I know your bio on the Cooper website, but please introduce yourself for our readers!
I’ve been at Cooper for I think about a month and a half now. I’m the student care coordinator, which means that I’m here for all the students—I’m here for extra support. For example, if someone is overwhelmed with classes, struggling with a mental health issue, looking for individual counseling or outside referral, I’m here—just to make sure the students get what they need.
What led you to become a counselor?
I think what led me to counseling was my own experience in school. You know, going to college is not just about grades and academics. I mean, it absolutely is—that’s why we’re here, but besides from grades and academics, you might also be struggling with things like relationship or family issues. There’s just so much more involved with being a college student, and I just wanted to be the support for someone in that area.
Could you explain your “counseling style?”
My counseling style is very client-focused. I’m not here to tell you what to do or how to live your life. You’re the expert on your life and I’m here to sort of guide you through the issues you have and to get you where you need to be.
What do you think is the difference between a school counselor and a therapist?
It really depends; in some circumstances, they can be the same things. It is based on what the person needs. Typically, when I think of school counselors I think more of guidance counselors; while therapy, I think, is more about exploring people’s emotions or pasts and how that’s affecting their current behaviors.
What led you to come to Cooper?
I think it was Indeed.com. I was just looking for different jobs at the time and what struck me about Cooper is that it’s such a unique school with such dedicated students. I think there’s something really admirable about that. I just wanted the chance to be able to provide a little bit of a “stress-free zone” here.
What are some of your goals at Cooper?
I always say this, but I am a big “self-care” person. I think my primary goal here is to educate people about mental health and also about ways to take care of themselves. As important as it is to go to class, do work, and focus on academics, if you don’t take care of yourself, you really can’t do any of the other stuff. My goal here is to really teach people to take care of themselves, and learn to take time for themselves.
As students, we might have a hard time reaching out and asking for help, or even noticing that we might need help. Do you have any advice or suggestions for us?
As students, I think the first thing is to always take care of yourself. Even if it’s something very small, like going for a walk to destress, making sure you get a healthy meal, exercising, or going to bed on time. Even now, in general, I’ll check my email in the morning and the students I’ve been meeting with would have sent an email late the night before, and I can’t help but think “I hope this person is sleeping!” I think it’s important to remember that YOU come first, and that you should put yourself first so that you can be healthy enough to get to the other stuff.
In terms of reaching out for help, I think it can be pretty scary. It can be daunting to go into a room and talk to a stranger about what’s going on with you, but I’ve seen the amazing effects. It’s not only important for just the students but also everyone to have that one person that you go to once a week and just spill out everything, let me hold everything for you for just a bit so you get a break.
Aside from counseling, what are some of your hobbies? What do you enjoy doing?
In my free time, I enjoy self-care: sleeping. Aside from that, I’m really into photography. That’s a pretty big thing of mine as that’s kind of like how I do self-care and destress. And in general, going for walks helps clear my mind a lot.
Most of the areas of interest listed on your bio are related to mental health, but as students, we might not realize we suffer from these conditions. What are some things we should know to be aware of our situations?
One thing I plan on doing, hopefully, is to provide mental health education. Either in groups or just with workshops on what mental health concerns look like—signs that maybe something’s not right.
My advice for anyone is to pay attention to your body and what you’re feeling. Think of how people describe you. If someone says that you are social and outgoing, but suddenly you don’t feel like hanging out with friends, or maybe you’re not eating as much, or sleeping more than you’re used to, there might be an underlying issue there—and I think it’s important to just know yourself and to recognize changes.
Fun question: if you were a fruit, what would you be?
That’s a good one! I’m not actually really good at eating fruit though. I’m trying to eat healthy but can I be a certain smoothie instead? I would probably be a pineapple-mango smoothie as those are my favorites. You sort of have your fruit all at once, and that’s it!
Any last words?
