In Spring 2021, the Creative Writing MFA at City College saw an unprecedented enrollment spike. It’s not exactly clear why it occurred, but Director Michelle Valladares has some ideas about that. She has lots of ideas, in fact, about unique and exciting ways to grow the program even more while still maintaining a manageable cohort size. She is inspired by the program’s location in Harlem and is coming up with all kinds of ways to engage with the community, like the Archives as Muse: A Harlem Storytelling Project. In addition to hearing about Michelle’s innovative ideas, you’ll learn about some of the program’s outstanding alumni and faculty and successful students, a source of pride for Director Valladares. Award-winning crime novelist Walter Mosley is one of those esteemed alumni and the one who described CUNY MFA programs as the “Blue-Collar Harvard.”
It was a pleasure to sit down in person with Michelle and learn more about the MFA program which was recently profiled in Inside Higher Ed. Thanks to Angela Harden, adjunct professor and general manager of CCNY’s WHCR 90.3 FM: The Voice of Harlem, we had the perfect place to record.
Michelle is Director of the MFA Program and Lecturer in English, teaching both undergraduates and graduate students. Explore her writing and filmmaking.
Two more notes about the episode:
Identification: Brendan Kiely is the Young Adult (YA) author who Michelle mentions.
Clarification: Rather than forfeit his fee, poet Paul Muldoon donated his speaker fee back to the program.
If you’ve been eagerly following the literal ups and downs of statues and monuments and the attending political and moral debates over the last few years, this episode will be right up your alley. Erin Thompson, Associate Professor of Fraud, Forensics, Art Law & Crime at John Jay College, talks with Todd Fine, a PhD candidate in history at the CUNY Graduate Center, about her forthcoming book, Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments. Erin and Todd have been active on social media with regard to these controversies, and they met one another via “public art” or “monument” Twitter. They convened in person for the first time while recording this podcast, and the result is a lively and fascinating conversation.
Learn more about Erin and her work here, and follow her on Twitter.
Learn more about Todd and his work as president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group, which works for historic preservation in the “Little Syria” neighborhood of Lower Manhattan. Follow him on Twitter.
Yarimar describes her journey from a childhood in Puerto Rico to life as a scholar and professor at CUNY. She shares personal stories as well meditations on a variety of connected questions, from the position and treatment of Caribbean studies in the academy and the legacy of Haitian-American anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot to the significance and aftereffects of Hurricane Maria. Yarimar has co-edited a book on Trouillot that will be published by Duke University Press this Fall.
Jeremy Caplan is the Director of Teaching and Learning at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. For the last fifteen months, he’s been busy helping faculty and students navigate the numerous challenges brought on by the pandemic. He also directs the new online intensive Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators 100-day certificate program which welcomed its first cohort in Fall 2020, coinciding with the continuation of COVID-19. The program, with its emphasis on independent, niche entrepreneurs, has so far attracted experienced students with specific interests who have projects in mind that they want to turn into a reality. As Jeremy explains, the timing of the program’s launch strangely benefited from a global online learning mindset. Another bonus: the virtual format allows for a diverse, international group.
Jeremy is in conversation in this episode with Michael Rain, an alumnus of the CUNY J-school program and a former fellow of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. Among many concurrent projects, Michael is the founder of ENODI, a media and research company (and accompanying podcast) which highlights the lives, cultural innovations, and entrepreneurial work of first-generation and immigrant people. Listen to our 2019 conversation to learn more.
Jeremy and Michael also discuss the larger picture, including how change in the tech and business sectors have led to a revolution in journalism, giving agency to independent creators. And Michael makes sure to highlight Jeremy’s WonderTools newlestter, a curated collection of useful and time-saving apps and tools for digital creators. These two are ideal representatives of the CUNY journalism program which champions innovation in every aspect of media content creation.
Jeffrey Kroessler and Laura Heim, a historian and an architect respectively, have lived in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, for nearly two decades. They live there “specifically,” as Jeffrey says, having admired the vision of the neighborhood, one that is modeled after the garden city movement that began in late 19th century England. In this episode, Jeffrey and Laura talk with Owen Gutfreund, Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College, about their book, Sunnyside Gardens: Planning and Preservation in a Historic Garden Suburb. Their book is a richly illustrated history of an urban community that encourages the reader to consider the social, cultural, and political functions of city spaces. They discuss the planning, evolution and preservation of this unique neighborhood as well as Levittown(s), Thomas Hobbes, and the question of what is being preserved and for whom. On the face of it preservation seems like an obviously worthwhile pursuit, but controversy comes in when policies conflict with personal property rights, and Jeffrey and Laura were deeply involved in the sometimes bitter fight to get the community designated as a historic district, which it was in 2007.
