New School

I’m delighted to announce the (re)launch of the New School Histories website (after a major malware infection that rendered it unusable, which required a complete reconstruction). We will be creating a guide to student life on Thursday, March 28, 10a-12noon in the Event Cafe, University Center. Stop by, join us!


The New School seems addicted to crisis. But we’re in a big one at the moment. Part-time faculty have been on strike since November 16, with full-time faculty striking in solidarity with them. The already-busy-picketing part-time faculty are also organizing a Strike School, in which I gave a talk. Here’s my attempt to explain how we got here.

New New School Stories

Radhika Subramaniam and I taught a graduate course at Parsons this semester on “Curating Public Memory” in which students researched, conceptualized, and created virtual exhibitions on The New School. A collection of them concentrated on Parsons: investigating classrooms, from studios to parks to zoom rooms; the origin of a Parsons satellite in the Dominican Republic, told through letters, and asking the question “Is Parsons a Place for Everyone?”; and a speculative look at Parsons in 2071 (a degree in Peace Systems Engineering, a fallout of digital wars?!).

The other collection of projects were poignant perspectives on the pandemic: A Space to Collectively Reflect; looking at where The New School is now, enduring distance; and a talk with international students about the specific challenges they faced this year. All the projects were a testament to students’ persistence in learning amidst a peculiar, grief-filled year.

My latest in our New School Histories column at Public Seminar, taking on the various mis-uses of the school’s legacies. There is no halcyon past.

Realizing The New School: Lessons From the Past

A collection of essays marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of The New School, in 1919. Essays look at the role of the city in the school and the school in the city; the influence of women on the school; the importance of adults and the arts in shaping the school; and what it means to be considered a progressive institution. With Mark Larrimore.

Published as a freely available e-book in 2020; download here.

Our Public Seminar essays on the histories of The New School, collected in one place (with new introductory and concluding essays)! Download it here.

A Purple Squirrel Unicorn

“Find the purple squirrel unicorn: Do Not Settle.” That was the directive that struck me when I read through the anonymous comments submitted by New Schoolers about who they wanted as our new president. A “purple squirrel” and a “unicorn” are warnings against searching for the impossible—a person who can fulfill all needs. And this suggestion doubled the expectation—purple squirrel AND unicorn! But I think we’ve come close to achieving this aim in our next president of The New School, Dwight A. McBride.

Read more…

A School

My remarks at the opening the New School Collaboratory Symposium (16 November 2019).

As a historian at a place called the new, I often feel as though I face an existential crisis every day I come to work. What use is the past at a place intentionally focused on the future? Discarding the past here is often taken as the first step to inventing the new. But I like to argue otherwise.

Read more…


My remarks upon the retirement of Thelma Armstrong, who worked at the New School for thirty-six years.

The writer Colson Whitehead says that you become a New Yorker when what was on the corner previously is more real to you than what is there now. In this provisional city, set to change, nostalgia functions as authenticity, and the city we arrive in is forever our real New York.

Read more…

New School Histories

Exploring the histories of the New School to contextualize and confront pressing issues facing higher education now–essays on what it means to educate adults, lessons from Gerda Lerner, the arts as social research, and more. At Public Seminar here. Much more to come!

A School for the Present

In honor of the New School’s centenary: research, reflection, and critique on higher education in preparation for the next 100. Mark Larrimore and I are editing a new column on Public Seminar on New School Histories. (Announcement and call for articles here.) Contribute!

On James Baldwin and The New School

When Mark Larrimore and I first began discussing teaching a course on the history of the New School, it was clear that a central task would be posing the myths of the school against its realities. Some of the myths relate to actual events, such as the remarkable effort to save and host scholars fleeing fascism in Europe in the 1930s. But many of them are more mythology than fact–and James Baldwin taking a class at the New School is one of the most enduring. In this essay, I explore how that myth informs much of the New School’s struggle to fully tackle racism and discrimination.

Social Justice, Then and Now

Mark Larrimore and I were invited back to speak at Staff Development Day at The New School. It has become one of our favorite events because the audience is the best one for tales of New School history. Staff, in fact, enact and carry forward so many of the traditions of the school. This year we were asked to talk about social justice-past, which was complemented by social justice-present by Maya Wiley, our new Senior VP for Social Justice. The New School first taught a course that included that topic in 1925! Video of talk here.