I’m in the Student Affairs office, so definitely come by and say hi! I’m hoping to stash my office with candy, which is always a good way to get through class without falling asleep. Even if you’ve got nothing going on, feel free to drop by! I love talking to people—that’s just my thing. I’m super social! I’m hoping to get accustomed to the culture here more and to get a chance to meet everyone! ◊
The Office of Student Affairs provides free counseling services to students, and appointments can be booked online, with a total of 3 different counselors.
I was born in Hollywood, Florida but my family didn’t stay there very long after I was born. I grew up in the small rural towns of South Jersey. I went to a public high school in Bridgeton, NJ where I ran cross-country and middle-distance track. I came to Cooper Union as a student in 1995 and graduated in 1999. After Cooper, I got my MFA at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in 2001. I hung around Philly for a year with my cohort of MFA’s and sold tickets at The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Eventually, I wiggled my way to the education department and worked with young children at the Mural Arts Program as I had developed some baseline teaching skills in Cooper’s Saturday Program. I kept myself afloat by doing art residencies that gave full or partial financial assistance such as the Skowhegan and Studio Museums in Harlem. I began showing my work around New York in 2004. By 2007, I had gallery representation, I was an adjunct professor at Cooper, and I taught courses at UConn Stamford. This was the juggling act until 2009 when I started teaching full time at Yale. During my time at Yale, I kept a studio practice going and was fortunate to exhibit at some major institutions and have a few solo shows at the Susan Inglett Gallery all while commuting between NYC and New Haven.
How did you arrive back at Cooper?
After teaching at Yale for 6 years I was really ready to be in one place. I saw that Cooper was hiring for tenure track positions in the School of Art, which I think was a big moment not only for me but for Cooper as well. I knew that whether or not I got the job, good things were happening at Cooper and I gave it a shot. I’m here!
Explore every idea good or bad.
Talk about your failures as much as your successes.
Learn a useful skill.
How do you perceive the difference of the art context at Cooper between “then” and “now”?
Well, I think like any art school, the art context is in many ways affected by the larger art context, at least from the standpoint of critical conversations being held. In 1995 the major gallery scene was SoHo. There were way less galleries in general. The New Museum was in an old building on Broadway and would show artists you didn’t see in major museums or galleries. Exit Art still existed and it held down the fringe. By the time I graduated in 1999, Chelsea was slowly becoming an art destination and there was funky stuff happening in Williamsburg with no baby strollers around. Williamsburg was pretty much invisible to the art market.
At that time, I believe painting was in its third dead-alive state and critics started talking about “conceptual painting,” that was, after a recent discussion of “bad painting.” The internet was a new beast and video and installation art were becoming more mainstream and gaining new theoretical frameworks, perhaps more than in a previous generation. Back then, it was sort of bad to talk about “identity politics” and “multiculturalism’ in mixed company. People talked of “culture wars,” which I always felt was such a negative term. What we were seeing of course was an all-out revolution in the arts where women and people of color were defining space in the art market and discourse for challenging Western patriarchy. Art was in a breakthrough stage.
Now many of these things are mainstream, but not without detractors in criticism. Language has changed. Art fairs are a thing. Galleries are as big as museums. SoHo seems like a weird place to go see art. You can see great art shows in the Lower East Side. Technology has drastically and quite intimately been integrated into our everyday reality. It has had a profound effect on art and social space and students are in tune with this. Art school facilities have adjusted. Painting continues its zombie apocalypse now joined by art, critical theory and history,things that have all been deemed dead and resurrected. We should consider art after Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby.”
What advice would you give to current students in the art school?
Explore every idea good or bad. Talk about your failures as much as your successes. Learn a useful skill.
What would you like your students, as young artists, to take away from your class?
That what we do as artists is different than what critics, curators, historians and gallerists do, but altogether it’s an influential echo chamber. Create your own echo chamber of perspectives with your peers and test them out while you have this time in school. Understand the difference. Develop a community.
