Social Research on Plagues

The journal’s update of 1988’s “In Time of Plague” examines the human history of pandemics and what it means for the current moment

“After decades of dividing our time between apocalyptic fears of nuclear holocaust and private fears of personal ruin, we now face a threat that is profoundly social, requiring a public, community response. Most of us until recently have assumed, perhaps without thinking, that the number of life-threatening infectious diseases was finite, soon to be cured and prevented by medical science…. Now it appears that this idea—that we stand outside our own history, that we, unlike our forebears, are immune to widespread medical disasters—is very doubtful.” 

This description feels very poignant in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Yet these are the words Arien Mack used to introduce the Fall 1988 issue of Social Research, which addressed the HIV/AIDS crisis. Called “In Time of Plague,” the special issue followed the journal’s first-ever public conference, “In Time of Plague: The History and Social Consequences of Lethal Epidemic Disease.” Now, more than 30 years later, Social Research is publishing a new issue with the same title this summer — on COVID-19.

NSSR’s Flagship Journal

Social Research has been a part of The New School for Social Research since its beginning,” Mack says. Founded as an international quarterly in 1934, one year after The New School’s first president created the University in Exile as a refuge for scholars forced to flee Hitler’s Europe, Social Research aimed to create a public voice for the growing university. The flagship NSSR journal now operates in partnership with the school’s Center for Public Scholarship (CPS), founded and directed by Mack, which is dedicated to promoting “free inquiry and public discussion, bringing the best scholarship in and outside of the academy to bear on the critical and contested issues of our times.”

Arien Mack, Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology, became editor of Social Research in 1970. Under her leadership, Social Research pivoted to thematic issues, and from 1988 onward paired some of them with large public conferences that explore current, pressing social issues in their historical contexts. Past issues have looked at such complex concepts as loyalty, fairness, and unknowability, as well as more focused subjects like the future of Cuba and transitions to and then from democracy. As Mack said in a 2020 Public Seminar interview with Jim Miller, Professor of Politics and Liberal Studies and Director of the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program, Had I been in any other university, I would have been [only an experimental] psychologist. I would have published, probably more academic research. But I would not have had the kind of extraordinary run of intellectual fun that [editing] Social Research has offered me.”

“We held our first funded conference at a moment where there was an enormous amount of hysteria around the HIV-AIDS crisis,” Mack says of the program, whose proceedings were published in the 1988 “In Time of the Plague” issue. Her intention in organizing the conference was to examine the epidemic in light of the long human history of plagues, with the goal of fostering open dialogue among scholars and scientists, combating misinformation around AIDS, and offering a more effective and nuanced public response. 

The Right Time to Republish

“Pandemics and plagues have been with us since the beginning of time,” Mack continues. “There are things we have learned and things we have ignored. It occurred to us that this was a great moment to republish this issue and invite authors, some who contributed to the first issue and some new contributors, to comment on the new pandemic.” 

Cara Schlesinger, Managing Editor of Social Research, underscores this point. “One of the important takeaways from this issue,” she says, “is that there were lessons that were learned during the AIDS crisis and lessons that were forgotten… and when we forget history, we risk repeating it. Almost every event we [at Social Research] have done has addressed that idea in some way and tried to bring the past to bear on the present. Unfortunately, this time the past we are reminded of is very recent. Despite all of the powers and pressures working against that memory, maybe this time we will do a little better at remembering.”

The COVID-19 edition of In Time of Plague is divided into two sections. The new essays that comprise the first section navigate the moral dilemmas, inequalities, and misinformation that shadow the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing comparisons to the AIDS crisis. The second section republishes the complete collection of original papers. Contributors of both the original and new material were drawn from across disciplines.

Charles Rosenberg, Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, wrote a paper in 1988 on the definition of disease as well as a new piece on shaping a pandemic narrative. Willam Foege, former executive director of the Carter Center and famed epidemiologist, originally published “Plagues: Perceptions of Risk and Social Responses” and has now contributed an essay entitled “Plague Revisited.” New contributors include Teresa Ghilarducci, NSSR’s Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis and director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, with “When Economists Take a Back Seat to Virologists”; William Hirst, NSSR’s Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology, on how the pandemic will be remembered; Mariano Aguirre, advisor to the Human Rights Institute, on the connections between inequality and the impacts of COVID-19; and Mary T. Bassett, former commissioner of health for New York City, who explores how “epidemics track along the fissures of our society, exacting the highest toll among the marginalized, discriminated, and excluded.”

Join a Webinar

The Center for Public Scholarship will also be holding a two-part public webinar series to launch the new edition of In Time of Plague. See more information and register here.

