Welcome back to Gallatin for the fifth annual Alumni College—a day of scholarship, conversations, and camaraderie that highlight all that Gallatin has to offer. Gallatin started the Alumni College in 2015 in response to requests from alumni who knew that the Gallatin seminar was a singular experience they wanted to enjoy again.
During Alumni College, held at the School's LEED-certified 1 Washington Place building, you will attend a seminar—or two, or three—led by Professors Dinwiddie, Duncombe, Erickson, Franks, Lewis, Luckett, Mirsepassi, Murphy, Phillips-Fein, Romig, Shulman, and Walsh.
After the discussions have ended, you may bring a guest to join our annual Alumni Wine Reception and raise a glass in The Jerry H. Labowitz Theatre for the Performing Arts.
All Alumni College programming is complimentary, and registration is required. Kindly let us know by Wednesday, May 29, if you can’t honor your reservation.
11:00 am-12:30 pm
Alumni Wine Reception
Michael Dinwiddie, “Made in Detroit”
Once known as “The Motor City,” Detroit has been imagined, represented, and parsed in literature, documentary film, photography, political discourse, and historical narratives. Today, it is often described as “The Renaissance City,” but in what is this optimism rooted? Is it boosterism and wishful thinking, or will Detroit become a vibrant metropolis through creative experimentation and entrepreneurial innovation? Has its decline been too pronounced and specific for any hope of reversal? A landscape where issues of race, class and geography are thrown into bas-relief, we will examine the systemic forces at play in the Detroit story.
Stephen Duncombe, “What Can Art Change?”
Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundation for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been said before.
Poetry makes nothing happen. —WH Auden
What can art do? Can it change the world? Or is it an escape from it? This class will not resolve these questions, as for millennia people have debated the power of art and its social impact and we are no closer now to an answer. In this seminar we will, however, explore different ways of thinking about the power of art to shape society. We will do this by doing close readings of selections from the Hebrew Bible, Plato’s Republic, Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, and Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” with brief forays into Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on what makes revolutionary art, Andre Breton’s ideas about art as a path to the unconscious, and Théophile Gautier’s rantings on the glory of art’s uselessness. Again, the goal of this class is not to conclude with an authoritative answer but, to paraphrase yet another poet, this time Eliot: “to arrive where we started/And know the place . . . perhaps, a bit better.”
Kim Phillips-Fein, “American Socialism”
Socialism has been in the news lately. But what does the term really mean? This seminar will look at the history of American socialism, especially in the early twentieth century, when massive economic inequality and a sense of the limited political options led to the rise of a socialist movement. We will read a few short excerpts from the writings of the socialist leaders of that moment; ask how the movement thought about class, race and gender; and reflect together on the history of the idea in the American context, and what it means today.
Andy Romig, “Modern Medievalisms and Why We Love Them”
From The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, medievalism has never been more present within the modern imagination than today. Our politicians talk openly about crusades. Fundamentalist groups lay claim to medieval symbols and slogans. Suburban witch covens sell neo-pagan trinkets on Etsy and Amazon. What does it all mean? And why should we be paying attention? Join me for a discussion of how we might make sense of our modern medievalisms and why we love them. Where did this fascination with the medieval world come from? To what ends have the European Middle Ages been misunderstood and misappropriated? How should we separate the reality of the past from the fictions of our present? And what are the consequences if we don’t?
Greg Erickson, “Introduction to Finnegans Wake: Reading Page One of the Hardest Book Ever Written”
James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) is often described as the most difficult work of literature ever written; in fact, it is still debated whether the “novel” is a masterpiece or just an elaborate hoax. Wake is written in a largely idiosyncratic language filled with multilingual puns and invented portmanteau words, literary allusions, dream associations, lists, songs, and an almost total abandonment of narrative conventions. For many readers, it is also an intensely fun book to read, with Finnegans Wake reading groups meeting all over the world. In this course, we will get an overall introduction to the novel—its basic form, structure, theme, ideas, and characters—and then take a crack at reading one page of it together. “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”
Moya Luckett, “Celebrity, Social (Im)mobility and the Changing Nature of Work”
For at least the last hundred years, celebrity has been widely associated with increased social mobility even as it masks changes in work that make such transcendence increasingly difficult. Today’s reality stars, influencers and tabloid mainstays are typically used to suggest a culture of opportunity, open to all who are able to self-brand, even those with seemingly limited talents or few laudable personal qualities. But celebrity and its promised riches are not open to all: its platforms have gatekeepers, including social media algorithms that often apportion visibility to those with the economic and social means to game them to their own ends. A discourse on work, celebrity engages with and deflects attention away from declining professional opportunities for self-advancement, including the rise of neoliberalism’s gig economy. In the process, it reframes work in terms of serenity and self-actualization offering a seductive alternative to a contemporary workplace marked by increased self-abnegation. It also encourages the public to invest more of our time in the immaterial labor of producing social media content, refining our online personae and following others, providing data that enriches sites like Instagram and Facebook but rarely translates into individual fame. This session will explore the relationship between contemporary fame and social mobility, considering how celebrity engages with and problematizes ideas about the American dream, hard work, meritocracy and social mobility, as seen in recent scandals like Operation Varsity Blues. We will explore how celebrity culture addresses the changing status, value and nature of work via its investment in self-branding and entrepreneurship, attending to ways it shifts our focus to the self as a site for pleasurable labor and investment.
