had to demonstrate that they had read and understood it. For many years he taught a graduate seminar in “theory” in which he again asked students to suppress their otherwise healthy impulse to contextualize the authors and instead to focus on reproducing the arguments of the texts themselves. Although he can’t reduce his close reading practice to a process or a formula, he does recall the contribution of a graduate school professor who insisted that Oakes write a paper about the New Deal—not about the reigning scholarship of the New Deal.
Perhaps because the book engages so intensely with issues that continue to affect American life so profoundly in our own day—racism, freedom, and reform to name only a few—Professor Oakes was asked almost as soon as it was published to explain its contemporary resonance. “I should have predicted that reporters would inevitably ask me to compare Abraham Lincoln to George Bush,” he wrote in a column for History Network News. What he did not expect was the reaction of fellow historians “who find my book helpful in their own work—a model, of sorts, for the way radicals and liberals, reformers and politics, interact in settings other than that crisis of slavery and the Civil War.” Although wary of “applying” his book’s lessons to contexts outside the one described within its pages, Professor Oakes conceded that in a broad sense, his book offers “a defense of political engagement, with ‘politics’ defined in an old-fashioned, colloquial sense of organized activity aimed at influencing state policy. When we abandon that, we’ve given up.”
As far as his own field of study goes, Professor Oakes seems unlikely to “abandon” that anytime soon, either. His current project focuses on the history of emancipation.
His connection with CUNY grows stronger every day, too, and not only thanks to the Graduate Center: His young son—images of whom alternate with those of Abraham Lincoln on the screensaver on Professor Oakes’s office computer and who, the father notes with some pride, has a copy of the iconic photograph of Lincoln reading with his young son, Tad, in his room at home—is now enrolled in the Hunter College Elementary School. “He is in love with the place, and so am I,” Professor Oakes told the Board in January. “I hit the jackpot.” The University returns the compliment.
Reviews of The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics including the following:
Eric Foner, The Nation, 18 January 2007.
James M. McPherson, The New York Review of Books, 29 March 2007.
David Waldstreicher, Boston Globe, 4 February 2007.
For an interview with Tavis Smiley in which Professor Oakes discusses The Radical and the Republican, please click here.
1. The Radical and the Republican, p. xx.
2. The Radical and the Republican, p. 289.
By Erika Dreifus
Like many who devote their professional lives to music, Joseph N. Straus, who was named a CUNY Distinguished Professor in June 2008, recalls learning to play an instrument as a child (in his case: the cello). But this particular cellist then discovered music theory as a high school student taking a class at Harvard Summer School. And the rest, as they say, is history.
As an undergraduate pursuing a double major in English Literature and Music at Harvard College, the future expert on composer Igor Stravinsky wrote an honors senior thesis on the relation of music to drama in The Rake’s Progress, an opera written by Stravinsky with a libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. After his college graduation, Professor Straus spent a fellowship year in Paris studying with the famed music educator Nadia Boulanger. By that time, he says, he knew that music theory was something he wanted to study and think about on an advanced level; he earned a Ph.D. in Music Theory from Yale University in 1981.
For the next four years Professor Straus taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He arrived at The City University of New York in 1985 as an Assistant Professor, teaching at both Queens College and the Graduate Center. For the four years prior to his Distinguished Professor appointment, he was a Presidential Professor at the Graduate Center.
A past president of the Society for Music Theory, Professor Straus is recognized for multiple contributions to the scholarship of twentieth-century music. His first book, Remaking the Past: Musical Modernism and the Influence of the Tonal Tradition (Harvard University Press, 1990) was followed by The Music of Ruth Crawford Seeger (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Stravinsky’s Late Music (Cambridge University Press, 2001). Currently Professor Straus is completing a book to be titled Serialism in American Music, which will also be published by Cambridge University Press; this work, he promises, will challenge some prevailing myths about what is known as the “twelve-tone” system or method of composition. In addition to his direct teaching and dissertation advising, Professor Straus has helped shape the development of countless students who have encountered him through his three textbooks, and he has edited or co-edited another four volumes.
While continuing to teach, research, and write about music theory in a traditional context, Professor Straus has also, more recently, combined his expertise with an engagement in the newer field of disability studies. Initially drawn into the latter subject when the elder of his two sons was diagnosed with autism, Professor Straus became aware, about five years ago, of the “nonmedical literature” on disability as a social and cultural phenomenon. Finding the work “incredibly exciting and world-transforming,” he also perceived a gap in the field—where music belonged.
