Skip to Gallatin Navigation Skip to Gallatin Main Content

Episode Three: George Shulman

TRANSCRIPT

KC Trommer (host)
Welcome to Criss Cross. I'm your host KC Trommer. Our conversation today is with Gallatin's own George Shulman, who we will profile in the spring issue of Gallatin's alumni magazine, Gallatin Today. George Shulman is a senior scholar whose research and writing bring together political philosophy, critical race theory, American studies and American literature. Recipient of an NYU Distinguished Teaching Award, his current book project title is Post-Mortem Life: Theorizing Beyond Impasse. He's also one of Gallatin's most beloved professors and I'm honored to speak with him today. . .
Hello, George.

George Shulman
Hi, KC.

KC Trommer
So George, I had some questions for you about how you came to Gallatin and how long you've been at the School and thinking about how the School has evolved over your time here, which kind of tracks nicely with the history of the School.

George Shulman
Yes. So I came to Gallatin in 1995. It was a very, very different place and, at that point, I was the thirteenth faculty hired; it was very little. We were all on one floor, the 8th floor and only part of the 8th floor, and there were two secretaries and the school was just going through the process of becoming actually a School; it had been a Division and none of the professors were actually considered faculty, they were all on administrative lines because they didn't have tenure. And most of NYU was actually opposed to Gallatin being turned into a School because they thought that the faculty were not serious enough scholars because Gallatin was known as a kind of loosey-goosey, anything goes, sixties counter-cultural institution.

KC Trommer
And now, ironically, it's one of the most transferred into schools within the University.

George Shulman
Yes, it was originally called the University Without Walls. It was committed to experiential learning civic engagement breaking down the barriers between the school and the world around it, and I think it still has those commitments. And so consequently we emphasize internships and we have a civic engagement program and all kinds of fellowships to encourage students to sort of get outside of the classroom. But interdisciplinary seminars, which Gallatin is in many ways now known for, only began the year I got there; they were invented by the faculty. The idea that it was a school of interdisciplinary study was an invention in 1995 and then the interdisciplinary seminars, the freshman program, the arts workshops, that have the connection to intellectual life at the same time with what we then called the artist-scholar model, the advanced writing, all that was invented in the late nineties. And I guess the other thing that remains constant is the commitment to mentorship because students making an individualized program need a lot of input and engagement with faculty to figure out, what we now call a concentration, that crosses all these disciplinary lines. And that puts advising at the center of this school and that remains unlike almost any other kind of academic institution in the country.

KC Trommer
And that is very different, that it's not just the teacher imparting knowledge to students, but it's a conversation between students and faculty and real relationships. I think that's part of why our alumni are so engaged and interested in remaining engaged with the school is that they've built real relationships with the people that they worked with and the faculty members that they knew while they were graduates and undergraduates.

George Shulman
Many of them have. The idea of a concentration was also invented along with interdisciplinary seminars and that students needed to pull different disciplines together around a theme or a question that would guide an inquiry. That's something that we developed that remains really. It's the idea of teaching students how to be self-reflective, to bring to bear on their practice a full range of the liberal arts. That combination of creativity and criticality of being able to be both critical and creative about what we do is, to me, the goal of what the education is, just like it is my sense of what citizenship ultimately has to be. And that's, I think, been at the core of what Gallatin's sense of its mission is all along. You also asked how it's changed; two huge things have happened in the last 10 years. One is the crash of '08, and maybe that's the big thing, but the other is what academics now called neoliberalism, which is an increasingly anxious, marketized sense of how life should proceed. And increasingly, students are coming to Gallatin with very intense anxiety about getting a job.

KC Trommer
Intense and understandable.

George Shulman
And understandable. And so what they're using quote-unquote individualized study to do is to piece together a skill set and it's a much more complicated process now.

KC Trommer
I wanted to talk about your teaching.

