Episode 27: Michael Rain, digital storyteller

Photo by Brandon Sugiyama, a fellow Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism Fellow

I don’t know how Michael Rain finds time to sleep. He has so many ideas and projects and collaborations, and he’s ready to learn and take on even more. He was an ideal candidate for a fellowship with the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism where he continued to shape some of his already in-progress projects, like ZNews Africa, which he talks about in this episode. He also describes the origin, development and future plans for Enodi, a digital gallery that highlights the stories of first-generation black immigrants of African, Caribbean and Latin descent. In addition to those two enterprises, he completed a TED residency, culminating in a TED talk that’s been downloaded over a million times. I’ll save you the time Googling the Ghanian dish he talks about. You’re going to want it, too.

Michael recently completed a podcast certificate program produced through a partnership between the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and the Made in NY Media Center. The latter is a vibrant, multi-disciplinary collaborative workspace in DUMBO, Brooklyn where we recorded our conversation. While I was there, I got the chance to sit in on a listening session – basically a participatory pitchfest – for the PRX Google Podcast Creator’s Program. Podcasts are happening, people!

Follow Michael on Twitter

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Episode 26: Balis & Levy revive Watergate

Liz Levy and Andrea Balis
L to R: Elizabeth Levy, Fly, Andrea Balis

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 Scandal and 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. 

You can pre-order Bringing Down a President now.

Related content:

  • Episode 9 with Micki Kaufman, “Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me:’ Quantifying Kissinger”
  • A 2018 podcast wherein Prof. Allison Pease interviewed Andrea about her teaching
  • A 2016 interview I did with Andrea about her teaching

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Episode 25: Nancy K. Miller and the “pals of her desk”

My Brilliant Friends coverNancy 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.

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Episode 24: The group that won’t quit


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:

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Episode 23: Making conversation with Elizabeth Alsop







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.

Discover more of Elizabeth’s work here.

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter

*Here’s Steve Ovadia’s article on the technical challenges of OER.

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Episode 22: Sarah Hoiland on bikers, women and media

IJMS screen shotIn 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.

Follow @SarahHoiland

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Episode 21: Edgardo Sanabria-Valentin reflects and refracts STEM student success



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.

Follow @Edgardo_PhD and @JJCPRISM.

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Episode 20: Debra Caplan on remembering and visualizing Yiddish theater

Yiddish Empire coverListening 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.

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Episode 19: Jason Tougaw: Touching Brains

Tougaw book cover 2Tougaw book cover

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.

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Episode 18: Beth Harpaz: From 50 states to the CUNYverse


SUM_LogotypeAfter 35 years in newsrooms, Beth Harpaz now refers to herself as a #recoveringjournalist. Fortunately, she’s convalescing at CUNY where she continues to put her finely honed research, reporting and writing skills to use in a new environment. She is the content editor for SUM, a new website showcasing CUNY research. She’s also the author of Girls in the Van: Covering Hillary (2001), Finding Annie Farrell: A Family Memoir (2004) and 13 Is the New 18: And Other Things My Children Taught Me–While I Was Having a Nervous Breakdown Being Their Mother (2009). Her work as travel editor for The Associated Press earned her the 2018 bronze award for travel journalist of the year from the Society of American Travel Writers and another SATW award for a podcast about visiting all 50 states. She has a contagious energy both in person and in her writing. If you even dip into any of her books, you can kiss the rest of your day goodbye. You’ve been warned.

Follow Beth at @literarydj and SUM at @sum_research

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