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This issue was put together and sent to print before the events of April 18th as The Blue and White is a monthly magazine. In light of the campus shutdown we could not distribute our April issue in print. Therefore, we wanted to share it online first, as our writers and illustrators put a great deal of care into this issue. Our May issue, which will be made available online shortly and in print next week contains coverage of student suspensions and arrests.

April Masthead

EDITORIAL BOARD

TARA ZIA, CC ’26, Editor-in-Chief 

JAZMYN WANG, CC ’25, Managing Editor

SAGAR CASTLEMAN, CC ’26, Deputy Editor

GEORGE MURPHY, CC ’27, Publisher

LUCIA DEC-PRAT, CC ’27, Crossword Editor

BETEL TADESSE, CC ’25, Digital Editor

JORJA GARCIA, CC ’26, Illustrations Editor

PHOEBE WAGONER, CC ’25, Illustrations Editor

ANNIE POOLE, BC ’24, Layout Editor

KATE SIBERY, CC ’26, Layout Editor

SHREYA KHULLAR, CC ’26, Literary Editor

 

SENIOR EDITORS

HENRY ASTOR, CC ’24

IRIS CHEN, CC ’24

ANDREA CONTRERAS, CC ’24

ANOUK JOUFFRET, BC ’24

JOSH KAZALI, CC ’25

MISKA LEWIS, BC ’24

BECKY MILLER, BC ’24

VICTOR OMOJOLA, CC ’24

CLAIRE SHANG, CC ’24

MUNI SULEIMAN, CC ’24

ANNA PATCHEFSKY, CC ’25

 

STAFF WRITERS

ZIBIA BARDIN, BC ’25

ELI BAUM, CC ’26

CHRIS BROWN, CC ’26

EM CHMIEL, CC ’25

SCHUYLER DAFFEY, CC ’26

STEPHEN DAMES, CC ’25

AMOGH DIMRI, CC ’24

SAYURI GOVENDER, BC ’26

SAM HOSMER, CC ’24

MADISON HU, GS ’24

MOLLY LEAHY, BC ’24

MAYA LERMAN, CC ’27

AVA LOZNER, CC ’27

GRACIE MORAN, CC ’25

MOLLY MURCH, BC ’24

SOFIA PIRRI, CC ’24

EVA SPIER, BC ’27

SIRI STORSTEIN, CC ’26

VIVIEN SWEET, GS ’25

ALICE TECOTZKY, CC ’24

OWEN TERRY, CC ’26

DOMINIC WIHARSO, CC ’25

SONA WINK, BC ’25

CECILIA ZUNIGA, BC ’26

 

STAFF ILLUSTRATORS

EM BENNETT, CC ’26

JUSTIN CHEN, CC ’26

EMMA FINKELSTEIN, BC ’27

BEN FU, CC ’25

SELIN HO, CC ’27

ELLIE HODGES, CC ’26

OONAGH MOCKLER, BC ’25

DERIN OGUTCU, BC ’27

ISABELLE OH, BC ’27

NAYEON PARK, CC ’26

OLIVER RICE, CC ’25

FIN STERNER, BC ’25

JACQUELINE SUBKHANBERDINA, BC ’27

Table of Contents

Cover by Emily Wells Bennett

Letter From the Editor by Tara Zia

 

Blue Notes 

Memories of Paradise by George Murphy

Following the Vegetable Trail by Phoebe Wagoner

 

Essays

Through the Donut’s Hole by Sona Wink

Reaching For Black Heights by Muni Suleiman 

 

Feature

Revisiting 1968 by Cecilia Zuniga 

 

The Conversation 

Colm Toibin by Sagar Castleman 

 

Campus Characters

Atish Saha by Maya Lerman

Measure for Measure

The Material of the Matriline by Aliza Yona Abusch-Magder

ATSL

Is This Essay AI? by Schuyler Daffey and Madison Hu

 

Letter From The Editor

On language and processing.

 

In an interview with The Guardian, Najwan Darwish, Palestinian poet and editor, recalled the late Palestinian writer Refaat Alareer, saying “We didn’t just lose Alareer, but we lost his poetry; it’s all underneath the rubble, all the future poetry he would have written.” Alareer, along with countless other journalists, academics, writers, and innocent civilians, was killed due to the devastating Israeli offensive on Gaza following the tragic Oct. 7 attacks. As we reckon with these losses globally and on our campus, the staggering statistics fail to capture the incalculable loss Darwish references: that of silenced voices and untold stories.

 

In struggling against erasure, there is a tendency to grasp for a collective memory, and to wonder how people have processed injustice in times past. In our April issue, Cecilia Zuniga contextualizes our present moment on campus by exploring the history of Columbia’s 1968 protests and speaking to those involved. Alums, administrators, professors, and students process this history of student activism in different ways. Each perspective reveals that the present tensions on our campus don’t exist in a vacuum. 

 

As writers, our relationship to the written word is similarly informed by the convergence of the past with our vivid experience of the present. Muni Suleiman delves into the archives of Black literary magazines on campus and examines how this history has shaped her own path as a writer and scholar. Sagar Castleman speaks with Colm Tóibín about the latter’s connection to authors of the past and how it affects his creative process. Meanwhile, Maya Lerman profiles senior Atish Saha on his photography of a collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh and the complex ethics of photojournalism in moments of atrocity. From watching Saha’s short film to reading a penned poem lost to the archives, our writers explore the humanities and arts as the connective tissue between human experiences.

 

My experience of the April issue has been defined by conversation: I spoke with writers outside of our weekly meetings, in person and over the phone, dissecting everything from the particularities of language to the forking path of possible directions for pieces. Getting to know my peers through the words they write and the way they go about writing them is special. As the writing process unfolds, blank Google Docs become spaces of creativity wherein we tell the stories occurring in our environment and carefully reconstruct the histories upon which they stand. I hope that you hold them in your mind with care. As you read, I ask that you also consider the unfinished poetry that lies beneath the rubble, and the people who penned it. In sharing our stories, we cannot forget theirs. 

 

Sincerely,

 

Tara Zia

 

Editor-in-Chief

Blue Note

Memories of Paradise 

Tracing the histories of a cosmopolitan sculpture.

By George Murphy

When Dr. Jin Xu was hired as an associate professor in the Department of Art History last year, he discovered that his position came with the unexpected perk of access to Columbia’s art properties collection. As a historian of Chinese art, he was particularly interested in the Sackler collection (yes, those Sacklers), which includes a wide variety of Chinese stone sculptures that have received little scholarly attention. Of the sculptures, he found one especially fascinating—a Northern Qi work from the Xiangtangshan Caves in Hebei province, known to scholars as the “Monster Panel.” 

 

Xu requested that the sculpture be moved to his office so that he could study it more closely. As he examined it, he realized that previous scholars had erred in their analysis of the sculpture’s origin. Scholars previously posited that the “Monster Panel” and six other similar panels had been carved out of the walls of Xiangtangshan at some point in the early 20th century. However, as Xu notes in Orientations magazine, it was clear that the sculptures had originally been freestanding due to their weathering and some other small clues. This discovery may not have been particularly extraordinary by itself, but its implications were. Drawing on photographs and measurements of the Xiangtangshan Caves that he had taken before arriving at Columbia, Xu was able to demonstrate that the panels were a perfect fit for the dimensions of one of the burial chambers at Xiangtangshan, thought by scholars to potentially be the final resting place of the first Northern Qi emperor, Gao Yang. If so, this would mean that Columbia is in possession of something extraordinarily rare: art from an ancient Chinese imperial tomb.

 

My first impression of the “Monster Panel” was of its fearsome energy. The panel depicts a figure with the body of a Hellenistic strongman and the head of a yakshi, the primal nature spirits which abound in Buddhist art. Carved in high relief, the monster is imposing, with bulging muscles, sharp fangs, and a general aura of barely constrained fury. Interestingly, despite potentially being an example of art produced in an imperial workshop, the Monster Panel is not necessarily a reflection of visual motifs exclusively indigenous to China. The creature’s muscular body is an import from the Sogdians, an Iranian people influenced by Greco-Roman aesthetics; its scowling yakshi face, meanwhile, originates in Indian Buddhist art. Clues like this, Xu told me, demonstrate that the Northern Qi conception of the afterlife was not  “specifically a Chinese paradise.” Instead, it is a cosmopolitan object, a crystallization of cultural collisions between East and West.

 

We don’t really know what the “Monster Panel”’s last millennium looked like—maybe it drifted through the collections of different Chinese families for generations, or maybe it lay in some field or attic for centuries, completely forgotten. At some point, it left China, and after migrating through the Western art market, it ended up at Columbia, where it was removed from the public eye. In other words, a once entombed object has been buried once more, only this time in the vaults of the University’s art collection. In this sense, the fate of the “Monster Panel” isn’t unique. Columbia’s Art Properties collection is massive, containing objects ranging from ancient Greco-Roman pottery to Persian decorative objects to rare early daguerreotypes, most of which private collectors donated more than fifty years ago. However, few people even know that the collection exists. This stands in contrast to the collections of other universities, such as Yale and Princeton, which are permanently displayed in campus museums and receive a great deal of scholarly and press attention. 

 

It’s not fair to say that Columbia’s collection is completely locked away. Students and faculty can request access to objects from it whenever they like, and parts of it are displayed around campus and in the Wallach Gallery on occasion. However, I can’t help but wish that there was a more permanent place on campus to appreciate and learn from the Art Properties collection. Art history majors are not  the only students who can benefit from exposure to art—imagine Lit Hum taught in front of the collection’s Greek vases or materials science classes that use objects from the collection as case studies. Xu’s discovery of the sculpture’s origins reveals the possibilities that arise when art is removed from the archives.  Access to artworks like the “Monster Panel” is an enormous privilege, but how much does that matter if nobody knows that privilege exists?

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Illustration by Emily Wells Bennett

Blue Note

Following the Vegetable Trail

The evasiveness of Columbia Dining about its food sources.