Professor Straus estimates that these days, about half his scholarly work is related to the field of disability studies. One of his co-edited volumes is Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music (Routledge, 2006), which is the first book-length publication in the emerging field of disability and music. Last semester, Professor Straus taught the first-ever Graduate Center seminar on the subject, “Introduction to Disability Studies in the Humanities.” The course combined scholarly readings with music and literature. A week focusing on “Narratives of Overcoming, Cure, and ‘Normalization,’” for example, asked students to read several academic chapters and articles (including Professor Straus’s own “Normalizing the Abnormal: Disability in Music and Music Theory”), and to be prepared to discuss Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, Ludwig von Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”), and Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat Major. Not surprisingly, Professor Straus’s longtime interest in Stravinsky has also found a place in his new scholarly focus, with his most recent published article focusing on “Disability and ‘Late Style’ in Music,” providing close readings of works by Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, and Aaron Copland. In this article, Professor Straus argues that what have been considered “markers of lateness” in the composers’ later works may be more accurately understood “in relation to the disabled bodies of their composers.”
While acknowledging that “New York is a great place to do anything in the arts,” Professor Straus emphasizes that the Graduate Center is perhaps New York City’s best contribution to his scholarly development. The ability to work at the Graduate Center with his colleagues and students, to share and exchange ideas and to collaborate with an extraordinary cohort—this, he believes, is the most precious gift New York offers him.
And for those who may be wondering, the Distinguished Professor whose lifelong love of music began with boyhood cello lessons is still a practicing cellist. Occasionally, he says, he plays chamber music with friends. One suspects Stravinsky must be part of their repertoire.
By Erika Dreifus
It's a very complicated and important question and it's difficult for me to think about. I think the mind is free and one ought to be able to draw upon whatever one needs. Why shouldn't I teach Wordsworth? Why shouldn't I draw on him for what I write? Why should I only draw upon women or women of color? It's ridiculous. There was a time when I read a great deal of poetry by women and it was very important to me to do that. I was fascinated by what it might mean to make poetry as a woman, because there are certain kinds of burdens that inform you or that you inherit. They're part of being in a particular body. And not just that, it's also the idea that aspects of what are called or thought of as ‘canonical literature' are not available to you. 3
More information on Professor Meena Alexander
1 These are the first lines in Alexander's poem, "Cosmopolitan", which opens her latest collection, Quickly Changing River (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2008). "Cosmopolitan" was the featured poem at Poetry Daily for 12 February 2008, and can be accessed at http://www.poems.com/poem.php?date=13922 .
2 Carolyn Waters, “Meena Alexander.” Postcolonial Studies at Emory Pages. Available at http://english.emory.edu/Bahri/Alexander.html . Accessed 3 December 2007.
3 Ruth Maxey, “Interview with Meena Alexander.” The Kenyon Review 28.1 (Winter 2006). Available at http://www.kenyonreview.org/issues/winter06/maxey.php . Accessed 3 December 2007.
By Jill Jarvis
"Peter laughs at his own jokes. It's wonderful and nothing I anticipated. He is The Peter Carey, after all. He's chatting away about narrative tension and policeman walks by the classroom and his finger shoots up in the air and he yells, 'Police!' in the middle of narrative tension. There's something so wry about his humor, and so haphazard that it makes you believe writing can be that way too. Random and sardonic and not at all what you expected. ... Then there is a way in which writing for Peter doesn't seem so fraught as it does for many writers. What a hopeful thing for us to learn."
Jessica Soffer, '09
"I have taken from Peter a great number of very specific beliefs about writing: the importance of physical setting in creating a mood and allowing the reader to relax into a scene; the importance of remembering to include the weather; the significance of a character's little quirks--if you offhandedly make one of your characters a smoker, he better be smoking or craving a cigarette repeatedly throughout your piece; how to get across a character's physical appearance when writing in the first person; how to 'kill your darlings' when a scene or line or chapter just isn't working; and, perhaps most importantly, that beautiful, carefully thought-out sentences can do a lot of the work."