The first panel, “Inequalities and Plague,” will be held Wednesday, August 5, 12:30-2:00 p.m. EDT. Panelists include Ghilarducci, Aguirre, and Bassett, as well as Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer of Universities South Africa. 

The second panel, “Comparing Plagues: AIDS and COVID-19,” will be held Wednesday,  August 12, 12:30-2:00 p.m. EDT and will be moderated by Ron Bayer, elected member of the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Panelists include Foege; Ruth Macklin, Distinguished University Professor Emerita of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Gerald Oppenheimer, Professor of Clinical Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University; and David A. J. Richards, Edwin D. Webb Professor of Law at New York University. 

Since its first issue, Social Research has aimed to preserve the founding ideals of The New School for Social Research and to make intellectual inquiry around social and political issues more accessible for the New York community and beyond. In the introduction of this new issue, Mack writes, “It is my hope that by reissuing our 1988 issue, with new comments by experts on how the current COVID-19 pandemic resembles and differs from the AIDS epidemic, we will once again help our readers better understand what is happening now and what we might expect.” 

Who Climbs the Academic Ladder?

NSSR PhD Economics students publish paper on career trajectories of Black and Hispanic economists and sociologists

Across disciplines, academia is reckoning with its own whiteness. In 2017, 76 percent of university faculty members in the United States were white. While racial diversity has increased over the past two decades, professors are still much more likely than their students to be white.

The path to tenure is riddled with obstacles. White men are the most likely to become full-time professors, and as a result are more likely to set the agenda and priorities for departments and academic institutions. They receive the highest salaries and positions of power, creating a cycle and social atmosphere that can be difficult to infiltrate.

In collaboration with the American Sociological Association (ASA), two Economics PhD candidates and one Economics PhD alum from The New School for Social Research (NSSR) co-authored three papers on the academic barriers that underrepresented minority (URM) PhD graduates and faculty members face. Published in the Review of Black Political Economy — the leading peer-reviewed journal for research on the economic status of African-Americans and the African diaspora throughout the world their main paper, “Who Climbs the Academic Ladder? Race and Gender Stratification in a World of Whiteness,” looks at the career trajectory of Black and Latino economists and sociologists. The other two publications explore the experiences of women of color in economics and sociology how “raced” organizations influence the tenure process for faculty members in sociology.

Economics PhD candidates Kyle K. Moore and Ismael Cid-Martinez (left to right in cover photo) worked alongside Jermaine Toney, Assistant Professor of Economics at Rutgers University and an NSSR Economics PhD 2017 alum, to co-author the papers with other scholars of economics and sociology; Roberta Spalter-Roth, PhD, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Social Science Research, and Amber Kalb, a PhD candidate in sociology at George Mason University spearheaded the work demonstrating how the social sciences exclude women of color from intellectual legitimacy. Other co-authors include Jean H. Shin, PhD, and Jason A. Smith, PhD, of the ASA.  The team presented their findings at the 2019 American Economic Association annual meetings and in 2018 as working papers.

Using a sample population of Black and Latino students in the U.S. who graduated from PhD programs between 1995 and 2006, they set out to uncover what percentage of these URM scholars in sociology or economics succeed in moving up the academic career ladder, identify the existing social structures that can prevent them from doing so, and lay out policy recommendations to remedy the lack of diversity.

Moore and Cid-Martinez spoke with Research Matters over Zoom to discuss the interdisciplinary nature of “Who Climbs the Academic Ladder” and what this work means for the future of economics, and academia at large.

Of Economists and Sociologists

Moore and Cid-Martinez are in the last year of their PhD programs, currently working on their dissertations, and both are former research assistants at NSSR’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. Moore is also a Senior Policy Analyst with the Joint Economic Committee in the U.S. Congress, while Cid-Martinez is a consultant for UNICEF’s Data and Analytics Unit. They got involved in the project when ASA approached NSSR’s Department of Economics about comparing faculty diversity within economics and sociology.  

“There was a lot of energy behind wanting to compare the two disciplines, to see whether or not things were different for underrepresented minority scholars in economics versus sociology,” Moore says. “We were asking the same questions, looking at pipeline problems with diversifying both disciplines and asking which things matter in becoming a tenured professor.”

Cid-Martinez added, “Despite the fact that they are often treated as disparate fields, both sociology and economics share similar concerns with issues of inequality and inter-group disparities.”

“Our project invokes W.E.B. Du Bois, who is the shared heritage of economics and sociology, having completed coursework in economics and spearheaded sociological inquiries on stratification,” Toney says.

