Meet Our Postdocs: Romy Opperman Brings Black Feminist Ecologies to the Philosophy Department

Romy Opperman began her postdoctoral fellowship with NSSR’s Philosophy department in Fall 2020. Opperman’s work focuses on issues of environmental justice through the lenses of Black feminist and decolonial philosophy. 

As a student of continental philosophy, Opperman has always been interested in “questions of control and management of life.” Opperman began looking at the ways Africana philosophy engages with the continental tradition and, at times, repurposes it, posing questions about “humanism, its limits and its links to violence; animality and how it’s bound up in race; and hegemonic conceptions of nature,” and pointing to aspects that thinkers like Foucault had missed in his analysis of racism and biopower. 

That interest took a new form when Opperman was in graduate school at Pennsylvania State University and considering her dissertation. “I was increasingly engaged in Africana philosophy and decolonial philosophy at the same time that a new public consciousness arose around environmental justice issues,” she explains. Opperman saw those philosophical questions come to life through mass political and social movements, from the organized opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through Standing Rock Reservation to increased public pressure to provide residents of Flint, Michigan with clean water. “I began thinking about what tools I found within continental philosophy and Africana philosophy for trying to understand these events in ways that I thought were useful and different from how one might typically approach them,” she says.

Opperman’s work challenges mainstream conceptions of racism and environmental issues as distinct, with only occasional overlap. “My use of the term racist environments aims to show how racism and the environment are in fact co-constitutive,” she explains. “This is different from the way that environmental racism is commonly understood, that is, where racism and the environment are only sometimes linked in exceptional circumstances.” She proposes a turn to radical Black ecology, which emphasizes the possibility and necessity of imagining a radically different way of being.

Opperman speaks on a panel on Climate Ethics and Environmental Justice at Princeton University, October 2, 2020.

Through her dissertation, “Race, Ecology, Freedom: Climate Justice and Environmental Racism,” Opperman “brought to the fore issues of power, domination, and normativity” by turning her philosophical attention to something discourses in philosophy often overlook: the communities that have already felt the impact of climate change and developed expertise to survive.

“I argued that the radical critique of liberal humanism common to the work of Sylvia Wynter, Frantz Fanon, and Saidiya Hartman shows us why it is necessary to break with liberal frames of environmental injustice and offers grounds for an alternative approach to understand the nature of the harm of environmental racism, the stakes of struggles against it, and to imagine its redress, which I term ecological freedom,” Opperman recalls.

Connecting at NSSR

At NSSR, Opperman raises many of the same questions in “Black Feminist Thought: Labor, Genealogy, Memory” a graduate philosophy course she’s taught during the spring 2021 semester. While it’s not explicitly about climate change, the course includes readings from Christina Sharpe and Sylvia Wynter on Black feminist ecologies, and, as Opperman explained, race and the environment are inextricable. “It’s been really important and special for me to be able to go into my first job in a philosophy department and teach a graduate course on Black feminist thought,” Opperman says. “It’s a dream situation!” 

Opperman speaks on a panel on Black Feminist Ecologies at Wesleyan University, February 24, 2021

As she continues working within NSSR’s Philosophy department, Opperman hopes to recruit more women to the graduate program and to expand its curriculum. “Putting feminist philosophy — particularly, but not only, Black and decolonial [feminist] philosophy — as part of our core agenda is really important to me,” she says.

Opperman’s presence has already had a major impact. “We are tremendously happy to have Romy joining the department. Her graduate seminar is making a crucial contribution to our curriculum, as is her writing seminar, which she developed to provide graduate students with much-needed feedback on writing with an eye towards publication,” Zed Adams, Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy says. “It is quickly becoming hard to remember what our department was like without her.”

At its heart, Opperman’s work is deeply interdisciplinary; it incorporates critical theory, film criticism, and gender and sexualities studies. In that spirit, she’s also involved with The New School’s cross-divisional Collaborative on Climate Futures, led by faculty from NSSR and Parsons. Opperman is excited to collaborate with academics from a wide range of backgrounds working on the same questions of race, environment, and power.