In honor of women’s history month and, more important, in honor of Gerda Lerner: The New School is hosting a showing of a documentary about Lerner tomorrow (details here). I will give brief remarks about Lerner’s role in building women’s history. She started doing so as an older student, returning for her BA degree, at The New School.

The New School recently launched a re-organization and re-branding of its continuing education efforts under the title Open Campus. It’s an administrative move that makes sense, given that different colleges had various offerings and now the efforts are brought together with some strategic thinking. I was part of a panel on Saturday’s launch that asked what education beyond the ivory tower means in the 21st century. As usual, I start from the past. Read more…

Exile as Haven

I wrote a response to the despicable hate crime that occurred at The New School this weekend on Public Seminar. I wish for two revisions, so I state them here. First of all, I should have named the hate as anti-Semitism. That needs to be specified even as the crime speaks to a wider world of hatred that is becoming ever more visible. Secondly, I wish I had declared more clearly that while the school needs to be a haven, it is obviously not so for everyone right now. We must make it so.

And one way to do so is to support the petition to make The New School a Sanctuary Campus.

Back to School

The semester has started with histories of the New School: presentations at various orientations and the latest version of a university lecture course on the subject that I teach with Mark Larrimore. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education outlined reasons why universities should offer courses about their histories. But it neglected to include the reasons I think are the most important. Read more…

Masterpieces of Everyday New York

In 2013, the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center initiated an exhibition on “objects as story,” prompted by curricular changes at Parsons that shaped its telling of the history of art and design around objects. New York served as the common theme for the exhibition, and faculty around the university identified and reflected upon an object that made up their New York. Mine: a sailor suit.

New School Histories

NSSR, 1969, New School Archives

Histories of the New School are accumulating: video here of Mark Larrimore and I contending with the question “What Does It Mean to Be a Progressive University?” for Staff Development Day. And I took up the topic of “Women at The New School” here.

Human Relations

I have long wanted to know more about an oddly named enterprise at the New School called the Human Relations Center. I had a hunch that it was key to the longer story about women at The New School. Some time in the archives confirms that, yep, it is. Read more…


Designing the exhibit component on Rikers Island is crashing to an end, full speed. There are many, many details to be attended to before the opening of the exhibition States of Incarceration on April 1, 2016. What slowed us down in finalizing details is what also has been the most profound part of the project: our conversations with men from the Fortune Society. Read more…


We are moving in on Rikers. Students have decided upon the theme of the visibility/invisibility paradox of the island. For some, Rikers is hypervisible. They work there, they know people confined there, they’ve been locked up there. For others, it is largely invisible from their New York. An island in a city made up of islands, connected by one lone long bridge, one public bus, and guarded by patrols on water and land. The closest some come to the place is in flying right over it as the plane charges off the runway at LaGuardia. Even then, you have to know what you’re looking at to see it. Read more…

Curating the Archives

The summer 2014 exhibition is now online! The virtual version includes reflections about the unusual demands of the exhibition from the curators, exhibition designer, and university archivist. Here is my conversation with Wendy Scheir, Director of the New School Archives and Special Collections, about curating the archives. Read more…

Welcome to the Neue School

This spring the New School announced a new branding identity, one based on a specially made font (called “Neue”) and a new combination of colors (red, white, and black) — all standing on two strong horizontal parallel bands. Both these bands and the font pick up on earlier visual graphics of the school, in the covers of early course bulletins and the building at 66 W. 12th St. designed by Joseph Urban. Read more…

Mom-and-Pop Institutions

The New School has attracted a string of devoted, long-serving administrators, most of whom have been women. One of them was Wally Osterholz, who worked in the Adult Division for forty-five years, from 1962 to 2007. Most had no idea what Wally’s job description was, as Sondra Farganis described it, and yet she seemed to know everybody and how to get anything done. Read more…

West Side Story: A Life

A writing experiment: to describe the book as a biography.

