Andrea Balis, a faculty member in the history department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Elizabeth Levy, a children’s book author, have known each other a long time, so when they write together, they are, as Elizabeth puts it “one brain.” They’ve marshaled their experience working in theater, politics, writing and historical research to produce a book for middle-grade students (but really for students and history hounds of all ages, including my own) about the Watergate scandal. Despite the fact that the historical record tells us what happened, these authors manage to retell the story in a way that preserves the suspense and incredulity of the whole affair. Their book is Bringing Down a President: The Watergate Scandaland will be published by Macmillan’s Roaring Brook Press in August 2019, marking the 45th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, the culmination of the whole sordid matter. In this episode, Andrea and Elizabeth read from their book, one playing the part of Fly on the Wall, a central character in their dramatic retelling. They also talk about their next joint project, a book (also for Roaring Brook Press) about the McCarthy era and the prevalent trend of poultry farming in mid-century U.S. Just listen, you’ll hear what I mean.
Nancy K. Miller is a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her latest book, published in January by Columbia University Press, is My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism. Her title evokes that of Elena Ferrante’s widely read Neapolitan novels, and that is neither coincidental nor derivative. Though she was already deep into her own manuscript when the first volume of the quartet, My Brilliant Friend, appeared, Nancy was galvanized by the story of the lifelong relationship between Lenù and Lila. Seeing similarities in her own intense female friendships, she deftly weaves a few relevant bits of their friendship into her narrative. In My Brilliant Friends, Nancy writes about her complicated, life-affirming, sustaining, sometimes painful friendships with Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Middlebrook. The relationships span from the 1970s to the 21st century, and as such, coexisted with considerable cultural and societal changes for women. Moreover, these friendships are in high relief set against the backdrop of academia and the thrills and agonies of professional writing careers. Nancy talks and writes about the “B-sides” of friendships, the emotional undercurrents that often aren’t acknowledged as relationships unfold, and the importance – or sometimes just dumb luck – of “built-in protections” that help sustain friendships across time.
Another friend, Jason Tougaw, is Nancy’s conversation partner in this episode. (I had my own conversation with Jason about his memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism, in Episode 19.) As Nancy’s former student and now her colleague and friend, he was the ideal interviewer to elicit a rich, intimate dialogue. They discuss a range of ideas including the structure of her book and of the friendships therein, the function of memory, and the ethics of writing about other peoples’ lives. There’s an overarching theme of balance and finding the right distance between friends – exemplified in the Goldilocks fairy tale – that occurs throughout the conversation. Nancy uses the concept of “cline” to address the space in a relationship between people, a kind of grammar of relation that allows for movement and negotiation, even within the bonds of intimacy. I predict you’ll find this episode as thought (and feeling) provoking as I did.
To learn more about Nancy K. Miller’s work, have a look at her web site. You can also read CUNY SUM’s synopsis here.
Are you a junior faculty member at CUNY? Do you know about the Faculty Fellowship Publication Program, affectionately know as FFPP (or a varied combo and quantity of Fs and Ps that still gets the point across to those in the know)? If not, you absolutely should. For those tenure-track faculty who have so availed themselves, they know it’s a valuable support and information opportunity that helps in myriad ways on the road to tenure and promotion. The five women I talked with for this episode are proud alumnae and consummate FFPP ambassadors. They talk about how they discovered the program (it’s not always front and center in new faculty orientations) and what it’s meant to them in the four years since their initial participation. So far they have set the record for the longest continuing constellation to emerge from the FFPP, maintaining monthly meetings to discuss and critique one another’s works in progress (and talk about their lives, too, which is all part and parcel). If you’re like me, after listening to their conversation, you’ll be inspired and envious. To learn more about the members of this group and their research, take a look:
Elizabeth Alsop is an exemplar of interdisciplinarity. She is a comp lit scholar (PhD, CUNY Grad Center), a field which is interdisciplinary by definition, and she is also a film and TV scholar. Though, really, it should go without saying that screen narratives are among the texts that comparatists study alongside more traditional forms of literature. We talk about the tension in this area of study and, not surprisingly, find ourselves easily agreeing about film and TV’s rightful place in the canon. As someone who constantly longs for more than the “phatic” (i.e. small) talk about TV described here by journalist Dan Engber, this conversation was super satisfying and enjoyable. If there are any TV scholars hiding out there, please make yourselves known. Elizabeth and I would love to confabulate and discourse with you!
We also talk about Elizabeth’s role at the GC’s Teaching and Learning Center, teaching in general, the lay of the land at SPS (where she is a faculty member and academic director of Communication & Media and Liberal Studies), open ed resources*, how to watch TV, how smart Emily Nussbaum is, how to contend with FOMO, and her upcoming book Making Conversation in Modernist Fiction which will be published by The Ohio State University Press Theory and Interpretation of Narrative series in the Fall of 2019.
In July 1947, a large group of motorcyclists – part of a “Gypsy Tour” rally – either descended upon or delighted Hollister, CA, with their presence, depending on who’s telling the story. This is the Rashomonesque tale that Sarah Hoiland tells in her recent article “Impromptu Fiesta” or ‘Havoc in Hollister’: A Seventy-Year Retrospective” in the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies. It’s a compelling story about motorcycle culture, media sensationalism and women’s dis/empowerment. Beth Harpaz, editor of CUNY SUM, wrote a synopsis of the particulars of the event and Sarah’s research journey.