For “Who Climbs the Academic Ladder? Race and Gender Stratification in a World of Whiteness,” the researchers set out to measure stratification by the distribution of academic rank and examine differences based on discipline, institution type, race/ethnicity, gender, and publications in terms of academic career success. To understand the exclusivity of academia in economics and sociology, the researchers embarked on a labor-intensive, mixed-methodologies approach, reviewing the resumes and CVs of PhD cohorts in the two fields between 1995 and 2006. They reasoned that these graduates should have had enough time to have moved from tenure-track assistant professors to tenured associate professors within eight years, though not all did so, and some should have had time to become full professors within 14 years.

“One of the main contributions that we wanted to have with the paper is that we wanted it to be non-intrusive,” Moore says. “So we didn’t want to have to rely exclusively on survey data. We wanted to be able to identify folks and gather as much data in a secondary way as possible to build out the trajectory of their careers.”

This is where the interdisciplinary nature of the project became crucial. “That intensive sort of mixed methods research is not something economists typically do,” Moore says. “But our sociologist colleagues were more familiar with doing that type of work.”

Together, they discovered that the career paths of URM faculty can be limited due to a process that legitimates a non-Hispanic White male set of rules and practices, including value-neutrality — the idea that a researcher must be totally impartial — and objectivity.

One of the major frameworks for the study was the idea of social and human capital and its relationship to advancing an academic career path. There is, of course, the well-known aphorism in academia of “publish or perish” — meaning that how often and in which journals scholars publish work can be a critical metric in the tenure process. Their findings confirmed that publications are likely the most significant measure leading to promotion. But authoring and getting an article to publication goes much deeper. “Having a group of people to relate to and publish work with and co-author with, build relationships with, is key,” Moore says. 

As a discipline, sociology was founded upon the idea of social stratification, or classifying groups of people based on inequalities in power and resources. Applying this approach to economics illuminated how, traditionally, the discipline focuses on the individual rather than looking at larger social structures. The emphasized focus on publication status and other forms of human capital perpetuates a system of exclusivity. By bringing social theory into economics, the researchers were able to identify how critical inclusive social networks can be to progressing a career in academia.

“These disciplines don’t account for the fact that minority faculty do a lot of service work with respect to minority students, and that’s not often captured in determining who gets tenure, who doesn’t get tenure, whether or not those support networks exist in those fields,” Moore says. Participation in ‘raced’ organizations and activities was similarly devalued, and URM faculty who did not receive tenure likely dropped out of academia and found alternative employment. “I think that’s the case for the social sciences more broadly.  A lot of these insights from the paper are going to be able to apply more broadly.”

Looking Inward and Ahead at The New School

Broadening the scope of traditional economics and fostering interdisciplinary approaches is at the core of NSSR. “One of the advantages coming from the New School and our department is that we started with a very pluralistic, or heterodox, perspective in looking at economics” Cid-Martinez says. “So that in itself provided us with a different lens from which to view and treat these issues.”

 “The paper itself is a product of The New School,” Moore says. “More people should do more interdisciplinary work and The New School encourages that in its curriculum. I think it’s a very valuable thing to do just as a scholar.”

While the New School provided the perfect environment to build out this research, no institution is immune from reflecting on faculty diversity. “We make important recommendations in the paper,” Cid-Martinez says. “They have a lot to do with not just stopping at diversity hiring. That’s part of the solution, but it’s not enough. We share a responsibility to bring in underrepresented minorities to enrich diversity of representation, methods, and thought, but it is even more important to make sure that they have positive opportunities to climb the academic ladder, that they feel included in their universities and departments, and that they are part of the conversation about the direction in which these need to move. These recommendations are pretty universal; they apply to disciplines outside of the social sciences and even to the most progressive universities and departments in the country.”

These papers have gained widespread attention within the greater economics field. With the momentum of national discourse around internalized racism in hiring structures, Moore and Cid-Martinez are hoping to continue the work and move forward these conversations.

“What we studied were the things that allowed folks to gain access to tenure in the eight years after their initial cohort in our sample population,” Moore says. “But moving forward, there are new areas of social capital that are important that we haven’t considered. The main one that’s big on my mind right now is EconTwitter,” a community of economists active on the social media platform. “Twitter is a relatively new and important vehicle that is driving impact in the profession and academia more generally. I suspect that participation on that platform may be a valuable tool for URM scholars in leveling the playing field. A junior scholar can put their ideas out there and have them be digested in the same format and reach as an established academic.”

These new ways of putting out work and rising within disciplines could be extremely relevant to changing the structure of academia, and deciding who climbs the career ladder towards tenure.