Liz Moore, '09
author of The Words of Every Song (Random House/Broadway, 2007)
"My first novel comes out in 2009. I wouldn't have developed the discipline or the drive to finish it without his example. Peter takes writing and writers very seriously...My edition of [Microsoft] Word features a miniature Peter Carey who pops up on my laptop to remind me not to suck. He tells me to draw maps when describing any physical space. Tells me that dialogue merely floats across the surface of action. And ask me that obvious but often disregarded question: what would it really be like? Peter continues to affect my writing on a practical level every day."
Jeff Rotter, '06
author of The Unknown Knowns (Scribner, 2009)
"Peter has affected every single sentence I've written since my first workshop with him. He taught me to investigate my language, something I wasn't at all doing. He walked me through a few awful paragraphs I had written, showed me what I was doing, and then he showed me how it should be done. Of course, I liked my version better, but in the end he was right. He got his message through, and I learned.
Alex Gilvarry, ‘09
1 From Radhika Jones' 2006 Paris Review interview.
2 See Andreas Gaile’s 1967-2005 full bibliography from “Fabulating Beauty” .
3 From Radhika Jones' 2006 Paris Review interview.
4 See James McCloskey's (Hunter MFA /06) interview with Peter Carey in The Brooklyn Rail for more details.
By Emily B. Stanback
What is the basic unit of life or living organization? Does life exist in basic units at all? What does it mean to be an individual, a distinct living thing? These are the kinds of questions—equally important to philosophy and biology—that are routinely taken on by Peter Godfrey-Smith, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. Although his scientific interests range broadly, from the human mind to Darwinian evolution to octopuses, Godfrey-Smith's work is consistent in its effect, opening up new ways of thinking about science, philosophy, and the natural world.
On a spring afternoon in his office at the Graduate Center, I asked Godfrey-Smith how he came to develop such richly interdisciplinary interests. He was, he told me, a "classic humanities guy" who was drawn only later to science. As an undergraduate at the University of Sydney he pursued a degree in philosophy, an early interest of his: "It was an extremely good philosophy department, one of the best anywhere, and it was sort of a Golden age there at Sydney. " While an undergraduate he began working on the philosophy of mind, and it was a time when "people were starting to think of taking a more evolutionary and biological approach" to questions of cognition, consciousness, and subjectivity. But it wasn't until graduate school at the University of California, San Diego that he began to develop his scientific expertise. Realizing that the philosophical questions he was asking had direct scientific relevance, Godfrey-Smith undertook what he describes as a crash course in biology, evolutionary biology, and the mathematical underpinnings of the biological sciences.
Now Godfrey-Smith is one of the foremost figures in what is known as the philosophy of science, a field that, he has written, "aim[s] to understand how science works and what it achieves." In part, work like Godfrey-Smith's seeks to bring scientific ideas into contact with broader academic debates; it "refines, clarifies, and makes explicit the picture that science is giving us of the natural world and our place in it." By taking a rigorous theoretical approach to science, Godfrey-Smith is also able to question and critique the assumptions, habits, and practices that can both limit scientific thinking and distort the ways that non-scientists conceive of the natural world.
Take, for example, the ways that we talk about and think about evolution. Godfrey-Smith writes that Darwin's Origin of Species is a "fairly concrete" text that focuses on "actual-world organisms and environments"—but soon after it was published, people began to generalize Darwin's main ideas, a tendency that continues to this day. A philosopher, Godfrey-Smith is, of course, not against abstraction. But his work on evolution does endeavor to point out where common generalizations don't account for biological realities, and he seeks to develop new ways of thinking about evolution that do a better job of describing the natural world. Of the common Darwinian metaphor "tree of life," Godfrey-Smith writes, with characteristic judiciousness, "Life is only roughly a tree, but a great deal follows from its being roughly a tree." What he would like, one senses, is for us to pay careful attention to the ways that abstractions like this get it right—and how they can meaningfully broaden our understanding of the world—but to equally attend to the interesting and provocative ways that abstractions can fall short.
Some of the particular problems we face in thinking about Darwinian evolution have to do with what innately makes sense to us, given our experience as human beings. Godfrey-Smith reminds us that humans are, biologically and evolutionarily, a "special case," and human-centric ideas can therefore lead us astray when we think about concepts like inheritance, reproduction, and individuality. Generally speaking, it makes good intuitive sense (and good biological sense) to count each human being as an individual: when two human beings reproduce, their genes combine to form a new, genetically distinct human being—and thus the human species continues and evolves. Naturally enough, we may be tempted to similarly assume that each tree, animal, and flower is its own individual entity with distinct parents and a distinct origin. But, Godfrey-Smith explains, "once you look at living things and try to find the boundaries, it's very hard to see where one thing begins and one ends."