George Shulman
Absolutely, you know, I'm getting close to retirement, but I'm looking back more. So I went to Berkeley at a point when the sixties were over. I was there in the mid seventies but it was still a school with a very deep commitment to social change that just ran through every department and the student body and the faculty. And there was a real legacy that was still alive from the sixties. So when I did political science, there was a sense that academic life and one's life as a teacher was absolutely the central thing. And the teaching and writing were never considered separate things. And teaching had to be a practice that was democratic in its impact. The idea of teaching was to empower students to be self-reflective themselves, and that consequently we didn't really use a lecture model. And Gallatin is in that spirit that's still there are no lectures in any of the classes here because it comes out of that idea of a radical pedagogy that is meant to create a sense of participation in learning as a collaborative process and the teacher's not the holder of knowledge, but actually, in Socrates' metaphor more like a midwife that's helping draw out what people already think and feel.

KC Trommer
That's one of the things I love about Gallatin is that there is a sense that the student is not there just to receive, but is at the table and has contributions to make and by having the space open for those students, there becomes a different kind of conversation that happens and a different kind of learning that happens.

George Shulman
Exactly. I don't know, this is probably too sentimental, but what's teaching for? What's the vocation? What is it really about?

KC Trommer
Yeah what's teaching really about, George?

George Shulman
So what's thrilling about teaching, what's exciting about teaching, and always satisfying about teaching, is that you are involved in people discovering their own intellectual and imaginative capacity. And it's an incredible thing to witness.

KC Trommer
Yeah, and if you create a community of your classroom and you create enough space for everybody there, then there's space to play.

George Shulman
It's a play space and that's linked to unpredictable kinds of creative things for the people in that community in that moment. I mean it doesn't always work out so beautifully, but when it works, it's really, it's just magic. It's just magic. So for me, coming from Berkeley, arriving here was like coming home for me in some way because there was that deep kind of sense of what pedagogy was, why it mattered, the ways in which it is political, not in an ideological sense, but in an empowerment sense. And then the other thing, thinking back on Berkeley, that I developed there were the central themes in my work and therefore in my teaching. And first, was that to put philosophy and literature together always and to see the literary element in philosophy and that philosophy has never been just about arguments, but also about, centrally about, metaphors.

KC Trommer
And storytelling.

George Shulman
And storytelling. I mean, going back to Plato's Republic, Socrates is actually retelling a story of a discussion he had the night before and he's acting out all the characters in the story. So in my work, the idea of narratives has always been central and seeing both political speech and political theory as forms of storytelling that are what people call, what scholars call, speech acts, in which if the speech or the text is felicitous in some way, if it resonates in some way, then it's given legs and people take it up and it becomes internal to how they think. And it's just incredibly generative that way.

KC Trommer
Especially if you're thinking about political theory and politics, ignoring the aspect of storytelling narrative and the stories that we tell ourselves, you ignore that to your peril.

George Shulman
To your peril, yes. So my work has always been thinking about political theory. That is, the thinkers, Plato or Aristotle or Machiavelli or Marx, as themselves engaged in narrative construction as part of trying to authorize and an argument and make it persuasive. So that's part of it, but also to look at politics as itself narratively governed and that the decisive act in politics is establishing the narrative framework through which people then see the world and understand their options, their choices, their possibilities and so on.

KC Trommer
And who they are.

George Shulman
And who they are, their identities, their histories, memory. There's nothing in life that's really not narrativized in some way. And now of course, any network will talk about who controls the narrative. But that was originally, actually, an academic idea that has migrated and now people sort of are blase about, "Oh, of course narratives." But in my history it was a transformative idea and it still shapes how I do what I do.

KC Trommer
Yeah, that's what struck me when you sent me some details on your next book and what struck me, of course as a poet, was that you are emphasizing that we are the stories we tell ourselves. And I wanted to talk to you a little bit, and this relates to what we were just speaking about, you write about organizing fictions and you write: "We live out deep visceral attachment to the organizing fictions we inherit by which we make sense of the world to define justice, conceive futurity, mobilize action. In certain moments we may know the inchoate ways that our frame of reference is no longer credible, but we lack politically salient ways to acknowledge what we know and we cannot conceive of the possibility of living otherwise." And I loved that because I think without acknowledging whatever stories we are telling ourselves, we continue to live out the stories that we've grown up with, inherited, or that are around us and that we've just taken in, passively taken in, and are acting out. So this book is looking very deeply at that, as I understand; I know that's been covered in your work all along as you say.

