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HSS Post-Doc: Nicholas D’Avella

Caroline Yu (EE ’15)

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The Cooper Pioneer sat down with both post-docs in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences to ask about their previous and current work as well as their experience at Cooper so far. This issue contains our interview with Professor Nicholas D’Avella. Regarding Professor D’Avella and Professor Leigh’s contributions to Cooper’s HSS department, Dean Germano comments: “I should say that even though they are here for a limited period, postdocs make a positive contribution to Cooper culture by bringing their own research expertise and teaching interests. We have new courses this year that we certainly wouldn’t have been able to offer without Nick D’Avella and Allison Leigh. And both are working on book projects that will make contributions in their fields of urban anthropology and art history. That will be scholarly work Cooper has helped to bring about by funding these postdoctoral fellowships. Nick and Allison are great colleagues, and students have responded very positively to them and to their courses. I’m very glad we had the opportunity and the funding to bring them to Cooper this year!” Both post-docs have given talks about their research in the past month and are looking forward to continue working with students for the rest of the year. Below is our interview with Professor D’Avella. The interview was edited and condensed.

The Cooper Pioneer: Could you tell me about your academic background?

Nicholas D’Avella: My undergraduate education was in a program called The Growth and Structure of Cities at Bryn Mawr College, which is outside Philadelphia. I was really interested in the way cites are structured and the ways people think about them – questions of urban planning and the history of urban life. Then for grad school I went on to study anthropology. One of my advisors was an anthropologist and I liked the way he thought about things. I was pretty taken by the methodology of anthropology, which is basically talking to people and doing interviews with them, observing them – I’m usually on the other side of the microphone asking people about their life and what they do. It’s an unstructured way to understand the world and in that sense it’s unique in the social sciences. I went to study anthropology at UC Davis where I earned my PhD. Then I had a post-doc at UC Berkeley, and now I’m here at Cooper!

TCP: How’s the switch between California and New York?

ND: I grew up in New Jersey and lived in New York for a few years after I finished college. It’s good to be back.

One of the big switches is coming to Cooper, which is a much smaller and undergrad-focused institution. That’s a really exciting thing for me. As an anthropologist, my research was about a construction boom in Buenos Aires after the financial crisis there in 2001. I lived there for a couple of years and ended up interviewing and reading a lot about real estate investors and market analysts, architects both in the university and in the professional practice, and with neighborhood groups, who were working to change the building code in the city. The project was about buildings and how they appear in different worlds – a building as it shows up in a graph of market investment analysis where they graph the price of three building apartments over thirty years is very different than how a building appears in an architecture drawing and it’s very different than how it appears in the urban planning code. It’s also different than how people live with buildings in their everyday lives. The idea of the project was to look at buildings from these multiple standpoints. Coming to Cooper is an exciting place to be because I worked with architecture students in Buenos Aires.  I spent a year in an architecture school doing observation.

It’s also exciting to see how artists and engineers have different ways of thinking about cities. I have my first couple of civil engineers in my HSS4 class called Writing the City, which has students do ethnographic projects in NY. We just read an article last week by an anthropologist who was studying water infrastructure in Mumbai and he was looking how water flow is not just a technical question but also a question of politics. He uses this idea of pressure to talk about water in this way – that water pressure comes from political pressure. So I’m interested as an anthropologist in engineering questions, too. Infrastructure usually goes unrecognized until it starts falling apart – that’s when we recognize it. It’s an interesting take on the city.

TCP: Are you teaching another course at Cooper?

ND: Yes. So last semester I taught an Intro to Anthropology course called Anthropology and the Other. Anthropology, in its long history, started out as something complimentary to sociology. Sociologists studied modern societies and anthropologists studied traditional societies. So that class was a history of how anthropology started thinking about human relations through people who live in radically different social worlds, but how those insights are still useful to think about how we relate to people different from ourselves today. Right now I’m teaching a class called Maps/Charts/Drawings: Visualization and the Anthropology of Knowledge. This class is about thinking about visual forms of representation not just as transparent views onto a reality but as certain cultural ways of thinking about and engaging with the world.

TCP: As a post-doc, how does this course relate to you?

ND: This course is very relevant to my own research. With both of the classes I’m teaching now, my work is influenced by and in dialogue with the classes I’m teaching. It’s nice for me to reread texts with students – especially because HSS4 is about students writing their own research projects. To see how students deploy these texts in their own arguments is fun and stimulating for me. For the Maps/Charts/Drawings class, I’m actually revising a chapter of my book right now about architectural drawing in Buenos Aires, and I’m approaching it in a way that’s very tied in with the themes that we’re looking into in that class, about knowledge and politics and how they articulate with different visual tools for knowing the world.

TCP: What do you like best about Cooper’s humanities department?

ND: What I really like is the engagement with people who don’t already know how to care about the questions of the Humanities and Social Sciences. I’m drawn in by the kind of interdisciplinary work that that forces you to do.  At a place like Davis I would teach anthropology grad students and undergrads.  Not exclusively — there were a lot of undergrads interested in agriculture, for instance.  But there were majors.  At Berkeley, I was a researcher and I was surrounded by people with PhDs in the humanities and social sciences. Although there, too, I was always drawn to how the Humanities and Social Sciences could articulate with other ways of thinking about the world.  For example, I did this research project about a data center they were building at Berkeley, whose goal was to bring together biologists, astronomers, and comp scientists confronting new domains of knowledge and practice around computation.  They brought me in to help facilitate a conversation between these people, and to try and understand how each of them worked with data as part of their science. So in that sense I was also very much surrounded by scientists there as well as people from the Humanities and Social Sciences.

All this is to say that I’ve spent some time cultivating this practice of talking to and trying to be relevant to people who don’t automatically see anthropologists as people who can help them work through problems that are relevant to them. That practice and challenge of making yourself relevant and achieving an important voice among a community of people who don’t necessarily realize the value that you can have to them is one of the things I like about Cooper. I like that challenge.

TCP: Getting that interaction started is really important!

ND: It is important and it’s difficult. They call these things disciplines for a reason. You’ve been disciplined to think in a certain way. The trick is to make the conversations [between students of the different schools] deeper. That’s the kind of thing I enjoy doing. In the class on visual forms of knowledge, to me, it’s cool and a really unique opportunity that we can read one article about the history of perspective in the visual arts and another about the practices of protein crystallographers, and then think those things along side one other – while also sitting at a table with artists, architects, and engineers!  That’s part of what makes Cooper really unique and special for me.

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