Consider an aspen grove, which seems to consist of distinct, individual trees but actually consists of scores of trees that have all grown from a shared root system. Is it possible to think of each tree as an "individual" in any scientifically meaningful way? Further, can one think of each new sapling as a birth of sorts, or must one think of it as the continuing growth of an already existing entity? And what of a honeybee colony that is sustained through communal efforts and in which only one female (the queen) reproduces, and all other females are sterile? In biological and evolutionary contexts, can each bee "count" as an individual even though most can never reproduce? Or does it make more sense to think of the colony as a unit with a specialized division of labor and a collective reproductive system?
As Godfrey-Smith outlines in Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection , which won the prestigious 2010 Lakatos Award for "an outstanding contribution to the philosophy of science, " it's not just aspens and honeybees that challenge a human-centric approach to evolutionary concepts. Similar complications are posed by scores of other living entities—strawberries, violets, viruses, the Portuguese Man o'War, aphids, fungus, lichen, marmosets, and grapes, to name a few—suggesting the extent to which our intuitive understanding of nature can fail to account for its realities.
In addition to evolution, Godfrey-Smith has also recently published on the human / animal divide, putting pressure on the "difficulties and deficiencies we have in writing about animal minds." Here, as elsewhere, Godfrey-Smith interrogates our habitual, metaphorical, and intuitive ways of thinking about biology and nature, which, he says, often lead us to both underestimate and overestimate the capacities and experiences of animals. The stakes of this work are largely scientific and philosophical, but, according to Godfrey-Smith, "there are also enormous implications for animal ethics."
When I talked to Godfrey-Smith about octopuses, a recent animal interest of his, I particularly sensed his enthusiasm for the natural world. Godfrey-Smith explains that most of the animals we think of as "intelligent"—humans, dolphins, birds, chimpanzees—are closely related, evolutionarily speaking; all are vertebrates and are "built on basically the same plan." Octopuses, however, are invertebrates of the cephalopod family, and are related to fellow mollusks like snails, slugs, clams, mussels, and scallops.
"Far, far away on the tree of life, " Godfrey-Smith describes, "octopuses evolved large nervous systems and complex behavior, " and the octopus's and human's highly distinct evolutionary paths have led to some striking and surprising similarities: eyes that are, structurally and functionally, nearly identical, and the shared capacity for learning and memory. Godfrey-Smith thinks of the octopus as a "second experiment" in advanced neural evolution and reflects, "it would be a shame if they didn't exist because then there would be only one experiment," the one that led to the complex nervous systems of vertebrates like humans.
If the octopus's similarities to "intelligent" vertebrates raise provocative philosophical questions, so, too, do its differences. Most of an octopus's ½ billion neurons can be found in its arms. That their neurons, unlike ours, are so decentralized creates an epistemological quandary. Godfrey-Smith muses, "Does the different design of the nervous system imply a different sense of self? Is there a single self? Or is that the wrong question? "
When asked what it's like to be in the presence of cephalopods, Godfrey-Smith reports that, "informally, from hanging out with octopuses and cuttlefish, they seem to have different personalities" —but emphasizes that it's difficult to tell what impressions constitute meaningful observations and what is due to projection. "We have to remember how different they are from us, " he cautions, "but also not block out the possibility of personality" and other concepts we're used to thinking of in distinctly human terms.
Before joining the Philosophy Department at the CUNY Graduate Center in fall 2011, Godfrey-Smith held faculty positions at Stanford University, the Australian National University, and Harvard University. Godfrey-Smith is quick to point out that as an octopus enthusiast he is in good company here at CUNY, despite its urban location. (Other CUNY octopus scholars include Brooklyn College's Jennifer Basil and Frank Grasso.) He has also found an intellectual home in the Committee for Interdisciplinary Science Studies at the Graduate Center, where he is a core faculty member.
As to his transition from Harvard to CUNY, Godfrey-Smith says that "it's been good. I like the atmosphere here, I like the students. " A course he taught this spring, "The Evolution of Meaning, " has helped him with his current research, which looks at "problems of meaning and interpretation and signs" by exploring "sender-receiver interaction systems and how they fit into an evolutionary context"—and he says that it has been a "real pleasure" to be able to focus on these issues.