By Phoebe Wagoner

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Last year, Hewitt’s “Activism Is About the Journey” mural and the televisions that play simultaneous Bob Ross and MasterChef videos gained some new friends: two large glass cases filled with plants in terracotta pots. Purchased from Brooklyn-based startup Farmshelf, these cases add a cyber-farm aesthetic to Hewitt’s decor. Another television on the opposite wall plays a never-ending loop of Farmshelf ads, time-lapsed baby greens sprouting again and again. In theory, the Farmshelves supply fresh greens to the Hewitt kitchen, their soil and plants monitored by a Farmshelf-exclusive app. However, the cases are often populated by overgrown, wilted plants, usually garnishes and herbs. 

 

In the past two decades, as college ranking metrics like those of U.S. News, Forbes, and The Princeton Review have begun including lists of the most sustainable campuses, colleges and universities face pressure to advance their sustainability measures. Many colleges—including Columbia and Barnard—have established Offices of Sustainability and hired sustainability coordinators and directors. Initiatives like Farmshelf enhance the visibility of sustainable agriculture on campus, but they come at a cost: Barnard Dining paid a sticker price of $9,900 (plus a $109 monthly subscription for the app) for two shiny but seldom used e-agriculture cases. It would be cheaper to buy the herbs from local farmers. I’ve come to see Farmshelf as nothing more than a pretty face; it might produce a few basil leaves each week, but its contribution to Hewitt is mainly aesthetic.

 

Like the flashy Farmshelf boxes, Columbia and Barnard’s respective food-sourcing websites construct a sustainable persona for their dining halls. Each website lists five to 10 farms with refreshingly quaint names like Mountain Sweet Berry Farm and Old Maid’s Farm. A Google search of these farms led me to charming websites that tell stories of small-scale family farming. However, there are no statistics showing how much produce actually comes from each of Columbia’s partner farms, and such small-scale farms would be incapable of supplying more than a small proportion of Columbia’s total food supply. One of the farms closed in 2023, though it is still listed on the website as a partner. These farms are the poster children of sustainable dining, and all other farms are absent: Columbia lists no factory farms and no farms outside of New York or Connecticut. At a glance, Columbia Dining is clean, green, and aloof.

 

Curious to see what local farmers might have to say about this, I paid a visit to the Columbia Greenmarket, hosted weekly on Thursdays and Sundays. My questions proved unanswerable: I learned from the employees operating the stalls that they are New York City residents who got their jobs on Facebook. Most have visited the farms that employ them once or (more commonly) not at all. Even at the farmers’ market, I couldn’t find any farmers.

 

Growing up, I knew where almost everything I ate came from. My parents are small-scale farmers. (We have a website that isn’t so different from those of Columbia’s partner farms.) I regularly ate dinners made from ingredients I had helped harvest earlier that day. Some of my earliest memories are of helping bring produce to market every Wednesday after school, where I would chat with our customers and play games with their kids. My childhood meals and social life orbited around farming.

 

Now that that immediacy is gone, I find myself feeling both far from home and full of wonder at the food around me. Big piles of strawberries at Ferris: Where did they come from, who grew them, and how did they get here? They may have come from one of the palatable farms on the website, or they may have come from thousands of miles away. Perhaps the Farmshelf aims to ease this feeling of disconnect by giving students a glimpse of food production, but it is too artificial and ill-kept to succeed. 

 

Even if Columbia aims to create a sustainable campus and invest in local produce, the odds are stacked against them. The U.S. farm industry is becoming increasingly reliant on mega-farms, and there simply are not enough small-scale farms to support food needs: Only 18% of U.S. food production in 2021 came from small farms, according to the USDA. Columbia seems to think that obscuring this reality is the best way to promote a sustainable image. However, I’m sure that I'm not the only student hungry—literally—for a connection to the food I consume. Columbia could feature more mid-sized partner farms, which are sustainable alternatives to factory farming, even if their websites are less aesthetically pleasing. They could invite student participation and feedback in food sourcing. By letting go of its manicured veneer of sustainability, Columbia could foster something far more valuable: student knowledge, curiosity, and excitement about food production. 

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Illustrations by Phoebe Wagoner

Essay

Through the Donut’s Hole  

The quest for fusion energy in Columbia’s Plasma Lab. 

By Sona Wink

In Everything, Everywhere All at Once (2022), a cosmic donut (more specifically, a bagel, but bear with me) possesses a gravitational pull so powerful that the protagonist must do everything in her power to steer clear of its magnetic tug. Unbeknownst to many, a cosmic donut of Columbia’s own sits in an unassuming nook in Mudd; much like Michelle Yeoh in Everything, I found myself inexplicably pulled toward its center.

 

 

Columbia’s Plasma Physics Laboratory houses the HBT-EP Tokamak, a machine that creates plasma in the shape of a donut. Lucia Rondini, CC ’24, worked at the Lab this past year and took me on a spontaneous Tokamak tour in the fall. As we wandered the Lab’s cavernous halls, Lucia explained how Columbia’s Tokamak is tiny compared to ITER, the world’s largest (yet still non-operational) fusion reactor and the result of a multinational megaproject. To my eyes, however, the HBT-EP looked massive (it takes up a space about the size of a Hamilton classroom) and dazzlingly complex: a patchwork of tubes, wires, see-through plastic, and metal panels weaving toward a rotund central organ. 

 

The closest I get to danger in my academic career is reading about wars that happened 100 years ago; in the Lab, students operate a machine that creates a lethally hot plasma. The space is peppered with signs reading “DANGER” that Lucia brushed past with total ease. Professor Michael Mauel, who has worked in plasma physics at Columbia since 1985, put the job of a Tokamak operator this way: “We’re taking a ring of hot gas at 100 million degrees, and we’re spinning it a couple centimeters from the walls, which are basically at room temperature.” 

 

Picture the Sun’s churning core: a place so hot and so pressurized (27,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit and 10 times denser than gold) that around 600 million tons of hydrogen nuclei collide and fuse each second, producing helium atoms. The resulting atom has less mass than the total of the initial two, and the excess mass becomes energy. We experience this fusion energy on Earth as sunlight. Tokamaks recreate the conditions inside the Sun to create fusion energy: Under extreme heat and pressure, hydrogen gas turns into plasma, wherein nuclear fusion takes place. Plasma is electrically charged, so Tokamaks confine it using magnetic coils. Fittingly, the name “Tokamak” is a Russian portmanteau for “toroidal chamber with magnetic coils” (“toroidal” means “donut-shaped”). 

 

Physicists have been working on the Tokamak for over 70 years in a quest to turn fusion energy into a viable source of power for society at large. Classified research into fusion began in the United States in the 1950s. Finding that fusion (unlike its more popular brother, fission) was too technically challenging to make bombs with, the U.S. and the Soviet Union mutually declassified their fusion research in 1958 at the Atoms for Peace conference. In the late 1970s, crises in the Middle East disrupted U.S. access to petroleum, precipitating an energy crisis and a wave of worry about the availability of fossil fuels. Fusion energy came into the national limelight along with other early forms of renewable energy as potential alternatives to fossil fuels. 

 

Much of the Lab’s infrastructure dates back to this initial burst of national interest in fusion. The space has, until recently, seen minimal renovation since its mid-century inception. The rooms, which feed into one another, are lined with metal cabinets painted a dusty gray-blue; the floors are plasticky and gray. Bits and pieces of machinery are scattered on every surface: a constellation of bits of metal, frayed coils of wire, tools, and doctoral dissertations. Whiteboards dot the walls, bearing physics equations scrawled in every color of Expo marker. 

 

As I walked through the Lab with Lucia, I noticed that while the vast majority of the space maintained its ’70s charm, there were some modern renovations. I chatted about the changes to the physical space of the Lab with Lucia and Rian Chandra, a sixth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics who has worked at the Lab since 2017. Chandra described how the refurbishments, which include new carpets and a conference room, are physical manifestations of a renewed wave of interest in plasma physics. 

 

The climate crisis has precipitated a quest for renewable sources of energy, and fusion presents an attractive option: It has the potential to create significant amounts of energy without emitting carbon into the atmosphere, and it lacks the radioactive risks of fission. Today, the level of commercial and public excitement about fusion energy is comparable to that of the 1970s. In the spring of 2022, the White House held a summit titled “Developing a Bold Decadal Vision for Commercial Fusion Energy” where it rolled out several massive funding programs for fusion research led by the Department of Energy and encouraged private sector investment in fusion. In one such program, the DOE invested $46 million in eight private companies seeking to build fusion power plants. In winter 2022, scientists in a national laboratory in California accomplished a major milestone when they produced net energy gain for the first time in fusion’s history. (They used a process called inertial confinement, which involves shooting lasers into a small cylinder. Tokamaks use a different process called magnetic confinement.)   

 

As national interest in fusion has bloomed in the past three years, so has the Lab. Professor Carlos Paz-Soldan joined Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics in 2021 and has harnessed the national wave of interest to grow the Lab by acquiring grants, starting new projects, and expanding the Lab’s student population. Prior to 2021, Paz-Soldan estimated that there were few to no undergraduates working at the Lab; now, there are roughly 30. 

 

Lucia and Chandra explained how Paz-Soldan and his colleague Professor Elizabeth Paul, who joined the department in 2023, are younger than many of the other faculty in the department and have ushered in a “project-oriented mindset” to the Lab. Today’s burst of interest in fusion is characterized by a practical goal: bringing fusion to the grid, i.e., turning fusion into a reliable, cost-effective, self-sustaining form of energy that can be converted into electricity and used by society at large in place of fossil fuels. “You’d be hard-pressed to find someone here who doesn’t have climate change as their primary motivator,” Lucia told me. 

 

How long it will take to bring fusion to the grid is the subject of dispute. A 2023 report by the Fusion Energy Association made the optimistic claim that “25 companies think the first fusion plant will deliver electricity to the grid before 2035.” Paz-Soldan explained that he thinks “time and money are interchangeable” when it comes to developing fusion reactors, and that given enough investment in private development, the 2030s are a reasonable projection. 

