Faces of Cooper: Atina Grossmann

Chae Jeong (ChE ‘16)

The Cooper Pioneer sat down with Atina Grossmann to discuss her educational background, raising a child in Massachusetts, and the current political climate here at Cooper.

The Cooper Union: Where are you from?

AG: The Upper West Side.

TCP: Can you tell me about your educational and professional background?

AG: Yes. I am a New York City girl. I grew up in the Upper West Side. I went to PS 87 and to Hunter High School, way back in the day when it was still an all girls’ school. It was one of those specialized high schools where you had to take a test. It was actually a wonderful place to be because back in the 60’s it was still –even in New York –not such a cool thing to be a smart girl. Once we got to Hunter, we all felt at home. It was a simulating and nurturing environment.

I ultimately ended up going to City College where I got my undergraduate degree after a brief detour to the University of Chicago, which I left, partially because I had to leave because I was a big student activist. I came to City at a time of enormous political turmoil and excitement, during the struggle around open admissions. It was a period from 69-72 where we felt that our educational life was completely entwined with our activism. I had some of the most amazing professors and that’s where I decided to become a history major because it seemed to make the most sense in terms of trying to understand what we were doing. The women’s movement was just beginning, the Vietnam War protests were in full swing, and we were trying to make open admissions work at City. After I graduated from City in 1972, I actually stayed on for another year as some of sort of assistant teacher in a new program which was designed to combine history and literature and bring together students who wanted to think about making open admissions work. It was a very stimulating and exciting time to go to school and I realized, “Oh! This could be a good life! I can be an activist and I can be a scholar” –which is what I wanted to do my whole life. In that sense, I never really left New York.

TCP: When did you first learn about Cooper?

AG: I think I always knew about Cooper or at least from the 60s on, when I was in high school, because Cooper Union, at least as a place, with the Foundation Building, the Great Hall, and all its historical significance , was so much part of the landscape, especially of the Lower East Side. And, of course, in the 60s, we would all go downtown and hang out at St. Mark’s Place and on the Lower East Side so the Foundation Building was the structure that stood benevolently over all the chaos of the time and neighborhood. I was definitely aware of Cooper in high school. I never thought of it as a school that I would apply to or go to because I was definitely not good at math and science –those were definitely not my strong points –and I wasn’t much of an artist. I was more interested in history and literature so it wasn’t on my radar in terms of where I would go to school. However, it was very much a part of the cultural and political landscape of the East Village.

One very conscious memory I have of Cooper is (I think in the early 80s, back in the day when we still celebrated International Woman’s Day on March 8th) a march that took us all around the Lower East Side. I was probably in graduate school at the time and I was the historian of the march. I remember bringing my bullhorn and pointing out Cooper Union as the site of historic events for the women’s movement, where Susan B. Anthony spoke and worked and, very importantly, the legendary and galvanizing speech by Clara Lemlich in 1909, who stood up while Samuel Gompers from the American Federation of Labor was speaking, and called on women to strike against the conditions in the garment industry sweatshops. Of course, two years later, there was the Triangle Shirtwaist sweatshop fire, which actually happened right around the corner, where a NYU building now stands. That was one of those moments when I felt that this building and this area was so much part of history and part of my identity as a historian, New Yorker, and feminist. Even though it was never a place I imagined going to as a student or even teaching at, it was very much a part of the fabric of New York City.

TCP: When did you start working here and how did you come to teach here?

AG: I first came in the fall of 1996. It was kind of a roundabout trajectory because I went to graduate school at Rutgers. I was always a public school person. I am very loyal alum of City College. When I went to City, it was free. I don’t think I ever paid for my education in my life. When I went to Rutgers, which is a state university, I was a TA and my education was covered by fellowships and my TA-ing. As I was finishing my dissertation at Rutgers in modern German history and women’s history, I got a job at Mt. Holyoke College –a tenure track position at Mt. Holyoke College –and I knew I didn’t want to want to go to western Massachusetts. I was a big city person and I didn’t really want to go. But, it was the 80’s and there were very few jobs in history and I really wanted to do a post-doc but my advisors said, “You’re crazy. You can’t turn down a tenure track job.” I buckled and went to teach at Mt. Holyoke. It was beautiful, and it was calm –some of the students had horses. I really, really wanted to go back to the city though. I had had my first child and my husband was working in New York. It was hard to be, basically, a single mother. There was still a lot of snow during New England winters and every morning I had to dig out my car; in New York, I can just get on the subway. I really needed to get out of there.

I always tell this anecdote because it’s the day I realized I really needed to do this. Once again, it had snowed and junior faculty didn’t have garages. I had to dig my old Toyota –which was a good car –out of the snow and bring my year and a half old son to daycare. I had this whole organizational strategy. I would get him all dressed up in a snowsuit, bring him outside and put him down. Then I would clear off the snow and get the car started. Nothing could stop me from this routine because I had to get him to daycare and I had to get to class. But he was screaming and screaming and I was ignoring him because I had to do what I had to do. I finally got the snow off my car and I go to pick him up and he’s screaming his head off. I then realized I had forgotten to put his boots on. So, I thought, “Uh oh.” It was not a good situation. I decided I needed to leave and live as a family with my husband in New York.

