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Cover by Oonagh Mockler

March Masthead

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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

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Illustrations by Em Bennett

Table of Contents


Letter from the Editor by Tara Zia

Bwecommendations by the Blue and White Staff

 

Blue Notes 

Euripedes, Revisited by George Murphy

The Gaps in the Record by Muni Suleiman  

 

Essays

Literary Afterlives of the 20th Century by Maya Lerman

Pedagogy of the Privileged by Sofia Pirri

 

Measure for Measure

Untitled by Kate Sibery

 

Campus Characters

Casey Rogerson by Victor Omojola 

Mariah Barrera by Shreya Khullar

 

Centerfold  Ben Fu

 

Feature

Where Windows Gaze at Walls by Sam Hosmer

 

The Conversation

Bruce Robbins by Sagar Castleman

Postcard Selin Ho

The Shortcut

Mother’s Birthday by Renny Gong

ATSL

Is This a Columbia Dining Event? by Lucia Dec-Prat and Ava Lozner

 

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Illustrations by Em Bennett

Bwecommendations

Tara Zia, Editor-in-Chief:  Forough Farrokhzad, Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season. The Cranberries, “Dreams” (Acoustic Version).

 

Jazmyn Wang, Managing Editor: Loafing on the Milstein terraces. The Beatles, “In My Life.”

 

Sagar Castleman, Deputy Editor: Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones. A woman is a woman (1961).

 

George Murphy, Publisher: Été 85 (2021). Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness. Bryan Lee O’Malley, Lost at Sea. 

 

Jorja Garcia, Illustrations Editor: American Fiction (2023). The Holdovers (2023). Djo, “End of Beginning.” 

 

Annie Poole, Layout Editor: Meg Webster, Wall of Beeswax (Dia Beacon). The Barnes Foundation. 

 

Kate Sibery, Layout Editor: Cass Elliot, “Didn’t Wanna Have to Do It.” Joan Didion, “Holy Water.” Cara Cara oranges.

 

Henry Astor, Senior Editor: Pankaj Mishra, “The Shoah after Gaza.” Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye. Lucio Battisti, “Arrivederci a Questa Sera.”  

 

Andrea Contreras, Senior Editor: Britpop! Acrylic nails. To Resist is To Love. 

 

Anouk Jouffret, Senior Editor: Massive Attack & Hope Sandoval, “The Spoils.” Yizhar Smilansky, Khirbet Khizeh. 

 

Victor Omojola, Senior Editor: Things Fall Apart (1971). Leonard Cohen, Songs of Leonard Cohen.

 

Claire Shang, Senior Editor: Sunscreen.

 

Muni Suleiman, Senior Editor: Faye Webster, Underdressed at the Symphony. Ryan Beatty, “Cinnamon Bread.” Cherishing time with loved ones while they’re still around.

 

Chris Brown, Staff Writer: Baby Driver (2017). Suburban Tex-Mex restaurants.

 

Amogh Dimri, Staff Writer: Trader Joe’s Iced Tea.

 

Sayuri Govender, Staff Writer: Jockstrap, “Glasgow.” Past Lives (2023). Taking pictures of crocuses. 

 

Sam Hosmer, Staff Writer: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). 80s sellout albums by 60s folk singers. Venus (planet).

 

Maya Lerman, Staff Writer: Naomi Klein, Doppelganger. Le Trou (1960). Hiking by Cold Spring. 

 

Ava Lozner, Staff Writer: Society of the Snow (2023). Simon & Garfunkel, The Concert in Central Park. Beyoncé, “16 CARRIAGES.”

 

Gracie Moran, Staff Writer: Nora Ephron, “My Life as an Heiress.” Cold showers. Clementines! 

 

Sofia Pirri, Staff Writer: Erykah Badu, “Green Eyes.” Raven Leilani, Luster. The New Yorker Fiction Podcast. 

 

Eva Spier, Staff Writer: Blood oranges. M. Ward, “Eyes on the Prize.” Destroyer, “Streethawk I.” 

 

Siri Storstein, Staff Writer: Nikolaj Schultz, Land sickness

 

Vivien Sweet, Staff Writer: Dwain Vinyard, “Searching For The Truth.” GAF-ing.

 

Alice Tecotzky, Staff Writer: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “Nadja.”

 

Sona Wink, Staff Writer: Furikake on a fried egg. Alison Krauss, “I’ve Got That Old Feeling.” Bringing tea bags and a thermos to campus.

 

Cecilia Zuniga, Staff Writer: Tír na nÓg, “Daisy Lady.” Greek yogurt and honey on sourdough. Y Tu Mamá También (2001). 

 

Em Bennett, Staff Illustrator: Pokémon Black. The Brobecks, Violent Things. Noise-canceling headphones. Warm weather. 

 

Ben Fu, Staff Illustrator: Dear Laika, Pluperfect Mind. OHYUNG, “symphonies sweeping!” J. Sakai, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat.

 

Selin Ho, Staff Illustrator: Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003). TV Girl, “Natalie Wood.” Thrifting books! MUBI Podcast.


Oonagh Mockler, Staff Illustrator: Labi Siffre, “Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying.” The Strokes, “I’ll Try Anything Once (‘You Only Live Once’-demo) -Heart in a Cage B-side.” Pino D’Angiò, “Ma Quale Idea.”

Blue Note

Euripides, Revisited

Rethinking Greek tragedy in “Bacchae: The Immersive Experience.”

By George Murphy

It is twilight, and a party is underway. Elaborately dressed revelers howl and shriek, dancers gyrate to pulsating rhythms, and copious amounts of alcohol are consumed. But while this may resemble the average Columbian’s Friday night, it’s something very different—a scene from Euripides’ Bacchae, a fifth-century Athenian tragedy recently performed at the Glicker-Milstein Theater under the direction of Barnard alumna Izzy Bohn, BC ’23. I first read Bacchae last semester in Professor Nancy Workman’s Literature Humanities class, and I fell in love with it. Loving a play that you’ve never seen, however, is a dangerous game. As I was about to find out, there are some things that can only really be understood on the stage. 

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Illustration by Derin Ogutcu

A slight yet extraordinary play, Bacchae contains moments of both unearthly beauty and bloodcurdling terror, often at the same time. Its plot is relatively simple: The god Dionysus is angry at Pentheus, King of Thebes, so he makes the women of Thebes go mad and join his Bacchic cult. When Dionysus arrives in Thebes in disguise, asking for permission to spread his cult of worship, Pentheus promptly imprisons him. To exact revenge, Dionysus convinces Pentheus to spy on the women as they engage in cultic worship—Pentheus is caught, and he is torn to pieces by his own mother, Agaue. End scene! Needless to say, translating Bacchae to the modern stage is no small task. So when a friend of mine, the play’s stage manager, told me about the Columbia Performing Arts League’s new production, which reworked the play in the context of a modern nightclub, I was excited to see what they would do with it.

 

When I arrived at the theater, it quickly became clear that the play had been billed as an “immersive experience” for a reason. I was given a green glow-stick necklace to signal to the actors that they could interact with me, led into the theater by an usher dressed as a bouncer, and handed a glittery fluorescent-blue mocktail by an actor-cum-bartender. 2000’s pop hits soon gave way to the action, and I found myself torn in two directions. On the one hand, I was impressed by the production’s zany set and engaging blocking, not to mention many compelling acting performances. Kai Joseph, CC ’26, played Pentheus with sinister aplomb, while Eden Johnson, CC ’25, gave the role of Agaue a startling gravity and depth. 

 

At the same time, however, I struggled to recognize the Bacchae that I had read and loved in class. For one thing, I hadn’t thought of the play as particularly funny when I read it, but in the Columbia production, gags took center stage. I also found the depiction of Pentheus and Agaue’s relationship somewhat uncompelling, due to the incorporation of some new lines in the script which make Agaue more sympathetic at the expense of turning Pentheus into a horrifying, mother-abusing monster. Joseph’s villainous portrayal of Pentheus was so successful that by the time he was swarmed by the chorus in the play’s climax (with papier-mâché body parts flying into the air), it was difficult to have any sympathy for him whatsoever. 

 

A few days later, I sat down with Workman. Right away, she disabused me of the notion that Bacchae is exclusively a tragedy. “Comedy is absolutely baked into the play,” she told me. Talking about Dionysus, she noted that “for him, all the events in the play are comic.” In fact, as it was originally staged, the actor playing Dionysus would have worn the smiling mask that’s now a symbol of comedy. Talking to Bohn further convinced me that the play’s comedic elements had emerged from the text itself. “There was no intentional thought that we needed to play up the funny parts,” she explained. “It just naturally happened.” She herself saw it as “the saddest play in the world,” and it was only through directing it that she realized that it was “deeply hilarious too.”

 

Speaking with Bohn also made me more sympathetic to her approach to Pentheus—I agreed with her that the role of Agaue had been unfairly glossed over in the past, and that modern productions of the play should try to do her character justice. Yet I still wasn’t quite convinced that turning Pentheus into an abusive and antagonistic cad was the right directorial choice, given the ambiguity of his role in the play’s text. 


Regardless of textual quibbles, I think that in performing Bacchae on a college campus, Bohn and her team did essential work. As Workman told me, “Most people have had some kind of Dionysiac experience, maybe or even especially at age eighteen.” College, as we all know, is a morass of ecstatic experiences, unorthodox gender politics, and moments of unmitigated terror. It makes sense, then, that in reading and performing Bacchae we see reflections of ourselves. In those sublime moments of self-recognition, past and present become one and we all want to dance for the god.

Blue Note

The Gaps in the Record

Who gets to tell their story, and what do they get to say? 

By Muni Suleiman

From griots to gossip and Homer to hearsay, you come from a long line of stories that contour your perceptions now. As a field of study, oral history has often acted as a critical intervention, recording and valuing the lives of peoples ignored by traditional historians. From individual and diverse perspectives, oral historians take these threads of life to recall and reinterpret our broader social fabric.

 

Record-keeping and memory-making were never stable art forms. Hoping to diversify modes of historical documentation and protect existing written records threatened by new technologies, history professor Allan Nevins founded the Columbia Oral History Research Office in 1948.

As the first institutional home for oral history in the world, Nevins’ Oral History Research Office eventually flowered into the Columbia Center for Oral History Research, the Oral History archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and the Master of Arts in Oral History, the only program of its kind in the nation. CCOHR boasts “over 20,000 hours of recorded and transcribed interviews,” which include Black entertainers narrating the Apollo Theater’s legacy, a memory archive about the Covid pandemic from 200 New Yorkers, and an oral history of Nevins himself.

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While oral history as a practice relies on technology—the emergence of consumer tape recorders facilitated much early oral history—new developments in artificial intelligence, such as the potential for chatbots to replace human interviewers, threaten the very humanity that motivates the field. Through a public programming series titled “Experiments in Oral History Methodology,” OHMA attempts to answer these questions about oral history’s maintenance and innovation. Some of the program’s recent alumni and other esteemed oral historians are introducing AI to categorize oral histories, or exploring how oral history can chart rapid, climate crisis-induced changes in Indigenous lands. 