 

The recent boom in private sector engagement in fusion is new, but academic interest in plasma physics is not. Mauel has worked in plasma physics at Columbia for nearly 40 years; while governmental and commercial interest in fusion energy has waxed and waned, academics like him have held steady. Chandra expressed admiration for Mauel, his advisor, who “came up in the field at a time when bringing fusion to the grid was not really something we were going to see in our lifetime.” Indeed, when I asked Mauel about his projection for when fusion would become a viable source of energy, he told me, “I just cannot begin to imagine that.”

 

Mauel’s keenness for the beauty of plasma was more than evident when I spoke with him. As he explained magnetic fields to me, he suddenly swiveled away to pull up a video. What to me looked like a gyrating purple blob tinged with orange was, in fact, a very important phenomenon in plasma physics: a disruption, which occurs when the plasma donut wiggles too much and touches the Tokamak’s walls. Mauel’s narration turned the otherwise abstract video into an action movie. “You might be able to see some glow, purple … It’s wiggling, it’s wiggling,” he whispered. Suddenly, the blob expanded with a flash. “WHOA! Isn’t that amazing?” 

 

Disruptions like the one in Mauel’s video pose a major challenge to physicists: They are one of the major barriers blocking fusion’s introduction to the grid. From a goal-oriented mindset, these disruptions are nuisances. To Mauel, they are delights. “If we can understand and prevent this sort of disruption phenomena,” he told me, “then fusion will be reliable and provide an electrical source. But you can probably tell from my reaction that what I’m most interested in is how cool that is!”

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Illustration by Jacqueline Subkhanberdina

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Centerfold by Jacqueline Subkhanberdina

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Essay

Reaching For Black Heights

On Columbia’s Black literary magazine history.

By Muni Suleiman

The 1970s were a meditative time for Black literature. If the ’60s were a revolution advocating for Black social consciousness and political change, Toni Cade Bambara, among other Black writers, referred to the ’70s as a “retrogression” and a time of “healing, study and self-development” alongside revolution. 

 

The decade would witness the start of the Black Women’s Literary Renaissance and Black literature, like Alex Haley’s Roots, reaching the mainstream through climbing bestseller lists. Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye would be published in 1970, and Alice Walker’s essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” (later retitled “Looking For Zora”) would be published in Ms. Magazine in 1975, highlighting Hurston’s underrecognized contributions to the Harlem Renaissance. Callaloo, the longest continuously running Black American literary magazine, would be established in 1976. And in the fall of 1979, Black students at Columbia and Barnard would make their own Black literary history.

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Illustration by Jorja Garcia

Running for about a decade, Black Heights was the first and longest running Black literary magazine at Columbia. The exact end date and reason for stopping publication remain unknown. Other publications such as The Black Student (only a 1966 issue survives), The Black Experience: A Record of Summer Forums (1968), and Black Forum (1972–1973) predated Black Heights, yet these publications were short-lived and did not label themselves magazines. Black Heights joined the ranks of other developing Black literary magazines at predominantly white institutions such as The Drum (1969–1988) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Diaspora (1976–1982, 1990–?) at Harvard. The Crown and Marigold Magazine, both founded in 2023, are Columbia’s active Black publications.

 

The Black literary magazine remains an elusive form for scholars. Mary Fair Burks, TC ’75, highlights two reasons: Black publications often were not differentiated from each other until the late 1800s, and several have been lost to time due to institutional and scholarly neglect. A rare Black literary magazine to merit scholarly attention is Fire!! (1926), founded by the Niggerati literary group of the Harlem Renaissance, which included writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, BC ’28, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn B. Bennett. Named in the revolutionary spirit of igniting conversations about topics such as queerness and colorism, Fire!! lived up to its name. The magazine garnered poor reception from Black elites, concerned about how those then taboo topics would hurt their image, and was a financial failure; its physical quarters burned down after its first and only issue. 

 

Scholars agree that Black American literary magazines have importantly charted changes in the Black American identity, recording discourses and cultivating community. The challenge is finding them. 

 

Much of my time here has been spent with undergraduate literary magazines. As co-editor-in-chief of Quarto—the literary magazine of Columbia’s undergraduate creative writing department—I’ve collected collegiate magazines at festivals and read copies of Quarto dating back to 1950. It once felt like I couldn’t be more surrounded by literary magazines. It was all the more frustrating, then, to call into the archives for Black literary magazines and receive little to no responses. Eventually, I localized my search to Columbia. 

 

In my four years at Columbia, the University’s understanding of its Black literary history has felt constrained to (mainly) Hughes, (sometimes) Hurston and Audre Lorde, LS ’61, and (rarely) Ntozake Shange, BC ’70, and June Jordan. The University has remained unwilling to acknowledge how it served as a source of strife for these writers. As the first Black student at Barnard, Hurston faced significant challenges with residential life. Racism was also an insurmountable factor in Hughes dropping out of Columbia—His autobiography The Big Sea opens with him throwing his Columbia books overboard while on a ship to Africa. Much like Hughes’s books off the coast of Sandy Hook, Black literary culture at Columbia has felt scattered and diasporic, compared to readily identifiable and categorizable white literary histories. As a fellow Black English major once asked over lunch: “Where are our Beat Poets?”

 

She didn’t necessarily mean that we need Black writers on campus to walk the same path as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsbeurg, CC ’48, and Lucien Carr. In the literary spaces I’ve been in at Columbia, the “Beats” frequently act as a shorthand for a concentration of white literary talent on campus. If a Black student wanted their own Beats, what would they say? Would they be the Niggeratis who, like the Beats, succeeded in spite of the University? Where is the collectivity and cogency in Black literary history here? 

 

Black students at Columbia in the late ’70s asked similar questions. Black Heights’ founding Managing Editor Clarence Waldron, CC ’79, JRN ’80, introduces its inaugural issue as a “showcase of the finest literary and artistic talents nurtured on our Morningside Heights campus,” intended to restore the lost and beautiful heritage of “the great heights of success that Blacks have achieved in the arts.” Its arts reviews and original poetry and prose were penned by students and alums across all undergraduate schools; the inaugural and 1980 issues also featured poetry from Joe Soto, a Barnard security guard.

 

To say that Black Heights’ inaugural issue did well would be an understatement. Months before she would speak at Barnard’s 1979 commencement, Toni Morrison participated in a February fundraiser and sat for an interview with the magazine. Waldron identifies Morrison as the first major Black literary figure to take a vested interest in the magazine’s development. Other supporters, per Waldron, included poet Gwendolyn Brooks and actor James Earl Jones, and Shange contributed the inaugural issue’s opening poem. 

 

Students began to treat the magazine as a space to wrestle with similar sociopolitical questions as we do now: What makes art Black? Is Black art inherently political? What type of Black representation is good representation? Does that even matter? A prime example of a piece asking these questions is the essay “Black Theatre: Where Do We Go From … ?” in Black Heights’ 1981 issue. The essay, written by Jeanette Toomer, BC ’79, is also a prime example of how such conversations cycle through time: her essay shared the same themes as a piece I wrote for this very magazine two years ago. This inundated me with a particular sense of deja vu.

 

Forging unity within the Black Columbia community was key to Black Heights’ early success, with its first four issues each dedicating pages to endorsements from the Black Students’ Organization, the Barnard Organization of Black Women, and the National Society of Black Engineers of Columbia.But with “the tide of the country, the tide of Columbia, the students really wanted to hit some hard-hitting news,” said Waldron. In his memory, that is what Black Heights soon became. “That’s fine, but I started it just to be an arts and entertainment magazine.” 

 

The first indication of Black Heights’ increased politicization emerges in the editor’s note by Derek H. Suite, CC ’85, JRN ’87, in the 1982 issue—the first to explicitly address political tensions at Columbia. Referencing the absence of a Black Studies department, the lack of Black faculty, and looming financial aid cutbacks, Suite asserts that “it should come as no great surprise that the tone of the literature in this issue of Black Heights” is “understandably more cultural, more political, and perhaps even more militant than in any other previous issue.” Still, that issue’s theme was unity, and the subsequent address, written by Stirling Phillips, CC ’83, notes “a tough year for the magazine.” Despite political turmoil, “it is vitally important that we as Black students push to preserve our cultural heritage and history” through “literary expression and excellence.” 

 

Subtitled “Apartheid At Home,” the fall 1985 issue is much less occupied with literary excellence and much more engaged with writing as documentation. The issue, which consists of journalistic articles, photographs, political cartoons, and only one poem, instead draws parallels between Black life at Columbia and in apartheid South Africa. The magazine explored what it means to advocate for Blackness across the diaspora: Its pages are filled with coverage about divestment rallies, activism for a Black Studies department, and the Columbia clerical workers’ strike. Editor-in-Chief Winston Grady-Willis, CC ’87, promised that despite the issue’s deliberate limitation of literature, there would be a literary anthology and an issue with both news and literature later on. If either materialized, they are lost to time. 

 

If the 1985 issue endorses Black activism in any form deemed necessary, the 1987 issue’s opening work, Raphael Smith’s “Essay on Student Activism,” critiques the status of Black political life at Columbia by the decade’s end. “I feel that the conflicts in ideology and the attempt to create one solitary Black voice of the black student body without being sensitive to the diverse needs of the Black students is counterproductive,” Smith, CC ’90, writes. “As students we have to open a forum for dialogue amongst ourselves, discussing the issues which are most personal to us as Black men and women.” The literature in that issue seems to operate as the “more personal and humanistic” forum Smith advocates for. It also might have been the last of its kind for the foreseeable decades.

 

Black Heights now resides in a small manila folder in the Barnard Archives and Special Collections, alongside a container housing other small college publications of Columbia’s past. Three issues, 1979, 1982, and 1985, are digitized; Barnard holds seven in total. At least two issues, 1984 and 1986, and the cover for 1987’s issue remain lost to time. According to Martha Tenney, director of Barnard’s archives, some copies were gifts from the class of 1980, others are mysteries, but most were a 2022 donation from former Black Heights Editor-in-Chief Anita Harris, BC ’80. 