Opperman has also worked in collaboration with the Gender and Sexualities Studies Institute (GSSI). She organized and presented at the March 22 GSSI event “Finding Ceremony: Honoring Black Feminist Elders,” which focused on the legacy of Black feminists like Sylvia Wynter and Alexis Pauline Gumbs and former New School professor M. Jacqui Alexander, who Opperman describes as “an amazing queer trans-national Black feminist thinker and spiritual practitioner.”

For the GSSI blog, she wrote “Haunting and Hosting,” which analyses the films Ghost and Twilight City, as well as Alexander’s account of her experience at NSSR, through the lens of Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing. Opperman hopes to continue collaborating with the GSSI, and to uplift the status of Gender and Sexualities Studies within NSSR. 

In addition to working on articles that ask how established topics within climate justice  such as debt, intergenerational ethics, and migration are transformed when approached from Black and decolonial feminist grounds, Opperman is working to turn her dissertation into a book, tentatively titled Africana Ecopolitics: Radical Philosophies of Ecological Freedom. The book will incorporate the perspectives of a wider range of Africana thinkers, and further develop its explanation of “ecological freedom” in relation to decolonization and abolition. “It’s been a really exciting time in terms of a kind of explosion of interdisciplinary work around race and ecology… I think philosophy does have some important tools to offer and ways of thinking that could be a really useful part of that,” she says. “I’m figuring out the best ways [philosophy] can complement people doing all kinds of this work.” 


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.  

National Science Foundation Awards NSSR Student Santiago Mandirola for Research on Latin American Socio-Economic Life

Santiago Mandirola, a Sociology and Historical Studies PhD candidate, has been awarded the competitive National Science Foundation Science and Technology Studies Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (HEGS-DDRI) for his dissertation “Markets in the Making: Financial Technology and Socio-Economic Life in Latin America.”

Mandirola’s research explores the role of consumer credit scoring systems and Financial Technology (FinTech) in the socio-economic lives of people living in South America’s Southern Cone.

While credit scores have become cornerstones of socio-economic life in the U.S., determining who can afford to buy a house or go back to school, large-scale credit scoring systems have not been able to take hold in Latin America in the same way. The most obvious reason for the disparity, Mandirola says, is that far fewer people there engage with formal banking systems — only about half of the population has access to a bank account, and they generally have enough resources to meet their needs without credit.

Mandirola is particularly interested in the methods FinTech companies have adopted to fill that gap since moving into Latin America’s credit industry in the 2010s. “I’m trying to look at what programmers, engineers, and risk analysts do in order to take information that is traditionally non-economic, like a certain person’s browsing patterns…and how they refine that information so they can make economic predictions about whether or not that particular buyer is credit-worthy,” he explains.

“I’m always concerned about trying to get as close to the subject as I can, and to try to use that information in a way that is as faithful as possible to the source.”

With the NSF grant, Mandirola hopes to travel to agencies developing new methods for credit scoring to observe their processes and conduct interviews with staff. He also plans to attend FinTech conferences and seminars to learn about innovations in the field. While COVID-19 may change his methods, Mandirola says his research style will remain the same. “I’m always concerned about trying to get as close to the subject as I can, and to try to use that information in a way that is as faithful as possible to the source.” he says. “There’s time later to analytically interpret the data collected.”

The topic is a personal one. As a sociology undergraduate in his home country of Argentina, Mandirola became “interested in the processes that try to impose a certain order to that uncertainty, and reliance on that order to make plans, calculations and estimations of how things will go in the future.” When he moved to New York for graduate school at The New School for Social Research (NSSR), he found that every lease he applied for required a credit score — something he did not have — and his interest in that magical three-digit number ignited.

In the 2018-2019 academic year, Mandirola developed and presented the first iteration of his research as part of his fellowship at NSSR’s Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies. Mandirola says the Integrative PhD program, where he was a fellow from 2018-2020, helped him expand his research into the field of Science and Technology studies, broadening his scope to include FinTech. He also has workshopped this project and others at the Janey Program in Latin American Studies, where he is a 2020-2021 fellow. In addition to the fellowship, Mandirola helped operate the Janey Program as a student assistant to the director, Federico Finchelstein, Professor of History.