Biography (A Life). Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. James Joyce: A Life by Edna O’Brien. West Side Story: A Life by Julia L. Foulkes? That is the central idea. Read more…

The Carceral City

I walked through Crown Heights a few days ago and came across this odd mobile police unit. Students in my class knew exactly what it was: a M.U.S.T. – a mobile utility surveillance tower. It can be moved to a “place of interest,” a platform elevated from the base, flood lighting, infrared cameras – all monitored by one officer in the lifted hub, the driver’s seat of the van, or, I believe, remotely. If chaos ensues below, that person can call in extra troops with the push of a button from the encased hub, without having to exit to the street. The 21st century version of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, on a city corner near you. Read more…

Creative Justice

For two intensive weeks that covered 40 hours of class time, students in Piper Anderson’s “Creative Justice” class read materials on the criminal justice system and the transformative justice movement, conducted interviews with people about their views on policing, and worked together to lay out how a community arts project might intervene in the issues. They came up with fundamental questions to ask themselves and others: Read more…

Yes, And: Thinking about Cities

I had the pleasure of reading Aseem Inam’s new book recently. I am not an urban planner nor an urban designer nor an expert in urban policy. But looking at urban issues in the past ends up touching upon all of these fields. I approach current books in these fields, then, with some hesitancy as I come to it as an outsider of sorts, informed by a different training and bibliography. So one of the many reasons Designing Urban Transformation was a pleasure to read is because I forgot my trepidation. The book is for people who care about cities.

Read more…

The First Day: Two Truths and a Lie

I have eaten at a diner in all 50 states; I helped start a company; I have jumped out of plane. Two truths and a lie: it’s a common “icebreaker,” an informal game used to create connections and foster familiarity. In this one, a person comes up with two truths and a lie about herself and the group has to figure out which one is the lie. Read more…

Aims of Education

Convocation address, The New School, September 2009.

I am on my fourth career. I think it’s going pretty well, but I’m not ruling out a fifth, or a sixth. I got started on careers early. As family lore has it, I told my parents at age three that I wanted to take ballet classes. A random class at the YMCA around the corner became five times per week with multiple performances by age ten. At fourteen, I was auditioning for the prestigious summer program of the New York City Ballet. This entailed hiding my mother who barely topped five feet to maintain the illusion that I might just reach the short end of the range of a City Ballet dancer at five feet four inches. (I continue to live in hope.) I graduated from high school at sixteen with the intention of never going to college. After a woeful year at Cleveland Ballet, I landed at a small liberal arts college, hours from a major city or any ballet company. I told my parents that I was just going to see how the year went, that I might return to the world of dance. Instead, I never brought up the prospect of leaving college again. Read more…


Part of “This is Your Exhibition,” on view on 3rd Floor, 66 W. 12th St.. Image source: MoMa 

I grew up loving ballet, hating modern dance. Ballet was beauty and grace personified. Modern dance was so defiant and earnest. Wasn’t art about transcendence? A course in feminist philosophy in college, however, shifted my perspective. Now I saw ballet as frivolous and modern dance as ideas in action. At the center of the shift: forceful, demanding, jumping women. Celebration indeed. Read more…

Democratizing the Archives

Co-authored with Claire Potter

What’s in an archive? This was the question that brought Claire Potter’s class, “New York Activists and Their Worlds, 1968-2000,” to the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library (NYPL) on February 19 for the first of several workshops. After a few lessons on how to behave—checking our coats, washing our hands, and keeping things in order—Thomas Lannon, Assistant Curator, began to dip into boxes. During this first workshop, students were able to view a photo album of gay writer and activist David Feinberg. Preserved for their enduring value, photos in the album are as Feinberg left them, unlabeled and undated. The class also looked at clips of ACT-UP oral histories, and learned how to navigate the Library’s finding aids as guides to additional archival collections. Read more…

A New School Minute (or Two)

For Alumni Day on May 11, 2013, the Alumni Office asked twenty faculty and staff to give a 60-second lecture. Tasked with the topic of “New School History,” it was quite a challenge! The results are available here. I started off with a longer version that better encapsulates my theme — I hope we’re still a school rather than just a university. Here is that longer version. Read more…

Offense + Dissent: Image, Conflict, Belonging

Exhibition at Kellen Gallery, The New School (2014); Curators: Julia Foulkes, Mark Larrimore, and Radhika Subramaniam

Twenty-five years ago, a furor erupted at The New School when Sekou Sundiata, poet, performer, and professor, at Eugene Lang College, stung by an image exhibited in the Parsons Galleries, scrawled his dissent across it. His “X” inspired others and soon there were over 40 signatures covering the image. Read more…

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 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.