Swarthmore in Brooklyn
Alumnae practice intellectual community building in heady new institute
In the fall of my senior year, Professor Mark Wallace announced to our Postmodern Religion Thought honors seminar that we could understand the 20th century as a choice between Roland Barthes and Karl Barth. Naturally, this inspired Christine Smallwood ’03, one of my first-year roommates, and me to go straight home to make matching hand-lettered T-shirts with the authors’ names emblazoned on the front. We proudly wore them to seminar the following week. I picked Karl; Christine chose Roland.
Nearly 10 years later, I cringe to remember our display of fresh-faced academic devotion, but at the time it fazed no one. In fact, it paled in comparison to other moments from the semester, like the edible marzipan bust of Emmanuel Levinas that someone brought for seminar break, which gave rise to some truly tasteless jokes about the face of the Other; or that year’s religion department T-shirts (“Effing the Ineffable”). I wish I could say I still have the shirt, but a year after I graduated from Swarthmore, I moved to Manhattan to attend graduate school and found myself with limited closet space. But when Christine joined me at Columbia in 2008, the Barthes/Barth episode seemed uncanny in retrospect. We were once again classmates, this time working on our doctorates—unsurprisingly, in English literature and philosophy of religion.
As many alums can attest, the transition from Swarthmore to a major research university is a jarring one, a sort of second exit from the womb. This was particularly true for me, since my final two years at Swarthmore had been all about the honors experience—seminars in religion and philosophy, coupled with a semesterlong sojourn in a Buddhist monastery in India. By then, the students in my major had become close-knit. Personal community and intellectual community were indistinguishable; the major events of each week were the seminars themselves.
This is what I remember most about Swarthmore—more than the single-spaced papers or the arboretum or late-night conversations or any other hackneyed-but-true trope about pastoral liberal arts colleges: the seminar was the payoff. Guided by remarkable religion professors like Mark Wallace, Steven Hopkins, and Ellen Ross, and philosophy’s Tamsin Lorraine, the conversations that transpired there were the single most meaningful part of the week.
In contrast, graduate school proved to be a world of big-lecture courses, conference-paper proposals, seemingly endless rounds of oral exams, and the terrifying realities of the academic job market. And for some time, that belief in the seminar as payoff—intellectual community and dialogue as the raison d’être of education, not just a happy side effect—receded. I only found my way back to it when I became a teacher, first conducting small discussion sections as a teaching assistant, and then as an instructor in Columbia’s Core Curriculum, where classes are intimate spaces that facilitate open (and frequently impassioned) conversation. I vividly remember an email exchange with Steven Hopkins about my experiences in the classroom; he observed, astutely, that it was my own little Swarthmore at Columbia.
In fall 2009, I met Ajay Chaudhary and Michael Brent, fellow Ph.D. students, in the core pedagogy seminar for first-time instructors of Contemporary Western Civilization I and II (or CC to the Columbia community). It is a formidable class in philosophy and religious studies, moral and political thought: think Plato to Foucault in two semesters, four hours a week, with stops in between at the major Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptural and theological traditions, not to mention the gauntlet of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud that forms the centerpiece of the second semester.
It is also, like the Swarthmore seminar, an exercise in intellectual community building, albeit on a different scale. Individual class sections remain together for both semesters, forming tightly knit groups of students. In addition, the entire sophomore class is simultaneously enrolled in the course; a visitor to campus might see hundreds of students paging through identical copies of City of God or The Genealogy of Morals. As we taught CC, Ajay and Michael and I bonded over our collective commitment to pedagogy and the conviction that our identities as researchers and teachers were inextricably intertwined. When Ajay decided to start a small experimental school in Brooklyn, he asked me, Christine, and Michael to join him as its founding faculty members. Thus began the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.
Ajay conceived the institute partly in reaction to the overwhelming response from our nonacademic friends when we told them about our core classes. Again and again, we heard people express the desire for high-level discussion of difficult texts and mourn the absence of that sort of conversation from their lives. Since we launched our first course in January, Plato and Aristotle: Politics of the City, we’ve found an eager audience for our seminars. We’ve since held courses on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, an introduction to Freud, Spinoza and Mendelssohn, film and philosophy, literary realism, and the history of communication technologies. Our fall/winter course offerings extend to the social sciences and natural sciences. Local institutions have been unfailingly generous in donating classroom spaces where students meet once a week for six weeks, paying a modest $295 for a noncredit course. Our emphasis on teaching goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to research and forays into the production of new forms of knowledge. We record a popular monthly podcast and recently launched a digital humanities project. Next on the horizon is our own peer-reviewed journal.
When you turn the academy, or any given field of study, into a career, there is always the possibility that it will become simply “work,” regardless of the passion with which you once approached it. Dissecting the thing you love can become rote or formulaic; research can be isolating and draining. One of the most distinctive practices of the institute—and my personal favorite—is designed precisely to prevent this. In every course, an institute faculty member sits in as a student, so that we are always learning from one another, in our specific areas of expertise and from our distinctive teaching styles and techniques. Since I earned my Ph.D. from Columbia in May, in addition to teaching my own classes, I’ve studied Benjamin and Adorno with Ajay, and I attended Christine’s realism class this summer. At last, I can cross Madame Bovary off my bucket list.
The Brooklyn Institute has many influences, most obviously the Frankfurt School but also Columbia’s Core Curriculum and the various disciplinary approaches of the growing faculty, which range from philosophy to comparative literature to Middle Eastern studies and beyond. And, of course, it has the indelible stamp of New York City. But it also bears the imprint of the Swarthmore imperative of ethical education. The institute is deeply socially committed, dedicated to providing a diverse population with affordable access to educational opportunities. I have come to believe that facilitating the creation of spaces in which meaningful—often vulnerable, often passionate, often conflicted—conversation can occur is a profoundly ethical task, and I will always imagine the institute as our own little piece of Swarthmore in Brooklyn.
Besides teaching for the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research (thebrooklyninstitute.com), Abby Kluchin ’03 is an adjunct faculty member at the Cooper Union and teaches for Columbia University’s Core Curriculum.