Category Archives: Faces of Cooper

Meet Professor Diego Malquori. Photo by Yifei Simon Shao (ME '19)

Faces of Cooper: Professor Diego Malquori

By Anthony Passalacqua (CE ’18)

Meet Professor Diego Malquori. Photo by Yifei Simon Shao (ME '19)
Meet Professor Diego Malquori. Photo by Yifei Simon Shao (ME ’19).

Can you give us a little background about yourself?

My academic background is relatively simple. I started physics at the beginning, and I got a PhD in astrophysics. I worked as a researcher in astrophysics for a few years in the evolution of galaxies and quasars. I published some articles on the subject, and then I gradually moved to philosophy. It was not a rupture, but a long transition, in the sense that even while I was working as a researcher in astrophysics I started giving conferences on the philosophical foundations of cosmology, and even modern science like quantum mechanics. This was my first serious approach to philosophy. Later, I moved a lot through different countries, and I finally arrived in Barcelona, Spain. There I started collaborating with the faculty of philosophy, teaching several subjects in the field of epistemology and the philosophy of science, at different levels. I came from science, and thanks to my experience as a researcher and an astrophysicist they opened the door to me. At the same time, I decided to simultaneously study philosophy, seriously. Even though I didn’t follow the whole curriculum of philosophy, indirectly I started on my second PhD in philosophy. I followed some courses on the curriculum, without being officially enrolled, and they accepted me as a PhD student. I started again. I wrote a master’s thesis on the concept of time – [translated] “The Concept of Time – Some Thoughts on Kant and Einstein.” It is sort of a comparison between idealistic philosophy on the conception of time and the theory of relativity. Thereafter, there was a sort of interruption in my research; it was after 2009, and the whole world was chaos. The effect of the crisis on Europe lasted several years, and I couldn’t continue my collaboration with that university, even though I had some level of responsibility as the director of a research group. I had to find some way to survive elsewhere, so I also worked as a highschool teacher for four years. I taught mathematics, physics, and philosophy at the same time. So I had to interrupt for a while my research work. Thereafter I started again, and instead of continuing my work, which is the natural thing when working on a PhD thesis, I decided quite naturally to focus on how artists express through art the conflict between the objective and the subjective dimension of time. Therefore my PhD thesis focused on contemporary art. The title is “Time and Temporality in Contemporary Art.” I moved from astrophysics to philosophy of science, and then again with a continuous transition to the philosophy of art. I think there is a continuous line in my academic and personal evolution. From a reflection on the evolution of the universe as a whole, I moved to the conflict between subjective and objective time, and I finally approached the very question of the expression and the perception of temporality. To add something more, I’d like to describe my personal evolution. It of course follows a parallel path, in the sense that I’ve always been moved by a sincere desire of exploring my internal restlessness. I’ve always been decided to focus on what I really consider the most worthy subject, in any situation. As you can imagine, my personal life has been the same way: very unlinear. I’ve been to many countries and done so many things in my life – not because I was tired and wanted to change, but because I am always looking towards the horizon. I always try to imagine the essence of things past the surface. I remember clearly that this is a personal attitude which I had even when I was a child. I think it’s simply the application of my way of being and what I’ve done.

How long were you in the field of astrophysics before you started to transition into the philosophy of science?