Anyone familiar with Godfrey-Smith will have no doubt that this new work on signs and systems will continue his larger project of interrogating the limits and possibilities of scientific concepts, and of translating science to open up new ways of thinking about the world around us.
By Jill Jarvis
Entertainment Weekly's 2005 review of Collins' The Trouble With Poetry begins with this hook: "Do poems scare or bore you? Try Collins on for size!"1 As a teacher, I have given my eleventh-grade students his "Introduction to Poetry" and observed the results. Having witnessed the startled and delighted impact of this poem on that skeptical crowd, I can testify: Collins might just have a knack for curing poetry anxiety. He certainly has a knack for shaking a laugh out of even the most recalcitrant reader of poetry.
This Lehman College Distinguished Professor of English could easily be called-and often is-the most beloved poet in America. Collins is the author of ten poetry collections: Pokerface (1977); Video Poems (1980); The Apple that Astonished Paris (1988); Questions about Angels (1991); The Art of Drowning (1995); Picnic, Lightning (1998); Sailing Alone Around the Room (2001); Nine Horses (2002); The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems (2005). His newest collection, Ballistics, is due to be published on September 9, 2008.
In recent decades, Billy Collins has developed the mass popular appeal of a rock star-Katherine Marsh of the New York Times noted that his sold-out 2001 reading from Sailing Alone Around the Room "caused the literary equivalent of Beatlemania."2 Collins is alternately hailed, in Entertainment Weekly and elsewhere, as "hilariously funny," a "modern-day Robert Frost," "Billy the Kidder," the Jerry Seinfeld/Oprah/Rodney Dangerfield of Poetry, and "not only a wildly successful seller of books (as poets go, anyway) but also a charming public reader who can pack auditoriums."3 Collins has received abundant accolades, including awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He served as the United States National Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, and was the New York State Poet Laureate from 2004-2006.
This poet advocates placing poetry in unexpected places, but there's more to it than that: "The real question," he has said, "is what happens to the reader once he or she gets inside the poem."4 Collins uses various metaphors for the intimate link between poet and reader-taking the reader gently by the hand, helping the reader into a potentially precarious canoe, then setting off-but the point, he says, is to be conscientious of and responsive to his readers, and to take them somewhere. Known for his directness, Collins often writes as if in invitation to a single person. "I don't know who the person is," he has noted, "but I have an idea of speaking or whispering these poems to one listener, and I hope I'm aiming for a very intimate connection."5 He calls this ‘hospitality' (rather than accessibility, a term he recommends be banished), and suggests that once the hospitable poet has invited and welcomed the (possibly tentative) reader into the poem, a journey to more startling places can begin.
Collins' proclivity for plain speech does not mean that he does not appreciate difficult poetry. He does, after all, hold a PhD in English Romantic Poetry, and he wrote a dissertation on Wordsworth and Coleridge. "I have a taste for specific kinds of difficulty," Collins counters when I bring this up, adding: "I am interested in poetry not as a form of arcane coding, but as containing a great say-ability. It's a matter of taste. Some poets are just not aware of your presence. I am as interested in the poet as the poet is in me."
In his inimitable fashion, Collins insistently defies William Butler Yeats' assertion that "A poet...never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table." Case in point:
Every morning I sit across from you
(from "A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal")
This plain-speaking and playful poet can track his poetic sensibilities back to the influence of ‘two mothers': to Mother Goose, "the mother of all poets, who teaches us all to love rhythm and rhyme, to delight in strange little stories," and to the mother who raised him in Jackson Heights, Queens.
"Shakespearean quatrains would leak into her talk," Collins says of his mother. "She was a great reciter of poetry that she had memorized in high school." When he tells me this, I imagine poetry sneaking easily into unexpected places-the family breakfast table, the dinner table, the car. I detect traces of such maternal influence when Collins now extols not just the meaning but the pleasures of poetry, as he did in a 2001 conversation with Ira Glass at The Poetry Center in Chicago: “the pleasure of rhythm, the pleasure of musicality, the pleasure of companionship.”
It was the English metaphysical poets, however, who actually compelled Collins to write. "I went through the full metal jacket of Catholic education," he has said of his Catholic-elementary-through-Jesuit-undergraduate-college training. 7 As an undergraduate at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, young Billy Collins had a formative moment with John Donne.