 

If I had dug into the archives just two years earlier, I would have missed a critical period in the history of Black literary culture on campus, which has hardly felt comprehensive. I’m not the only one who has this impression—The Crown refers to itself as Columbia’s first Black student magazine in its promotional materials. Black Heights’ archival absence, despite its significant tenure and general positive reception, hints at the University’s neglect of its Black literary history. 

 

Even when he launched the magazine, Waldron wasn’t certain that Black Heights was the first Black literary magazine on campus. “We didn’t have the research to double check it,” he said. What was important to him was that he had identified an absence at Columbia: the infrastructure and lexicon to talk about Black art on campus. 

 

Call it a graduating senior’s burden, but I’ve been thinking about how what I write at Columbia will contour the future. Most of what I’ve written for The Blue and White have covered aspects of the Black experience here unarticulated by other publications, driven primarily by the question “If I don’t, who will?” It never really felt like an active decision to write in this way. These were my experiences. It was my life as a Black student here. Someday, some student might go searching for The Blue and White’s archives much like I did with Black Heights, looking for archival answers to experiential questions.

 

I had assumed that finding a collection of Black literature at Columbia would provide a cohesive literary lineage, easily categorizable in its intents and influence. Not collectivizing the Black voices in Black Heights, however, allows us to consider the manifold manifestations of a Black student body trying to find where they belong. The beauty of Black Heights resides in the second half of Waldron’s original statement: its ability to shed light on lost and forgotten Black literary heritages. Black Heights and its context have since become part of the lost and forgotten. The digital era has only helped highlight the potential significance of print magazines. But the importance of a print magazine lies in its indeterminate impact, how it can circulate between hands for decades and its acute sense of its temporality. The complexity comes in that something so tangibly and materially real can also be ephemeral.

 

Reading through Black Heights, I felt the joy of being able to hold these stories, these histories even, in my hands. Black Heights contains a record of interpersonal and institutional conflict, but its existence also holds an implicit promise: to cherish Black expression at Columbia in a society that would otherwise allow these distinct stories to be forgotten or erased. 


In my eyes, a lot of the hope for a Black literary lineage at Columbia comes from a desire for assurance or healing that Black creatives were seeking in the ’70s. Or perhaps it lies in some type of sign that, despite the sociocultural conflict that Black students might experience at a PWI, we will make it through with our voices intact. In reaching for and holding these issues of Black Heights, Black Heights is holding me too.

Feature

Revisiting 1968

A legacy contested, a legacy revived.

By Cecilia Zuniga

The spirit of ’68 lingers today in the dimly lit corridors of Fayerweather Hall. Pieces of its history lay scattered around Columbia University’s campus, like bits of a whole to be sewn together—or perhaps intentionally kept separate. You might feel it yourself, like a faint echo of rallying cries or chants pulsating beneath creaky hardwood floors. Undeniably, 1968 is alive in room 301M. 

 

On Tuesdays at 2:10 p.m., Columbia’s past meets its present. Professor Frank Guridy teaches the undergraduate research seminar Columbia 1968, where 12 students piece together the incendiary history of the 1968 Columbia student strike. Seeking to understand the protest’s causes, context, and legacies, the course paints a vibrant local and national picture of the ’60s. Sifting through firsthand accounts of protesters, multimedia anthologies, and campus archives, students excavate the University’s history of 1968 to produce their own original research on Columbia’s legacy of student activism. 

301M is a prototypical history classroom, tucked away in the heart of Columbia’s history department. The building is also a historic landmark in itself. Along with Hamilton Hall, Low Library, Avery Hall, and Mathematics, Fayerweather was one of five Columbia buildings occupied by hundreds of impassioned students in a direct action takeover in April of 1968. The strikers demanded that the University halt its militaristic and racist policies, namely Columbia’s ties to the Vietnam War and its plans to construct a segregated gym in Morningside Park. 

 

56  years later, the year has become cemented as a focal point in Columbia's collective memory, national headlines, and the generational tongue of campus counterculture. It is a novelty reference in classrooms and organizing spaces alike. Students today continually remind themselves why protest is so palpable on campus, tracing the lineage of activist culture from past to present.

 

In 1968, Students for a Democratic Society was an invigorated and bookish faction of Columbia organizers. Inspired by antiwar New Left ideology and looking to politicize their peers, SDS led the push against the Vietnam War on campus. The group was already a powerful voice, leading the charge to ban ROTC and CIA recruitment at Columbia. However, its fight against American militarism escalated after the 1967 discovery of Columbia’s affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analysis—an independent organization contracted by the Department of Defense to conduct weapons research. The student reaction to the IDA connection was visceral. Not only did the discovery reinforce the ever-winding tendrils of the U.S. war machine, but it also cemented Columbia’s role in innovating, manufacturing, and exporting chemical and missile warfare to Vietnam. 

 

A New Jersey suburbanite turned revolutionary, Mark Rudd described himself as “not political” before arriving at Columbia in the fall of 1965. But his antiwar radicalization and SDS initiation quickly followed. “When I was first exposed to these kids who had already been studying the war—not in classes, but on their own—I realized that the war in Vietnam was part of a much bigger picture, which was American imperialism.” Rudd soon rose to the position of SDS chairman. 

 

Simultaneously, the Students’ Afro-American Society was grappling with Columbia’s structural racism. Inspired by the words of Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon, the Black student organizers of SAS represented another vanguard of political action at Columbia. A central tenet of SAS was their unwavering commitment to Harlem’s working-class community, which was facing displacement and segregation at the hands of Columbia’s “Community Gymnasium” in Morningside Park. Along the western edge of Morningside Park, Columbia students would have had street-level access to the building, whereas Harlem residents would have been relegated to a separate, basement-level entrance on the park’s eastern border, granted access to only a select portion of the building. It was an undeniably anti-Black affront to Harlem. 

 

Concerted antiwar and antiracist mobilization efforts had been underway for years leading up to the incendiary spring of 1968, when SDS came into powerful alignment with leaders from SAS. 

 

Tuesday, April 23, 1968. Noon on Low Steps. Hundreds of students gathered for the first joint protest of SDS and SAS. Newly elected SAS President Cicero Wilson, CC ’70, and SDS Chairman Rudd gave fiery speeches to a sea of over 300 students, who were eventually spurred into action. Marching from Low Steps to the Gymnasium construction site, the electrified crowd eventually rushed into Hamilton. Disrupting classes and barricading the office door of Dean Herbert Coleman, SDS and SAS crafted six demands—most notably, the call for Columbia to sever all ties with the IDA and to stop construction of the gym. Allied in their mission, students in Hamilton refused to leave unless all demands were met. 

 

Inside Hamilton, Black student organizers were wary of the risks of the takeover. Sherry Ann Suttles, BC ’71, was an SAS member and occupier of Hamilton in the early days of the strike. “Black students wanted to be very controlled and measured in our protest,” she reflected, noting the request by SAS leadership that the white students leave the building and occupy their own. Black students stood clear about their role as representatives of the Harlem community and also worried that white students might underestimate the University’s threat of police repression. White protesters complied. Upon leaving Hamilton, Rudd and other SDS members charged into Low, some even charging into then-President Grayson Kirk’s office. The student occupation at Columbia commenced. 

 

Nearly 1,000 students joined in on the occupation of campus buildings. Occupying students relished in their direct action communities, laying jackets as makeshift beds and reclaiming the space as their own. Supportive Harlem neighbors brought hot meals to Black students in Hamilton, then renamed “Malcolm X Liberation College” by its occupants. 

 

The administration had canceled all classes by Wednesday, scrambling to meet with faculty, create task forces, and contemplate police deployment into occupied buildings. WKCR, Columbia’s student-run radio station, paused their usual music programming, opting instead to become a 24/7 newsroom to report on the demonstrations. Robert Siegel, CC ’68, a devoted WKCR broadcaster, set up coverage stations all over campus to provide minute-to-minute accounts of student protests for the Morningside Heights community. All eyes were on Columbia, with local and national history in the making. 

 

On the night of April 30, the week-long strike came to a brutal finale as the administration ordered occupying students to remove themselves from the buildings. With no response from protesters, the NYPD burst in, prepared to take “all necessary action” to remove students in compliance with the University’s complaint of trespass. Occupying students braced themselves as the police barreled in, breaking down barricaded doors and dragging students out. Inside Low, officers violently yanked apart students’ linked arms, replacing their melodic “We Shall Overcome” with shrieks of pain and horror. Over 700 students were arrested, many brutalized with fists and batons. 

 

The strike had come to an end, but its memory had just begun. 

 

Nancy Biberman, BC ’69, recalled the media’s immediate characterization of student protesters as “alienated.” “It was used pejoratively,” Biberman reflects, “that somehow we weren’t willing to follow the straight and narrow, that we were just profoundly alienated, that we were somehow protesting against everything about our lives.” The institution sought to delegitimize moral and political outrage by diagnosing its students with pathological loneliness. 

 

Columbia ’68ers were far from disaffected. A handful of students stepped foot onto campus already activists, being “red-diaper babies” of leftist, New Deal–era parents, or participants in ongoing civil rights organizing. “I came out of my mother’s womb as an activist because my mother was,” said Suttles, reflecting upon her predisposition to advocacy and social justice organizing. “When I got to Barnard at age 18, in 1965, we had already been—me and my sister and my mother—out in the movement.” 

 

Suttles epitomizes the alumni push for student memory of 1968 in her documentary Black Columbia, which she screened at the 40th anniversary conference in 2008 and the San Diego Black Film Festival in 2009. With the directorial vision of her son Kamau, the film centers Black student organizers narrating and reflecting upon their participation in the strike. “I was witness to it, the transition from a civil type of community to just a revolutionary one, music-wise, social-wise, art-wise.” The four years she spent at Barnard left an indelible mark on her generation, with Black Columbia as a testament to remembering. 

 

Rudd, like Suttles, underscored 1968’s historic resonance. “Something in me said, I can’t stand by while this moral atrocity is happening.” Rudd was expelled for his role in the occupation; however, when reflecting upon his strategy as SDS chairman, he emphasized that it was not a desire but a need that spurred action. 