If you say “before you started the transition,” then it’s difficult to say, because my transition started even before concluding my first PhD in astrophysics. I can tell you sincerely that even while I was spending sleepless nights following my calculations about black holes, which I was very enthusiastic about, and moved by a sincere passion for, it was clear to me that what was the most worthwhile question was not the object of our gaze, or even our imagination, but the very fact that we, a small creature on a small planet called Earth, dare to imagine such a complex world. I was fascinated – and I’m not saying this now just because I’m a professor of philosophy – by the very fact that we were trying to reconstruct such a complex reality. Of course, I didn’t pretend, and I’ve never pretended, to reach the final, absolute truth. This was the biggest difference between myself and some of my colleagues. I had the impression from some of them that they pretended to arrive at the final answer about the big bang theory, or the nature of galaxies, or their evolution. To me, it was a very fascinating subject, and I put forth all my effort in order to make a worthwhile contribution, but it was clear that it was just speculation; it was a sort of fascinating play, but the truth, if it exists, was very far from our model. And it was just a model. Sometimes they work, in that the results of our model are not so far from what we observe, and we can compare observation to our model. It’s always distant though, the two cannot match. When it’s not so far, we can say “oh it’s not so wrong, our model.” Maybe it’s just by chance that we arrived at this similarity, but the nature of what we are trying to describe is beyond not only our mathematical capabilities, but even our brains’ capacity. I wasn’t worried about that. I thought, and I think, that it’s still worthwhile to put in that effort, because in trying to reconstruct such a complex reality we are going out of the cave, as in the image of Plato’s cavern. This desire to reconstruct the external reality moved us from a simply material, and trivial way of living, to a different attitude, with respect to all reality, not just with respect to astrophysics. That’s why it’s worthwhile, even if the truth, if we can say that, is very far from our models. Mine is quite a peculiar attitude when compared to many of my old colleagues, which is why I think now that I really had a philosophical attitude. Even at that time I was more interested in the relationship between we as a small creature, and the infinite.

If you could go back, would you do it in the same way, starting with the field of astrophysics?

I recognize that it has been a very long, and complicated path. If you think about which is the easiest, or more effective path to arrive as a professor of philosophy, I’d tell you to study philosophy at the beginning and go straight forward. So I have no doubts that what I have done has been much longer, more difficult, and riskier, but I would still do the same. I do not regret the effort which I lived. I say lived because it’s really something that I experienced in myself, deeply. I think that that kind of intellectual effort has been very useful. If I write as I do right now, it reflects my effort to try to synthesize the complexity of reality. When you have to manage so many things – I’m thinking of the evolution of galaxies, which is a subject in which you consider simultaneously in detail both physical processes and the overall structure of the universe – in your mind, and propose an original model, you need to be able to combine both an analytic and a synthetic way of thinking. This is also very useful for anything else you will do. So I don’t regret it. It took a long time to take this path, but I consider that, in everything we do, what matters is not the final result, but the path. Otherwise, we’d all simply wish to die because that’s the final end. Meanwhile, we have a lot of things to do, and the path is more interesting than the result. It’s difficult to say if I would so the same thing, because I’m so curious, and there are so many things that I would like to do, and I’ve had no time to do them. But if the question is “do I regret having spanned so many years studying astrophysics,” then the answer is no.

Can you tell us a little bit about your travels.

The easy part is to tell you that I’ve lived in eight countries. I started in Italy. Then I did my first PhD in Paris, where I did my research project. After that I spent one year in Israel, at a post-doc fellowship. After September 11th, the whole situation in the middle east was quite hot, so we decided to move to a totally different environment: Mexico. I spent three years in Puebla working as an astrophysicist, at the National Astrophysics Institute. Meanwhile, I have also spent almost one year, at different periods, in India, invited by another important institute of astrophysics. I spent three intervals of three or four months at a time in India. After that I arrived in Spain, and spent more or less ten months in Barcelona, and then, as I told you, I started working directly in the field of philosophy, teaching the philosophy of science, and another of my interests, the philosophy of music. And now I am here. I move a lot, following not only my internal curiosity, but also, and above all, my desire to confront myself with other cultures and realities. I never try to hold on to my fixed point of view when I travel. I try to listen, and understand different points of view. While I cannot forget that I am a western person, I really try to put forward an effort to approach, as close as possible, Indian culture, for example. I even studied Hindi, even learning how to write. I did it not only because of my curiosity, but that it is also a way to demonstrate by word and action that I wanted to approach their culture. That’s very useful; when I was on the road, I could totally change the relationship I had with a passerby just by speaking a few words in Hindi. I studied Indian music, and playing it was an incredibly emotional experience with another musician. I couldn’t forget my culture, and of course I didn’t want to simulate being Indian. I really wanted to move from my fixed point of view, to try to understand the other. After living in many countries, I think that it’s useless to look for the best place in the world. It simply doesn’t exist. Instead, we have to find it in each situation of our life to learn and understand something. After my experience in many countries, in many situations, and even in many jobs – even my experience as a high school teacher, which was the hardes job I’ve done – I have found that it’s very useful to experience different points of view. It allows you to more easily understand, for example, the problems of teenagers. As a father, it’s especially important to put forward that effort. We can’t consider that the younger generation are… I don’t want to say stupid, but this is unfortunately the attitude – not my attitude – of many old, mature people. I think the opposite. Young people, even teenagers, have brilliant minds, full of enthusiasm, and curiosity, much more than other people. Unfortunately, they lose themselves for other reasons, but potentially you have incredible potential. My attitude has always been to listen to everybody, even in the case where my situation has been hard for other reasons. I’ve always tried to learn from every country, and every experience.

