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.
Anna Gotlib is an assistant professor (associate, as of Fall 2018 – congrats!) in the philosophy department at Brooklyn College. The title of her most recent book, The Moral Psychology of Sadness (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), got my attention immediately. With so much crushing propaganda from the happiness industrial complex, this subject seemed like a gentle, honest oasis. (During our conversation, we were reminded of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile.”) And indeed, Anna and her co-contributors (seven in addition to her editor’s intro and her own full chapter), celebrate the rich opportunities for intellectual exploration within this complex and overlooked emotion. She shares her reasons for choosing the topic and makes a strong case for allowing space – philosophical as well as social – for sadness, especially in American culture where frank discussions of sadness are generally frowned upon. Sadness can foster self-learning, give one’s life fuller meaning and quiet what Buddhists call the chattering monkey mind.
This is the final episode of Season One of Indoor Voices, and in the spirit of sadness as a paradoxically forward-looking and motivating emotion (read the book, you’ll see), we look forward to Season Two beginning in Fall 2018. Having produced at least ten more episodes than we anticipated, we are rather pleased with ourselves and also grateful to our supporters (especially John Jay’s Office for the Advancement of Research) and our listeners. Happy summer! Don’t worry, be sad!
When Barbara Gray began her job directing the Research Center at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, she was only half a block from her previous job where she had been director of news research for The New York Times. The physical proximity is not at all incidental (the J school has forged a strong network with many of the city’s biggest media outlets), and the job overlap is significant (she brings loads of relevant expertise to her academic post). The skills that she advocates for, shepherds and teaches at CUNY have always been crucial to journalism, but they are especially critical in the digital information realm and even more essential – for everyone – in the current news production and consumption culture. She talks about what she calls this “triage situation”; the importance of context, history and detail in reporting; the value of “failing up”; and her multi-faceted role as veteran news researcher, teacher and reference librarian.
As if that weren’t enough to fill a plate and an episode, there’s more. Barbara’s writing a biography of 19th century grifter-turned-philanthropist, Sophie Lyons. She talks about the genesis of the project, her research process and gives us a sneak peak of Sophie’s fascinating life.
Linda Villarosa always knew she would be a writer, but when she was a little girl in Colorado, she probably couldn’t imagine that something she wrote would have a direct impact on New York State taking measures to address a critical life-and-death issue. She writes effective and affecting stories (read some of them here), directs the journalism program at City College and is a proud alumna of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. You’ll be inspired by her embrace of new challenges and complete lack of writing angst.
In this guest-free episode, Steve and Kathleen take a break from highlighting CUNY scholars and aim the mic at themselves, indulging in some hostful repartee. It begins and ends with cereal (or serial), and in between, listeners are treated to perhaps more information than is necessary about their hosts. Revelations include ambiguous criminal activity, secret ethnic lineage, and obsessions with NYC MTA material culture, handedness and the aforementioned cereal. Steve also lifts the curtain on his status.
Following the admirable model of actor Dax Shepard on his Armchair Expert podcast, we offer a post-recording fact check/errata/clarification. If you’re reading this before you listen, you’ll get an idea of the curiosities in store:
Kathleen’s vest was not addressed to her, as she knows better than to open mail not addressed to her. But the packing slip clearly indicated that the company had sent her the item in error. It turns out that she did nothing illegal. The moral question remains.
Steve was referring to the new ABC sitcom “Alex, Inc.” that is based on the origins of Gimlet Media, not a small replica of Jim nor a mini gym, as Kathleen was envisioning.
‘Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me:’ Quantifying Kissinger
Nondescript: A Web Tool to Aid Subversion of Authorship Attribution
It was just a coincidence that I interviewed these two women right before NYC Digital Humanities Week (Feb. 5-9, 2018). In episode 8, I chat with my colleague, Robin Davis, grilling her about the thesis that she completed for the CUNY Graduate Center’s MA in Computational Linguistics. It’s titled “Nondescript: A Web Tool to Aid Subversion of Authorship Attribution.” After listening to her, I guarantee you’ll be intrigued and want to keep thinking about the topic. Fortunately, Robin offered some suggestions:
The second interview, Episode 9, is with Micki Kaufman, also a GC student, who’s working on her dissertation for a PhD in History. Her project is called “Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me:’ Quantifying Kissinger.” She uses computational text analysis and visualization techniques to work with material from the Digital National Security Archive’s Kissinger collections. As serious and important as this project is, Micki prioritizes fun. Just listen; she’ll explain.
Digital Humanities is a large, encompassing, often ill-defined field. If you keeping hearing about it but aren’t sure what it is, these two interviews will help shed some light. Robin’s project is not strictly DH, since computational linguistics is actually a science, but the fields are definitely cousins, as Robin says, and I find that similar parts of my brain are used in trying to gain an understanding. Robin and Micki are both good at describing complex concepts in a way that’s clear and enjoyable to take in. Bottom line: These two projects are both very cool and socially relevant.
I discovered Claire Stewart’s book during a random Google jaunt and was thrilled to see she was a CUNY faculty member. I quickly acquired and devoured her book, which is a mashup of history, anthropology, sociology and popular culture – my favorite kind of stew. I visited her at City Tech where we recorded in the conference room of the Hospitality Management department, and afterwards she gave me a tour of the impressive kitchens and dining room (those enviable, enormous standing mixers!) where the teaching and learning and cooking and dining happens. I got the chance to meet other faculty in the program, and as a student in a chef’s toque came into the faculty offices with a plate of gorgeously plated food of some kind, I privately noted how extremely different their workday is from mine. I also got to sample some delicious, freshly-baked-by-students Danish. Claire and I discovered that we share an interest not only in the intersection of food and culture, but we geeked out about our love of digging deep for information and are both mystified that everyone doesn’t think research is the most fun activity in the world (Nancy Drew did figure in this conversation). We’re also both grateful that we were able to finally find the ideal place to satisfy our intellectual and employment needs. Thanks, CUNY! You can learn more about Claire’s professional experience and writing here.