 

 

January 2024. Guridy’s 301M. A student asks on the first day of class if the class would discuss current events. Guridy answers, “I don’t see how we’re not gonna talk about the present … to not talk about the present would be absurd.” 

 

Guridy’s Columbia 1968 course is a labor of love. As a professor in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies and the Department of History, as well as the executive director of the Eric H. Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights, Guridy positions his history course within an interdisciplinary framework. Guridy sees his hands-on process as a “radical pedagogical act” in itself, “cause we’re entrusting the University's history in the constituency that’s the most important, which is you folks.” 

 

In his book-lined Fayerweather office, Guridy presented me with an array of pamphlets he kept from the 50th anniversary commemoration of 1968. With the help of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Guridy independently organized the 2018 ceremony to commemorate the legacy of ’68. Without any tangible acknowledgments on campus of Columbia’s rebellious past, the University is seemingly predisposed to bouts of amnesia, occasionally interspersed with anniversary celebrations. In 2018, the Office of the Provost was a cosponsor, but the President’s Office did not support the commemoration. 

 

Notably, April 2018 also saw the graduate student strike at Columbia, wherein hundreds of students participated in a week-long walkout. Demanding that the administration recognize their student labor union, graduate organizers cited 1968 as an inspiration. Guridy underscored that “the memory of ’68 was being used by the insurgents of 2018” in an effort to frame their struggles in a broader culture of protest at Columbia. “They were situating themselves in that activist legacy.” The University’s hesitation to commemorate 1968 is a reflection of its adversarial relationship with student protests at large. 

 

In 2008, however, the administration had vastly different stakes. President Lee Bollinger was breaking ground on Columbia’s $6.3 billion Manhattanville Campus, now home to the Columbia Business School, Lenfest Center for the Arts, and Jerome L. Greene Science Center. Gaining nearly 6.8 million square feet of campus space, Bollinger’s project was the contentious product of a decade-long eminent domain battle, widespread community resistance, and the projected displacement of nearly 5,000 West Harlem residents and businesses. His endorsement of the 40th anniversary 1968 commemoration, as hypothesized by Guridy, may have paralleled a quiet anxiety surrounding the University’s history of encroachment into Harlem. Manhattanville eerily paralleled the gym in Morningside Park, 40 years later.  

 

Columbia’s 1968 amnesia therefore reads as willful rather than forgetful. Reflective of an opportunistic handling of its history, the administration seems to either uplift or suppress the ’68 legacy at its convenience. Commemoration of ’68 has instead become an individualized effort, resting upon those who specifically seek to engage with it. Yet the non-institutionalization of its legacy leaves it up to students to discover and rediscover its meaning. 

 

Ted Schmiedeler, CC ’26, is one such student. The station manager at WKCR and a history major, Schmiedeler emphasized the ever-beating pulse of 1968 in WKCR’s studios today. The station made the move toward financial independence after 1968, embracing its nickname of “The Alternative.” Program Director Georgia Dillane, BC ’25, pinpointed WKCR’s sharp cultural turn post-1968: “Even though it feels so long ago, it was such a pivotal moment in the curation of our ethos that it doesn’t make sense to let it go.” Scribbled on crinkled pieces of paper and whispering through headset sound waves is the tethered legacy of 1968. WKCR’s historic role in ’68 exists largely by word of mouth, passed down orally in programming training and audio clips. For this, Dillane expressed gratitude, commending the programmers’ intergenerational efforts to preserve this fragile history. Today, WKCR continues to propagate the memory of ’68 with its coverage of ongoing student protests.

 

 

Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. 4:30 p.m. at the Sundial. Proudly wrapped in keffiyehs, hundreds of students gather in a sea streaked with red and green. A low drumbeat clamors, an impassioned voice commences the chant, and the crowd takes a collective breath. 

 

Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine have resurrected the spirit of 1968 at the Sundial. Demanding Palestinian liberation, solidarity, and an immediate end to Israeli apartheid and genocide, JVP and SJP refuse to back down despite relentless administrative hostility. Senior administrators suspended the two student groups in November, citing a contested event policy violation. The policy was revised unilaterally without University Senate input. 

 

SJP and JVP’s suspensions ignited campus, and the Nov. 14 protest was an electrifying moment of campus-wide support, with Dar (the Palestinian Student Union), Student Workers of Columbia, and the Black Students’ Organization standing in firm solidarity with SJP and JVP. Since November, Columbia University Apartheid Divest—originally created in 2016—has resurged on Columbia’s campus with the support of over 100 student organizations. Calling for Columbia’s economic and academic divestment from Israel, CUAD is the students’ vanguard for collective liberation. 

 

Students see and feel the administration’s antagonism. Since October, protest days have been accompanied by a hyper-militarized police presence, with zip ties fastened to uniform belts as high-flying drones loom in the air. The NYPD’s Technical Assistance Response Unit sits outside of Columbia’s gates surveilling phone waves, and masses of police officers litter the campus. 

 

The campus, however, is not any safer. Suppression and hostility abound, as counter-protesters hurl Islamophobic comments at student organizers, many of whom face disciplinary hearings and suspensions for protesting. Doxxing is vicious and incessant, as dozens of protesters have seen their faces plastered on trucks traversing Broadway. Harassment—by Columbia’s own professors—persists inside the classroom and online. Earlier this semester, the NYPD brutalized dozens of students at a February protest, following a chemical skunk attack on pro-Palestinian protesters. 

 

Lea, BC ’26, a member of JVP and SJP who chose to go by only their first name, sees this excessive mobilization of the NYPD as a fear mongering tactic. “They have been doing that since ’68,” they told me, “especially with Arab and Muslim organizers, targeting them and making them feel as though they could not organize.” Columbia’s criminalization of students is not a new tactic, nor is it disconnected from their diagnosis of “alienated” students in the ’60s. In suspending SJP and JVP, the University made vague claims to their use of “threatening rhetoric and intimidation,” vilifying the groups while refusing to clarify the “rhetoric” in question. “They can’t afford for us to be loud,” Lea remarked. 

 

’68ers are aware that their history is being relived on campus today. “The parallels are enormous,” Rudd remarked. Just this February, he spoke at a teach-in organized by Asian American Alliance in solidarity with CUAD. “From Việt Nam to Falastin” interwove the colonial legacies of Vietnam and Palestine while tapping into the persistent antiwar ethos at Columbia. Rudd was elated to see a room full of politically energized students taking action in support of Palestine. “It’s a moral imperative,” Rudd told me. “It’s exactly the same now.” The ongoing student movement has also taken inspiration from a variety of activist legacies at Columbia, including the 1985 student strike for divestment from apartheid South Africa. As the first Ivy League school to do so, Columbia now proudly exalts this legacy.

 

It was precisely this activist history which drew Cameron Jones, CC ’26, to Columbia in the first place. A Queens native, Jones had worked on a variety of grassroots campaigns for local and state politicians before stepping foot on campus. He is now an organizer with JVP. In the wake of Columbia’s unilateral suspension of JVP and SJP, Jones expressed his disillusion with Columbia’s dubbing itself as a cosmopolitan and global campus for free inquiry and robust academic debate. “What we see in reality,” Jones explains, “is they’re suspending student groups, they’re changing event policy, they’re canceling events that talk about Palestine. So it very much seems like there’s a double standard when it comes to Palestine.” 

 

Despite relentless pushback, pro-Palestinian student voices remain strong, evident in countless teach-ins, sit-ins, poetry readings, and kite-flying events. Support across campus is widespread, and more notably, intergenerational. Lea, alongside fellow organizers, met consistently in the fall with a group of student organizers from ’68 who are now calling for Israeli divestment. Grateful for the inheritance of this knowledge, Lea expressed comfort in knowing that their movement is not alone. “We want to make it known to people that an entire generation has already gone through this,” they told me. “It’s not the first time and it also won’t be the last.”

 

The student movement for Palestine today is not a tenuous manifestation of 1968. It is an unbridled force in itself, evoking Columbia’s historic culture of activism, while remaining distinct in its purpose. Herein lies the beauty of 1968’s amorphous legacy. 

 

Columbia is an institution reconciling with its undeniably fractured past. It is an administration trying to forget, with alumni refusing to let them. It is passionate history professors forging a bridge of memory, with spirited students demanding its remembrance. We process our history, a collective gasp for recognition, for reconciliation. 1968 is a legacy excavated, borrowed, recycled, manipulated, and sometimes buried. 

 

But it persists. It breathes.

Illustration by Ellie Hodges

EllieHodges_CeciFeature.jpg

The Conversation

Colm Tóibín

By Sagar Castleman

Two well-dressed people were walking out of Colm Tóibín’s office in Philosophy Hall when I arrived, more anxious than I had been in a while. “They’re just from London to talk to me about James Baldwin,” he told me as he sat back down, not helping my nerves. But then he turned to look at me with his twinkling eyes and asked in a gentle voice how I was, and, almost miraculously, I felt myself starting to relax. When he asked me questions about my life before and after our interview, they strangely didn’t feel like small talk. Instead, they revealed his love of stories, which he seemed to always be listening for. When I told him how my parents met, his face lit up and he said, “That could be a novel!” 

 

A prolific novelist (his 11th comes out next month), writer for the New York Review of Books, and the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities, Tóibín may be the most engrossing person I’ve ever met. He alternates between glimmering smiles and pensive looks into the distance, little jokes and phrases that made such a strong impression on me I wanted to pause the interview and write them down. We talked about his popular Ulysses seminar, the relationship between his characters’ consciousnesses and his own, and why the humanities degree is more important than anything else. 

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ColmToibin_Jorja.jpg

 

The Blue and White: Do you think that being a novelist influences the way that you teach?