Tell us a little bit about what you like to explore in your art, and about any current projects in the works.
I’m interested in the Black presence in painting. My narratives are about visibility and historical erasure. I like the figure. Male figures that are made of small pieces of natural debris that shift, pile and disperse as a condition of being. This is kind of like autumn leaves piled on the lawn. I cut pieces of flora out of this black velvet paper I’ve had lying around for some years now. I paint and collage in body parts. I’m showing two now at the BRIC Biennial which is becoming our central Brooklyn community hub.
“Black Pulp!” is a show that I curated with Mark Thomas Gibson and it shows a history of African-American printed matter alongside contemporary artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Kara Walker and Ellen Gallagher. Lots of printmaking and paper ephemera such as zines, comics and more! ◊
Note: BRIC Biennial is located at 647 Fulton St. The show “Black Pulp!” is at the International Print Center New York, 508 W 26th St. 5FL until December 17.
Jay Maisel is an illustrious photographer and celebrated alumnus of the School of Art.
by Pranav Joneja
Have you come back to Cooper to visit recently?
I would pass there every day because I lived nearby. But I just haven’t gone recently because now I live in Brooklyn and it’s hard for me to walk now. I’m going to get double knee replacement surgery soon so I’m hoping that I will be able to get around after that. All my friends who have had new knees put in tell me about how they’re out dancing now, so maybe if I can do that too, I’ll come out there.
When I did live in Manhattan, I would try to go to the annual exhibit. It was always the same every year, but it was always fun!
ON BEING AT COOPER
Did you have your own senior show when you graduated?
Yes, of course I did! I remember I had a sculpture of two people fucking. And the dean sternly told me:
“No, you cannot call it Copulating Couple!”
and he said—smacking the table—“Because people know what it is! You don’t have to write it down!”
Tell me more about him.
His name was Shaw; he was the dean of the art school. He was a redheaded man with balding hair. He and I had lots of interchanges because I was always up in his office complaining about everything. Just before I was to graduate, I got a notice saying I was first in the class but I also got another notice saying I wasn’t going to graduate because of my absences and my tardiness. So I went up to his office and I showed him the first notice in one hand and the second notice in the other… and he said “Well if we didn’t keep a rein on you, you never would have shown up!”
In the archives of the Library, I read that the selective service draft was in effect at that time. How did that affect you?
Yes, we were in the middle of the Korean War when I graduated in 1952. Even before the draft, I told my father I was going to enlist and he said:
“You can’t enlist because you’ll die!”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because I will fucking kill you if you do.”
But, seriously, I didn’t really believe in that cockamamie war but I didn’t want it hanging over my head the whole time.
Anyways, later on I was drafted and I went down to the examination at the draft office. The guy commanded everyone to do deep knee bends and I just stood there,
He said, “Okay, wise guy, what is it?”
“I can’t do deep knee bends.”
And he barked, “Well, you just stand there for four hours until we can get to you.”
And I’m standing there thinking, “Stand here for four hours or go into the army…?” I was so impatient; the choice was starting to feel difficult.
Anyways, I stood there and they finally got to me. They needed to do more tests—I was there another hour!—and they discovered that I had cartilage problems in my knees. That’s why I can’t walk now. My knee saved my life [from the draft] but every once in a while it got worked up and it caused problems for my mobility.
Did you get up to any other antics while you were at Cooper?
Sometimes, school furniture broke and they would have to throw it out. One time there was this huge, ten-foot table that was a little damaged on one side. By all other means though, it was a great table—solid wood and heavy. So I took the table, put it on my head and carried it to 17th Street where I lived. I carried it up all the stairs and put it in my room against the wall… But that’s when I realized I had the fucked up side facing outward. I tried turning it around but my apartment was so small I didn’t have space. So I had to take it all the way back downstairs, outside onto the street, turn it around and bring it back inside.
What did you do during your free time, during breaks from school or summer?