 

As an observer and occasional experiment participant, I was recently compelled by the inclusion of the Brodsky award–winning work of Rebecca Kiil, GSAS ’23, in developing “fantasy oral history.” Per OHMA, this “genre of speculative oral history that focuses on the past” imagines and reconciles questions from the past that can never be “factually” answered.

 

Kiil’s work addresses the narrative silences within her family’s experiences during World War II. Kiil’s great-uncle and great-grandfather were disappeared during the first Soviet occupation of Estonia. Then, during the second Soviet occupation of Estonia in September 1944, the women on Kiil’s maternal side of the family were separated from her maternal grandfather, Harald Tuul, as they fled the country. 

 

Realizing that he would not be able to catch up with his family, Tuul, an army physician, discarded his identity papers and fled to Finland, where he was forced into Soviet custody and sent to a Siberian labor camp. Tuul wrote everything down in his diary until he was taken into Soviet custody, the reason that this part of the story remains. Yet it is necessarily incomplete after disappearances and generations of stories withheld. 

 

Over seven years, Kiil’s grandmother, in her 90s, uncovered these family histories. Conducting 11 formal and numerous informal interviews with her grandmother and other relatives, Kiil eventually developed her fantasy oral history. With her ‘grandmother’, ‘Tuul,’ and other absent relatives played by current members of her family, the fantasy oral history took the form of a staged, family conversation “set” in Estonia to bridge the gaps in the family story and give voice to Kiil’s family across generations. 

 

Kiil was once “angry as a proxy for her grandmother’s pain”—she now had a space for forgiveness where she could offload the many questions and stories that she once held alone. She also fulfilled her “one hope … through this whole project … to be able to hear [her] grandfather’s voice.”

 

After Kiil’s family read excerpts from the oral history, Kiil asked viewers to interrogate the silences within their family narratives; many of the silences shared were also instigated by grief and sociopolitical violence. It is mind-shifting to consider gaps in family histories as silences instead of impenetrable mysteries. One participant even recognized that their great-grandparents’ experiences during Japanese-American internment remained a family mystery even after they were released, haunting the way they envision incarceration today.

 

Kiil admitted that her archival work, family interviews, diary readings, photo albums, and memories “flowed” through her as she wrote Tuul’s answers to her family’s questions. “When I asked my last question and put down the pen that night, I felt as though Harald himself had connected all the dots for me and for us,” Kiil explained. “Logically in my brain, I knew that I had answered the questions. But my body couldn’t tell the difference, and my body felt at peace when I was finished.” 

 

As much as it is necessary to remember the truth of past events, the ways in which people interpret the past through oral history are just as, if not more, meaningful. It is important that memory is understood as a way of reconceiving and reconciling the past, impacted by their personal and external contexts. This is especially the case when the oral historian is an active character within said histories. Their own experiences and positionality inevitably color their methodology, too. Simply put, oral history is both what happened to someone in the past and how they make sense of it in the present. 

 

Oral history as a field wields a tremendous power to bring presence to absence, platforming the voices most intertwined with their subject of analysis. As reflected in Kiil’s “fantasy oral history,” it is also necessary to grapple with deliberate silencing and resistant vocalization, especially in the realm of sociopolitical violence. With temporal or geographical distance from those voices, the challenge grows in understanding the stories, why they are told, and what is and isn’t being said. Yet, perhaps through creative oral history practices and emerging technologies, temporal and geographic distance as hindrances to understanding and sharing stories seems to be closing.

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Essays

Literary Afterlives of the 20th Century

Reading Roberto Bolaño in New York City.

By Maya Lerman

“Drink up, boys, drink up and don’t worry, if we finish this bottle we’ll go down and buy another one. Of course, it won’t be the same as the one we’ve got now, but it’ll still be better than nothing. Ah, what a shame they don’t make Los Suicidas mezcal anymore, what a shame that time passes, don’t you think? what a shame that we die, and get old, and everything good goes galloping away from us.” — The Savage Detectives

 

Reading for fun as a full-time student is hard. Books are displaced by the constant stream of barely legible academic PDFs, gargantuan library tomes, and that nagging feeling that you’re never doing quite enough with your time. Living in New York City has forced me to be picky with my reading choices—to favor the short, the punchy, and the relevant. The Savage Detectives was my exception: Written in the 1990s and set in the ’70s, Roberto Bolaño’s 650-page novel was not the easiest sell, but after a lively pitch from a bookseller on Broadway, I was convinced.

 

The Savage Detectives is a novel in three parts. Part one is told from the perspective of Juan Garcia Madero, a teenage poet who falls in with the bohemian “Visceral Realists” led by Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, a vibrant duo of literary rebels. Garcia Madero’s experience with Visceral Realism is alive with passion; he finds himself instantly intoxicated by the air of possibility and youthfulness that Belano and Lima introduce to his life. This idyllic period is ultimately ephemeral, as the looming threat of violence from corrupt police and possessive pimps forces the group to disband. 

 

Many have speculated about the autofictional elements of Bolaño’s work. The enigmatic figure of Belano, who is central to The Savage Detectives, appears in multiple other stories and is widely considered to be an authorial insert. Like his characters, Bolaño founded an obscure poetic movement of his own, which launched his lifelong interest in writers and their legacies. 

 

With each section I read between classes or on subway commutes, The Savage Detectives became my escape. Through the endless potential of Bolaño’s autofictional youths, I lived vicariously, my infatuation building as I became increasingly immersed in their incessantly exciting lives. It was one of those rare works that made me want to put pen to paper—not because I was inspired by Bolaño’s technical talent alone, but because I was utterly enchanted by the undying convictions of the Visceral Realists. They fully embodied their literary ambitions, sustained only by their sheer dedication to poetry.

 

It was fitting, then, when I learned of Bolaño’s obsession with another, real-life literary group that got their start here at Columbia: the famous Beat Generation. Throughout his life, and particularly during the decade that he wrote The Savage Detectives, Bolaño commented on the work of William S. Burroughs and even translated Jack Kerouac into Spanish—two figures who spent their young adult lives in Morningside Heights developing their poetic talent. Given Bolaño’s tendency towards thinly veiled autofiction, I cannot help but wonder if he may have modeled his Visceral Realists after the Beatniks, drawing inspiration from their countercultural ambitions and contagious camaraderie. I am also reminded of Bolaño’s preoccupation with place, which itself makes for compelling parallels: a quintessentially Latin American author whose work captures the unique revolutionary spirit of his homeland, perhaps drawing inspiration from the Beat authors, who are quintessentially American and quintessentially New York. 

 

The legacy of the Beats looms over Columbia, their personal letters displayed in Butler and their names boasted on lists of famous alumni. Understandably, the story of one of their closest friends committing a murder in Riverside Park is less widely celebrated. Lucien Carr—a close friend of Kerouac, Burroughs, and others—killed his much older acquaintance, David Kammerer, after the latter made a romantic advance. Carr then dumped Kammerer’s body into the Hudson, turning himself in to the police shortly after. What followed was a sensationalized investigation involving Carr’s group of friends, an event that many consider to be formative in launching the nonconformist and innovative Beat Generation as we know it today. 

 

While there’s no evidence Bolaño knew of Kammerer’s murder, I have no doubt it would have fascinated him. Bolaño was an author obsessed with the complex relationship between writing and violence that exists on the border between the fictional and, if I may borrow from Belano and Lima, the viscerally real. This materializes fully in part three of The Savage Detectives, entitled “The Deserts of Sonora,” which takes place immediately after part one and sees Garcia Madero return as the narrator. In the novel’s final moments, Garcia Madero recounts the ultimate confrontation between the Visceral Realists and their pursuers—one which culminates in an accidental murder that forces Lima and Belano into exile. 

 

The resemblance to Carr’s story is striking. While that fateful night in Riverside Park ultimately launched the Beats into literary stardom, Carr—after serving a short prison sentence—faded into relative obscurity. So too did Belano and Lima: The novel’s second portion takes place years after the demise of Visceral Realism and their subsequent disappearance from public consciousness. This section is told from the fragmented perspectives of people across the world who recall their brief yet powerful encounters with Belano and Lima during their time in the shadows.   

 

As though his writing was prophetic, Bolaño’s legacy also faces the threat of invisibility that befell his alter ego: Twenty years removed from his death, pages and pages of his work remain hidden, kept private by his widow, Carolina López, who finds it too painful to return to her late husband’s writings. As long as the archive is kept closed, the chances of a biography are slim. 

 

There is an implication of agency assumed by the phrase “literary movement,” as if those who launch them are somehow “literary movers.” Contrary to this perceived agency, what Bolaño seemed most interested in when writing The Savage Detectives, and what struck me most about the novel, was the utter lack of control his young writers have over their work, their lives, and their afterlives. In Bolaño’s writing and in the lives of the characters he designs, the material forces of time and tragedy wear away the legacy of the written word. As the writers behind these words erode too, I cannot help but wonder what fate we younger writers face. Where will our entanglements with the city and its ideas leave us? How long will our invented words hold relevance? Visceral Realism fades, Bolaño doesn’t get a biography, the world moves on. Are these losses to be mourned? 


These musings accompany living and reading in New York City, a place haunted by the presence of literary ghosts. I feel nostalgic for a life I’ve never experienced reading letters from the Beats. I sense the presence of Carr and Kammerer while on walks in Riverside Park, a site tainted by the legacy of a Columbia student’s generation-defining decision. Like the tapestry of characters in part two of The Savage Detectives, I am constantly brushing up against the remnants of complex legacies, existing adjacent to movements of the past, present, and even future, with only a glimpse of my place in the overarching narrative. It’s a perspective that may seem bleak, perhaps even fatalistic. But, if I’ve learned anything from Bolaño, the Beats, and the ceaseless tide of New York intellectual life, it’s to cherish my time in this place—this moment of exhilarating uncertainty and fleeting youth—without dwelling on perpetuity.

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Illustration by Selin Ho

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Essays

Pedagogy of the Privileged

By Sofia Pirri

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Illustration by Jacqueline Subkhanberdina

A blown-up image of Sofonisba Anguissola’s self-portrait illuminates the dark classroom. I squint up at the screen, ignoring the slight glare caused by a beam of light peeking from below the pulled blinds. “What do you observe about this work?” asks my Art Humanities professor. She waits. We stare wordlessly into Sofonisba’s large, round eyes. 

 

It is a silence most of us know well. A professor breaks up their lecture by posing the class a broad question designed to keep us engaged. Sometimes, the usual eager suspects contribute their answers, and the rest of us are mercifully saved. Often, the awkward pause grows until it settles into a damp blanket of quiet from which it is difficult to emerge. 

 

What made my experience in Art Humanities feel particularly discouraging was that even when students mustered the strength to share their observations, every answer was met with the same vaguely affirming remark. Every so often, a student’s guess at the meaning of a motif—a wheel of cheese in a vanitas painting, for example—would differ dramatically from the analysis provided by the required reading—a symbol of prosperity brought by the flourishing Dutch trade—but the professor treated it as a viable interpretation rather than correcting the inaccuracy. 