How has that experience been so far for you in the states?

Well it’s too early to tell so far. I arrived at the end of August, for the first time. I had just been here in May, to give my talk. So I can’t say anything.

What do you feel your role as a professor is for students here, and do you think that’s different from what you’ve seen abroad?

Here I can tell you something. Even though it’s been just one month, I’ve had a very positive opportunity of getting to know you guys, and the dynamic of teaching here. I really have been positively surprised. In Europe I taught in different universities, and there is a more passive conception of teaching. Sometimes students give presentations, but only as official, formal assignments. We don’t have this kind of round table, where we share our opinion, with the direction of the professor, who can moderate, or give hints. I think that’s very important, and I’m happy to have this opportunity. Not only do I think that it important for you, the student, to have the chance to be involved in the process of learning, in the Socratic sense. The professor is just helping you to get out from yourself what you already have at an intuitive level, or in ordering your thoughts. It’s important that one participates, and not just be a passive spectator of a play. It’s also more useful for me as a teacher, as I really have the opportunity, in both the ethics course and in the freshman seminar, to understand what you receive. I have in mind an idea of what I hope to transmit, but sometimes I’m far from reality. Having this chance to share, and participate together, even though we can’t always do that since I need to give formal explanations, is very useful to me in seeing what you receive in the discourse I try to organize. I can also learn from you, both because you can have interesting ideas that stimulate me to go in deep and understand something more, and because I can find tune and adjust my way of explaining something. Although it’s been just one month, it’s a really positive experience.

Do you have any advice to offer the students here?

I’ve just discovered Cooper students, with just a glimpse of an intuition of you. Up to now it’s been very positive, so it’s difficult to understand your weak points. I’m happy with both my ethics course and the freshman seminar. I haven’t seemed to see if there are weaknesses in you. I will just say what I say to all my students, at any level: try to be curious. Something I have experienced my whole life, even to be a good engineer, is that it’s very important to think about art, literature, and many other things. This can make you a better, more complete person, but also in your own work, this allows you to have a wider view. Einstein played the violin, and many other important scientists had other interests besides physics. To be a good physicist, even, you need to be involved in other kinds of thoughts. It is clear why it is so. If you just focus on one, specialized, thing, you’ll be good at that field, but as soon as the conditions are slightly different, you will be lost. I’ve seen this in some of my colleagues who have spent years studying one specific problem, with no idea of the whole picture. Once they took one step outside of their field, they couldn’t move. So it is important to study The Odyssey when you are a physicist. Reading an old text obliges you to learn how to analyze the different levels. Moreover, it gives you a wider view, besides making you a better person. If you want to be a good scientist, you first have to be a good person. So my advice is be curious, travel, and try to see a different point of view. Even if in the end you decide “I prefer my country, my city, my point of view,” that’s fine, but first you have to go out, live, and see the other perspectives. Later, if you come back to your own place, you will have a much wider viewpoint. Travel both physically, and mentally, and move away from a narrow point of view, which is a problem in both science and in society. There is an important American physicist, David Tong, who points out that one of the problems with contemporary science is the fragmentation of knowledge. We are choosing to be in subfields that are too narrow, and people can remain their whole lives in these narrow spaces. We need to open our minds, and Cooper students are in a very positive environment for this. You have a wonderful opportunity to open your mind, with students of the engineering school having to follow literature courses and philosophy courses. I think this is the best place for my conception of education, and maybe, on the other hand, it’s not by chance that that is so – perhaps I was chosen for my conception of education.

What are your hobbies, and how do you spend your free time?

I would like to have free time [chuckles]. If you want a simple answer, listening to music, sailing and walking. ◊

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Meet the First Years: Juan José García (Art ‘20)

By Monica Chen (ME ’18)

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Meet Juan José García (Art ‘20). Photo by Wentao Zhang (ChE ‘19).