Mandirola says two NSSR faculty members in particular, have played an integral role in this research. Carlos Forment, Associate Professor of Sociology and Mandirola’s doctoral advisor, has provided important guidance that has helped the project evolve. Forment is the Principal Investigator for Mandirola’s project, and has had a pivotal role in supporting his application and in crafting and improving the project itself.

“Working with Santiago over the years has been immensely rewarding. He taught me what I know about the current debates on FinTech,” Forment says. “Once I had a basic understanding of them, I encouraged him to break with the standard accounts that, not surprisingly, remain focused on the ‘Anglo-European’ world. In studying the particularities of FinTech in Argentina, Santiago is in uncharted territory and joining a small group of scholars who are seeking to rethink the terms of the debate. Santiago is eminently qualified for the task he has set himself.”

Emma Park, Assistant Professor of History and a 2020-2021 Heilbroner Center Faculty Fellow, has supported Mandirola by closely and thoughtfully reading his proposal, and helping him perfect his writing.

“Working and thinking with Santiago over the past couple years has been tremendously gratifying,” Park says. “I have no doubt that his research will not only contribute to our understandings of how the market for credit has been assembled by FinTech firms in the Southern Cone, but is poised to make important contributions to the growing scholarship within Science and Technology Studies that takes sites outside of Euro-America as their point of departure. The research is timely and politically consequential. I couldn’t be more thrilled!” 

Ultimately, Mandirola aims to de-mystify credit scoring tools and determine what influence they have on people’s lives.

“I think this is a moment in which we have to focus more on the impact that these elements can have on our economic lives, our social lives, and especially the lives of more vulnerable populations, who are the ones usually resorting to alternative financial services,” Mandirola proposes. “Is it an impact that’s improving the lives of the people affected by it or not? Just as simple and complex as that.”

Read about how The New School’s Office of Research Support worked with Santiago Mandirola on his dissertation here.


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.  

NSSR Student Karolina Koziura Wins Józef Tischner Junior Visiting Fellowship

Karolina Koziura has won a Józef Tischner Junior Visiting Fellowship at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna to work on her dissertation, tentatively titled “Erasing Disaster: The Global Production of Silence and the Great Ukrainian Famine.” From June through October 2021, Koziura will focus on her research, which explores “the production of silence and denial of disasters as shaped by political, media, and scientific narratives.”

Koziura is a PhD candidate in Sociology and Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research. The roles of political memory and constructed narratives in Central and Eastern Europe play a central role in her work, which has also included a project on the Great Ukrainian Famine. Her work has appeared in many publications, including East European Politics and Societies, Culture, and Ukraina Moderna.  Her advisor is Virag Molnar, Associate Professor of Sociology. Koziura is also part of the Decolonizing Eastern European Studies group at NSSR, organized by Jessica Pisano, Associate Professor of Politics.

Koziura has received an NSSR Prize Fellowship (2014-2017) and the Integrative PhD Fellowship (2018-2020). Her research has also been supported by an American Slavic, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies Association Dissertation Research Grant and the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium.


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.  

Bachelor’s-Master’s Program Helps Students Reach New Heights

At The New School, Master’s programs provide an opportunity to forge new paths in one’s professional and intellectual lives, build career-focused and academic skills and networks, and push the limits of interdisciplinary education.

The Bachelor’s-Master’s (BAMA) Program makes that opportunity even more accessible, helping current New School undergrads from Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts and the Bachelor’s Program for Adults and Transfer Students start graduate work sooner. BAMA students can earn two degrees in as little as five years, saving both time and money. Bachelor’s programs are mapped on pathways to Master’s programs at The New School for Social Research, the Schools of Public Engagement, and Parsons School of Design.

What is that experience like? To find out, Research Matters spoke with two current BAMA students and a BAMA alum about why they chose the program, how it’s helped them, and what they advise undergraduates considering this special program.

Anya Isabel Andrews 

BA Sociology 2021 from Lang, MA Liberal Studies 2022 from NSSR

“The BAMA program is such a good opportunity for students to challenge themselves and get the most out of their school.”