 

I soon found myself questioning the effectiveness of discussion-based classes in general. I walked into Art Humanities having taken AP Art History in high school and having admired 17th-century art during childhood trips to the Norton Simon Museum. Many of my peers did not. Students at Columbia, particularly in core classes, come to the classroom from vastly different backgrounds. Professors should not assume that everyone has the experience or vocabulary to feel comfortable participating in such an open discussion. I may remember enough about Rachel Ruysch to contribute to a conversation about the vanitas genre, but some students may hear that contribution and slink back, fearing not only that they have nothing to say but that they would not know how to say it if they did. 

 

My intellectual preparation for seminars like these began early at a progressive college preparatory high school in West Los Angeles. There were frequent school-wide assemblies in our small but pristine gymnasium about “fostering an inclusive community” and “ensuring that everybody’s voices are heard.” This fuzzy atmosphere of social justice extended to pedagogy as well—as an elected student-faculty liaison, I learned that faculty were inundated with meetings and professional development workshops aimed at making the classroom a more nurturing, equitable space. 

 

The emphasis on inclusivity was not inherently misguided, but it was distorted among my peers—–the vast majority of whom were white and staggeringly wealthy. Efforts to make the classroom accessible for students of diverse backgrounds translated into cultivating an environment in which student comfort, as determined by the largely privileged students themselves, was the unquestionable priority. In practice, this meant minimal penalization for late work, never-ending extensions on assignments, and constant acquiescence to students’ furious contestations of their grades. (The situation was only reinforced by the school’s obsession with increasing enrollment and endowment). Students railed against teachers for asking them to complete homework on time, then complained that they weren’t learning anything in class and paid thousands of dollars for outside tutoring. Having come from a huge public school—and a completely different tax bracket—this behavior was baffling.

 

Social justice became a progressive buzzword, with the true concept co-opted to facilitate a comfortable environment for privileged students. In the 1960s and ’70s, active learning methods rose in popularity as “activists in the civil rights, Black liberation, antiwar, and women’s movements understood education as a key battleground for transforming an unjust society,” argues SUNY professor Danica Savonick. In his foundational text, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian decolonization theorist Paulo Freire argues that the traditional model of education—–in which teachers recite facts and ideas while students passively memorize—is a tool of the oppressed. Instead, he favors a model in which students and teachers engage in equitable dialogue, resulting in both better learning and the dismantling of systems of oppression. 

 

This radical methodology resurfaces in contemporary discourse on education. It has recently been repackaged by educators Cathy N. Davidson and Christina Katopodis in their 2022 book The New College Classroom. Advocating for strategies like “think-pair-share,” when students share ideas with a partner before sharing with the class, and co-creating a syllabus with students, the book has become a popular manual for professors trying to navigate post-pandemic education. Studies consistently prove that an active learning approach both increases general student performance as well as narrows student achievement gaps. One study from CBE found that active learning interventions “worked disproportionately well for Black students—halving the Blackwhite achievement gap—and first-generation students—closing the achievement gap with continuing-generation students.” 

 

For some time now, active learning has been popularized as a solution to widening educational disparities as well as growing student malaise. But some scholars have begun to question its implications—and not just conservatives bemoaning the supposed influence of identity politics in education. This past January, English professor and Marxist cultural critic Anna Kornbluh published Immediacy, or The Style of Too Late Capitalism. 

 

For Kornbluh, the rise of student-centered learning both perpetuates and is symptomatic of the broader societal problem of “immediacy”: an aesthetic of realness, transparency, and instantaneity demanded by twenty-first-century globalized capitalism. She connects the boom of literary auto-emissions (memoir, auto-fiction, self-published work) with MFA workshops and freshman year writing seminars, which, according to her, privilege voice-centered and reflective writing. She believes that keeping students engaged by making course material immediately and personally relevant is done at the expense of learning the actual subject matter. The “egalitarian register” of the student-centered learning approach feels, in some respects, like a marketing technique. Is the ubiquitous call for centering student experience and ideas just an attempt to sell education rather than provide students with effective instruction?

 

Criticism of student-centered learning comes from other sources as well. Recently, bitter debates over literacy education in elementary schools have turned public opinion against the once-popular progressive curriculum called balanced literacy. Columbia Teachers College professor Dr. Lucy Calkins has become the figurehead of the movement, and her group, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP), designed a balanced literacy curriculum adopted by public schools nationwide. Their philosophy models itself on university-level writing workshops, teaching various strategies for learning to read and emphasizing critical engagement with books from an early age. TCRWP seeks to cultivate not just literacy, but a love of and deep engagement with reading.

 

This fall, after 36 years of curriculum development and teacher training, TCRWP was dissolved. The change comes after years of vitriolic pushback on her program, with parents and education researchers claiming that her curriculum does not incorporate enough phonics, the literacy strategy that teaches children to read by associating letters with their sounds. Criticisms of Calkins’ methods abound in The New York Times, Slate, and Forbes. A particularly scathing New Yorker article denounces the balanced literacy movement as “vibes-based literacy.” In May 2023, New York City schools dropped TCRWP’s curriculum, and several other districts have done the same. 

 

As an elementary school teacher, reading coach, and literacy specialist, my mother has spent years working with TCRWP’s program. She agrees that the curriculum’s biggest weakness is its limited phonics component, particularly before it was revised in 2016, but claims that it has otherwise been incredibly effective in her classroom. The key not only to engagement but to learning, my mother explains to me over the phone, is giving students multiple access points. Not every student will  get a concept from the same strategy, so you have to value different ways of learning. Balanced literacy’s strength lies in its ability to provide students these multiple access points–via phonics as well as other reading strategies. 

 

Critics of balanced literacy cite its supposed utter absence of phonics in favor of “guessing” strategies: Via “picture power,” children learn to deduce an unfamiliar word from an accompanying image, while via “snap word power,” children learn to recall frequently used words on sight. The author of the New Yorker article was horrified to find her kindergarten-age daughter using these strategies to make sense of the word “butterfly” instead of sounding it out phonetically: “bih-uh-tih.” What many parents do not realize, however, is that phonics is more complicated than matching letters to corresponding sounds. Letters change sounds depending on the other letters around them, and young readers familiar with the basics of phonics will still rarely be able to grasp words solely by sounding them out. Non-phonetic strategies like “picture power” give students other means of identifying a word when phonics inevitably fails. 

 

When The New York Times published a front-page feature in 2022 about the national shift away from Calkins’ balanced literacy program, many educators wrote letters contesting the depiction of TCRWP. One former teacher, principal, and superintendent in the New York City school system criticized the binary approach that has characterized the so-called “reading wars.” “Well-meaning parents and uninformed policymakers must not jump to an either/or curriculum,” she wrote. “Both a phonics program and a balanced literacy program are crucial for reading and writing success.” 

 

Including strong phonics education is particularly important when it comes to narrowing the achievement gap. The most justifiable criticism of balanced literacy is that it works better for students from high-literacy homes than from low-literacy homes. In my mother’s classroom, the children who need additional phonics instruction are unsurprisingly those who did not go to preschool. She is able to supplement her lessons with more phonics for those who need it, but this kind of differentiation is difficult to implement for our nation’s overextended public educators. A predominant curriculum should thus include a greater emphasis on phonics in the first place, and this was TCRWP’s critical issue. But the curriculum has its merits too, and its weakness regarding phonics is not cause to abandon balanced literacy entirely.  

 

Similarly, in higher level education, balance is key. Just as rigorous phonics instruction provides a crucial foundation for balanced literacy’s more engaging methods, basic instruction in the university classroom is necessary to ensure the efficacy and equitability of student-centered practices. The achievement gap does not disappear miraculously in college. Conducting a seminar under the assumption that every student can participate equally in discussion does a disservice both to students who feel their lack of experience or knowledge prohibits them from participating and to those who miss out on the opportunity to hear from their classmates. Professors can add structure to active learning methods by including the nitty-gritty of course material—–be it critical theory, mundane historical fact, or literal vocabulary— –and by more actively facilitating student engagement (yes, sometimes students are wrong, and that is okay). This structure gives every student a jumping-off point for participation, not just those who come to the class with prior content knowledge. 

 

Last semester, I took a senior seminar that incorporated the active-learning tactic of a flipped syllabus—–students chose the reading for each week and led a discussion on their selected texts. The result was mildly disastrous. Nobody ever did the reading, and each week’s discussion leader had to contend with discouraging and unrelenting silence. Outside of class, we would comment on how ridiculous it was to put on the farce of participation. In one seminar toward the end of term, my professor led an impromptu lesson, leading us to connect the ideological threads of past discussions. He waxed poetic about Marx’s critique of ideology, the forms of the real, and Deleuze’s portrait of Foucault, even drawing his own version on the whiteboard, glasses and all. Students’ eyes began to light up. Heads nodded vigorously. Discussion afterward grew infinitely more rich—–we now had a framework to analyze the texts that had previously left us stumped. 

 

I resist Kornbluh’s cynical take on the rise of student-centered pedagogy. Instead of attacking the pedagogy itself, we should criticize how it has been co-opted to create a false sense of equity in the classroom while alienating those whom it supposedly benefits. We must be more patient than we were with Lucy Calkins. Before denouncing active learning on the whole, let us make sure it is implemented correctly. If not, educators run the risk of corrupting a liberatory methodology, leaving it vulnerable to demonization by the very oppressive and hierarchical institutions it is designed to dismantle.

Measure for Measure

Untitled

By Kate Sibery

I had been looking for a hole in the ocean—

so I decided to walk over to the East River

but when I got there

every person I’d ever known

had gathered to yell at the clouds 

who just hung there

indifferent, and waiting

to fall down as rain

while I, distracted by the people 

and the yelling, 

gave up my search for the ocean

and took up my part in the chorus

singing away the threat of meaning, 

choosing instead that hollow ache,

dull, and wordless.

Phoebe_poem.heic

Illustration Phoebe Wagoner

Campus Characters

Casey Rogerson

By Victor Omojola

 

That quip was made roughly two years ago, during a short interview for the cast bio that I wrote for the show’s program. It was also a time when Casey and I lived mere feet away from each other. In our more recent chat, Casey stressed the sentiment (which I share) that living together was an early highlight of our college careers. Placed randomly into a Carlton suite as a consequence of our dismal lottery numbers, Casey and I (and the 14 other students in the suite) somehow still seemed to have lucked out: Despite not knowing one another upon entry, Carlton 6A became extremely close. 

 

There was rarely a night the lounge wasn’t hosting an Oscars watch party (Casey’s initiative), a craft-making night, or just having casual conversation. Our majors were as disparate as electrical engineering and art history; our extracurriculars ranged from theater to race car building; our hometowns were as distant as Portland, Oregon and Kingston, Jamaica; and yet, somehow, as Casey and I agreed, “we all liked each other.” For Casey, the suite “was home and is home in some ways. Whenever I see anybody in that suite … there’s something so special that we share. And I think that having that foundation has made my time here so much better.” (He wasn’t exaggerating by the way: About twenty minutes into our interview, Dan, who lived in one of the rooms between Casey and me, passed by. The three of us chatted briefly and made plans to catch up before the interview resumed).) 

 

The sense of community that Casey speaks of—and played a large part in cultivating in Carlton– is present in most of his Columbia endeavors. He speaks fondly of the theater community, for example: “It’s like a giant extended family and then there’s like mini families within it,” he said. “Varsity has kind of become my mini family.”