“I’m not willing to let go of being able to make art for the sake of art.”

Why did you choose to come to Cooper? 

I was somewhat convinced I wasn’t going to get into Cooper and I was looking at fashion design colleges like Central Saint Martins and Parsons Paris. Ironically though, those fell through because I couldn’t afford them whereas Cooper offered me an amazing scholarship. It was just one of those things that make you think “oh, it must be a sign.”

How did you hear of Cooper Union?

My first contact at Cooper was actually one of my best friends, Valerie Franco. We were really close friends in high school and Cooper was her dream school. I remember when she was doing her home test, I was thinking, “I am not applying there—it’s too much.” Then senior year came around and as my art started to evolve, I decided that it would be a nice challenge to try the home test.

Where are you from?

I am Colombian but I came to the US when I was 12. I’ve lived in Orlando, New Jersey, and  Miami. When I was 16, I convinced my mother to move north because she was having difficulty finding a job as she didn’t know English. I, however, stayed in Miami and attended Design and Architecture Senior High School (DASH). I was confident that despite the fact that my mother moved away, my high school could help me achieve my goals in terms of college.

What did you think of the turmoil that happened at Cooper before you arrived?

I like that the politics makes you think about your own school and why these issues matter, especially when so many people can’t afford to go to college. It also starts a conversation about college and higher education in general, so it actually made me very happy to see that the students at Cooper are taking the initiative to think about what is going on and engaging in an active conversation.

What interests or inspires you in your art?

It varies. About a year ago I was painting portraits of myself with makeup on as a means of exploring gender identity and sexual orientation. About 6 months ago, I started delving into my experience living alone as a teenager and the associated feelings of isolation and displacement. Right before coming to Cooper, I was exploring ideas of human processes; to me, that is what art is about. It’s somewhat of a mirror reflecting how we interact as humans. Recently, I’ve been interested in the more abstract concept of exploring such processes and trying to map out these interactions.

So how does it feel to call New York City your home?

It’s funny, Colombia is a well-developed country but as a kid, there’s still that small third-world feeling of “America is America.” I always dreamed of being able to live in a city like New York but it’s still difficult to accept the fact that I am living here. It’s weird because when significant things happen in your life, it’s hard to accept that your dreams are taking form. I love it though, it’s my city; I’m not a naïve person and yet I feel safe.

What was your impression of Cooper Union when you first arrived?

I had an idea of what the people were like because of my friend but I had never been to the school until move-in day. I couldn’t make Admitted Students Day as I was preparing for my high school fashion show. Cooper is a very lively little hub and at first, I was overwhelmed just by being here (but in a good way).

Tell me more about your fashion show in high school.

DASH (NOT the Kardashian store) is a tiny school of 500 people in the middle of the design district in Miami. In sophomore year, students need to choose from five paths: fashion design, graphic design, industrial design, film and television, and architecture. I chose fashion design which came with a very rigorous workload. Our “senior thesis” was a project in which we had to design our own clothing and patterns and cut and sew our own fabric. My collection was a combination of my interpretation of modernity and my Colombian roots. It was a great experience and an amazing production and it’s unbelievable that the show is entirely student-run.

So has this fashion show experience
inspired you to continue pursuing fashion design during or after Cooper?

Everyone at DASH was going to fashion design schools and I applied and got in, but I felt that none of the schools were a perfect fit for me as they were either in a place where I didn’t think I’d flourish or were not in the urban setting I was looking for. When Cooper came about, I was very excited but it was conflicting because Cooper doesn’t offer fashion design—it’s just art. Then I sat down and really thought about it; people [from DASH] have done things that no one else has done before at DASH and I hadn’t seen anyone approach fashion design from an art background. I had my practice with fashion design so I know what the technical skills are but I wanted to explore this more artistic and experimental side, and see how that plays out. I’m not willing to let go of being able to make art for the sake of art. I can create my own path in a way that I haven’t seen people from my school do by going to art school and then figuring my way around and still do whatever I want to do. In order to create the kind of fashion design I wanted to make, I knew I had to be intense about my art. ◊

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Meet the First Years: Andrey Akhmetov (EE’20)

By Daniel Galperin (ChE ’18)

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Meet Andrey Akhmetov (EE ‘20). Photo by Wentao Zhang (ChE ‘19).