ON HIS FIRST WIFE
I had gotten married at age twenty—which was bizarre. I got married to a woman I met at an art program just before Cooper. She was two years younger than me and her father was a wealthy lawyer at the time. She was also a painter and she went to Columbia while I went to Cooper—so when we compromised on where we would live, we decided to live on 116th Street. [What a compromise!]
She was a very bright woman and she was culturally much more aware than I was. See, you have to understand I was very limited being brought up in Brooklyn and just from her family background she had opportunities to learn so much about the world. She actually introduced me to a lot of art and music and culture.
She was a very terrific lady. Our marriage lasted eight months.
Whose idea was it to get married?
I think we both wanted to get married but we were just much too young. If anyone had just said to us “Go ahead, get married,” we wouldn’t have done it. But everyone told us we couldn’t, so of course we went ahead and did!
At the time it wasn’t uncommon to get married so young in the Midwest. It was the ’50s, everyone was rushing to have their 2.6 kids and live in a house. But in New York, it was beyond stupid.
ON STUDYING AT YALE WITH JOSEF ALBERS
Yale attracted students from Cooper for two reasons: The first was of course the chance to work with Josef Albers. He was a very famous German painter involved in the Bauhaus and after escaping the Nazis, he came to America to teach at Black Mountain College. After that, he taught at Yale. He knew of Cooper Union’s rigorous program and invited Cooper students because of that. The second reason was that after three years at Cooper, we only had certificates but doing just one year with Albers at Yale meant we got a Bachelors in Fine Arts.
Albers thought that your medium should not influence the product of your work—you should have complete control over your work. He’s the exact opposite of Marshall McLuhan, who said “the medium is the message.”
At first, I had a lot of difficulty learning from Albers. See, I’ve never been neat— I’m kind of a slob. While at Cooper, Morris Kantor, my teacher and famous painter himself, said my works were not paintings, they were “emotional outbursts.” Meanwhile, Albers was very… German. He liked to be in control of everything. He said you should be able to paint in a white Palm Beach suit, while I couldn’t paint in a Hazmat suit. I got paint everywhere!
He didn’t like my paintings at all! He also gave a color course, which I excelled in because it was done in cut paper. But my paintings? No! It got so bad that I barricaded my studio so he couldn’t get in and look at my work—I was so embarrassed.
I remember one time we were doing a color study and I had chosen to do it with Color Aid paper. I had done this 30in-by-40in piece that I was very proud of. And he looked at it from outside my booth—because that’s where I had barricaded him to stand—and he said “Ach! Boy, now we finally begin to understand something about painting!” But then he pulled aside all the furniture and walked in and said “It’s paper!” and walked away disappointed in me.
Another time, he invited his students to contribute to a book he was doing. I really liked doing color studies so I submitted this incredibly complicated piece—I cut out circles and placed them inside each other. It was one color, against another, over the background and then another one… And Albers thought it was great, he put it in his book. But before he did, he changed the colors!!! The book was eventually published, titled Interaction of Color—you might have heard of it— and it cost $3,500. The reason it was so expensive: each page was silkscreened and individually approved by Albers.
ON FIRST GETTING STARTED IN THE PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS
I didn’t start with photography until the second or third year at Cooper. The first real moment was—
There was this art history professor, Dr. Zucker. One time he was gesturing in class and I wasn’t really listening to him anyways, so I took a picture. They ended up using that picture for a double page spread in the yearbook. Seeing your work reproduced on a double page… that was the first time something like that was done with my work.
What was the first moment where you felt you had really ‘made it’ / become successful?
Well, it’s a really subtle thing. I got an assignment to travel across the United States to photograph cars in an experimental way. The two other people asked to do the same were Elliot Erwitt and Ersnt Haas. We weren’t working together per se, but we were asked to do the same assignment. And these were two top fucking guys. Erwitt is still working today and he’s a genius. Haas was my mentor. He didn’t know it at the time—and later I got to know him better—but he was my hero!