 

Indeed, it is hard to overstate just how much of Casey’s time at Columbia has been dedicated to creating the yearly event that is the Varsity Show. As a senior this year, he finds himself as its co-writer for the first time, alongside Julian Gerber, CC ’24. After he and Gerber created an outline for the script, the pair and the rest of V130’s creative team embarked on a retreat in the Poconos where everybody helped “fill it out.” When Casey and Gerber returned, they started writing. Despite my best efforts, Casey was secretive about the contents of this year’s show. Without disclosing any plot details, he said that the goal is for V130 to be a “celebration” of sorts, three years on from the pandemic during which “the tradition could have died” but didn’t.

 

Along with creative writing, Casey majors in film and media studies. In Carlton, we often bonded over our mutual love for the movies as well as our mutual curiosity, for lack of a better word, regarding the film major at Columbia. I made sure to probe him once more on the well-documented academic orientation of Columbia’s undergraduate film program. “I’ve learned a ton from the film program here, but I have not learned how to operate a camera,” Casey half-joked. For someone like himself, who is just as interested in making movies as he is in theorizing about them, proactivity is key. Casey has learned to make connections with those who are better versed in certain areas of production. “Just stay near them,” he told me.

 

Casey did just this when it came time to make his first short film, Terroir, this past fall. In addition to Columbia students, he enlisted the help of gaffers from NYU and a director of photography that he used to intern for. The short, currently in post-production, follows a group of friends on a haunted wine tasting tour. It’s an homage to the 90s slasher, which Casey claims was rivaled only by musical theater as his favorite genre growing up. “I feel like in elementary school you were only cool if you had seen scary movies,” he told me, chuckling.

 

Some of Terroir’s cast and crew are also members of Third Wheel improv. After getting cut from the group following an initial audition during his sophomore year, Casey tried out again and “by some miracle” got accepted into the famously eccentric troupe. He, again, emphasized the comradery he has gained through his time with the improv collective. “Like the Carlton community or like the Varsity community, having Third Wheel as a sort of anchor for me has been huge.” 

 

 

I find writing about creatives quite difficult, largely because I question how much of my own perspective to bring into the piece. On the one hand, I greatly desire for any profile to prioritize encapsulating the essence of whom I am profiling. On the other, however, a great artist often pulls you into their world in ways that are hard to simply disregard. When I’ve written such profiles for this magazine in the past, I’ve debated the issue internally before ultimately finding it impossible not to insert myself. 

 

For Casey, no such debate was necessary. Too much about the man as an artist and as a person begs you to engage. Our hour or so spent together in preparation for this piece re-illuminated this fact about him, reminding me of our Carlton days. 

 

Nowadays, Casey and I don’t share a suite, but we do live just a floor apart in East Campus. A couple of weeks ago, we walked together from our dorm to the Joe Coffee in Dodge, asking each other questions and catching up before I began to conduct my structured interview. Even as the official inquisition commenced (and after it concluded), Casey continued to bounce questions back at me. His face lit up as he recalled our suite in Carlton and expressed how much he hopes to all reconvene soon. He spoke at length about how grateful he is for the communities he has been welcomed into at Columbia: Varsity Show, Third Wheel, Carlton. As we spoke, however, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that it is he who is the common denominator among all of these welcoming spaces. As much of a mark as Casey’s creative chops have made on the Columbia theater scene and its adjacent communities, I get the feeling that the ultimate mark he has made in Morningside Heights has more to do with his ability to make a space feel warm. That, and the Bollinger wig.

Jorja_CaseyCampusCharacter.png

Casey Rogerson, CC ’24, doesn’t really work alone. This is not to say that the Bucks County-bred, Lee Bollinger-tethered, self-proclaimed (though perhaps reluctantly admitted) theater kid is not capable of creating art by himself. However, for Casey, the best part of acting, writing, and directing is getting to collaborate with others. A creative environment in which “everybody’s doing something different” is where he feels “most alive.”

 

Casey is a major fixture of the acting scene on campus. He has starred in numerous student plays, is a member of Third Wheel Improv, and is—perhaps most famously—a two-time Varsity Show cast member. Last year in the 129th production of the show, Casey played Wilder, a fictional Columbia freshman; the year before that, he embodied Prezbo himself, ridiculous hair and all. In the weeks leading up to his taking on the latter role, Casey explained that it was “really hard for me to shake him after rehearsal.”

Illustration by Jorja Garcia

Campus Characters

Mariah Barrera

By Shreya Khullar

Em_MariahCampusCharacter.JPG

A young girl, armed with a camera and a red baseball cap, marches through a gentrified world. Her walk is split between neighborhoods in various states of disrepair and areas of shiny new development. Upon encountering a sign that reads “DANGER AHEAD,” she promptly, almost casually, rips it off its post. A violin concerto plays in the background. 

 

Through the eyes of this child, Mariah Barrera, CC ʼ24, illuminates the devastating effects of gentrification in her 2018 short film, “A Southside Journey.” After confidently tearing down several other warning signs and tossing them to the ground, the film ends with the young girl facing an obstacle there seems to be no way to combat: an eviction notice plastered on her own front door. 

Illustration by Em Bennett

A young girl, armed with a camera and a red baseball cap, marches through a gentrified world. Her walk is split between neighborhoods in various states of disrepair and areas of shiny new development. Upon encountering a sign that reads “DANGER AHEAD,” she promptly, almost casually, rips it off its post. A violin concerto plays in the background. 

 

Through the eyes of this child, Mariah Barrera, CC ʼ24, illuminates the devastating effects of gentrification in her 2018 short film, “A Southside Journey.” After confidently tearing down several other warning signs and tossing them to the ground, the film ends with the young girl facing an obstacle there seems to be no way to combat: an eviction notice plastered on her own front door. 

 

The pains afflicting this protagonist directly mirror ones that Barrera and her communities in Saginaw and Grand Rapids, Michigan, have braved. “A lot of the things that people probably see in movies is what my real life was,” Barrera said. “Gun violence was very normal. Drug abuse and selling was very normal.” But as she grew older, Barrera realized that the hypervigilance spurred by a turbulent childhood was, in fact, not the norm for most of her peers. 

 

Now, the community she comes from and the experiences she has faced are the inspiration for her films. The inherent wonder, confidence, and innocence of children have become valuable conduits for her stories, especially to those unfamiliar with the circumstances in which Barrera was raised. “It’s all about children being at odds with their environment. That’s really what the core of what my whole upbringing was. A young child will always be at odds with an environment that’s unstable, that’s unsafe, that’s scary.” The heart of her films rests on this juxtaposition; pulling viewers into this perspective is integral to her mission of humanizing families who are affected by poverty, violence, and drug abuse. 

 

Barrera recognizes, though, that these issues are not monolithic. They manifest in different ways, hinging on the particularities of the location—for her, namely, the urban Midwest. Her narratives are seeped in the details of her life in the Midwest and of her hometown in particular. The reasons for this are twofold: “Distinctive voices from the Midwest are so underrepresented,” she explained. More specifically, being a Latina from the Midwest can mean you are not represented at all. Exclusivity and the inextricability of the narrative from the location has led Barrera to elevate the importance of the Midwest in her stories. The “gritty inner city” functions almost as a character in the story, shifting forms and influencing the people interacting with it. “The residue of every story that I wanna tell is there on the ground in Michigan,” she explained. 

 

However, these films began as a form of escapism from this reality. Her beginnings as a filmmaker was as a young girl holding a camcorder, conducting “The Mariah Show,” an at-home talk show she hosted with her father and cousins. Continuing to make home videos, Barrera fully immersed herself in the filmmaking process, performing the role of writer, director, and cinematographer simultaneously. 

 

Though Barrera is the artist behind the camera, she also enlists the help of her family when producing her films. Since the narratives follow people in her community, Barrera asks herself how everyone collectively contributes to her stories. Because of this, a primary goal for Barrera is to depict individuals through a kind of radical representative lens instead of shoehorning people’s stories into the construct of “positive representation.” 

 

Rather than tell stories specifically designed to undo media stereotypes, Barrera wants to focus on stories that reflect people’s human experiences. “Ultimately, I think when you are focusing on exceptional stories, you’re still perpetuating a myth that our stories are only worth telling if they're exceptional … And so I think for me, as someone who comes from those experiences that people might see as stereotypical, I don’t wanna feel like I have to shy away from those, 'cause it’s my real life.”

 

Alongside these memories, Barrera’s favorite artists and writers also sow the seeds of her inspiration. She listens to playlists of Kanye, J. Cole, and Brockhampton as she puts pen to paper, mapping out visuals and voiceover. The written word is the genesis of each of Barrera’s films. She incorporates elements of lyricism and poetry she learned from her father when creating a script. Each scene is imbued with a sense of rhythm and meter. With film as her medium, Barrera’s niche interests and proclivities combine to form a coherent whole. The beauty of film, she believes, comes from its colorful marriage of all the disparate art forms that interest her. 

 

Her poetic sensibility can be seen clearly in her more recent film, “My Brother’s Keeper” (2020). The viewers see an array of family photos and video clips as a voiceover plays in the background, reciting lines like “It shouldn’t have to take eloquently written prose for the lives of brothers like mine to be humanized.” In the film, Barrera points the finger at all of us—all the viewers, internet browsers, and film festival goers—to raise awareness of the effects of incarceration on families and individual psychologies. 

 

Barrera’s films take the form of experimental documentaries, a genre that is particularly equipped to carry out her vision. The camera movement and intertwining of poetry, film, and music suggest an artist breaking out of the confines of traditional filmmaking. She is interested in narrative but feels the revered three-act structure and hero’s journey don’t coincide with the stories she’s interested in telling. “Traditional filmmaking … has served to tell traditional stories very well. If I’m telling a non-traditional story, I think [it needs to be told through] non-traditional ways of filmmaking. I think it'd be a disservice to these types of stories that I wanna tell to try and put them in this traditional container.” 

 

Through her studies as a film major at Columbia, Barrera has been immersed in theory, and though she finds the tools learned from her coursework beneficial, they are just that: tools. Rejecting strictly linear narratives, Barrera doesn’t want theory to dictate the trajectory of her projects. “I started falling into that,” she reflected. “To over-intellectualize your practice, to over-intellectualize what you do, over-theorize, get so heady that you’re forgetting that in everything you make, the heart is what resonates with people. That’s the core of a story.” 

 

Though the industry still places an emphasis on a very “cut and dry” model of filmmaking, there are filmmakers working to challenge the status quo and make the documentary an avenue for non-traditional stories to blossom. “And I’m up for the challenge,” Barrera asserted.

 

She believes this revolutionary space for storytelling will keep opening up for filmmakers to tap into its vitality; Her own innovative zeal has already brought her much accolade. Barrera’s films have been shown at several festivals, including the HBO-founded Urbanworld and the Cleveland International Film Festival, and she has been recognized as a YoungArts Alumna and Still I Rise Film Fellow. Her latest film, “Still Here” (2024), has finished its festival run and will be released in the spring through Still I Rise Films. At her core, Barrera is still that young explorer at the beginning of “A Southside Journey”: a pioneer marching through the world, tearing down all the stops.  

Ben_Centerfold.PNG

Centerfold by Ben Fu

Features

Where Windows Gaze at Walls

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Grove.