Tell me about yourself. 

I’m Andrey, born in Moscow and raised in Niskayuna in upstate New York.

You’ve had your first almost-full week of classes. What is your first impression of Cooper?

Honestly, it has been a very natural transition for me from high school to Cooper. A lot of my high school education was project based regardless of whether I was in or out of class and I spent a lot of time in labs working on my own projects. I feel that it’s the same way here but with much harder material. Obviously, the equipment is also much better than what I had in school.

What was your first impression socially?

Perfect fit for me. It’s a small school and it’s very easy to approach people. Many other schools I visited were depressing, sad and mechanical.

Glad to hear it. How was your summer?

I worked on a lot of personal programming, personal CPU design, and I was a student-IT worker in my high school. I designed a CPU using an FPGA (field-programmable gate array). An FPGA is a chip that is used for prototyping circuitry, which a user can program after purchase, hence the name. A lot of my work this summer was writing code for the FPGA and then testing to see if it does what I want. Unfortunately, it ended up being an unmarketable design, though it proved powerful as an academic learning tool.

Sounds like you have a good amount of computer engineering knowledge. Where did you pick all of this up?

Mostly self-study inspired by an electronics teacher in sophomore year who didn’t know what an FPGA was and asked me to figure it out. I actually learned about it, planned a lesson on it and the teacher still uses my lesson in class.

What was the hardest project, assignment or activity you had in high school?

I was really into competitive robotics. I was a founding member of the robotics club in my school and the lead programmer for all four years. For three of those four years I was also the only programmer. Interestingly, the guy that
invented the Roomba vacuum started funding our robotics program after the team was established. The hardest part was keeping hardware in line with software deadlines. It’s best described as playing Whac-a-Mole with bugs and workarounds. Actually, from all of those projects I started to develop a small optical navigation sensor for autonomous robots and I’m working on commercializing it now. The demand in robotics exists, and according to competitive robotics rules, they have to buy from companies, so I am working on becoming a one-person LLC.

What is your biggest regret from high school?

Ah, where do I start…probably not being broad enough in my academic interests? I focused too much on electrical engineering and robotics, and I only dabbled in mechanical engineering related work. I also regret not taking German earlier.

Okay, what do you look forward to most at Cooper?

I’m definitely excited for the academic side of Cooper. I’m looking forward to gaining real world knowledge. I’m also really interested in Formula SAE and the 3D Printing and Rapid Prototyping club. I’m also currently applying to work in Micro-lab on the 6th floor. ◊

Summer Experiences: Sara Wong (ChE ’17)

By Robert Godkin (ChE ’18)

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“I interned at Campbell’s Soup in Camden, NJ for 12 weeks and was working under the Soup Team in Research &

Development (R&D). My main project involved analyzing starches used in soups, and I worked to optimize conditions for the starches to make the processes more efficient.

In R&D, there is a part called Process R&D, and I worked with process engineers on a daily basis. I also interacted with product developers and culinary professionals, as well as my fellow interns! I was the only intern in Soup R&D though. I also worked alongside Science & Technology and Pilot Plant Operations divisions, both of which were very informative.

The work was really interesting and I liked that I was able to work in different environments: the lab, kitchen, and pilot plant, for example. The research I was doing was valued and would have an impact on the development of products! So exciting! It’s hard to compare it to what I do at Cooper. I was learning a lot of fundamentals and knowledge at Cooper, and I’d learn about the applications, but the internship was different. Working in industry gives you another experience, and I was seeing first-hand how my work could be applied in the real-world.

My favorite part of my internship was the people. Everyone was super friendly, helpful, and approachable! Whenever I had a question, whether it was something small or not, they were all supportive and willing to help. I wish I could have stayed longer at my internship and learned more—there is nothing negative to say!

I learned a lot over this internship, but I think my biggest takeaway was seeing what working in industry was like. This was my first industry experience. Previously, I’ve had summer research experiences at universities, but working in corporate R&D gave me a new perspective. I have a better idea of what I want to do after college, and I could see myself working in an R&D position and doing process engineering.”