Anya Isabel Andrews began her academic career as a neuroscience student at another college. But after an opportunity to tutor students in a juvenile detention center, she decided to transfer to The New School, study sociology, and pursue her longtime dream of becoming a teacher.

The BAMA program gives Andrews the opportunity to broaden the scope of her education in support of her professional ambitions.

“I want to be a teacher, but I have a lot of work to do to become the teacher I want to be, Andrews says. “I’m really interested in trying to expand the classroom into something that it hasn’t looked like for the last 150 years, to see and serve the whole student.”

Together with her advisor, Andrews built her own interdisciplinary curriculum by asking herself, “how is it that I would want to learn?” She added two undergraduate minors, in Politics and in Ethnicity & Race. Classes like “Other Worlds: Exploring the Critical Realms of Science Fiction” with Ricardo Montez, Professor of Performance Studies; “Blind Spots of NYC,” co-taught by Benoit Challand, Professor of Sociology, and Kamau Ware, artist, storyteller, and creator of The Black Gotham Experience; and “Fugitive Planning” with Mia White, Professor of Environmental Studies at Milano School of Management, expanded Andrews’ ideas of education and the world.

The class that has most influenced Andrews’ BA thesis work centered was an art history course, a discipline she had never previously studied. Race, Empire and Archive with Iliana Cepero, Professor of Modern/Contemporary Art History and Visual Studies, examines imperial artists’ representations of colonized peoples. Cepero’s use of art as a means to “engage with the complexity of colonization and socio-racial relations in Latin America” inspired Andrews to create a research project.

“I examined racism and the erasure of African culture from Puerto Rico’s history as it appears in, inspires and is reinforced by, art in social, educational, and institutional realms,” Andrews says. She hopes to show how art “changes the way that we see each other in social life, but also see how it can rearrange inherently racist, colonial thoughts.” Andrews presented this research at the Spring 2020 Dean’s Honors Symposium, and she plans to develop it into her MA thesis.

Andrews recently began taking graduate-level courses and has felt a palpable shift in the energy in graduate classrooms. While being the youngest person in the room can be difficult, “other people in my class never fail to be able to push the bar a little higher for me,” she says.

The BAMA program encourages an attitude of growth, a quality Andrews values. She’s a student activist and was a member of the Black Student Union’s board for two years. “An institution should grow just as much as we should,” she says. “The BAMA program is such a good opportunity for students to challenge themselves and get the most out of their school. An institution has its limitations. If you can use it to further your education, you can turn around and say to that institution ‘Hey, do you want to come along, too? Do you want to grow as well?’ That’s what I want to do coming out of this school.”

Andrews plans to go abroad in pursuit of a Master’s degree in Education after graduation, so she can apply the skills she’s learned to rebuild the United States’ education system.

Oscar Fossum 

BA Global Studies 2020 from Lang, MA Anthropology 2021 from NSSR

“The BAMA program helped me get two degrees done in five years. As a non-traditional student, that was a big plus for me.”

Oscar Fossum had an unconventional path to The New School. In 2014, he began a BA in Political Science at another university, but took leave to work for a start-up nonprofit called WeCount. There, he designed a web-based tool that connected unhoused people with services and resources, working under the guidance of an anthropologist who showed him the critical human element of design.

“We were able to use his research to better understand one of our big user groups,” Fossum explains. “If you really understand the population of the people you’re trying to serve, you know how to reach them, how to connect with them, how to engage with them, how to build something for them.”

WeCount was a “genesis point” for Fossum’s interest in anthropology and design. The New School’s BAMA program provided a direct path for Fossum to continue the research he had become passionate about. He entered the Global Studies program at Lang with a Chinese Studies minor.

“The BAMA program helped me get two degrees done in five years. As a non-traditional student, that was a big plus for me,” Fossum says. “As a person with a background in making a technology for a marginalized group of people that actually understands this population, The New School seems like a good place to get a design research background, not from a corporate money-making angle, but as a generative way to make better experiences for people.”