 

Colm Tóibín: Yes, it does. I’m always interested in the idea that the next chapter—of any book, but in particular of a book that people have awe about, such as Ulysses—is unwritten, and has not been written yet, and that a strategy will have to be developed by the author to write the next episode as a result of the last one. So all the time you’re imagining the book unwritten, and you’re also thinking about the book as a set of untidy processes, a set of solutions to problems. You’re trying to think, “What is the problem here that this section is a solution to? Why is the writer doing this here?” This is one way of looking at a text as though it is entirely written by the writer, as an act of will, as a set of strategies. And this may be a different way of reading a text than other writers who would put it in historical context, or see the book as belonging to the reader as much as it does to the writer. But in the way that I view it, writing is a set of decisions made in a single moment by a writer for strategic reasons, or, often, as a mistake. 

 

B&W: In that perspective, would the most important thing be understanding the writer’s intentions?

 

CT: No, because if you’re trying to figure out the writer’s intentions, you enter into the realm of speculation. What you’re doing is you’re seeing how, say, in Ulysses, the next episode is a response to the previous one on the part of the writer. For example, in Episode 3 of Ulysses, you realize there’s no future, it’s about Stephen Dedalus’s mind, it’s filled with obscure references to his mind, it’s so informed by what he’s been reading as a philosophy student in university, and you realize that at some point the author has to be aware that Episode 4 is going to be entirely different. You realize that there’s something happening, that there’s an energy in it that’s so intense because he knows it’s going to end soon, that the next episode is not going to be a continuation of the style. But it’s not about his intentions as much as the problems that arise sometimes, like “Why is there this particular level of intensity here?” or “Why is the energy fading?” or “Why is the opening of Episode 4 so bright, so filled with interesting detail, and so filled with the naming of very particular things, whereas in the previous episode there’s no object that doesn’t have huge resonance or symbolic [meaning]?” So “intention” is too imagined, it isn’t like that.

 

B&W: Of course that [approach to literature] is connected to writing because it’s what you do when you write. But I feel like there’s another level to that in that the writing you do is often itself doing that for another writer.

 

CT: No, I’ve only done that twice. So “often” is not true.

 

B&W: But also in some of your poems, like with Gerard Manley Hopkins.

 

CT: No one has read my poems.

 

B&W: I read the whole book.

 

CT: You did not!

 

B&W: Yeah.

 

CT: Well, you’re alone in that.

 

B&W: That was actually my favorite one in the book.

 

CT: Oh, the Hopkins poem! You know, he did make that visit. It was the only time I could find that he connected in any way with literary life in Dublin. He went across Stephen’s Green from the Jesuit House, which is on one side of the Green, to the studio of Yeats’s father.

 

B&W: I read that poem shortly after I took a class where we had read a fair bit of Hopkins, and it occurred to me that what the class was doing and what you were doing in going into his head seemed related—they were both trying to understand the writer beyond just the work. You did that twice in your novels, and the New Yorker profile of you said you do something similar in your book reviews, that you “assimilate your subject to the point that the writer in question begins to sound like one of your own characters.” What motivates you to go so deep into these artists’ heads?

 

CT: You drift into everything if you’re a writer—maybe in other ways too, maybe in life—but as a writer, you drift. Something occurs to you and it doesn’t mean anything, but you stay with it. I never take notes. If you take notes you lose something. If you’re going to forget something you should forget it. But something stays in your mind and it doesn’t do anything. At first I was going to write the sort of book I wrote about Elizabeth Bishop. Bet you haven’t read that?

 

B&W: No.

 

CT: Ha, gotcha! I’ve written a short book about Elizabeth Bishop, it’s not fiction, and I’ve just written another one about James Baldwin, they’re little critical books about reading their work. I was planning to do that with Henry James. I really was, I had all sorts of structures for it, and it just moved on its own into being a novel. Part of the reason is that I had written a previous novel called The Blackwater Lightship. It’s set in Ireland and it’s got six characters over seven days. They’re all locked in this house, and they’re all arguing. There’s a lot of tension, a lot of making tea, a lot of rain, it’s miserable. When it was over, I thought, I never want to do that again. I never want arguing people, I never want rain, I never want tea-making, I never want any of that sort of religion, recrimination, I don’t want any more of that. And then there was only one solution, really. It was Henry James. There were duchesses, Florence, grandeur—just get me out! Then I started to work on it. I think the problem is that James comes to us in so many guises, and he could be very very funny in conversation. But I couldn’t deal with that. I wanted to show what people are like when they’re really alone, just work with that. And it was nice work, not to be writing about rain. 

 

B&W: I did read the book about Henry James. Does the description of the writer’s consciousness that you have there come more from research about him or more from your own experience as a writer?

 

CT: I’ve written all these books and a lot of people haven’t read any of them, and it’s good, because no one had read an earlier novel I had written called The Heather Blazing. And there’s that same idea of this very solitary male figure haunted by certain things, and I could just give him any number of experiences and see what would happen. I don’t know where this comes from, it’s hardly autobiographical, but it’s an exploration of someone using an intense system of the third-person intimate, where everything that’s seen, noticed, felt, and remembered is through this particular consciousness in a very intense way. But if you break it for a second you lose it completely, and therefore there’s no author. The beginning is a form of self-suppression, and then once the suppression has been done, you begin to use each sentence as a response to the previous one, where you’re trying to refine things, you’re trying to vary the sound and tone of the sentences, but what you’re more intensely doing is trying to move things along as slowly, gradually, and imperceptibly as possible. You’re following this particular consciousness that is skilled at silence, repression, and is much happier alone, so that the relationship to other people, to memory, is fraught. And you just work with that. It seems to me that it’s something that I do almost naturally. It’s certainly not chosen. Once James moved from being a critical “reading Henry James” book to being the novel, then I didn’t really have to do anything. The research didn’t really matter. Yeah, for a few days I might read some letters or some biography, but the books were just there, the main thing was here. [Points at laptop.] 

 

B&W: But where did it come from?

 

CT: Self.

 

B&W: So your conception of Henry James is very related to your conception of yourself.

 

CT: Yeah.

 

B&W: Would you say that’s true with a lot of your fiction?

 

CT: Yeah. All of them. But in ways that I don’t understand. If I did understand, I don’t know what I would do, because it would be just clunky, plain efforts to disguise yourself, make yourself a woman, make yourself in the 19th century, and it’s not like that. In other words, I don’t know when I’m starting that I’m doing this, it’s only halfway through that I realize, “Jesus Christ, here I am the second time with Thomas Mann. Family of five, second brother. More athletic older brother.” I really didn’t realize with Mann—the dead father, the moving out of your own country to other countries, the melancholy homosexuality. And all of it makes its way in some way into the fiction. And sometimes you’d do anything to stop it. “Don’t give me another dead father.” 

 

I’ve just written another novel, it’s coming out next month, and it’s my first novel in which someone doesn’t die. I didn’t plan it, you can’t plan that. There was a woman in Australia buying a book I had written who said to me, “How many people die in this one?” I didn’t know what to say to her. I ended up saying, “Quite a few, but I hope that’s okay.” She wasn’t blaming me or anything, but in this new one there’s nobody, and I don’t know what that means. Maybe it’s that I’m getting old and I can’t write as freely about those things as I once could.

 

B&W: It’s an oversimplification to say that there’s a biographical connection between you and these writers, but there seems to be some kind of connection. Do you think that that was part of what drew you to them?

 

CT: Yeah.

 

B&W: What was that process like for Henry James and Thomas Mann?

 

CT: The process begins during a two- or three-year period when I’m 18 or 19, when I start to really read their stuff. And for some reason those books really, really—I don’t want to say spoke to me, but I just wanted to read more of them. I wasn’t thinking about “speaking to me” and I wasn’t even dreaming about writing about them. I was just a reader. 

 

I’m reading them in the ’70s, but when you get to the ’90s, there’s a big change that has occurred with both of these writers. Because of the publication of some letters and the publication of a number of biographies, James’s homosexuality has become much plainer. And elements of his life, of his secret life, of the solitude and hauntedness, all of that become much clearer. With Thomas Mann, the diaries have appeared and the diaries change everything, because you get to see that his erotic dreams are homoerotic dreams. And also that his politics cannot be as easily trusted as being liberal, or even his support of democracy by 1914. 

 

So you’ve got whole new ways of looking at these people, but also I have started to write these pieces for the London Review of Books where I would become intensely engaged with some writer for an essay over a period of a month or two, where I’m reading everything and trying to find a new way to look at these works. I probably did three pieces on Thomas Mann for the London Review of Books, and I did a few pieces on Henry James in the same way. Out of that came some sort of energy, and I won’t do a third. I don’t have a third. If I had a third I’d do a third. If I felt the same way about Virginia Woolf I’d write a book about Virginia Woolf, or Edith Wharton, but I just don’t have it. 

 

These two were there, and I wouldn’t dream of saying that I have a personal autobiographical connection with them. These are two of the great towering figures in my world, and it’d be like some guy on the street corner telling me that he’s like Bob Dylan because, “I sing, he sings.” But it’s not that as much as I couldn’t do any more than give them this melancholy response to experience and this wavering attitude toward feeling. So I put all of that in, and if there’s a blueprint for it it’d be the first 50 pages of J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg about Dostoevsky trying to identify his dead son in a morgue. The writing, the getting into the actual shivering nature of the character of the book—I felt that this was real, this was alive, this was there. This wasn’t a dry literary game. This was filled with life. 

 

B&W: Let’s go back to the class for a moment, which you’ve been teaching for several years now. Why Ulysses? Why not someone like James?

 

CT: I’ve taught James, but I felt like I needed a big new project. So it struck me that I could probably bring something to Joyce here that no one else in the department could do. Not only by dint of being Irish, but by the fact that I’ve done a lot of work on the related areas of social change, or of the cultural context in which Joyce was brought up. Not just that I went to the same university, but that I’ve been reading around all that all my life, and I thought I could bring something to it. I also thought that for me it would be completely new, that while I was reading Henry James and Thomas Mann in that intense way I described, I wasn’t reading Joyce like that then. So Joyce has been a gradual process, and it becomes more and more exciting. I’ll be 69 next month, so it’s nice having something to be excited about. Certainly I’m excited about reading more and more, rereading the book and reading commentaries on it and thinking about it and trying to get the class going on it.