By Sam Hosmer

At twilight on a partly cloudy day, climb six Low Steps and turn around so that scars of vivid sunset cast Alma Mater’s crown into silhouette and shade Butler and South Lawn with violet. This is Columbia’s brand identity.

 

We relish it. It fills our camera rolls and frames our Instagram stories. In hospitable weather, we crowd the lawns encircled by limestone and brick. Administrators confer degrees flanked by time-weathered balustrades and Low’s 10 stately columns. During those moments when we feel grateful to be here, campus is the shape of our pride; when the institution lets us down, it is the environment for our frustrations. 

But then, this was always the point. In Mastering McKim’s Plan, Columbia art history professor Barry Bergdoll argues that “architecture was both a vital tool in Columbia’s reinvention of itself as an urban research university and a reflection of the trustees’ new determination to abandon years of ad hoc problem solving.” As University president Seth Low and architect Charles Follen McKim began to formulate campus’s first architectural principles in the late 19th century, they established the materials, scales, and symmetries that would become the University’s institutional face.

Illustration by Emma Finkelstein

Today, the results seem to speak for themselves: Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus is an internationally recognized landmark—the school’s website and emails are anchored by images of its buildings and idyllic lawns; Alma Mater caps the walls of the 116th St. subway station and stares imperiously away from our names on our student IDs. Some 130 years after Low and McKim turned to architecture to define Columbia University, that architecture is among its most valuable assets.

 

But the surfaces and structures of campus are not as consistent as these vignettes would have you believe. As anyone who has spent time here knows, as you move north, past the walls of craggy concrete that cast the staircase of Dodge Fitness Center into shadow, the aesthetic, so unified and resolute just moments ago, seems to fray. The ground underfoot changes from herringbone brick to long strips of utilitarian decking. Entryways become spare and walkways claustrophobic. Above-ground vestibules, humming with machinery, squat beside exhaust pipes that belch clouds of steam. It is a stark change.

 

And then, in two areas to the east and west, this elevated level of campus simply ends.

 

One of these chasms is behind Schermerhorn Hall, and the other is behind Havemeyer Hall. Both are guarded by railings that do not invite casual viewership. If you glance over them, you will see people in uniform pushing carts, yelling directions, and commuting from basement to basement on street-level expanses of uninterrupted asphalt. Bulging dumpsters accumulate trash. Every surface, pipe, duct, and doorknob is coated with a thick patina of rugged use. And above all of this, on the incongruously decorative southern walls of each of these spaces, stand rows of monumental windows that gaze only at walls.

 

These two holes in the fabric of campus permit a rebellious view of the “Grove”: a parallel dimension that, although enshrouded by the surfaces and structures above it, underlies all of campus. It chills our water, generates our steam, and coordinates our climate control. Pipes and cables deliver utilities to our buildings through warrens of winding, ragged tunnels. Research chemicals, lab equipment, and other packages arrive here first, later becoming the garbage that fills its dumpsters. And, arising from the Grove’s clandestine garages and workshops, vital members of Columbia’s facilities departments are forever engaged in the rigorous, ad-hoc tasks of cosmetic and mechanical upkeep required to preserve the visual identity McKim and Low invented in 1894. 

 

In addition to yielding a peek behind the scenes, these incidental spaces in North Campus also manifest a dense and layered archaeology, divulged in the form of palimpsests, anachronisms, and windows that gaze at walls. These clues tell the architectural story of Columbia’s century on Morningside Heights, and of how far the University has gone to make things look easy.

 


 

McKim’s plan, though prescriptive in attitude and broad in scale, is perhaps equally defined by how little of it was actually realized. Low Library, the centerpiece of McKim’s design, was roundly criticized by a student body that found it sacrificed function for idealized proportions and symmetries—“‘Library’ Is a Misnomer for Edifice Designed for Benefit of Sightseers,” grouses a 1925 Columbia Spectator editorial—so Butler was built shortly thereafter. Then came the construction of University Hall, an opulent student center McKim envisioned for the space behind Low Library. Columbia’s funding was exhausted after only one floor, rendering it unfinished for five decades. And only one of the many fully surrounded academic courtyards McKim had planned—between Avery, Fayerweather, St. Paul’s Chapel, and Schermerhorn—was ever realized. 

 

But the erosion of his larger vision belies a much more familiar and stubborn set of rules: Buildings would obey a common material palette of granite, red brick, and limestone; central campus would sit on a plinth above the neighborhood; expansive terraces of hardscape would define its vistas and choreograph movement across them. In the century that followed, these core visual hallmarks became canonical.

 

So when new buildings began to deviate more brazenly from that scripture, the dissenting structures gained a reputation among students as canonically ugly. After the Seeley W. Mudd Building was finished as a new home for SEAS in 1961, the Spectator called it “sad,” “repulsive,” and an “irreparable mistake”; when crews broke ground for Uris, students picketed it with signs that read “No More Mudds.” Once it was finished, the Spectator called Uris “an excretion” and “a monumental offense,” concluding that “it should be demolished with all the violence it has committed upon its surroundings.”

 

Curiously, however, even campus’s most apparently heretical 20th-century additions betray the lasting influences of McKim’s original plan. Mudd, long hated for its austerity, is nonetheless clad in red brick and trimmed with granite and a limestone-like material. The Sherman Fairchild Center, which was added to Mudd in 1978, is covered in a screen of large, metallically bordered rectangular panels inset with quarry tiles, abstracting McKim’s bricks and mortar. Even Uris, a building notorious for its seeming rejection of McKim’s aesthetics is—in addition to being clad primarily in limestone—literally built on top of the four-story basement of University Hall. As a result, its library follows the curvature of University Hall’s recognizable rotunda.

 

All of these projects understood the need to express some recognizable aspect of the brand identity, even if practical requirements or restrictions made them defy other parts of it. Thus McKim’s scriptures had relaxed into a handbook of superficial aesthetic choices. But as each building began to impose its own interpretation of that visual identity, inconsistencies emerged.


 

 

There are a few ways to enter the depths of North Campus, in which all those monumental windows gaze at walls. On Broadway and Amsterdam, two entrances, used by trucks and service vehicles, access it directly. These are monitored by security guards and aren’t always available to pedestrians. Otherwise, it is easiest to get there through back doors in the basements of Havemeyer and Schermerhorn, beyond which the stenciled lettering on its dumpsters assigns this shadowy realm a name: “The Grove.”

 

Officially, the Grove is a small, paved, street-level courtyard behind Schermerhorn, which Columbia calls its “central waste management and recycling facility.” In practice, the name refers to the entire hidden catacomb that snakes from Amsterdam to Broadway. 

 

Like Mudd and Uris, it is often the butt of mean jokes, which in this case usually contrast its bucolic name with the fact that it processes garbage. WikiCU, the internet’s primary archive of Columbia snark, calls it a “crude joke” that “emits a foul odor of decay,” while Bwog calls it a “human scale trash can.” A 2019 episode of Spectator’s podcast accuses the “so-called Grove” of being “strange, grimy, and a little spooky.” It was even called a “hellish, stinking pit” 12 years ago in the pages of this magazine. 

 

What is it about the Grove that provokes such brutal wrath? If we’re to take these critics at their word, it is that it looks and smells bad. But the real reason, once again, is an unearned nostalgia for McKim’s plan, where the Grove began life as the “Green": an expansive landscape at the north end of campus, past the late University Hall, dotted with trees and tastefully cultivated vegetation, surrounded by an ornate fence, sliced by diagonal gravel pathways, and furnished with a bandstand and a statue of the Great God Pan. Also prominent in the Green’s design, though often elided by those nostalgists, was a curving, promenade-like driveway that cut across its lawns and bore through the first floor of University Hall.

 

Regular inserts in Spectator report the Green filling to capacity for commencement and summer concerts; Bergdoll quotes Frederick Law Olmsted’s prediction that it would “one day be the pride of the University and of the city.” By the mid-1920s, however, prodigious institutional growth had exceeded the capacity of McKim’s original design for campus. In response, Nicholas Murray Butler, president since 1901, began commissioning campus plans that contemplated aggressive but systematic expansion into much taller buildings on the remainder of the Morningside site. The first and only building to emerge from these orderly schemes was Pupin Physics Laboratories, completed in 1927 within the Green’s northwest corner. 

 

Pupin was designed by McKim, and thus its materials, proportions, and symmetries were overtly faithful to his master plan, despite the building’s unprecedented scale. And, after it was completed, the Green below still ostensibly existed, its gravel paths rearranged to lead to Pupin’s front door.

 

Yet after Pupin, the Green’s fate grew increasingly grim, as did any notions of its methodical and organized development. In 1961, the construction of Mudd and the attached Engineering Terrace covered almost all of its acreage on its eastern side. On the Green’s western side, Columbia completed a “Computer Center” between Havemeyer and Uris in 1962. Then, Dodge Fitness Center was built behind Havemeyer in the early ’70s as a hasty concession to the protests of 1968, filling in the last large parcel of original Green and raising Pupin’s entrance to the fifth floor. (This all subjected the Great God Pan to a series of relocations, ultimately depositing him on the lawn between Lewisohn and Low.) 

 

Once the unpardonably named Schapiro CEPSR and then the Northwest Corner Building were finished in 1992 and 2010, none of the Green’s once-leafy landscape remained. 

 

In its place, Columbia had incrementally erected an enmeshed and unwieldy superstructure. Dodge, the Computer Center, Mudd’s terraces, and warrens of tunnels and service buildings all sat below what was now campus level, their roofs adjoining to form the courtyard between North Campus’ towers. Only two small, awkward regions of the Green behind Schermerhorn and Havemeyer survived, each paved over to allow access to that service driveway—which, too vital to reconfigure or replace, was instead encased and buried. No longer green, these areas are now called the Grove. Together, they are Columbia’s root system.

 

Meanwhile, only the visual tokens of McKim’s plan retained any purchase with these buildings, reducing any coherence between them to pure surface. Other than that, it would seem that the only common logic of the development of North Campus was to hide its driveway and service areas below campus level, where nobody could unintentionally see them. By physically and figuratively privileging its surfaces over the processes and people who maintain them, Columbia had permanently encoded a literal spatial hierarchy. 

 

In other words, from campus we can only look down on the Grove, and some of us may even have the audacity to insult it.


 

 

In my reconnaissance for this piece, I spent a lot of time in the Grove. As I walked its length, I imagined manicured lawns stretching to my left and right, and it was then that I began to sense the original architectural coherence of the Green—before its gestures were permanently fractured by increasingly erratic vertical and horizontal expansions.

 

Without this context, at the Grove’s eastern and western ends—where its chambered depths are opened to North Campus and sunlight is allowed in for a few hours—the monumental windows and decorative exterior walls of Schermerhorn and Havemeyer’s basements seem misplaced and inexplicable. They do, after all, look directly onto piles of garbage. But inside the Green, these rusticated walls were the figurative plinths on which the rest of campus rested, completing a picturesque panorama. And the Green’s lack of buildings would likely have welcomed plenty of morning light, explaining those windows that now gaze only at walls.

