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.