 

B&W: You mentioned commentaries, but I know that you don’t assign literary criticism in the class. Why not?

 

CT: The idea is that our job in one semester for undergraduates is to read the book, to come out by the end of April with this book read. That takes a lot of energy on the part of the students, and if you start saying, “So-and-so’s commentary on this comes from a postcolonial perspective or a feminist perspective or a Lacanian reading of the book or a historical context reading of the book” you’ve got to slow the class down. And there’s enough going on in the book to read the book. If in the future anyone wants to go and start reading commentary—and there’s a lot of really good commentary—then people can go and do that, but for these 14 weeks we’re going to concentrate on reading the book. And by reading the book I mean literally turning the pages and saying, “What’s happening here is that he has moved from there to here. And look who’s with him. Now Buck Mulligan has been at George Moore’s house in the previous episode, and Stephen was not invited to that party. And crucially, what Joyce has to do is make sure that Stephen is not invited to anywhere in particular so that he can drift in the city.” So it goes on like that. And what you want in the end is an essay that doesn’t use anyone’s criticism, that is the student’s own. 

 

B&W: What do you think about creative writing as a subject, and why don’t you teach it?

 

CT: I did teach it for a while at Stanford, and at Princeton I was in both the creative writing and English departments. It’s very easy to do because you just read someone’s story and work out ways that they might rethink it. What you’re really doing is suggesting that revision is really important, and that maybe there’s another way of looking at something. And there’s some cruelty there, because of course someone has put so much work into something, and it’s done in public. So someone’s whole heart and soul has been put into something and then you have to take it asunder. And there are other times when you don’t do that because something is so good and so perfect and so instantly brilliant. And that’s happened a few times, where I’ve simply said, “Look at this!” And you realize that someone has it, just has it. And that’s the strangest idea, that someone has it, and with that person you can work. 

 

You see, I think there’s a problem because if you add up the number of people doing postgraduate work in creative writing in America now and the number of books being published, there really is [a disparity]. What I presume is happening is that you’re training teachers, editors, people who will move into the whole industry of the written word. It’s a curious dynamic, because often when I’m working I don’t know what I’m doing, and certainly when I was starting in Ireland, the idea of showing your work to a group of students and hearing what they liked about it—none of us would have done that. 

 

B&W: I feel like that could apply to postgraduate education in the humanities generally, where there are a lot more people doing it than there are positions in academia. What do you think about that, and do you see yourself as part of academia?


CT: There’s been a decline in the number of jobs available to PhD students, and you could look at the statistics there. But the other one is different, the other one is the undergraduate arts degree, the humanities degree. If it’s creative writing, you want to be a novelist or a poet. But with a humanities degree, you merely want to enrich your mind. You’re not training anyone to be a teacher, an editor, a lawyer, or anything else. It’s merely the lovely business of spending three or four years, when you’re at your richest because you can take in books better than you can at any other time, of having the opportunity to, without any specific career in mind, study things that are really vitally important, which is called culture. I can’t see this as anything other than ideal, and what we should all aspire to. And for me, when I did it, it was an extraordinary period in my life that gave me everything. And therefore I want to do anything to it other than make it dull. It is what’s important. What else is there?

Illustration by Jorja Garcia

Campus Character

Atish Saha

By Maya Lerman

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I had heard about Atish Saha, GS ’24, through my grapevine of idealistic film major friends long before I got the chance to meet him. Seeing him for the first time, I immediately got the hype. Atish has had his photography featured in The New Yorker, Time, The Guardian, and Vice. He’s pursued art across mediums and across the globe, and has developed a small but mighty coalition of friends at Columbia dedicated to helping him achieve his artistic vision. And achievements aside, Atish is the kind of person you can’t help being charmed by. “I’m a professional yapper,” he says apologetically; we’ve been chatting for only fifteen minutes and have already discussed topics ranging from affirmative action to the plagiarism of Indian philosophers by the West. His energy is contagious: In a matter of minutes, Atish has me passionately yapping alongside him. 

Illustration by Selin Ho​

If you get the chance to speak with Atish, one thing will become abundantly clear: Atish lives and breathes his art. He describes sleeping in train stations to make it to exhibits, crashing at friends’ houses, or even going days without food or sleep. For Atish, the sacrifice of material comfort is a no-brainer. A striking example of this is a piece of performance art he created, which featured him sitting inside a transparent replica of the Kaaba, a famous mosque in Mecca, while wearing a burqa for 53 hours nonstop—the duration of his mother’s labor. He tells me of the sheer vulnerability of this act, of putting his male body on display in what many would consider an emasculating manner. The performance was a personal meditation on Atish’s role as a photographer, putting himself on exhibition in the same way as his photographed subjects. “I was trying to punish myself in a way, so that I can understand the pain when I photograph someone else,” he tells me.

 

The most consequential moment in Atish’s career was his photography of the collapse of Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Dhaka. On April 24, 2013, Atish witnessed a tragedy which killed over a thousand garment workers. “I just happened to be there,” Atish tells me as he describes the horrific scene: He felt the ground shake, saw white ash fill the sky, and watched as bodies were pulled out from under the rubble. Atish recalls he and his friends having to amputate limbs with their bare hands to rescue survivors—an experience which profoundly affected his psyche and left him unable to stomach the sight of meat for years.

 

To combat the Bangladeshi government's attempts to underplay the death count, Atish developed a dedication to documentation. He describes feeling a profound sense of responsibility, prompting him to start a database to track the missing and dead. Atish’s favorite work to come out of the incident was a more humble endeavor: a collection of photographs of objects that he found in the weeks following the collapse, before the government closed off the area to the public. The objects ranged from the mundane (cups, pieces of clothes, vanity bags) to the nauseating (bags of hair from victims). Atish kept these artifacts in his home for months, living alongside them as they began to rot and stink, and even losing friends who couldn’t stand the persistent reminders of death. But they held profound importance for Atish, as objects that could have belonged to anyone, and that served as a memento of the intimacy of lives lost in the vastness of tragedy. In a way, Atish’s objects were more human than his photographs of death and suffering, and were representative of his philosophy on photography. “As a human being, we can actually do more than live one bodily experience through one limited body,” Atish explains. “We can actually enjoy life through multiple bodies. That pluralism, that understanding of the plurality of bodies and self, changed me a lot.” 

 

For his work at Rana Plaza, Atish was approached by an editor of Time magazine and given a chance to show his photography. He came to America, and proudly presented his collection of photographs of objects. But Time wasn’t interested, telling Atish that the objects looked like products sold on Instagram. “They were really interested in the bizarre body parts,” Atish laments. Violence and horror sells; the poignancy of disembodied objects simply didn’t have the same voyeuristic appeal. 

 

The interaction with Time highlighted the dissonance between the values of the mainstream media and Atish’s personal goals for his art. Still, Atish remains dedicated to pursuing activism in his own way, defying popular narratives and embracing politicization. He offers to show me a short film he’s recently made about the self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell. The video includes footage of a recent vigil held by Columbia Jewish Voice for Peace, interspersed with audio of Bushnell’s recorded message to the world. It ends with Bushnell’s haunting screams of “Free Palestine” as he is set aflame, followed by an eerie, techno rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” 

 

The point, Atish tells me, is to show how arrangement changes the narrative. He asks if, watching his piece, I ever got the sense that Aaron Bushnell was mentally unstable. I responded that I did not, despite that being the dominant presentation of the story by American news outlets. This is an example of Atish’s commitment to docufiction, a form of documentary that challenges the notion of objective truth. He quotes a protester from the Vietnam War, who, when asked why they demonstrate, answered, “I am not doing it for the [Vietnamese] people, I’m doing it for myself so this country cannot change me.” Atish too wants to use art to question ideological hegemony from within. “You’re not watching anymore, you are seeing for the first time, even though you have looked at it,” Atish says. He describes it in dating terms: “When we say we’re seeing each other, that means you’re not just hooking up … you’re seeing this person in the everyday, mundane, boring, exciting, unsexy, sexy, all of it. Seeing means you’re interfering.” 

 

This interference is what Atish hopes to accomplish through filmmaking. For him, film is special in its mobilizing power—it's an art form designed for collective viewing, made to bring people together around a synthesis of sounds, images and ideas that, more than any other medium, most closely resembles life. Filmmaking is also a deeply collaborative process: To make his films, Atish has cultivated a tight-knit community of filmmakers and film lovers across Columbia’s campus; without them, Atish’s lofty ambitions would never be possible. Atish asks me if I know the word “glean”—a personal favorite of his. “I glean from people’s lives, and they glean from my life,” he tells me. Atish sees no separation between his artistic endeavors and his personal life. His friends appear in his art, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, and are constantly shaping Atish’s vision. The way Atish talks about his community is endlessly endearing; I can see how much he cherishes them, how indebted he feels to his comrades and collaborators in his artistic process. 

 

I ask Atish if he ever takes breaks. He laughs, as if the question doesn’t even compute. Art isn’t a career, he tells me. It’s not a job that he feels the need to take time off from. His life, his friends, his everyday experience is his art, and that, for Atish, is the greatest joy he can imagine. Atish doesn’t feel the need to advertise his art to others. “Let’s not sell now,” he says with a smile. We’re young, and there will be time to sell later. “I don’t need to be money’s bitch.”

 

As our interview comes to a close, Atish has one request for me: “Don’t write my age,” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t want to be old.” Yet “old” is the absolute last word I would use to describe Atish. Everything about him, from his energy to his mindset, is bursting with youth, innovation, and boundless passion. Regardless of age, Atish has truly made the most of his time at Columbia—and that determined glint in his eyes tells me he’s far from finished.

Measure for Measure

The Material of the Matriline

By Aliza Yona Abusch-Magder

My grandmother, my Oma, has hands I have come to know as a symbol: that feeling of being a ripening fruit on an oakheavy heritage. Her hands wrinkle looser and looser; yet my plumskin is pressed, taught with my senseofself forming, fibrous. That is what her hands mean to me— miraculous glory that is nature existing forever in cycles of tense, condensed, at the root of some sense.