George Shulman
Yes, but the sense of a crisis, I think, follows from 2008 and is intensified by the election of Donald Trump. My work has always assumed and argued that there are dominant narratives that people are mostly enacting without self reflection and that those dominant narratives are at once very costly to others, and ultimately often self-defeating to those who believe them. And that I have argued that literature is a way of retelling those stories in such a way that readers can experience them and see their costs in a way that they can't always otherwise see. And that politics in its best moments is also about that kind of confrontation. When someone who's been the object or victim of a story is able to articulate what it's meant to them, then that creates a moment where people can see what stories really mean. I remember in graduate school reading Moby Dick for the first time and going, "he sank the ship, he sank it, it went down." And so, if you imagined that American literature sinks the ship and shows us the staggering kind of costs and dangers in the stories that we hold so close to us, that seems to me to be an incredible kind of, there's an incredible kind of power in that, that in my mind, is quite like the power of Greek tragedy. And American literature seems to me to be in the similar kind of relationship to our Republic that tragedy was to the polis or at least, potentially, or at its best. But I think in our moment there is a sense, absolutely widespread, that the American dream is in some kind of acute crisis, but there are not a lot of retellings out there in the world that give people a chance to think about how to narrate a difference and to somehow put that sense of crisis itself into a story whereby it becomes a prelude . . .

KC Trommer
 . . . to A new story. Well, and also to say maybe it's a crisis because there's change, but maybe it's not a complete destruction of self, but you also have to have a distance from it in order to not feel that way, or you at least have to have a certain amount of consciousness about what you're participating in to say, "I can participate in this no longer and now I need to think differently and change my behavior and expectations." And I feel like Americans are so seldom asked to render, sorry, have a reckoning with all the things we expect that we need and think we need. We just are not asked to.

George Shulman
We're not asked to and we tend to hate the messengers who bring the bad news. And it's not at all clear whether we have the resources emotionally or imaginatively to really cope with the demands that this moment puts on us.

KC Trommer
Right, and this is where again, young people are the answer to this because they haven't been saddled with, or lived as long in, the narratives that we've been given. And so, they're able to see different possibilities and not be terrified. But I think as you pointed out earlier, we are in a terrifying moment economically and I think they're right to be concerned.

George Shulman
Absolutely. I mean it's quite an intense moment and that informs my teaching now. So my old themes about narrative are still there, but the sense of a crisis and a reckoning and thinking about texts, that model that and give people a chance to kind of work through some of these issues, that's what my work is about.

KC Trommer
And what are you turning to for those conversations with texts?

George Shulman
I still teach Moby Dick, I teach Beloved, I still teach American fiction. Most of which end with these moments of impasse for the characters where they can't figure it out, so they're not demagogic in the sense of saying, "here's the answer."

KC Trommer
Let's talk about PEP. Can you describe your involvement with the Prison Education Program and how the aims of the program speak to your teaching?

George Shulman
So, there were a group of us who wanted to set up a prison education program. The state assigned us a prison called Wallkill which is about two hours North of here, in Newburgh, and we started classes. This is our fifth year anniversary and the experience of the teaching in the prison is, the genuineness of the intellectual engagement is just really unbelievable and it's deeply satisfying. And turning people on to these great texts and seeing their witnessing, really, their whole process of discovery and self-discovery is just very rewarding.

KC Trommer
I wondered if there was anything that you come across that you hadn't expected.

George Shulman
What I hadn't expected was, I don't know, this may say more about me than anything, but, the depth of self-reflection by these men . . . What's so extraordinary about them is this combination of a real political sense of social structure and then this incredibly introspective sense that most of these guys actually described prison as a gift of a kind, as a opportunity, it's very complicated. So it is a sign of injustice for sure, but it's not just that, and that's a pretty complicated kind of double sided view of theirexperience. The men who are in the prison program are those who have, basically, they're self-selected in the sense that they've already made that choice.

KC Trommer
And they all have the GED's and they've all applied to the program and all of that work so they've had the intention. Kind of bringing together your scholarship and the conversation you're having in your next book and PEP and the larger political tension in which we find ourselves, you write about impasse, right? This thinking about stuckness, and the sense that we're in the middle of a struggle and that there's a seeming impossibility of overcoming that struggle. This is kind of a silly question because it's an unanswerable question, but what do you think a way out is, and is it just a question of re-framing how we think about where we are as much as getting out? If there is a way to get out of where we are.