 

As the amount of time I spent in the Grove became inordinate, I started to recognize faces. I soon befriended Louis Feraca, who works for the Landscaping and Grounds department of Facilities and Operations and is around my age. Feraca and I happened to share a passion for campus history: When we first met, we found that we both had albums of before-and-after archival photos stored in our camera rolls, and we spent half an hour swapping them.

 

A few days later, Feraca agreed to let me follow him around the Grove for a couple of hours at the end of his workday.

 

 

“So, yeah. Here we have everything, from food deliveries to all the cafeterias,” Feraca says, gesturing at a garage door that is rolled shut. “We have a bunch of mechanic shops here, students going to the gym, trucks in and out, bringing garbage from everywhere.”

 

As we talk, we are in a section of the road that is deep underneath Uris. We walk past a cage that is full of cardboard boxes and is informatively labeled “BALLASTS.” The walls are a porridgy beige, but beneath the paint, the ghosts of former doorways are visible in the brickwork.

 

Feraca gestures towards me to follow him down the driveway. “And over here is our shop. Just for Grounds.”

 

We walk in and he turns on the lights far above, revealing several yards of shelving bays holding the attachments they use to groom campus. It smells like a Home Depot. On the cinderblock wall to my right, there is a whiteboard with assignments and a union sticker.

 

“So, does everybody have their own shop down here?” I ask.

 

Yes, he replies, but not just down here: “B230,” beneath the International Affairs Building, houses campus’s carpentry, plumbing, and electrical outfits. Trying to understand their scope and responsibilities, I describe a hypothetical scenario based on an incident I vaguely remember from when I was a sophomore, in which a serial burglar kept stealing herringbone bricks from walkways, leaving cavities everywhere. (“That was you?” he asks, and I’m not sure if he’s joking.)

 

He tells me that, in such a situation, a service order would get issued for that particular brick. Once the relevant shop fabricated a replacement or located one in its stores, a supervisor would task someone in Feraca’s department with installing it. 

 

“There are a bunch of different shops behind this door,” he says, as we leave his shop and continue moving through the Grove. “HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning] is downstairs. Obviously, the boiler room mechanics, the chiller shop mechanics—anything you need for a campus to be running, you know, we have it.”

 

I ask him what the boiler mechanics do, knowing nothing about boilers, and lacking even the faintest conception of what a chiller shop is. 

 

“In the boiler room,” Feraca tells me, “there’s somebody there 24/7. Watching its computers, lights, signals, making sure the pressure is correct. Now, custodians, they have their own closet-type room in each building. So, of course, they have a room in the basement with all the medical supplies…”

 

I tell him that it feels like we’re in the beating mechanical heart of the University, and he agrees.

 

 

Before coming to Columbia, Feraca spent a few years as a delivery driver for Poland Springs, delivering water all around the New York metropolitan area—including to our campus, whose architecture had fascinated him since his childhood in the Bronx. So, when a position opened up with Grounds, he was quick to snag it. Though there are always Facilities and Operations posts available elsewhere, some less grueling, he tells me that he chooses to stay here because of all the history. I’m excited to realize, as he shows me a photo from the 1920s in which the stairs of Hamilton Hall bear a chip still visible today, that he approaches history like I do: by locating in our present spaces the overlooked, trivial details preserved from their pasts.

 

I ask Feraca if there’s anything he wants to say to those who now use Columbia’s campus, and he responds: “Appreciate where you’re standing, because it’s a piece of history.” 

 

Feraca is fascinated by the life of the architecture that he loves, its details and transformations, but he is also responsible for stewarding its mystique. McKim and his interpreters may have created Columbia’s architectural identity, but Feraca and his colleagues in the Grove are recreating it every day, in little ways, like the Ship of Theseus. The heights and depths of campus are two sides of a battle between theory and praxis, in which theory strains desperately to hide praxis far below.

 

As we keep walking, I look up and observe that the ceiling and everything attached to it has been painted black, which serves to camouflage a web of pipes, conduits, and other things that exceed the range of my technical knowledge. We both note and take photos of three dead pigeons, clustered and deteriorating on the ground. 

 

Then, dressing the upper reaches of this enclosed road full of pallet crates, mulch bags, and empty garbage bins, I notice that the paint is also disguising a well-preserved but entirely out of place crown dentil molding.

 

I suddenly realize that we are not underneath Uris, but rather University Hall. Archival photos of campus facing south from 120th Street—in which a monumental, rusticated, four-floor foundation supports the single bald story of its main structure, bearing a conspicuous resemblance to a steamboat—reveal that this driveway, back when it still curved through the Green, was greeted at ground level by a thick arch of chamfered granite blocks built into either side of the first floor of University Hall.

 

While Uris officially replaced University Hall, only its top floor, a cafeteria, was actually demolished. The four stories below it, containing the University’s gym, weren’t touched. Today, these four semicircular floors are part of Dodge Fitness Center, containing the basketball courts, “Tri-Level Fitness Area” (three narrow hallways with some weightlifting equipment), indoor running track, and the locker rooms. The next time you are unlucky enough to find yourself in the Tri-Level Fitness Area, you will see that a few frosted windows span all three of its Tri-Levels. They are dark, because they now gaze only at a wall. But in old photos, they bathe the floor of the gym in morning sunshine.

 

So University Hall—or at least 80% of it—survives to the present day, albeit almost entirely buried beneath the haphazard growth of North Campus. As a result, the remains of that imposing granite arch, I now understand, are right in front of Feraca and me: The five stacked granite blocks flanking us are the arch’s unsquashed lower extremities, awkwardly protruding from the ceiling and the unadorned walls. 

 

I AirDrop a picture of University Hall to Feraca, and then we ascend to talk about the history of the buildings all around us. What I like about New York, I tell him, is that its intractable shortage of physical space forces structure and infrastructure to intermingle, one endlessly shaping the other in funny and inspiring and sad ways.

 

And then, as we walk across North Campus, I notice that its surface doesn’t quite meet the northeast wall of Uris Hall’s rotunda, creating a narrow subterranean crevice between campus level and the building’s edge. Feraca asks me if I’ve ever stared into it, and as I then stand on the parapet and peer into this incision, I notice a core sample of the University’s archaeology: layers of erratic expansion fossilized into chronological strata. In this narrow space, membranous staircases and rugged metal service doors tease the possibility of a hidden underbelly. Contrasting materials clash in strange tapestries. And below the above-ground rotunda, on the rusticated rear wall of University Hall now permanently entombed in this hidden canyon, a row of monumental windows gazes only at a wall. 

 

It suggests that all is not what it seems.

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The Conversation

Bruce Robbins

Atrocity is not such a self-evident thing.

By Sagar Castleman

Bruce Robbins isn’t your ordinary English professor. Although his dissertation was on Victorian novels, what he writes, teaches, and talks about is very concerned with the contemporary political world; his literature classes are usually either contemporary (“World Literature Since 1965”) or political (“The Political Novel,” taught with Nobel Prize in Literature winner Orhan Pamuk). In large part, this is because of his longtime interest in atrocity, both in literature and the world. His most well-known class is “The Literary History of Atrocity” and his book Atrocity: A Literary History comes out next year.

 

I sat down with Professor Robbins to talk to him about this interest. We discussed how decades of thinking about atrocity have shaped how he sees the Israel-Palestine conflict, why he thinks art has an obligation to engage with atrocity, what he thinks is responsible for the decline of the humanities, and the problem with Peter Singer.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

Illustration by Ellie Hodges

The Blue and White: What drew you to teach “The Literary History of Atrocity”?

 

Bruce Robbins: What drew me to teach it is something more personal than intellectual. My father was a bomber pilot during World War II and I grew up thinking of him as a war hero. He had gone off to fight fascism and the Nazis, and that seemed pretty cool to me. It was only very slowly that I thought that there were between 500,000 and 600,000 civilians killed by Allied bombers in German cities, and that didn’t seem to be thought of as an atrocity by Americans, even though, come on, killing civilians. We really frown upon that. So I thought atrocity is not such a self-evident thing.

 

The formative moment for me politically was the American war in Vietnam. There was an awful lot of bombing and killing of civilians by the United States in that period. I think for a lot of people, Vietnam made it possible to look back at World War II with slightly different eyes. We had thought of it as the Good War, but it wasn’t the Good War from every point of view. One of the really popular novels of that period—it came out during the Vietnam War—was Slaughterhouse-Five, which is one of the books on the syllabus. It’s the book that called bullshit on the Allied bombing of German cities, because Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when Dresden got bombed. So a lot of things came together for me. There was a literary side of it and there was a personal side of it. There were things that I was trying to figure out about me and my family. At the same time I realized that there was an interesting set of literary questions, or literary-historical impulses, that I was intrigued by and was trying to make sense of. 

 

B&W: I’m curious about the personal example of your father. I feel like that’s a case where the mainstream American response would be something like, “That was very tragic and maybe could have been limited in certain ways, but it was also necessary for the greater good.” Do you buy the idea that atrocities can be justified in certain cases?

 

BR: Because Oppenheimer was such a big cultural phenomenon recently, everybody’s gone back to thinking about Hiroshima. You can make the same kinds of arguments about Hiroshima: “How many American soldiers had their lives spared because there was no invasion of Japan, blah, blah, blah.” There’s been lots of conversation. But you know, the war was gonna end anyway, they just wanted to make a display of force to the Russians who were coming from the other side. Anyway, it seems to me that the case has become clearer because of the use of the atomic bomb. That really is an atrocity. Not everybody would accept it, but I think it’s easier to get people to say, “Not only did they drop it, but they dropped it twice, and hundreds of thousands of people were dead, pretty much all civilians.” 

 

And this may not interest you, but most of the people who have studied the Allied bombing of Germany have come to the conclusion that it didn’t hasten the end of the war, that it didn’t impede German production of war materials, that it didn’t have an effect on German morale. So the necessity argument doesn’t really pan out. I’m talking about historians now, not me. I read them for what they have to tell me. 

 

B&W: In general, do you think that something being an atrocity means that it should have been avoided?

 

BR: I use the term as something that has to be avoided. For example, I think that what Hamas did on Oct. 7, 2023 counts as an atrocity. But the point that I want to make is that I can say it was an atrocity and that the Palestinian cause is just. I think I can say both those things. I don’t support what happened on Oct. 7. I do support the Palestinian cause. So the fact that atrocities were committed does not mean that the cause for which they were committed was not just.

 

B&W: I read the remarks that you gave at the New School in October about this. You talked about how both Native Americans and colonizers committed atrocities, and the question of the justice of each cause in that case shouldn’t be determined by who committed atrocities. I want to avoid getting too theoretical, but I’m curious what you think the relationship is between committing atrocities and justice. 

 

BR: The scale is important. To take the Gaza example, you had the terrible things that were done on Oct. 7, and then you’ve had terrible things that have been done every day since then. So the proportion there is very different. And those have been atrocities too. And of course they’ll say they’re all in response to Oct. 7. That doesn’t seem like a plausible argument to me. One of the words used is “disproportionate.” That some kind of response was going to be made, maybe even was justified. I’m not sure I would go that far. But this is a disproportionate response. There are a lot of factors that have to be taken into account if you want to talk about the justice of a cause. As far as Israel and Palestine are concerned, you can’t start on Oct 7. 