 

She loved the loom— was perennially present at its foot like Penelope— tied to home— tethered by fear-grief of homelessness. For us, she wanted nothing more than wings. So she restored the wings of her childhood folktales, and the pattern was an oral history, so it was imprecise, and she spent thirty years collecting heritage-tree leaf-feathers spread by the wind of time ever-lapsing. And at my bat mitzvah, I received wings of down, sea hay, and horse hair, glued by the blood of the generation that could never become a namesake— fixed dry by death. It took three generations until the blood was viscous, could be made use of, to restore the privileged wings that allow integration without assimilation, so that we may fly home to diaspora. 

 

In this rupture pools blood of my pen— the inky pigment dyes the garment of my lifehood. I color the wool that Oma sews towards a Tallis. Looming. Weaving. One of the Pale of Settlement bitches. A girl wrote me a poem saying we would have shared stale bread in the ghetto— a token of the care kinship comradery of sapphic embrace. In the pantry of her soul, I saw no love in a starved life. My legacy is not loitering in pain. I am not cold, stale— I am warm, beating, keeping-alive. 

 

My namesake, doubly maternal great grandmother, was wartime glamor like Rosie, though her body was the flesh front line and symbol of strength at home. She was starved, and in her red leather purse, next to her matte red lipstick, she kept two cyanide tablets— the other for her infant, my Oma. Living with death made her all the more irresistible because men liked how she needed to be saved and she was pretty enough to be worth saving. But she knew she only ever had herself, both the damsel and the knight. And thus, at twenty-two, she took the reins of her budding life in the winter of fascism. Stories turn cruelty into thread, later woven into fabric, later fashioned into garments of tradition.

At Two Swords' Length

Is This Essay AI? 

By Schuyler Daffey and Madison Hu

Illustration by Ben Fu

Affirmative:

 

Professor B sits at his desk in Barnard Hall, the fluorescent luminescence of Milstein his moon. He opens his laptop, hot and fried from a long day of teaching his course titled Modernity and Novel and Mothers, Too. 

 

On the screen are 10 essay submissions from his 15 students. 

 

The deadline was last week. The page count was flexible. He forgets about the five stragglers for now. He keeps what his therapist calls his “thoughts of sorrow” at bay as he clicks on the first submission: Katie, a soft-spoken freshman with a lot to say about juxtaposition and tension and push-and-pulls.

 

The subject line of the email is sparse. It reads:

 

essay

 

The body follows in form.

 

this is the essay thank you

 

The attachment is labeled “essay1quillpenn.essay.thisisreal.epub.” Professor B hesitates—could this be a virus? 

 

When he clicks on the attachment, he is only 50 percent sure his computer won’t crash. 

 

The essay opens with a vague promise.

 

In this essay, this essay will explore many things.

 

Surely, Katie is capable of a stronger introduction. Surely, because this was sent in three  hours after the deadline, qualifying it as the earliest submission in the class, Katie had thought through her piece a little more than average.

 

But Professor B is missing the full picture. He is unaware, of course, that the night of the deadline, Katie was downtown at a Gray’s Papaya, downing three hotdogs and two milkshakes with the power imbued upon every drunk freshman who manages to get into a club with an impossibly flexible, incredibly fake ID from Maine.

 

Katie was with her suitemates—those sweet girls—who graciously held her phone as she gobbled up the dogs. Jennifer, the angel she is, was taking selfies with it when an email notification interrupted her flow. She showed it to Katie, who immediately panic-burped and ran straight out of Gray’s Papaya, hyperventilating and half-screaming on Sixth Avenue. She had forgotten about the essay deadline, risking a bad grade for the first time in her life. 

 

She read Professor B’s email and fought through the virtual gates of Duo to skim his essay guidelines on CourseWorks, which he had disseminated three months prior. Write about the modern novel … mothers too … when and where … diverse dynamic experimental …

 

Outside Gray’s Papaya, Katie got to work in her Notes app. She had been feverishly writing for what felt like 10 minutes when she realized she had simply tacked drunk musings onto a written-on-the-train poem. She resigned to accept that she would just send it anyway; Professor B did say the essay could be experimental.

 

“Can we go to the club again?” Matt begged from the corner, entertaining a pigeon next to a pile of trash.

 

“Yessssss!!!!!” her suitemates crooned, like the Furies. 

 

Without a beat, they swept Katie into the nearest club, the apparently famous and super-exclusive-except-for-right-now Break Down Downtown Woo, Yeah, Hey! Club. Her Notes app glitched as splashes of vodka cran landed on her screen. She wiped, then typed, then wiped. 

 

At 3 a.m., Katie was swept into an Uber, and her stomach did not feel good.

 

“What do I do?????” she wailed in the car, causing an immediate drop in her overall Uber rating by one whole star. 

 

“Here.” Jennifer, ever the angel, took her phone, typed for five minutes, and gave it back. “It’s submitted.”

 

In the morning, Katie had no recollection of the essay. Or most of the night. 

 

A week later, Professor B, wiping mustard from his beard in his Barnard Hall office, is left with the task of deciphering Katie’s paper.

 

The answer? Love. Or perhaps hate. 

 

He sighs heavily as he, yet again, marks the sentence with a big red question mark. What was Katie thinking with this? Was she thinking at all?

 

In conclusion, there is no conclusion. The modern novel is modern and diverse and experimental. It is everything, it is nothing. Today, the novel is also modern, but it is better called contemporary. 

 

“What does this mean??????????” Professor B screams into his head-void. 

 

Contemporary means the present, according to Oxford Languages (Citation 1e42325). 

 

Oh. 

 

Maybe there is a rhyme and reason to this. Maybe Katie was operating on a level that Professor B did not catch on the first read through. Maybe this is actually an inspired piece with inspired things to say. 

 

Thank you for choosing ChatGPT for your auto-generated essay. 

 

Professor B’s thoughts of sorrow are back, and, ignoring his therapist’s advice, he allows them to wash over him. 

 

He throws up a little in his mouth as he gives an obligatory F to the paper. Please, Professor B silently begs, please let the next essay be readable.

 

Negative:

 

“Damn ChatGPT,” Professor B bemoans, yearning for the days of chalk blackboards, handwritten essays scrawled in blue fountain pen, and good old honest work. He turns to his next essay, this one submitted three days late by Luke, a Sigma Chi brother who regularly watches soccer highlights in class, one AirPod in at all times. The subject line of Luke’s email is identical to Katie’s. It reads only: essay. Professor B hangs his head ruefully. There is no body text, merely a PDF which sits like a lonely island in the vast emptiness of the email. Fearing the worst, he clicks into the document. 

 

What did the modren novel

 

Professor B is taken aback. He rereads the title, certain that he has somehow missed something. What did the modren novel? Perhaps this student will offer a deconstructivist take on contemporary literature, he prays. Perhaps Luke is mirroring the breakdown of traditional novel structure in his deconstruction of the title! He rubs his hands together in glee, an ebullient smile forming on his lips: Luke had been focused and listening in class this entire time! He returns to Luke’s essay, crowing with delight and pride in his student.

 

Modern novels were written from 1900 to 1940. They usualy included themes of society, modernity, and the inner wokrings of the mind.

 

A cold, creeping sense of dread begins to wash over Professor B. Themes of society? This is not the work of a student who is attuned to the fine detail and expansive psychological themes of the modernist literary tradition. He can barely continue reading through all the typos, but his eyes are pulled inexorably, like a moth to the light, back to the trainwreck. 

 

In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the reader experiencs Clarissa Dalloway’s inner mind over the course of onde day.

 

Like the diligent junior that he is, devoted to his studies and inspired by his fascinating classes and hardworking professors, Luke created a Word document for his essay exactly 27 minutes before the deadline. Posted up on the third floor of Butler, a Celsius in each hand, he readied himself to write an essay teasing out the nuances and contradictions of the modern novel. But he began to realize that there was one small issue: He had not cracked the cover of a single text on the syllabus. 

 

From there, his problems only deepened. About 10 minutes into planning this essay, Luke began to receive a rapid stream of texts from his Brothers:

 

“Dude, where are u? We cant start shotgunning til u get here”

 

Followed by: “bro come now. mike found a keg in the basement and now we’re throwing tn. we need you here man”

 

And ten minutes after that: “CPOME TO THE HIUOSE BROOO. ITS SOOLITICANTEVEN.”

 

The discovery of the keg was the straw that broke Luke’s back. He could hold off no longer; his body acted as if it had a mind of its own. He was dimly aware of his hands packing his MacBook away, of shoving his books into his backpack. He surveyed his document: an introduction and two solid, mostly coherent paragraphs. He would just force a pledge to finish his essay later, he reasoned; being pledge master had to come with a few perks. 

 

This was how, 30 minutes later, Luke found himself drinking from a keg, the age and origins of its contents unclear, upside down, his feet in the air, while his Brothers bellowed, “SIGMA SIGMA SIGMA,” in a gathered circle around him. Meanwhile, new pledge Josh, baby-faced, barely 17 years old, and four beers in, sat hunched over Luke’s computer in the corner, furiously typing his best approximation of the role of mothers in the modern novel. 

 

Professor B is shocked to discover that the quality of the writing improves somewhat over the course of Luke’s essay. 

 

There is still an abundance of egregious spelling errors, to be sure, but ChatGPT could not have written this. ChatGPT, at least, can spell basic words. It is cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless. He gives it a C-. I need more detail next time!, he urges in the CourseWorks comments section, along with an extensive analysis of Luke’s essay, at which he is certain that Luke will never look. 

 

Professor B screams a single sound of anguish into the night. It comes from deep within him, a hoarse, half-feral noise articulating his frustrations at the disarray of higher education, the calling to which he has devoted his life’s work now being trampled on by his students and their abject preference of alcohol to Faulkner. His scream is swallowed into the library’s cavernous depths as if he had never uttered the sound at all. With a leaden sigh of defeat and resignation, Professor B opens his next essay submission …

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Postcard by Isabelle Oh

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