But in my mind: if somebody thinks that I’m in this kind of company and working at their level, then I must have made it!
What about your first exhibit?
A year after I got into the business, I got my first exhibit at Roy DeCarava’s A Photographer’s Gallery. A photographer friend of mine, Garry Winogrand—he’s a contemporary of mine and I respected him very much, but he was also the most honest, tactless person in the world—when he came to the exhibit
He asked: “Who designed this exhibit [space]?”
“Well, I did”
“You did a good job, nobody’s gonna see how bad the pictures are.”
We were very good friends, but we fought a lot in jest. Garry once said to me:
“The reason your pictures suck is that they don’t reflect the chaos of the world”
“And yours do?”
“Yes, mine reflect the chaos of the world!”
“So why do mine have to? You’re taking care of it.”
ON LIVING AT 190 BOWERY
When I was looking for a new place, it was the first building I even looked at. When the agent told me he was going to show me an abandoned bank, I had assumed it was a two-story bank somewhere—there were a number of them in town. But when I saw 190 Bowery, I said, “Are you out of your fucking mind? I can’t do this!” And he said, “You can do it” with a smirk.
Since we were there already, I thought to myself I should take a look anyways. As he told me more about the place, I said, “Holy shit, there are 72 rooms in this place!? I don’t know if I can do it!” And again he just said, “You can do it.”
Of course it was later that I found out he had severely underestimated the cost of upkeep for the place. But still, it was a dream! I would never have to worry about space, I would always have someplace to put anything. And the fact that everyone told me I shouldn’t do it—well I did it anyways. So I put in a down payment of a quarter of the $102,000 price and I bought it.
In the early years, the agent also found me some tenants to take up the third and fourth floors. I had artists Adolph Gottlieb and Roy Lichtenstein paying me $350 for 3,500 square feet. It wasn’t a lot of money and eventually it wasn’t worth the bother to rent, so I just stopped.
While I lived there, I did most of my work in the main room on the ground floor. It was 40-feet-by-60-feet and the ceiling was 20-feet high, so it was just a joy to be in. There was the old bank vault underneath it. We had gallery spaces on the second and third floors and the fourth floor was storage and guest rooms. The fifth floor was mainly workshops. And we lived on the sixth floor—my wife, daughter and I.
What do you use the bank vault for?
Funny you should ask. Everybody who came to the vault said, “Gee, what a great darkroom this would be.” Or “Gee, this would be a terrific place to store wine.” But this one guy came, looked around and said, “Finally, a place where I can masturbate in safety and privacy.”
Everybody had an idea for what they would do for it, but I knew exactly what I was going to do with it. I stored all my important work, my negatives, my prints and transparencies and other important documents. That’s what I did.
Tell me about the elevator.
There were two elevators, but the lines were cut in one of them when I got the building. So we cannibalized parts whenever we needed to fix something up in the first elevator. The elevator was copper and I would have to shine it up. When I got it, it was painted black and it was a lot of trouble to keep it shined up.
It also had an escape hatch.
An escape hatch out of the elevator?
Oh yeah. It would get stuck a lot and I would need to use the hatch to get out. Sometimes it would get stuck near a floor, so it was okay and you could climb out. Other times it would get stuck between floors, so it got very hairy. I used to keep a 12-foot telescoping ladder in the elevator so I could use it when I needed to.
What about the graffiti on the outside?
Well I don’t have that problem anymore now that I live here [in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn]. And no, I don’t miss it, Jesus! Ninety percent of it was shit!
There was one guy—Keith Haring, you might have heard of him—made art on my building and I absolutely loved it! But he did it in chalk, so it would wash off when it rained.
Early on, there were many times when I got so pissed off by all the tagging and graffiti even on my windows blocking the light. So I used to spend an entire weekend cleaning it off. But by the next week, it was all covered again because I had basically made them a new canvas.