While reciting Donne's "The Flea" to a friend on the college lawn-"Cruell and sodaine, has thou since/Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence?/In what could this flea guilty bee,/Except in that drop which it suckt from thee?"-the poet-to-be did not simply delight in Donne's seductive wit and clever language. "I wished I had written that poem," Collins admits. "I envied him. I wondered if I could write a poem as good. Literary influence is a euphemism for jealousy. It's the desire to emulate that drives creative work."
But Collins' first book of poetry was not published until well after he completed a PhD at University of California (Riverside) and joined the faculty of Lehman College in 1968. For the past four decades, Professor Collins has earned his living teaching everything from basic composition ("subject-verb agreement") to graduate-level literary analysis ("Joyce, Yeats"). "You'd get the bends if you were a diver," Collins says cheerfully of this vacillation in his teaching duties, and in the same breath notes that at CUNY, a "university unprecedented in size and mission," he has always felt like he fulfilled a vital need for his students.
Throughout those early decades at Lehman, Collins quietly penned his poems, occasionally publishing one in an obscure literary journal. When he sent a fifty-poem manuscript to the renowned editor Miller Williams, Williams paper-clipped eight of these and sent the packet back to Collins with a note urging him to write thirty new poems as good as those eight and pitch the rest. "That paperclip," Collins tells me, "was worth a graduate degree in creative writing." Since that paperclip, Collins has composed a body of poetry to inspire waves of fresh literary jealousy in new generations of poets.
When I ask him what exactly a National Poet Laureate does, Collins laughs. "It's a mysterious job," he concedes. "You spend two years explaining that to yourself and to everyone else." One of his most significant duties, it turned out, was to fulfill an assignment from Congress. Congress asked Collins to write a poem commemorating the first anniversary of September 11th according to these specifications: be patriotic, be optimistic, mention the heroes, express reverence for the dead. Articulating the private and public trauma surrounding that unspeakable event was so daunting it became impossible. "But you can't just tell Congress you're busy," Collins points out. "I said I'd think about it, but I didn't think I could do it."
After he had finally decided to read Walt Whitman in place of a new composition, the Poet Laureate awakened at dawn with a flash of insight. "If I wrote an elegy for the dead," he realized, "that would remove the poem from the political rhetoric." He also had the idea of using the alphabet as a simple framing device, as so many schoolchildren do in their first poems. "Once I had the alphabet and the elegy," he tells me, "I had a box in which to write. I could do it." The resulting poem was never, and will never be, published in a book, and Collins only read it twice in public. Titled "The Names," the poem begins with stark and striking emotion: "Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory./ So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart." You can listen to Collins read the full poem here.
Professor Collins' other Laureate legacy is a project called Poetry 180. The hand-picked poems in this anthology are intended to provide a daily dose of poetry to young minds in high schools throughout the nation. The anthology's title belies its mission: not only to fill each day of a school year, but to trigger an about-face in some of these minds. Pleasure, as Collins points out, is underrated in poetry, "because poetry gets associated with the pain of the classroom. Unfortunately, when poetry gets taught, meaning becomes the first and last emphasis." It seems that high schools are another great site for poetic ambush.
According to Collins, the poems of Poetry 180 are to be listened to, savored, but not analyzed. This is not a substitute for analysis, he reminds me, but a supplement to it; not an excuse to avoid reading ‘difficult poetry' but a chance to fall in love with the rhythm and rhyme of language. I detect, in this, Collins' effort to pass on the legacy he inherited from his own poetry-reciting mother, from Mother Goose, from Donne. The anthology begins with Collins' own "Introduction to Poetry," a perfect anthem:
I ask them to take a poem
Professor Collins is gratified to received letters from high school teachers who say that the daily readings from Poetry 180 have convinced some of even their most difficult students ‘come over' to poetry. "If you stop the daily recitation, these students get vocal," Collins reports with satisfaction. "They get addicted." I suspect, too, that some of these students feel the hot sting of literary jealousy that will trigger new creation, and predict that Billy Collins' legacy will thereby continue to flourish.
2. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9402EFDE153BF93BA25752C1A9679C8B63 “The Selling of Billy Collins”
3. From Mary Jo Salter’s 2002 NYT review of Nine Horses. For full review, see http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0DE2D6163AF933A15753C1A9649C8B63 .