George Shulman
You don't exactly get out but what I imagine is, what people need is a story that explains in some way why we're stuck and that gives an account of why we're stuck in a way that then makes available to us. . .

KC Trommer
. . . a way to tell a new story.

George Shulman
Yes, and my argument is that that story has to do certain things. It has to put together why there's increasing inequality among white people and the fact of white supremacy at the same time so that there are two forms of inequality in this society. And that they need to be thought of together so that people can address the economic causes of inequality while at the same time addressing the nature of the racial disparity of how economic life and class structure are lived. Otherwise you end up with kind of another version of white politics and that won't be a way out, that will just be a repetition of American history. The problem is especially acute among poor whites who need to see both things together and if that occurred, then there it would be possible to address the economy in a way that benefited more people. But a different kind of narrative would, could, at least hypothetically, persuade people to see their difficulties in a way that's not at the expense of people of color. But that also means thinking about whites are going to be a minority of the country in 25 years there really are big changes going on and that needs to be talked about in a way that helps people make that transition.

KC Trommer
Just to say this change is happening and it doesn't necessarily have to come at an expense to you that the fear is driving people, right?

George Shulman
Yes, it's not a zero-sum process.

KC Trommer
Right, and so I think it's also that we're trapped in this binary thinking of, "If you have, I don't have," or, "You have things I want, therefore. . . "

George Shulman
That is in the nature of whiteness because whiteness is defined by having what others don't have. The whole thing has to be undone.

KC Trommer
And that is so tricky, and in a way I think that where we are is the crisis-opportunity moment, right? We're in this entrenchment because we are in a place where change has to happen.

George Shulman
I don't think that's true.

KC Trommer
You don't think that's true?

George Shulman
No, I think the ship could sink. Well we are at a tipping point, but we also are at a point where there are these possibilities that were inconceivable 10 years ago. Somebody running as a socialist like Bernie or even an Elizabeth Warren is inconceivable since the sixties. The fact that they could run in the democratic party is itself such a sign of how much has changed and of possibility. So which way we go, it does really seem like a threshold to me in a moment of really consequential decisions.

KC Trommer
So if the antidote to all of this is employing the radical imagination to create new stories for ourselves and for the world, what imaginative acts do we have to think about? We have to think about who we are, where we come from, where this country comes from, what this country's wealth is built on. What do we need to do next that might be different than what we've done before, aside from telling things differently or thinking, "That story that I don't know is maybe a story that I should engage with."

George Shulman
Yes, it might have something valuable in it, but I mean if you go back in the political theory tradition, partly it's about coming to grips with history that's brought you to this point. Partly, it's coming to grips with collective identity, but it's also about imagining what the good life is. So it's about rethinking our big words, what we mean by freedom, what we mean by justice, what we mean by value, well-being . . . When a society is really working well, all the implicit or tacit understandings can function and are functioning. But when you're in a crisis, the danger, the complication of it is you have to become much more explicit about your values. But I think the part of what political theorists have always done, and artists, is raise the question of what counts as a good life. Is owning property or having more stuff and what's the alternative to that? We have a sense that a good life has certain elements and I think all of them need to be rethought.

KC Trommer
So we can put everything on the table and do a baseline reassessment.

George Shulman
Well yeah, except obviously it can't happen all at once, but I think what theorists and artists do at their best is take elements of this, of these questions, and sort of dramatize them in vivid ways so that we can go, "Hmm, that might be a good life and we could imagine living otherwise."

KC Trommer
Thanks for listening to Criss Cross, the NYU Gallatin Podcast. You can learn more about George Shulman in the spring issue of Gallatin Today. This podcast was recorded at the Studios at Stern with audio editing by Hannah Beal. We want to include student and alumni voices here, so if you have a story of collaboration at Gallatin, I'd love to hear from you. Please write to me or record a voice memo, better yet, and send it along to KC Trommer--letter K letter C, T R O M M E R @ nyu.edu. I'd love to hear from you.