Fossum’s undergraduate classes gave him room to explore different disciplines while remaining oriented toward his goal. “I was taking classes that critically examined infrastructures, but I was also taking design classes with an emphasis on community engagement,” he says. One of his favorite classes was “Technopolitics” with Antina von Schnitzler, Professor of Anthropology, which helped lay the groundwork for his research on infrastructures as social artifacts, and the social formations built around them.

“I feel really glad that I was able to assemble my curriculum to meet the goals that I have for anthropology and design,” Fossum says. 

Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology and head of the Anthropology and Design subject area for MA students, has worked with Fossum since 2018. She guided him from his undergraduate research on zoning laws in New York City to shift his focus to the topography of the internet, specifically mesh networks.

For the last year, Fossum has researched mesh internet networks in New York City, and created a podcast chronicling his interviews with people like Greta Byrum from the Digital Equity Laboratory. “This technology was an immediate case of internet infrastructures being deployed in a non-mainstream, anti-corporate way…it’s a great project for The New School, where we think about subverting dominant narratives,” Fossum says. 

Since completing his BA, Fossum has worked to create a more formal space for anthropological design research within The New School. “I’m glad to say that, since coming here, I’ve seen the focus on anthropology and design become more sophisticated,” he says. In April 2021, he and a small group of other MA students, working closely with Mattern, will lead the university’s first Anthropology and Design Exposition.

“I’ve been really glad to be met with open arms,” Fossum says. “There is space for students to come in here and make things happen.”

After he graduates in May, Fossum hopes to work with a technology company or doing city-planning. “If I can get a job where I’m creating systems better for people or making them cause less harm to the people interacting with them, then that’s a win.”

Grace Song

BA History 2018 from Lang, MA History 2019 from NSSR

“[Due to] the fact that the professors at The New School treated me with respect as a budding academic, I have gained the confidence to reach out and talk to scholars that I admire at various conferences and lecture events.”

Grace Song pinpoints the beginning of her academic journey to a 2013 encounter with the College Board handbook.

“I always knew I wanted to do U.S. history,” Song says. The handbook put The New School on her radar, and even before she applied, she began researching historians at Lang and NSSR she might want to work with.

Enrolling as a History BA student, Song remembers that Neil Gordon, her faculty advisor and a Literary Studies professor and former Lang dean, was incredibly influential in her academic path. Gordon recognized her drive and recommended that she apply to the BAMA program. He also encouraged her to hone her interests by declaring minors in Museum and Curatorial Studies and Politics.

Song began taking MA-level classes as a junior, taking two graduate classes and four undergraduate classes at once. She completed two theses — one for her BA and one for her MA — all while applying for PhD programs. Additionally, she studied abroad in Florence, Italy; interned at a small art gallery; coached the Debate Club; worked in the Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies and in the Provost’s Office, and did research with faculty.

While Song says her schedule sometimes felt stressful, she credits the entire History faculty with supporting her and reminding her constantly of her abilities.

“I had no confidence coming in; I didn’t realize my intellectual capacity and what I was capable of doing,” Song says. “The faculty at Lang and NSSR really opened that up for me…They’re so accessible and they really treat you like you’re their colleague. They really treat you with respect.”

As an undergraduate, Song became interested in the ways objects facilitate historic memory. “I wanted to ask questions about the ways we remember, and how and why people are preserved,” Song says. “What do we do with too much memory? How do we use a physical object to do history? Whose history?” Her BA thesis examined these ideas through the Christopher Columbus monument in Columbus Circle. Her MA thesis looked at President William McKinley and the storage of his monuments.

Now a PhD student in History at the University of Notre Dame, Song finds the same questions guiding her new research on diplomatic history and the history of U.S. imperialism in Korea. And, she finds that the skills she developed as a BAMA student are helping her thrive. “The historical training and intellectual community that I had the honor of being a part of have prepared me to bring new and fresh ideas to the table,” Song says. “[Due to] the fact that the professors at The New School treated me with respect as a budding academic, I have gained the confidence to reach out and talk to scholars that I admire at various conferences and lecture events.”