I was incredibly lucky at that point because I got a job at Columbia. Columbia, though, at that point did not hire tenure track and I knew that. But, I was so desperate to get out of western MA and to get back to New York that I didn’t care. So, I went to Columbia, which was wonderful. I had some wonderful students and worked with some amazing graduate students, some of whom are now very well known in their fields and among my colleagues. I was there for about 10 years but I knew that at some point it was going to end. I decided that I’d better leave them before they left me. In those days, the Ivies never tenured from the inside –even if you won a Nobel Prize, they wouldn’t tenure you…not that I did. I had finished writing my first book and I was happily doing research and teaching. At that time, I was working on modern German history, gender history, population policy, racial hygiene and sexuality. I knew two things. I knew that I wanted to stay in NY, despite opportunities at other universities. At this point I had another child and I was heavily involved in the community of the public school community that my children went to on the Upper Westside. I was very happily working on of Parent-Teacher leadership team and I didn’t want to give that up. In my whole life, I was happiest when I was doing scholarship and something that felt like activism. I also knew that I loved being a historian, an intellectual, and a scholar and I wanted to continue being a professor.

I had a very good friend named Andy (Anson) Rabinbach, who was my predecessor at Cooper. He taught history here and he developed what was then the “Making of Modern Society”course. He had gotten a job at Princeton. It was another way I knew about Cooper because we had always joked that if he ever left, wouldn’t this be a great job because it was such an interesting place, it was in New York, as a full-tuition scholarship institution it fit with my ideals of social activism, and it was full of interesting students. I had the opportunity also to continue my scholarly and professional life, as a historian of gender and sexuality, modern Germany, and the Holocaust, to research, publish, lecture, and be part of an international community of scholars. I think that practicing scholars who research and publish are also more interesting (if sometimes overly busy!) teachers. Sure enough, I applied for the job and I got it. It was really wonderful. The one thing, though, that I missed from Columbia was working with graduate students. But, being here in New York, I get to work with graduate students from NYU and I also work with graduate students in Berlin. I don’t feel deprived. I have to say, however, at the time that I came, I didn’t think that humanities and social sciences were not central to the curriculum in the way that I’m worried now that they aren’t as central as they should be because the people I knew who taught at Cooper were such scholars and intellectuals. It seemed like HSS was taken very seriously. When I came, we used to sit around in our book-lined conference room at 51 Astor Place and have meetings and talk and argue for hours about what the IDs on the HSS3 final should be. There was really a sense of intellectual excitement that I’m not sure we have been able to sustain right now. I hope we get back there.

That’s how I came, and I taught the course that Andy Rabinbach had developed. I taught that for one year and then I had gotten a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton that year. I was already thinking about my next book and working more on the Holocaust and Jewish studies. I left for Princeton for a year and came back to a completely changed curriculum, with the introduction of HSS1-4. I’ve been teaching here ever since, always trying to think of ways to make history seem important and exciting to the students. In some ways, I feel like it’s a little harder now. I don’t know why but I think it may be because the students are more overburdened . For me it’s been a way to integrate my life: to live in the city, which is my home, to see my kids through school, and to work on my own research.

TCP: What would you say your role is here at Cooper?

AG: That’s a really interesting question. I feel like it keeps changing. The position for which I was hired was pretty straightforward. It was to teach history, to be the lead lecturer in the Making of Modern Society course, to supervise the adjuncts and to teach electives especially in my two specialties, European history and gender/women studies. I still think that what I would like my primary role to be is to teach that general history course and teach it in such a way that students can see that it is not a burden or something that is forced on them but something that is necessary and interesting for their future lives as professionals and citizens. I think the question of what electives I teach is harder because many students used to sign up when I taught courses about the Holocaust or 20th Century Europe but now there seems to be less of an interest. I’m trying to figure out what that’s about. So there’s that: my role as a teacher.

I think there’s a role here for somebody who is really a research scholar in one of the non-major fields, who writes, publishes, and lectures around the world and is both really rooted in NY and in Cooper and also has an international presence. I think that’s really important, also for students, so we’re not just locked into Cooper. Obviously, now, (it must be my activist background) I am very concerned about what’s going on at Cooper and the future of the school. Both about the decisions being made and about the way decisions are being made. I think faculty have a delicate role to play. We’re not the students and I don’t think faculty should act on the behalf of students or tell students how they should think. We offer students tools to think about what’s going on and to make their own decisions. But I think that we, especially as full-time faculty, have a huge stake in the future of the institution and I’m worried about that future . It’s an amazing place.

Also, I would love to be part of a relationship that creates a synergy among the three schools and HSS. Otherwise, you can just be at SVA for example. Cooper has this extraordinary interdisciplinary potential.

TCP: As a closing remark, do you have any advice for the Cooper community or the students specifically?

AG: I think that Cooper has a remarkable history and that we should be very careful with how we both preserve and move forward with it. I really do hope that we can maintain a full-tuition scholarship policy. I’m completely aware of the financial challenges. I think that there are ways we can do it. I think, also, that for students it’s an extraordinary opportunity to be in the city, to learn from the professors and students of the other schools, to take seriously the opportunities that humanities and social sciences can provide. It’s the students that are going to have to speak up (if that’s important) and say, “Yes, we are committed to our fields but we need time to partake in everything that Cooper has to offer.” And we’ll be right behind you!

Photo provided by Atina Grossman

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