In 2001, the city came and told me they could help clean it off if I agreed to it. See, they can’t force me to remove it because it’s a freedom of speech matter. But I agreed, and so they came and tested if it would even come off. Soon, they figured out how to do it and said they would come back tomorrow. The next day was September 11. They never came.
In previous interviews, you’ve said you’d never sell it. What changed?
Have you ever seen The Godfather? [Yeah.] He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was becoming untenable. When I bought the place, it cost me $200 to heat the place because gas was 10 cents a gallon. A few years ago, gas was four dollars a gallon. So it was $8,000 a month just to heat the damn place.
Someday I’m going to do a book about the place. I’ve got the pictures, and I’ll do it someday…
Professor Kwong, the most recent hire in the civil engineering department, currently teaches a required course for civil engineering: “Engineering Mechanics.”
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in New York City. I got my Bachelor of Engineering in Civil Engineering from the Cooper Union in 2009, my Master of Science in Civil Engineering from University of California in Berkeley in 2010, and my Ph.D. from UC Berkeley as well.
What did you like the most about civil engineering?
What attracted me to civil engineering is being able to apply theory to reality—in particular, designing and analyzing our infrastructure. It’s that middle ground between pure mathematics and pure engineering construction.
What is it like to be back at The Cooper Union having attended as an undergraduate?
It’s definitely refreshing. Many things are familiar, but at the same time, many things are new. When I attended Cooper, I took my classes in the old engineering building, so this is my first time actually working in the NAB. It’s also interesting and new to be on the other side as a teacher instead of a student. The core structure of Cooper as an institution is still familiar. Like current students, I needed to take physics and math during the first two years before diving into civil engineering.
Since you left Cooper, what have you done in the Civil Engineering field?
I attended graduate school and strove for both depth and breadth in the field. For depth, I took as many classes in structural engineering as I could in Berkeley—mechanics, analysis, design, etc. Then I branched out by learning about other topics such as statistics, seismology, earthquake engineering, etc. Getting a Ph.D. revolves mainly around solving one difficult problem, which takes an uncertain amount of time. I finally had a breakthrough with the problem I was solving about halfway through my graduate studies. After I solved it and got my Ph.D., I stayed as a lecturer at Berkeley for a year before coming back to the East Coast. It was always my goal to come back to Cooper ever since I left New York. After I had a conversation with Professor Jameel Ahmad during my senior year, I realized that my personality and interests are compatible with those of an academic. Since then, I did whatever was necessary to join academia.
How was life on the West Coast?
Very different from the East Coast. Like all experiences, it had its pluses and minuses. The weather is more or less stable which is a plus because I needed fewer resources to survive. I didn’t need to look into air conditioning or heat bills because the weather was never as extreme as it is here. Also, I lived right on campus so commuting was not an issue. If I want to live on campus in Manhattan now like I did in California, I would have to pay much higher rent. I’m thankful that I didn’t have to worry about rent in California. These luxuries permitted me to focus even more on my graduate studies. However, the biggest benefit of living in the East Coast was that all of my family and childhood friends are here. Leaving them behind for the West Coast was very hard and I’m glad to be back.
What did you miss most when you left Cooper and New York?
I definitely missed my family and friends, but I also missed the lifestyle unique to New York. Like the quote goes, “live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard, and live in California once, but leave before it makes you soft.” I missed the busy, aggressive lifestyle that we become a part of here.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
When I attended Cooper, I really enjoyed playing handball. I picked it up as a child in NYC and I actually started the Handball Club at Cooper. The torch had been passed down several times, but last time I checked, the club is currently inactive. I still play handball on occasion when I’m not in class. I also participated in the Culture Show as a student here—I was in the Hip Hop Club, the Martial Arts Club, and the Step Team, which was a big deal back then. Believe it or not, reading textbooks is also one of my favorite pastimes. I’m more interested in learning about topics from textbooks than from, say, a novel or magazine.