Song has two pieces of advice for students interested in the BAMA program: “Manage your time well; don’t push yourself too much. And get to know your cohort. These peers will be your colleagues.”

If you’re interested in applying for the Bachelor’s-Master’s program, speak with your advisor and complete this form before February 10 for Fall 2021 admission.


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.  

Student Projects Explore Publishing Through Design

Research Matters writer Cailin Potami reflects on the work they and their classmates completed in a course that helps make the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program unique.

What would a gossip magazine by houseplants, for houseplants look like? How can people bridge gaps with their families that span generations, nations, and languages? How do we create communal music spaces when we can’t be in the same space? These are just a few questions that guided students’ final projects in the Fall 2020 Design and the Future of Publishing class at The New School for Social Research.  

Design and the Future of Publishing

The class was born in 2014, two years after Jim Miller, Professor of Liberal Studies and Politics first approached Juliette Cezzar, Associate Professor of Communication Design, with an idea for a course that would bring together MA students from Liberal Studies at NSSR and from Communication Design at Parsons School of Design.

“It was like a dream come true for me,” Cezzar recounts, “because I really felt like communication design students needed to work with non-designers and know more about what it was that they were doing beyond aesthetic concerns.” Students spent half the semester on theory, and the other half working in pairs to design prototypes of design projects.

In 2016, Design and the Future of Publishing became a core course in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program, which Miller directs. With more CPCJ students requesting more time to study design, Cezzar now offers two variations on the course: one in the fall, tailored to non-design students, and one in the spring for both non-design and Parsons students.

“I have a real love for designing classes and for thinking about how different kinds of students can come together,” Cezzar says. “Who’s in the class makes the difference.”

The course still begins with a focus on theory, with lectures and texts on design principles and history, as well as the idea of publishing and the state of the industry. After seven weeks, students are asked to come up with at least six ideas for creative projects that center design, creativity, and iteration, not marketability, presenting students with a rare opportunity for full creative freedom.

Creating a Music Scene in Quarantine

Since COVID-19 lockdowns began, Maya Bouvier-Lyons, a CPCJ student, has been missing live music. Livestreamed shows lack the ephemera that helps foster human connection. “I initially wanted to make a zine version of the playlist experience,” Bouvier-Lyons says. Cezzar challenged her to think about why that idea matters in this particular moment. “That’s when I started thinking about how to incorporate a live music experience into this publication,” Bouvier-Lyons says.

Setlist zine gives New York-based bands a space to connect with listeners on a personal level, even as live music remains impossible.

 Setlist, a New York City-based zine, will feature new artists in each issue.  Artists will “write in their own handwriting and their own words about their songs, which they choose to feature, and the role that place has played in the creation and life of each song.” Digital elements, like screengrabs of text messages, bring the zine style into the current moment. After the release of each issue, featured bands will perform via livestream on the Setlist Instagram account.

The design of Setlist incorporates photos from shows, the artists’ handwriting, and screenshots of actual text messages.

Bouvier-Lyons hopes that the performances, alongside the zine, can evoke some of the real-life concert butterflies. “[My project] asks questions about how we can use design and publishing to recreate and emulate a real-life experience of community,” Bouvier-Lyons reflects. She hopes to continue publishing the zine. “I had fun putting it together and seeing what it can be. I’m excited about the zine changing with each artist in a way that’s personal to them.”

Exploring Home, Language, and Loss

When her grandmother passed away, Simran Narwani felt a distinct loss of not only of her relative, but of the world that she carried; her homeland, pre-partition Pakistan. “All my poetry grew around this theme, because I will never have a chance to go back to my ancestral home,” she shares. “One of my great-aunts went back, and she said there were only pieces of rock left—there’s nothing of what we left behind. There’s no shadow of it. That hit me hard, and I wanted to get that experience shared.”

Stories from Somewhere is a powerful meditation on language and lineage, combining the languages spoken by its contributors with the languages spoken by their grandparents.