In this episode, Beth returns as guest host to talk with the author. Sarah Hoiland is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Hostos Community College in the Behavioral & Social Sciences Department. As a feminist ethnographer, she is researching the historical and contemporary representations of women within the male dominated world of motorcycle club subculture. Her forthcoming book, Righteous Sisterhood: Constructing a Feminist Biker Identity in a Misogynist Subculture, is sure to be a great ride.
If there are soulmate equivalents for jobs, Edgardo Sanabria-Valentin has found his. After earning a Ph.D. from NYU-School of Medicine (he studied the mysterious persistence of the H. pylori bacteria in the human digestive tract), he moved to Boston for a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Harvard Medical School and then gave the biotech industry a whirl for a few years. But fate intervened and presented an opportunity to work with PRISM (Program for Research Initiatives in Science and Math) at John Jay where he is able to share his valuable knowledge with students interested in entering STEM fields. In his five years at John Jay, he has garnered awards, grateful students and alumni, multi-faceted career satisfaction and a homegrown kombucha starter.
To learn more about the mechanisms and impact of the unique PRISM program, read this article co-authored by Edgardo’s colleagues, including Anthony Carpi and Nathan Lents. If you’re looking for a worthy cause for your holiday or end-of-year giving, consider supporting PRISM. Here’s how.
Listening to Debra Caplan’s description of the Vilna theater troupe in early 20th century Lithuania, I was rapt, imagining myself a century ago with my ear up to an old-timey radio. Debra is an Assistant Professor of Theater in the Dept. of Fine and Performing Arts at Baruch College, and the stories in her book Yiddish Empire: The Vilna Troupe, Jewish Theater, and the Art of Itinerancy (U Michigan Press, 2018) do warrant a dramatic retelling, given the stark juxtaposition of the grueling conditions under which the actors worked and their astounding success and popularity.
The stories Debra shares about researching, writing and publishing the book are quite vivid, too. As co-founder of the Digital Yiddish Theater Project, Debra, along with other Yiddish theater scholars, has been using digital humanities in the study and preservation of Yiddish theater for several years. For this book, she overlays a modern tool on her old timey subject matter that constitutes an entire project of its own. “Visualizing the Vilna Troupe” is a fascinating and highly ambitious data visualization that looks like a beautiful uber-Spirograph.
This interview was conducted by our CUNY colleague, Beth Harpaz, the editor of SUM, the web site that showcases CUNY research. You may have heard Beth when she was on the other side of the microphone in Episode 18. Beth has journalist chops and podcast passion and is the ideal interlocutor to share her excitement about Debra’s book. You can read Beth’s SUMmary here.
Bonus book + podcast endorsement: Check out Beth’s interview with Lisandro Pérez, Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Studies at John Jay, where they talk about his recent book Sugar, Cigars, and Revolution The Making of Cuban New York. It was the inaugural podcast presented by CUNY’s Gotham Center for New York City History in partnership with New Books Network. (Have you noticed we’ve got the raw data for a Spirograph of our own incorporating the entities mentioned in this post?)
One last thing: Should this subject matter get you in the mood, Debra and Beth highly recommend the production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” in Yiddish and directed by the legendary Joel Grey, which runs through Dec. 30 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan.
Jason Tougaw is many things – a writer, a teacher, a faculty member, a DJ. But is he his brain? The we-are-our-brains vs. we-are-not-our-brains debate is one of the many complex and compelling topics we discuss in this episode. His recent memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (winner of the Dzanc Nonfiction Prize) is in itself a complex and compelling story that I recommend to anyone who fancies memoirs, neuroscience, California in the 1970s – or anyone who was ever a child. The title is a lyric from a certain sitcom theme song from the ‘70s-’80s, and if you’ve already guessed what it is, you’re a fellow traveler to whom I am passing along the ear worm. It’s the ideal title for this book in many ways. This past April, Jason’s book The Elusive Brain: Literary Experiments in the Age of Neuroscience was published by Yale University Press (and is next in my reading queue). The phrase “touching brains” comes from an article Jason wrote for Modern Fiction Studies in 2015 and is a useful one, along with his title word “elusive,” that hints at the mysterious relationship between the tangibility of the brain (the organ) and the intangibility of the self. It’s all a little bit philosophy and a little bit New Romantic.
Don’t miss Jason’s online column in Psychology Today.
Having a conversation with Bridgett Davis was an instance of one of my absolute favorite things to do – talking about writing. It’s a rare opportunity to have the time to do so, especially with someone so accomplished who also loves talking about writing (and research!). Bridgett is a multi-faceted writer/creator. She’s a journalist, essayist, novelist and filmmaker. She’s also a professor and a mom and the director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program. Her newest book, The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers (Little, Brown, January 2019) adds memoirist to her list of genres. It’s a compelling and touching tribute to her mother and to the business that supported her family for decades. It’s also a fascinating portrait of the significant role The Numbers played in the lives of African Americans in the mid-twentieth century.
This marks the start of Season Two for Indoor Voices. Stay tuned for another year of interesting, well-curated voices from CUNY. We’re grateful to our listeners and for continued support from John Jay College’s Office for the Advancement of Research.