 

B&W: Since you’ve spent so much time thinking about and studying atrocity, it must be interesting to watch that come into the mainstream discourse. I feel like people are talking about things like civilian casualties and bombings now in a way that they weren’t before. 

 

BR: I hadn’t noticed a difference, to be honest. It seems to me that there’s been a lot of atrocity talk for some time now. One of the things that I discovered is that the word atrocity was used more in the 19th century than it has ever been used since. It was used a lot about executions by the guillotine in the French Revolution. It tended to be used in England about things that the so-called barbarians would do to colonizers. So a lot of it was very, very self-righteous. And one argument that I would make is that people were not very inhibited in using the word atrocity in the 19th century because they couldn’t imagine that anyone would ever accuse them of committing atrocities. It was all the bad guys who were doing it.

 

B&W: It seems like it’s the opposite now, where everyone accuses each other of committing atrocities.

 

BR: Yeah. Which is frankly better than it was in the 19th century.

 

B&W: How do you engage with literature through this lens of atrocity?

 

BR: One of the major questions that I asked myself—and this clearly comes out of Vietnam, and it comes out of my Jewish identity also—is when and how and why did it become possible for people of Country X to accuse their own country of committing atrocities against someone else. I looked into the literary record to see when that started, why it started, and who did it. That was just a new question for me. It’s the self-accusation part [that interests me]. 

 

One hypothesis was that you really couldn’t do it until after 1945. In the 1970s, the Marxist critic Raymond Williams was interviewed by editors of the journal New Left Review. And they said, “Raymond, you love the great social realist novels of the 1840s. And they’re great, but there was a world-historical atrocity that was committed during the 1840s a very, very short distance away, and they just didn’t notice. That is the Irish famine, which happened on Britain’s colonial watch. A million and a half people dead. There were evangelical Christians who said, ‘This is the hand of providence.’ They were free-market evangelical Christians who said, ‘You don’t want to mess with the market by handing food out.’ And they just let them starve. And if the great literature of the middle of the 19th century couldn’t even notice Britain’s responsibility for a million and a half Irish dead during the famine, why do you like it so much?” This was really hard for me because I was trained as a Victorian, and I love those novels. It was a very painful thought.

 

So I asked myself, if it wasn’t happening in the 1840s in the great social realist novels, when the hell did it start happening? And I thought, maybe it can only happen after 1945—knowledge of the Holocaust, the anticolonial movements bringing to people’s attention the terrible things Europe had done in its colonies. Is it possible that the whole literary record is just empty of any kind of scruples about murder? So I wanted to look, and I’ve looked and I have a mixed result. There are some incredibly wonderful moments, and there’s an awful lot of stuff that is not so wonderful to remember. I’ve been making a scrapbook of sorts of interesting literary snippets in which atrocity gets recorded, registered, and described.

 

B&W: It seems like there’s a literary history question of when this engagement happened. But I feel like there’s also a question that the interview brought up, which is whether literature has any obligation to engage with atrocity. It seemed like the interviewers were saying that it does. Do you buy that?

 

BR: Wow. I suppose it would only make sense to say that there’s an obligation to people who are artists now. I can’t tell people in the past, “You had an obligation, you blew it.” You don’t accomplish very much by saying that kind of thing. If I were a creative artist now, I would say straight, “There’s an obligation.” I mean, you want to belong to your time in a strong way. You have the same kind of moral obligation to register what’s going on in your time, and atrocity is part of that. Do I judge the literature of the past for how well it did that? I mean, I try not to throw it out. 

 

B&W: The idea that contemporary artists should be thinking about the current world and maybe the worst parts of the current world is really interesting. Have you read Sally Rooney’s book Beautiful World, Where Are You?

 

BR: I haven’t. I read the other two.

 

B&W: There’s a scene where one of the characters is in a grocery store and she suddenly starts to feel dizzy from thinking about the degree of exploitation that went into getting these things right here.  

 

BR: Oh, I gotta read that. 

 

B&W: And the character is herself a novelist, but she writes romance novels, and she says something like, “If I tried to write about this, I wouldn’t be able to write about romance because it would overshadow everything else I wrote about.” And I think to some degree that applies to the social realist novels of the 19th century. I’m in a class right now on Jane Austen, and I feel like keeping the reader engaged in these intricate social situations relies on not bringing in anything darker. Even just a murder plot can overshadow and take our attention away from the social relationships. I don’t know what you think of this, but it feels like in order to keep an audience interested in something that’s objectively trivial but is the novelist’s interest, it relies on excluding atrocity.

 

BR: That’s so interesting. I don’t think that it’s impossible to write novels that will integrate the kind of thing that Sally Rooney was saying, “I can’t write about and still have an audience.” Sally Rooney hasn’t done it much, which is interesting given the kind of political statements that she’s made. But I think other people have done it better. She’s talking—and I’m really interested in this—about the global capitalist order, and how that is behind the fact that I have a pen in my hand or a sandwich. Can you become conscious of that? I think someone like Jamaica Kincaid is really good at that. Just looking at an object in front of her and seeing through it. It’s what Marx would call the defetishizing of the commodity, seeing the social relations that brought it into being. George Orwell does it also. It’s not atrocity, it’s more like a coming to consciousness of the economic system on which we depend.

 

B&W: Do you think that literature that depicts atrocity needs to be written some time after the atrocity? 

 

BR: Empirically there’s a lot of delay behind the production of some of the great works. One of the books I’ve just been talking about in that course is Charlotte Delbo’s trilogy called Auschwitz and After. She was a member of the French Resistance along with her husband. They were both caught by the Nazis. Her husband was shot, and she was sent on a train full of women of the French resistance to Auschwitz and not gassed right away, but used for their labor. She survived, obviously, and it took her 20 years to write it all out. It may have also taken 20 years before people were willing to publish it, because they didn’t know what to do with that initially.

 

What’s especially interesting to me and complicates the book and enriches it as literature—and it’s very poetic literature—is that during those 20 years, let’s say between 1945 and 1965, there was the whole liberation struggle in Algeria in which the French were committing atrocities against the Algerians. I don’t think that Charlotte Delbo as a French woman could say some of the most uncomplicated things about the Germans that she might have wanted to say in full knowledge of what her people were doing in Algeria, if you see what I mean. Her first book was about Algeria and not about her own experience, which is kind of crazy when you have an experience like that. It’s cultural capital; you can sell it. But what she really wanted to write about first was what France was doing in Algeria.

 

B&W: Why do you think that was?

 

BR: I can’t get inside her mind, but to judge from myself, the worst stuff is the stuff your own people are doing.

 

B&W: One of the names on your syllabus that intrigued me most was Peter Singer. It feels like a lot of the effective altruism movement is about quantifying suffering as a prerequisite to alleviating it. What do you think of this idea, especially in the context of atrocity?

 

BR: The Peter Singer that I put on the syllabus is the famine essay which got a lot of things started for him. You know, you see a child drowning in a shallow pool, and you can save the kid at very little inconvenience to yourself, maybe getting your suit dry cleaned. And this is analogous to being more philanthropic, giving a percentage of your disposable income to save people from hunger. He wrote that essay in response to famine in Bangladesh in 1970. And the point for me is that he is decontextualizing the famine in Bangladesh in 1970 in a scary and undesirable way, because the United States had indirect but strong responsibility for that famine. They were supporting Bangladesh against Pakistan. And I want Henry Kissinger to fry in hell for the famine. Maybe I put that a little more strongly than I should have, but you get the general idea. I want philosophers like Peter Singer to say there’s a historical situation here, and this is not a philanthropic situation, it’s a situation for political intervention. You have voted for a government that is creating the famine, it’s a humanly created famine. So I put this together with a Jhumpa Lahiri story [“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”], which is about a kid of South Asian parents getting the news of what’s going on in what’s going to become Bangladesh and not knowing what to do with it. Now the act of contextualization in the case of effective altruism would have to include, and I’m not the first person to say this, “What do you have to do to the world to make the money that you will then give away?” Let’s not keep our morality in a little box and forget about the context around [it].

 

B&W: There’s been a lot of talk about the death of the humanities and shrinking English departments and fewer English majors. I was wondering what you think the role of a professor of literature is today and whether you think that it’s changed.

 

BR: Well, there’s a political context for the so-called decline of the humanities. There were what we called the culture wars in the 1990s, which have flared up again recently. And a lot of people would say that there’s a responsibility of these culture wars for defunding higher education. There were taxpayer revolts against subsidizing higher education. If state universities, for example, are being defunded, then there are not going to be jobs for graduate students, and the whole thing starts to fall apart. Ideological people start to represent higher education as an investment in the upward mobility of the family; they think of it entrepreneurially rather than as a public good. I’m on the side of it’s a public good. So, I can’t keep the public or political context out of my thoughts about the situation of the humanities, and I’m not trying to. 

 

For better or for worse, I think I’m entirely representative of my colleagues and my discipline in the sense that everybody, partly because of the market crisis, is interested in public-facing work. That is to say, instead of teaching people to just do stuff that is interesting inside the discipline,  write stuff that is interesting outside the discipline. So there’s a lot of that; I don’t think that’s a bad idea. It would be bad if people were no longer teaching the social realist novels of the 1840s because it’s not public facing enough.

 

I am very old fashioned in the sense that I think there’s a heritage that needs to be protected and transmitted. Because if you don’t keep transmitting it, people won’t remember on their own. You said you’re taking a course on Jane Austen. Jane Austen may actually be the cutoff. People read Jane Austen because they really like Jane Austen, whether they go to college or not. You go a little further back from Jane Austen and things sort of drop away. There’s not a lot that gets really read the way Jane Austen gets read before Jane Austen. If we don’t teach it, if we don’t create scholars who are going to want to teach it and write about it, it’s going to just drop out, and that’s not good. 

 

B&W: Can I ask what your desert island books are?

 

BR: Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, over and over again. I was a James Joyce fanatic early in life, and I’ve been wanting to reread Ulysses. I haven’t done it in a really long time. That desert island would not feel like exile if I had Ulysses with me.

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Postcard by Selin Ho

The Shortcut

Mother's Birthday

By Renny Gong

It’s my mother’s birthday. I call her to say, I’m gonna dress like a slut tonight. We switch to FaceTime so I can show her the fit. I’m so proud of you, she says. 

 

I’m supposed to meet up with friends inside, but when I walk in, I see you almost immediately, so I spin around and leave. 

 

Outside, shivering in the cold, I call M, but she’s already inside—maybe it’s too loud—so I call C, momentarily forgetting that she lost her phone last week. I want to call mother, but it’s her birthday, and I don’t want to soil her special day with this, so I call J, and then R, and then L, but nobody picks up, so I walk and walk until my face numbs, until I am so cold my fingers stop bending the way I want them to, until I am in Hell’s Kitchen, or maybe Midtown West, who knows. Some bullshit motherfuckers might even say Chelsea. It starts to rain ice. 

 

I duck into a bar called Clock and Crane—warm lighting, bottles of whiskey on the wall, lesbians everywhere. A man sits in the corner eating a massive chicken finger sub so structurally unsound that tendies fall out with every bite. 