Summer Experiences: Justin Merkin (ChE ’18)

By Robert Godkin (ChE ’18)

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“This summer I worked two different internships. The first was at Cantor Fitzgerald’s electronic brokerage subsidiary, BGC Partners, where I was a Financial Technology Analyst. I worked mainly with Microsoft SQL to build and normalize a database. The database tracked the inventory of all the applications used and sold by the company, in order to compile a risk assessment of each application. My second internship was at a private equity firm called Kuzari Group. The work I did there was more what you’d think of as a general finance internship. I worked hand in hand with the partners on different financial models and projections for the various active deals during the time I was there.

Seeing as Cantor is a much bigger, corporate company, I interacted with all types of people throughout the day, from the support groups who sat near me, to the CIO who hired me. It depended on the day. At Kuzari, I got a different experience since it is a very small company. I interacted with every member of the company on a daily basis. As exciting and interesting as the work was, the difficulty of it does not even compare to that of Cooper. It just goes to show that Cooper’s rigorous workload really does prepare us for anything.

My favorite aspect overall was definitely how much I learned. The combination of these two internships was invaluable to me in terms of my desired path into the financial services field. The worst thing were the hours: I worked from about 7:30am to 6pm.”

Summer Experiences: Ross Kaplan (EE’18)

By Robert Godkin (ChE ’18)

“I worked at Rubenstein Technology Group doing full stack development. I worked for a few weeks on support, which meant changing and adding new functionality for clients. They ranged from a few minute tasks to a few day-long tasks. Later on in the summer, I worked exclusively on a new project that should be released in the coming months. I’m still working there for a few more weeks to help finish it up.

Surprisingly, I worked with mostly Cooper graduates. A lot of their developers are from Cooper. They were incredible and so easy to work with, extremely helpful, and very knowledgeable. It was not difficult for me to quickly catch up to the work they were doing.

The work was stimulating and interesting. It’s hard to compare to the work I do at Cooper because most coding projects at Cooper have a pretty defined starting and ending point. Build a function that takes in this and returns that. In comparison, I was given a lot of freedom in how things were implemented—which can actually make things more difficult. That generally involved finding the best places to get the data you needed from in order to make something that’s maintainable.

My favorite part of my experience was doing active development at the end of the summer. I was able to put together all the small things I learned over the course of the summer into what I worked on. I was also able to voice my opinion about larger design considerations that helped to shape the backend of the site. So for example, in building geo-location functionality, I implemented something that I had used before with success, and it worked immediately.

My least favorite part of the experience was that client requests could be potentially really foolish. One of our clients would ask every week without fail to change pieces of their site into iframes, under the impression that it would help with their search engine optimization. Even though they weren’t difficult requests, it would make the codebase of their site get larger and significantly more complicated each time. The result was that every change you made would make each future change even harder. Even if the client request is bad for their site, we still have to implement it.

The biggest takeaway for me was the experience I gained in a professional setting. I was technically an intern, but they took my suggestions and ideas as seriously as any of the developers. It really helped me shape my experience into one where I both learned a lot of things technically as well as professionally.”

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Faces of Cooper: Professor Peter Buckley

By Anthony Passalacqua (ME ’18)

Can you give us a little background about yourself? 

Peter Buckley: I was born in the UK; I first came to America during my college years as part of a study abroad program in my third year. I was already interested in the country, but that experience, when I was 21, determined that I wanted to study the history of the US. That’s what I’ve been doing since! I came to the US after completing my undergraduate degree in England, and then did all my graduate work here. 

Where did you study? 

I first went to SUNY Stony Brook, where I didn’t meet Professor Om Agrawal or Professor Alan Wolf, and then I went to the CUNY Graduate Center, and it was probably that move that determined most of my interest would be centered in New York City. So that’s the trajectory. After finishing my PhD, I taught at Princeton for two years, and then at Pratt Institute. It was when I was attending a lecture at NYU, I saw a flyer on the wall saying there was a position at Cooper Union. I interviewed, and I’ve been here since. 

Can you tell us about how your fellow British countrymen felt about your decision to study American history? 