If you were to come back to the Cooper Union as a student again, would you do anything differently?
I don’t think I would do anything differently. I had a great time when I was here and I enjoyed almost every aspect here. What I liked the most is that I had a good balance of hardcore, challenging schoolwork and stress-relieving extracurricular activities. I also had good friends in other disciplines outside of Civil Engineering.
Would you like to comment on your position as the first hire in the civil engineering department in 25 years?
I’m glad to be here, but I think the most important part of me being a professor here is trying to teach, guide, and inspire students as best I can. Teaching well is difficult and challenging. In my opinion, it is important to understand where students come from and then help them progress along the way. I think I bring that to the table since I was a student myself here not too long ago.
Any advice for our readers?
Students: believe in yourself and trust your gut; work hard and strive for excellence and you can achieve anything you want. ◊
Tell us about your background and how it impacted your career path:
I grew up in Richmond, Virginia with two siblings who studied engineering. I attended Smith College where I majored in English and Psychology. Originally, I intended to be a high school English teacher but then I joined Smith’s Residence Life, and my plans reconfigured. I was a Resident Director for a couple of years, and when I was in grad school at the University of Maryland College Park, I had a Grad Assistantship at UMD Baltimore County. I started working at Pratt’s Residence Life in 2006. I was in charge of the first-year students, and then transitioned to the Director of Special Projects. In the spring of 2015, I was appointed the interim Title IX coordinator. I remained the Director of Special Projects, and then I became the non-interim Title IX coordinator. In both roles I became a coordinator for student diversity initiatives.
What experiences at Pratt strengthened your passion for what you do?
When I was at Pratt, I became involved in a lot of different groups dealing with policy and the revision of our approach to policy. I think it is important to recognize that everything is not going to work the same in different environments. The government issues a lot of guidance and legal policy regarding Title IX and diversity, but how we interact with the students to ensure the policies are in place varies from school to school. At Cooper, a school that is so small where everybody knows everyone, our policy coordination will be different from a place like NYU where they have entire offices dedicated to one goal. In the development of policies process in Pratt, we went through a lot of iterations to ensure that our process aligned with the students. The process should meet the needs of the people involved with it, not just what the policy dictates.
“I really think it is important,
particularly in a college environment,
that all students feel welcome,
are included, and have their rights upheld.”
What brought you to Cooper Union?
I really like the idea of being able to dedicate full-time efforts to Title IX, diversity, and inclusion. My responsibilities revolve around creating a safe and healthy environment for all students and that is the entire reason I became involved in student affairs.
What are your goals at Cooper?
Right now my goals are really just to meet as many people as I can, so that I can understand what students need and want, and then develop processes to meet those needs. I have been approaching various student clubs and groups so I can meet everyone and introduce the concept of Title IX, student rights, and raise awareness about who the student body can go to if they encounter an issue. The next steps are developing more programmatic things and resources, figuring out the needs beyond Title IX because needs for Title IX are much more clear based on school policy than they are for other aspects of identity.
Tell us what you want a Cooper Student to Know About You:
I really think it is important, particularly in a college environment, that all students feel welcome, are included, and have their rights upheld. Everyone should know that they are entitled to that by being students here, and that there are a lot of people willing to help them if they are in a situation where people are not giving them all of their rights, including them, or making them feel welcome.
Any advice you would give to a Cooper Student?
There are a lot of people here who can help you and that want to help you. If you are in a situation where something does not feel right, then ask for help.
What is your favorite thing to do?
To bake. It is very relaxing, because it is very precise and methodical.
What did you do this summer?
I worked! Well, I also went to the beach with my family, on the Southern Coast of North Carolina near Wilmington. My family has been going there since I was a little kid. ◊
Tell us about your education and how you ended up at Cooper.