Ali Mirsepassi, “Iranian Political Thought Between Two Revolutions”
Attention to political thought and theory is crucial in helping us to understand contemporary Iran. The country experienced an existential shift in its understanding of ‘the political’, constituting a radical transformation in its social imaginary. The ‘political’ was defined initially in the Constitutional period (1906) mainly as the reordering of ‘power relationships’ through a social contract binding citizens and state. In the post-1950s, the second mutation in Iran’s social imaginary evolved. A vision of political thought conceiving the state as a ‘moral and cultural’ agent embodying a ‘good society.’ This mutation in political discourse positioned the state as the agent for reconfiguring citizens and civil society as the moral projection of the State (‘Islamic’) in the post-1978 revolutionary period. For the Constitutionalists, the “political” was defined as the “rule of law”, a legal and institutional ideal. However, in the latter period, a much more ‘culturalist’ political theory was advanced and the state-citizen relation moved outside of the Constitutionalism political tradition.
Lauren Walsh, “Conflict Photography: The Need to Know and the Desire to Not See”
As photography documents war crimes, human rights violations, and humanitarian crises, it can help bring perpetrators to justice, but it can also be difficult to look at. This course explores the tension between the beautiful and the abhorrent, and looks at the balance of the need to know and the desire to not see. In examining the debates that swirl around the uses and misuses of conflict photography, we also consider the role of non-traditional war photography, that is imagery with an emphasis on civilians, social conflict and stillness instead of the oft-seen combatants, frontlines and bombast.
Hallie Franks, “Coloring Ancient Greece and Rome”
“The Classical” is synonymous with the aesthetic of white marble. How does our understanding of the ancient world change when those marble statues are, as they originally were, painted? This course takes on the problem of color, the ways in which its presence—or its absence—has helped to shape a powerful modern vision of Greek and Roman antiquity, and the implications of this vision. Three separate, but intersecting, groups of questions will guide us:
We tackle, in other words, how profoundly differently the ancient Greeks and Romans must have seen their own images and how deeply our vision of that world has depended on projecting modern priorities back in time. Please read the following two essays in advance of our meeting: “The Sea Was Never Blue” (M. M. Sassi) and “Black Achilles” (T. Whitmarsh).
Brad Lewis, “Art for Life: The Sublime”
The overarching context for this class is arts for life. How, in other words, might we put the arts into practice for navigating the complexities of being alive? To focus ourselves, we concentrate on a single idea, “the sublime.” That will still give us much to talk about however since the “sublime” is a slippery concept with a long history. In everyday conversation, it has little specificity and tends to be synonymous with the wonderful or the excellent. In the arts and humanities, however, the “sublime” is a topic of deep and extensive reflection amongst poets, painters, film makers, theorists, philosophers, etc. While its precise meaning is much contested, it tends to denote an exalted state of mind, or an overwhelming response to art or nature that goes beyond everyday experience. The sublime is related to formlessness, immensity, intense light or darkness, terror, solitude and silence, yet it also offers the solace of transcendence, an art in which one could lose oneself. For background, please see an article I wrote with some reflections on the topic called “A Medical Sublime.” We will build our class discussion from there. Along the way, and with any luck, we can help create an everyday sublime that is relevant for challenges of contemporary life.
Please complete this reading in advance of class.
Sara Murphy, “Tinkering with the Machinery of Death: From Billy Budd to Madison v. Alabama”
Herman Melville’s novella, Billy Budd, has long been a favorite of law-and-literature scholars; but perhaps it takes on new resonances given the current Supreme Court term, during which two much-discussed capital punishment cases were decided. In this seminar, we’ll think together about the intersections and resonances between law and literature by examining what Billy Budd, written in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, might tell us about the persistence of capital punishment in the contemporary U.S. In Melville’s maritime narrative, he is arguably using a temporally and geographically distant scene to reflect on the larger questions of the ethics and forms of judgment and the state’s power over life and death. The late nineteenth century saw rising sentiment against capital punishment; some of Melville’s contemporaries believed that capital punishment would soon be abolished altogether. Our current moment tells us how wrong they were. Though the use of capital punishment seems to be declining, and some scholars argue it has become a regional, rather than a national, practice, the recent Supreme Court cases Bucklew v. Precythe and Madison v. Alabama suggest that the questions posed by Melville’s novella continue to haunt us as the Court, in the famous words of Justice Harry Blackmun, continues to “tinker with the machinery of death.”
Download the three readings here, which should be read in advance of class.
George Shulman, “The Political and the Psychological”
This class will discuss the relationship between psychic life—ostensibly “internal” and “individual” but powerfully shaped by the world we grow up in—and politics—ostensibly “external” and “collective” but profoundly shaped by fantasy, projection, anxiety, and desire. To organize this discussion, we will read one great theoretical essay by Susan Griffin, one of the foremost second wave feminist theorists, and a recent political theory essay about the appeal of Trump across gender lines in the U.S.
Please complete these readings in advance of our meeting.
New York University and Gallatin provide reasonable accommodations to people living with disabilities who wish to attend events at the School. For every event, Gallatin staff will be on hand to assist guests. Please note that the entrance at 715 Broadway is wheelchair accessible. To request accommodations, such as a sign language interpreter, assistive listening devices, or large print programs, or should you have questions regarding accessibility for an event, please contact Gallatin’s Office of Special Events by emailing email@example.com or by calling 212-992-7766. Should you need an accommodation, we ask that you send your request as early as possible so that we have time to fulfill your request.