Alisse Waterston and Charlotte Corden are the author and illustrator, respectively, of the graphic novel, Light in Dark Times: The Human Search for Meaning, published by the University of Toronto Press this past Fall. In this episode, you’ll learn how the two met, how and why they created the book, and how they both discovered and approach the field of anthropology. You’ll also hear them talk about the rich and profound story within the book. In 160 pages, any one of which could easily fill a semester’s worth of discussion if not more, Alisse and Charlotte take readers on a journey, asking difficult existential questions (like the one titling this post), getting help along the way from a variety of writers, philosophers, anthropologists, and activists. The result is a beautiful, holistic and accessible book that’s been making waves across the globe. I’m not alone in believing that it would make the ideal text for a common reading experience for college students — or for humankind.
During the past year, we’ve had conversations with a number of CUNY citizens who have created something positive out of the COVID-19 experience. In September, Char Adams talked with us about COVID University New York, the podcast she co-produced with the Gotham Center that features the voices of a variety of New Yorkers and their work and challenges during the pandemic. In January, Cathy Davidson, Dree-el Simmons and Tatiana Ades shared with us the story behind their Manifold project, We Eat: A Student-Centered Cookbook, an unplanned project that was borne out of the abrupt turn we all took in March 2020 as a result of the move to remote teaching and learning. In this episode, Cynthia Tobar, Head of Archives at Bronx Community College, talks with Molly Rosner, Assistant Director of Education Programs at the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College and Summer Walker, a student in LaGuardia’s Commercial Photography program, about the creation of Portraits of an Epicenter: NYC in Lockdown. This, too, was the result of an unexpected turn of events in Spring 2020. Eight student scholars had begun the semester with plans to engage with the Wagner and LaGuardia Archives to focus on 1980s New York but had to improvise quickly and ended up setting their sights very much on the current moment. While they used traditional practices of archive development and curating to create their new project, they went beyond collecting physical artifacts and ephemera to include the vulnerable, emotional aspects of their unique experiences as well. The moving portrayal helped the creators to process the present and serves as a valuable document of an unprecedented period that will be archived at the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives and available for researchers and future students.
Even if you don’t know Jojo Karlin personally, there’s a chance you’ve seen her on your Zoom screen in the past year – she attends a lot of meetings. Or you may have seen her doodles on Instagram or Twitter, which is how I encountered her. In an interview with NYU Libraries last Fall, she explains how her doodling helps her to process academic concepts. In this episode, she expands on the why and the how of her note taking process and about the effect her drawings have had on others. She talks about how and why she came to draw her dissertation on Virginia Woolf, about the experience of taking visual notes both in person and via Zoom, about digital humanities, open access, Manifold (she is a champion and shepherd of the digital platform), and the call to be curious at heart of the Graduate Center.
Jeanne Theoharis (Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College) and Yoruba Richen (Directory of the Documentary Program at Newmark Graduate School of Journalism) share a deep knowledge of the civil rights movement and a keen interest in reinterpreting and promoting the “fables” that often get flattened or distorted or abbreviated in the collective retelling. They accomplish this in their work as a historian and as a filmmaker. Yoruba is the director, most recently, of How it Feels to Be Free, a documentary that gives literal voice to Ruth Feldstein’s 2013 book. The film presents the stories of six iconic African American women entertainers – Lena Horne, Pam Grier, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, and Cicely Tyson – who champion civil rights and challenge racists stereotypes. HIFTBF is available to watch as part of the PBS American Masters series and is being screened at the Athena Film Festival through the end of March. Jeanne and Yoruba discuss the making of the film, including the perennial challenges of finding/accessing archival footage as well as funding. They also consider other recent screen narratives of Black lives, both historical – Ma Rainey, Fred Hampton, Billie Holliday – and contemporary, including Yoruba’s recent film The Killing of Breonna Taylor.
Jeanne is the author of the award-winning The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks(Beacon Press, 2013) and has recently published a new edition for young people. In this episode, Jeanne describes the origins of her activism and of her focus on African American history, which includes time spent as a student of civil rights leader Julian Bond.
We can look forward to a continuing dialogue between Yoruba and Jeanne who are collaborating on an upcoming project about Rosa Parks.