They said it was an easier thing to do because there wasn’t much of it. Isn’t that funny? It was especially funny because I think they were serious about it. When I was thinking about majoring in American history at the University of Cambridge, there were 43 medieval historians, and one US historian. That really gives you an understanding of how little the British academic establishment thought about US matters. I don’t think it was just to do with a kind of “colonial mentality” on the British part, and the fact that they lost the war of independence. I think it had more to do with actually realizing how powerful the US was after WWII and not really wanting to examine it. 

You said a flyer convinced you to interview for a job here at Cooper, but what drove you to take the position? 

Cash. I wanted a job, and Cooper, which I already knew about as a historical artifact, was a very interesting place to teach. It still is a good place to teach… maybe not to work, but to teach it’s good.

What do you teach here, besides the core HSS courses?

I teach a range of electives. Humanities and Social Sciences decided some time ago that it would be a good idea if the faculty taught on a two year rotation, so that any junior or senior would have a chance to take an elective. I think that’s been a wise policy, and I think it’s been looked at by other faculty as a model. I normally teach a particular range of courses: the history of NYC, American intellectual history, American social history. 

You said that “this is a very good place to teach, if not to work.” The question is: what do you particularly like about the environment here, and what do you dislike?

The liking is quite easy. I like the students, and I like my colleagues. I think the students still embody the right forms of ambition, and the right levels of intellectual engagement. The faculty: everyone is excited about all the new hiring. We’re getting three new full-time hires in HSS, and two post-docs. That’s five people who, hopefully, will arrive next semester. I’m very excited about that, because that will entirely amplify the range of things we teach. 

As for it being a place to work, the last few years have been tremendously tiring. Not just for the faculty, but I recognize that in the students as well. It was necessary to fight battles that should never have taken place. 

This wasn’t a fight just about tuition; what had been really eroded was governance, and then with the attempt to impose a computer science degree, it was also an attack upon academic standards. That’s a particularly draining form of attack. I don’t know how to explain it exactly. It’s not as if faculty wake up in the morning every day and agonize over academic standards. But when such a thing happens, it cuts deeper than students imagine, because it’s the faculty’s business to make those standards and to uphold them. When that is under attack, it is especially corrosive to faculty morale. That’s how I would characterize basically the last four years. 

The thing that was on the agenda, was not simply charging tuition, but something being called ‘reinvention’. What exactly that ‘reinvention’ was going to actually look like was never spelled out, but effectively it meant enacting a program of expansion that bore little relationship to the successes that we already had. It’s not as if anyone ever sat down and said “what do we do well?” That still has to happen. In my opinion, removing the President, and the previous Dean of Engineering, has not answered questions that were always there. Namely: “Who are we?”, “What are we as an institution?”, “What do we do best?”, and “How would we like to change?” Throughout all of the last four years, a lot of things have been talked about, but education itself is conspicuous by its absence. 

Let me pose one of those questions to you. For your department, what would you want to change, especially with all of these new hires coming in? 

This is such a large cohort to hire, and the new faculty will inevitably change the nature of HSS, especially its core offerings. We had started examining HSS one through four, and that process will be made immeasurably easier, when we have new people contributing to that. For example, we’re due to hire someone whose center of interest is economics. A student has already asked “well, what does that mean for the core?” The answer is, obviously, something more to do with economy or political economy will appear within it. The decision of whom we hire is also a decision of how we want to change. 

What do you feel your role of a professor here is? How do you think that reflects on your pedagogical methods? 

I’d like to break that question down. One answer is: I’m a historian. I like the study of history because of how it disturbs the present. So my role as a historian at the Cooper Union, is to make the present unfamiliar, by pointing to how the past is contingent, not a given. It’s contingent on a whole set of
actions that have taken place in the past. 

As a faculty member, overall, my primary task is to encourage a sense of excitement about ideas, and how questions themselves can be very exciting. 

Do you have any advice to offer students? 

Yeah, get out more often! By which I mean especially studying abroad, even if it’s just for a summer or a semester. I’m always surprised at the number of students who wish to remain in New York for their entire lives. That’s my advice: get out! 

Our last question: What are your hobbies, and what do you do in your spare time? 

As a rhetorical answer: Is there spare time at Cooper? Real answer: … What do I like doing? I really like gardening, which is not something that is Cooper centric. I’m thinking of getting some sheep for my place upstate, because they’ll probably be better behaved than the current crop of freshmen.