History is fundamental to promoting the general goals of a liberal arts education. It sharpens critical thinking, reading, and writing, but I believe there are even more specific skills that it teaches well. These include training students to find and interpret primary sources; understand the contextual basis for choices and decisions; synthesize large amounts of information into a general but commanding narrative; and develop chronological reasoning. In these ways, students can explore their worlds with a clearer understanding of the hold of the past.

History, then, is an important perspective to add to almost any conversation, public or private. Almost all the courses I teach use the past to inspire students’ questions and quests rather than focus predominantly on disciplinary training. To this end, I increasingly work with partners and/or project-based learning. Three elements repeat throughout these course offerings: historical research (especially archival investigation), collaboration (with partners inside the university as well as outside of it), and public participation and presentation (whether a performance, website, or guide).

The Arts and Everyday Life in New York

The fusion between New York and the arts is taken for granted, but how and why did this occur? What do the arts mean to New York? Who benefits and who does not? At The Cullman Center Institute for Teachers, we will read, write, and consult the library’s vast resources to investigate how the arts became rooted in the city’s infrastructure, economy, daily life, sense of place—and how that changed what it means to be a New Yorker. 

Photo: Sculpture in Environment, Bryant Park, 1967; NYC Photo Archive

Urban Choreography: Bodies and Cities in Motion

Jane Jacobs’ invocation of a “sidewalk ballet”–a highly technical and stylized form of dance–unbares the routine movements that structure our inhabitation of cities. This course examines the well-oiled grooves of sidewalk interaction, walking, crowd flows, transit and vehicular circulation as well as deliberate ruptures such as flash mobs, police surveillance, and protests. We analyze how various groups comport their bodies and move through space, often constrained by social factors such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and other dimensions. Students devise their own aspirational choreographic scores of urban life.

Syllabus here
Photo here

Curating Public Memory

Museums and memorials have long functioned as markers of a society’s past, most often as sites of celebration and honor. But just as efforts to decolonize the museum are calling for an end to imperial traditions that obscure the exploitation of people, objects, and resources, so too are tragedies, genocide, and ongoing trauma re-shaping curatorial agendas. The field of “public memory” has arisen to explain and activate the space between formal histories and individual memories–often with the goal of using memorials to re-shape the presence of the past to focus on restorative justice through collective memories and actions. 

Syllabus here

Photo: Luke Currie-Richardson. Photo by Jamie Morris

Arts and Social Engagement

A poem can change the world. Or just one person’s life. What explains the connection between an artwork and an individual, a wider public, a world? This course serves as an introduction to a pathway of courses that investigate this question by examining the variety of ways in which the arts make and meet people.

Read the syllabus here.

New York City: Past Present Future

New York City exists as a physical and imaginary place, both a dense concrete maze and a blowzy personality. This course examines the many contours of this phenomenon by looking at the city across time; we explore specific historical moments for the intertwining force of politics, economics, social struggles, and artistic and cultural flowering, and consider those dynamics in planning for the future.

Read the syllabus here.

New School Histories

When the New School for Social Research opened its doors a hundred years ago, it offered courses in the social sciences and public affairs – and a new vision of higher education. It was not a university; it did not offer degrees. The founders thought that people would come to the school for “no other purpose than to learn.” A century later, the New School has changed in almost every way.

Read the syllabus here.

U.S. History in 13 Acts

Most of us learn a straightforward narrative of the history of the United States that begins with the arrival of colonizers from Europe and ends with the current presidency, presented with a coherence that obscures the messiness and contradictions experienced by the historical actors. This cohesive story omits consideration of possibilities that could have led to very different outcomes and also the contested interpretations of what happened and what it means. This survey course offers an alternative approach to U.S. history by organizing the subject into 13 “acts” and investigating each in depth.

Read the syllabus here.