 

Two Tequila Pineapples please. Strong and I’ll tip you more. I try talking to the bartender, but I can’t really follow. I keep saying, “What?” That distant hum grows louder—your half-smiling face through the crowd, those white pants I’d never seen before, that shirt I once held up to my face and sniffed until my breath ran out, the nape of your neck, the unfurling of our mattress, your sleeping form, the afternoon sunlight coming in. 

 

M calls, but I don't pick up. M calls again. Sorry, I text. Forgive me. I might be a while. 

 

Look me in the face, bartender. Now, Two Vodka Crans please. Strong. 

 

The next morning, I am doing okay. I am happy, even. I ended up in my own bed, that’s good. I write. It’s alright. I get lunch with M. I apologize. It’s all good. I try my best to learn how to strum a guitar and sing at the same time. I fail miserably. I make three hundred dollars. This is a lot of money. I am proud of myself. 

 

M says that we should go out. I think so, too. We go together, so she can keep an eye on me. M is so good to me. I cannot believe how good she is to me. On the train ride downtown she keeps an eye on me. In the club she keeps an eye on me. A girl falls on my shins. The biggest bouncer I’ve ever seen tries to get her out the door. She says, I’m fine. I’m fine. 

 

“Stop thinking!” M yells at one point. She slaps me across the chest. “Just for once, will you have some fun? Here, drink this.” 

 

“I’m not!” I yell. “I’m not.” I drink.

 

In line for the bathroom, I see you through the crowd. I see your friends, too. 

 

The bathroom is single use, thank god. I heave, but nothing comes. The sharpest loneliness is to cry in a new place. I hold on to the walls, wishing for a solid thing. I want to be home. No, I want to see someone, anyone at all. I try to think of something else, something that might press me in on all sides, something M said maybe, something mother said, but instead I think of that time you bit my lip so hard you drew blood and how nobody will ever bite me as hard and now the dude outside is banging on the door. 

 

Outside the club, the cold takes me by surprise. I call mother. Happy Birthday, ma, I say. It’s late where you are, she says. Are you outside? How much did you drink tonight? 

 

I didn’t drink at all tonight, I say, which is true, except for five bodega Fireball shooters, which by the way, if you didn’t already know, those things are like the scam of the century. They come in at 16.5%, so you’re basically taking little sips of wine. What unbelievable mockery of the shooter experience.

 

I make my way to the train station and transfer at Times Square. I take it all the way to the end, to Flushing, where mother lives. I knock on her door. Surprise! She cannot believe it, jumping up and down and hugging me so tightly. Ba! Look who's here! 

 

Ba stumbles out of the bedroom and has a big silly grin on his face. His glasses are kind of lopsided. Oh, you knew! mother says to him, and he smiles even bigger. 

 

Yeah, I told him beforehand, I say. Just to make sure you guys weren’t gonna be somewhere else. Look!

 

I brought wine! And cake! 

 

We sit down at the wobbly-ass table and I say, ma, there’s something else. 

 

Oh, enough with the surprises, she says, and they both lean in. 

 

I’m seeing someone, I say. A healthy pour for the three of us. You know how they say you’ll know when it happens? Well it happened. I laugh at how stupid I sound. I push through. What is it that they say? I could die right now. 

 

Oh, don’t say that, she says. 

 

No, ma. I promise you.

 

That night, I dream of the two of us in a dark room, laughing, talking again. Your mouth again. Complete relief. And upon waking—if you called then, I would have said, yes, yes. No, I would have kneeled in front of you and said, again. 

 

In the morning, I get out of the train station and you’re waiting for me. I’m so happy to see you. I have never felt happier, actually. We walk together the whole day. We pick out a plant for our apartment. We live together. We go to the stationary store. We sit at a nice cafe. There are so many things I have left to say to you still. 

 

At night, I leave my room. It’s nice out. Today will be better. I am getting better. I call mother. It’s her birthday today. She says don’t do it. 

 

How do you not understand, ma? I can’t stand another day of this. There’s nothing here anymore. I need to get out. I’m sleeping on the ground, ma. I’m cutting myself open. I’m screaming now.

 

Baba interrupts, gets on the phone. Stop yelling at your mother. And okay, but you can’t do it when you’re angry. Calm down for a few days. Think about it. Really think about it. If you do things in the heat of the moment, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.

 

Mother takes back the phone. She says don’t be a bitch. She says I love you. She says give it some more time. She says thank you for the birthday gifts. I show the bouncer, the biggest bouncer I’ve ever seen, my little paper bracelet, so I can go back inside. You’re waiting for me at the door, with flowers, with origami paper, with a knitted scarf, with green, the color green, with so much contempt in your eyes, with your hand on my tummy, telling me shh, shh. I kneel, like I said I would. 

 

It’s my mother’s birthday. I am calling her. This time, it’s different—I’m somewhere upstate, in an open field. What do you see? she says. 

 

There’s a dog. My dog, our dog, angry, feral, wet, gnawing on a bone. 

 

What else do you see? she says. There’s nothing else. So I say nothing. And she says nothing. We stay like that. 

 

Tell me something, I say finally. Will I ever find a way out of this? 

 

I feel so bad for her. She is trying so hard to say the right thing. I don’t know, she says. But what if you don’t? Find a way out of this, I mean. 

 

I think about this with my eyes squeezed shut. I think about this for a very long time. I am still thinking about this. Well, then I don’t want this, I say. I don’t want an open field. I don’t want something nice. I want it all back, just once more. 

 

I wait for her to say something. I hear nothing but wind. Mama? I ask. Are you still there?

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ATSL

Is This a Columbia Dining Event?

By Lucia Dec-Prat and Ava Lozner

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Affirmative

 

When I chose my first-year dining plan, I knew what I wanted: meal swipes. Forget about Flex or Dining Dollars, there’s nothing like a heaping plate of dining hall food. Especially today. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Friendsgiving, and I made three juice boxes at the Inner Child event. But today’s event is new, fresh, and wholly invigorating. This pushes the boundaries of themed dining. Today’s meal is not just a plate of food; it’s a curated lifestyle experience. 

 

I could tell this event was special from the moment I walked in and saw all the dining hall staff wearing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle masks. I knew the food was delicious when I spotted vats of Beyond Meat mussels, emanating steam and exuding an aromatic odor of abundance. I could barely contain my excitement when I saw Chef Mike’s action station covered with a monumental Lithuanian flag and serving ambitious meat dishes. Yum.

 

Two earth-shattering, life-changing, palate-provoking plates later, I was back for more. My next stop: the salad bar. Nothing hits the spot quite like beef gelatin tzatziki after a long day of FroSci homework. I adorned my gooey dip with shallot-infused vegetable oil and a portion of glistening fusion salad with  ambiguous cultural heritage. This is global citizenship.

 

I’ll be honest: I’m not entirely sure what the theme is. All I know is that this nitro cold brew froth perfectly complements my birria-style risotto. How did they know “Wiggle” by Jason Derulo is my favorite song? I’m getting off track. Walking past the cardboard cutout of Liza Minelli, it dawns on me that this event is too ineffable, too ephemeral, to be labeled. 

 

Tonight’s event is a performance piece. It’s an implicit criticism of our generation’s obsession with categories. Columbia Dining has done it again: they’ve taken another bold political stance and created a legendary themed event. I am ideologically challenged, physically satiated, truly and completely content. As I shovel the raspberry cheesecake french toast sticks, carefully Jenga-stacked , into my mouth, I take out my phone.

 

“Today’s meal set the standard for menu design and execution. The event of the century. Thank you Columbia Dining!” Satisfied, I hit submit. I hope this one makes it onto the good reviews TV screen. Columbia Dining, you made my day.

 

 

Negative

 

God, if you’re up there, can you end this once and for all? 

 

I forgave the radioactive mac ‘n’ cheese. I braved the rancid Friendsgiving stench. But mussels? Since when did Chef Mike and his perverted little menu planners start experimenting with aquatic cuisine? Half of those slimy oblong mollusks didn’t even have any fucking insides. What am I to do? Suck on the shells like some sort of bottom feeder? That’s the problem with this institution. They hand you Fish Stink™ so poignant it feels almost offensive and expect a tearful “thank you” for the opportunity to suckle at their barren, merciless teat.

 

I digress. Or at least that’s what I would say if I’d stopped in my tracks and whipped a full 180 the second I laid eyes on those “mussels.” What I saw next was possibly even more mortifying, and provoked a question that has been dry humping my brain ever since: What the hell is a “Pig in a Bikini”? Pigs in a blanket, sure. I can get it. They get cold sometimes!!! Everyone does!!!!!! Wrap yourself in a fuzzy little blanket, hammy queen!!! But why the fuck would I want a Pig in a Bikini sliding down this here gullet??? And believe me, they’re not fooling anyone. Bikini, my ass—the breaded bathing costume in question has been fashioned out of two skimpy bands of soggy croissant dough that seductively slide off the second you try to snatch one of those piggies up with a pair of serving tongs.

 

It was after I plopped the second Pig in a Bikini on my plate that the thought occurred to me: what on God’s green earth is tonight’s dining event? I frantically scanned John Jay’s dining hall decorations with the hope of gleaning some answers, but  was met only with the haunting grin of a Liza Minelli cardboard cutout that I had managed to plant myself in front of (I thought I was in line for the action station). Behind me, a kitchen staff member in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mask yelled “HOT! HOT! COMING THROUGH” before ramming into me with the tub of white, creamy liquid he was trafficking through the crowd. Like Moses or a rock, I stood, parting the seas of John Jay’s teeming crowd as I puzzled over throughlines that would unite the tomfoolery I was witnessing into a comprehensive theme. 

 

I had started feeling uneasy after the explosive diarrhea stint that followed Dairy Appreciation Day. Then came the Bring Your Pet to Work Day incident, which involved a certain employee’s pet bird shitting into the vat of lentil soup. I won’t even mention the Anything But Beef event.  How had I failed to put the signs together until now? The themed meal madness had progressively gotten further out of hand and there was only one explanation for it. Chef Mike was power-hungry, and he was only growing bolder. He had abandoned the notion of theme altogether.

 

This was too far. There was no theme. No cohesive ambiance. There was no event. Only chaos. There is little comfort in this cold, cruel world. I thought I could come to John Jay for some solace. But I was wrong. 

The dark thoughts started to creep in. What if you’ll never be enough? You don’t deserve to be here. Everyone knows what you did in the 6th floor Butler bathroom at 11:53 p.m. on December 2, 2023. I couldn’t take it anymore. Staring down at my plate of empty mussels and beef gelatin tzatziki, I felt a tear chart its course down my cheek and a pit form in my stomach.

 

But wait — what’s that? A voice rises over the dining hall shouting words whose meaning I can’t quite grasp, but that I feel like I have known forever. It sounds like … salvation. Soon, all of John Jay is enveloped in the beautiful noise of a synchronous, monotonal chant. My confusion dissolves. I grasp the hand of the girl next to me who had gagged on her fusion salad moments earlier. She is shaking and crying, praising Lord Mike along with the rest of us. I realize my entire life has led to this moment. I am one with every single soul in this dining hall. I was born to praise Him. Live Laugh Lord Mike. Live Laugh Lord Mike. Live Laugh Lord Mike…

Illustration by Ellie Hodges

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