A Media Studies MA student, Narwani saw this project as an opportunity to honor the stories of her family and families like hers. Course feedback helped Narwani expand the project — a book entitled Stories of Somewhere — to young people from across India with similar experiences, and to consider new kinds of forms. She wanted to incorporate letters because their tangibility feels more permanent and more personal than digital formats. Plus, the human texture of letters appealed to her from a design perspective: “I want to see bad handwriting and good handwriting. I want to see your personality!” But when people felt uncomfortable writing letters, she turned to Instagram, asking instead for photographs and stories that “connect you to your childhood…your grandparents…your people.”

Handwritten notes link the past to the present in Stories from Somewhere.

The stories that emerged were complex, exposing grandparents’ flaws and their strengths. “Maybe I don’t know my people from way back when, maybe I don’t understand them,” Narwani says. “But I do know that the fact that we were able to pick up and adapt and make our own element of home everywhere, I think is a vital takeaway.”

The Secret Lives of Plants

CPCJ MA student Jessie Mokhami began thinking about her prototype while comparing gossip magazines for an earlier assignment.  Initially, she pitched a houseplant gossip magazine as a throwaway idea for the final project, but Cezzar encouraged her to push the concept further, and ask: What could it really look like for a gossip magazine to be about the social life of something we don’t perceive to have a social life?

The Dirt is a loving exploration of the “celebrity gossip magazine” form.

Mohkami developed The Dirt, a 20-page gossip magazine complete with a letter from the editor, horoscopes, and a “who wore it better” section.

“I’m really looking to explore the format and design layout of a gossip magazine, but really play with it.” The iteration process involved adding lots of color, layering images, and playing with loud fonts. While the prototype is mainly just pictures of plants and lorem ipsum filler text, “I’m trying to emulate a gossip magazine and make readers really feel that it’s exactly that,” Mohkami says.

Bright colors, flashy fonts, and photos of plants adorn the pages of gossip mag staples like “Who wore it better?”

The Opposite of Productivity

Under the best of circumstances, the pressure to lead a productive life stokes my anxiety. Amid a global pandemic, that pressure feels downright absurd — yet it has not wavered. For the course, I, also a CPCJ MA student, channeled that anxiety into a 2021 “Anti-Planner,” designed to minimize productivity and maximize stress.

The Anti-Planner subverts the qualities people most value about planners by scrambling layouts and minimizing the space to write.

I developed my design by polling people on Instagram about their ideal planners and subverting all their responses. Instead of ample space to write, the Anti-Planner incorporates tiny spaces, black pages, and a second-person narrator taking up some spaces. Instead of a clear, consistent depiction of time, the Anti-Planner tries to reflect the subjective experience of time, with days and weeks bleeding into each other, seven Tuesdays sometimes strung together, and to-do lists with tasks longer than the days themselves. I used QR codes to incorporate digital elements in some pages and designed accompanying sticker sheets for others. With an entire year’s worth of space to work with, I could indulge my quirkiest ideas as long as I could find a way to get them on the page.

The Anti-Planner’s design plays with the subjective experience of time–some weeks collapse into themselves, some repeat, and some fall apart.

Like Mohkami’s The Dirt, the Anti-Planner was not my initial choice; the task of creating 52 spreads seemed too intimidating. However, Cezzar and my classmates encouraged me, seeing potential in the project. The class’s collaborative environment, where everyone had investment in everyone else’s work, made an enormous difference. The final design incorporated ideas from almost everyone in the class.

Learning by Design

Design as a discipline, Cezzar contends, offers a wealth of opportunities for education and growth, even for non-designers. Every creative process “from making music to fitting a pipe” depends on the same steps: developing an idea, doing research, iterating on that idea, developing a prototype, and integrating feedback. The class offers a space to practice those steps and, importantly, to practice failure and patience.

“Learning design is a way for people to indirectly confront hesitation about learning technology, about learning about ideas, about learning how to read and write. People don’t study design because they’re great at these things. A significant number of students come into the classroom really hesitant about it, Cezzar says. “I think it’s really good for some students to understand that new skills are not closed forever. You can actually learn anything you want, as long as you are able to kind of get past feeling so embarrassed about not knowing something that you can’t continue learning.”


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.