I went to a regional parochial high school in Bergen County, New Jersey. After that, I went to Cooper, where I graduated as an electrical engineer. I found out about Cooper because my father got his masters from Cooper in the 70s. I had a choice between Columbia and Cooper, but I wanted to be at a smaller school and go to the same place my father went to. Now here we are several years later, and I’m thankful for that decision.
How did you initially join the faculty at Cooper?
I joined the EE department as an adjunct in 1997. When I was a graduate student, I started teaching in the Retraining Program for Immigrant Engineers. It was started and funded by many philanthropic organizations to help Russian Jews who had to emigrate after the Soviet Union broke up. They were brilliant people and some had multiple PhDs, but their educational background didn’t translate to the workforce in the US. So this program retrained these people to have multiple skills so they can get work here; work that wasn’t well below their academic credentials. A number of us who taught in this program ended up as adjuncts through a process of choice and need by the institution.
What is your current role at Cooper?
My official title is Managing Director of the CV Starr Research Foundation. Cornelius Van Der Starr was the predecessor of AIG fortune tree. He retired at that company, which eventually became AIG, and they started a philanthropic foundation involved in a number of different sectors including higher academia.
In 2006, Cooper received $10 million to fund any labs, classrooms and facilities in this building; it was a capital campaign going on at the time. I was involved on the alumni side before I started here full time. When I started, one of my first tasks was to convert any of the research efforts that were going on into one unified effort under the CV Starr name it currently has.
What is your favorite part about being involved in your former college?
The last couple years have been eye opening and difficult. But even with everything going on, there’s something about being around young people that is exhilarating and irritating all at the same time. I’m also one of those that never really left Cooper; I was teaching and before I was a full time professor, I was on the Alumni Association’s Board of Directors.
I never had the down time to figure out whether it was good for me or not, but I do know that there is something about the opportunity to help students figure out what their next best step is. You can’t really beat that as a job. For me, it’s one of the best parts of the institution. It’s really one of the reasons that we have what we have, because each year we have an amazing set of undergraduate students that we put through the ringer day in and day out.
As a student, you were on the staff of The Pioneer, too! What was your experience at the time?
I was the business manager for two years, so when I was there we bought the first computer, (a desktop Mac) for The Pioneer. That was a big transition because we used to send everything out to be typed set, laid out, and produced. It was the late 80s and early 90s and we were spending a tremendous amount of money doing it. With the advent of desktop publishing tools, they made certain advances in the publishing arena back then. That was a fun job.
You mentioned earlier that you worked in the private sector. What was your experience like?
I finished both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Cooper and then worked in the financial services space. I worked the IT side of the space for about three years for a software company, one that provided software data and feeds to the entire financial sector. My first set of jobs ranged from running around from trading floor to trading floor to doing the little things like installing software. I then went to work for a consulting firm just as the client-server market went to the delivery of what is now the internet. We did very well and I had some stock in that company. That was my first flavor of having options.
After I got married, I went to work with two other Cooper alumni on a private venture where we all had ownership stock in the company. I wish everyone can have that experience of going to go work for themselves and pay for themselves. It is tough to be an entrepreneur, but a great path to try. That is why I invest time here in working on things like that. After that was over, I did some consulting work and I helped the college with the search that was going on for my current role.
Any closing comments?
Cooper is more expensive now than it was for people from my day, and that’s painful to see. I think there is always a challenge to find a better path to make education affordable for anyone, especially for students that are bright enough and talented enough to be in a place like this. I think there are ways for us to make it better and bring that impact.
The only thing I would say is that everybody should participate in the community both during their time here and after they leave. You can’t claim to be part of the community if you aren’t constantly supporting it.
Time, effort, support, all those things are essential. Once we cut through all the noise of the debates, it comes down to how well we want to support our alma mater. I think it’s a cop out to want a clean slate after all we went through. Then, I’m disappointed that this is the virtue of the Cooper community. If you truly felt that way, then why not do something positive to change it. ◊
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. ◊