4. Elizabeth Farnsworth of PBS, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec01/collins_12-10.html .
5. Grace Cavalieri interview: http://www.gracecavalieri.com/poetLaureates/billyCollins.html
6. In interview with Grace Cavalieri.
7. Now that you’ve read the first poem, read the other 179 here: http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/
By Emily B. Stanback
On a spring afternoon in his office at the Graduate Center, I asked Godfrey-Smith how he came to develop such richly interdisciplinary interests. He was, he told me, a "classic humanities guy" who was drawn only later to science. As an undergraduate at the University of Sydney he pursued a degree in philosophy, an early interest of his: "It was an extremely good philosophy department, one of the best anywhere, and it was sort of a Golden age there at Sydney. " While an undergraduate, he began working on the philosophy of mind, and it was a time when "people were starting to think of taking a more evolutionary and biological approach" to questions of cognition, consciousness, and subjectivity. But it wasn't until graduate school at the University of California, San Diego that he began to develop scientific expertise. Realizing that the philosophical questions he was asking had direct scientific relevance, Godfrey-Smith undertook what he describes as a crash course in biology, evolutionary biology, and the mathematical underpinnings of the biological sciences.
Take, for example, the ways that we talk about and think about evolution. Godfrey-Smith writes that Darwin's Origin of Species is a "fairly concrete" text that focuses on "actual-world organisms and environments" —but soon after it was published, people began to generalize Darwin's main ideas, a tendency that continues to this day. A philosopher, Godfrey-Smith is, of course, not against abstraction. But his work on evolution does endeavor to point out where common generalizations don't account for biological realities, and he seeks to develop new ways of thinking about evolution that do a better job of describing the natural world. Of the common Darwinian metaphor "tree of life, " Godfrey-Smith writes, with characteristic judiciousness, "Life is only roughly a tree, but a great deal follows from its being roughly a tree." What he would like, one senses, is for us to pay careful attention to the ways that abstractions like this get it right—and how they can meaningfully broaden our understanding of the world—but to equally attend to the interesting and provocative ways that abstractions can fall short.
As Godfrey-Smith outlines in Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection , which won the prestigious 2010 Lakatos Award for "an outstanding contribution to the philosophy of science, " it's not just aspens and honey bees that challenge a human-centric approach to evolutionary concepts. Similar complications are posed by scores of other living entities—strawberries, violets, viruses, the Portuguese Man o'War, aphids, fungus, lichen, marmosets, and grapes, to name a few—suggesting the extent to which our intuitive understanding of nature can fail to account for its realities.
In addition to evolution, Godfrey-Smith has also recently published on the human / animal divide, putting pressure on the "difficulties and deficiencies we have in writing about animal minds. " Here, as elsewhere, Godfrey-Smith interrogates our habitual, metaphorical, and intuitive ways of thinking about biology and nature, which, he says, often lead us to both underestimate and overestimate the capacities and experiences of animals. The stakes of this work are largely scientific and philosophical, but, according to Godfrey-Smith, "there are also enormous implications for animal ethics."
When I talked to Godfrey-Smith about octopuses, a recent animal interest of his, I particularly sensed his enthusiasm for the natural world. Godfrey-Smith explains that most of the animals we think of as "intelligent" —humans, dolphins, birds, chimpanzees—are closely related, evolutionarily speaking; all are vertebrates and are "built on basically the same plan." Octopuses, however, are invertebrates of the cephalopod family, and are related to fellow mollusks like snails, slugs, clams, mussels, and scallops.
"Far, far away on the tree of life, " Godfrey-Smith describes, "octopuses evolved large nervous systems and complex behavior, " and the octopus's and human's highly distinct evolutionary paths have led to some striking and surprising similarities: eyes that are, structurally and functionally, nearly identical, and the shared capacity for learning and memory. Godfrey-Smith thinks of the octopus as a "second experiment" in advanced neural evolution and reflects, "it would be a shame if they didn't exist because then there would be only one experiment, " the one that led to the complex nervous systems of vertebrates like humans.
As to his transition from Harvard to CUNY, Godfrey-Smith says that "it's been good. I like the atmosphere here, I like the students. " A course he taught this spring, "The Evolution of Meaning, " has helped him with his current research, which looks at "problems of meaning and interpretation and signs" by exploring "sender-receiver interaction systems and how they fit into an evolutionary context" —and he says that it has been a "real pleasure" to be able to focus on these issues.