Works Cited

Moore, K. K., Cid-Martinez, I., Toney, J., Smith, J. A., Kalb, A. C., Shin, J. H., & Spalter-Roth, R. M. (2018). Who Climbs the Academic Ladder? Race and Gender Stratification in a World of Whiteness. The Review of Black Political Economy, 45(3), 216–244. https://doi.org/10.1177/0034644618813667

Spalter-Roth, R., Shin, J. H., Smith, J. A., Kalb, A. C., Moore, K. K., Cid-Martinez, I., & Toney, J. (2019). “Raced” Organizations and the Academic Success of Underrepresented Minority Faculty Members in Sociology. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 5(2), 261–277. https://doi.org/10.1177/2332649218807951

 Spalter-Roth, R., & Kalb, A. C. (2019). Women of Color in Economics and Sociology: Poor Climate, Unequal Treatment, and Lack of Legitimacy. Institute for Women’s Policy Research.  https://iwpr.org/publications/race-ethnicity-economics-sociology-inequality/

 

Federico Finchelstein on his new book, A Brief History of Fascist Lies

In an interview with NSSR students, Finchelstein discusses the changing nature of truth

Federico Finchelstein, Professor of History, returns to studying the history of fascism to understand the current political moment. His new book, A Brief History of Fascist Lies (University of California Press, 2020) is a companion to his 2019 book, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press). This latest work explores the new terrain of “post-truth” and “fake news,” while investigating the long lineage of fascist leaders weaponizing lies.

Emmanuel Guerisoli, Sociology and History PhD candidate, and Ihor Andriichuk, Politics PhD student, sat down over Zoom with Finchelstein to discuss the inspiration behind his research and how lies define politics today.

Left to right: Guerisoli and Andriichuk

Listen to the full conversation here:


An excerpt of the edited transcript of the discussion is below

***

On why this book, now 

Guerisoli: I wanted to start with a basic question. You mention at the beginning of the book a series of events like the El Paso shooting and a Christchurch shooting in New Zealand that in a way triggered the idea to write this book. Do you want to talk more about that, why you’re writing this book now?

Finchelstein: Those events happened almost by the end of the writing…This [book] is a kind of continuation of a longstanding worry about how and why people believe in fascists, what makes that fascism successful? One of the issues that makes it successful is that these outrageous ideas become a matter of belief. They spread throughout, motivating a lot of people to not only believe, but also to kill in its name, to exert a lot of violence in its name. So the two examples that you mention, Emmanuel, are rather examples from the end of the story. 

This book is a kind of continuation of a longstanding worry about how and why people believe in fascists

Finchelstein

….After finishing my work, From Fascism to Populism in History, I wanted to return to some questions that I have been addressing before. This started in a way with a conference that I gave in Italy in the mid-2000s. This was like a longer question of why people believe in fascism and why that belief moves beyond empirical demonstration to be a world of fantasy which, ironically, is believed and presented as true.

Andriichuk: You mention at the very end of the book that you actually started working on this book in 2013, after this conference in Italy. In the introduction, you say that fascists and populists are playing in a league of their own. And if to speak from today about 2013 and the period between those dates, is this league increasing or declining?

Finchelstein:  What I mean by that is that all politicians lie. And lying is not an issue which depends on a particular ideology. All ideologies eventually engage with lies and often propaganda. What I mean when I say that they play in a league of their own is that most other political traditions generally do not believe their lies. I think that is an important distinction. The other part of that distinction is that not only do these people believe in their lies, but also they believe that their lies are the truth. Even reality does not correlate to that belief, hat they do is try to change reality and in the book I present many examples of this.

Lying is not an issue which depends on a particular ideology. All ideologies eventually engage with lies and often propaganda. What I mean when I say that they play in a league of their own is that most other political traditions generally do not believe their lies.

Finchelstein

One of them is one of the most dramatic assumptions of these beliefs…is the belief in an anti-Semitic lie…that states that Jews are dirty and they spread disease. They are sometimes presented a virus themselves. This is a lie, and hat the Nazis did with this is to create an artificial war in which this lie could turn into a reality. Jews were, of course, not spreading disease per se, but once they were put in horrible conditions, in ghettos and concentration camps, they didn’t have food, they didn’t have sanitary conditions and so on and so forth. They eventually became ill and certainly spread disease, but they only did so not because that was true, but rather because the Nazis turned their lies into situations which became the truth. But that truth itself is a lie because it’s the effect or the outcome of turning lies into reality.

On believing lies

Guerisoli: Something that I found really quite striking from your book is…that you make a difference that lying is something that also liberalism does. But as you just said, liberalism doesn’t believe…

Finchelstein: Or communism.

Guerisoli: Exactly, they don’t believe their own lies. One could…say, well, liberalism or 

communism might be hypocritical, but fascism is a dangerous, sincere type of ideology. The issue is that what you are saying is that also the lying is racist, it is based on this idea that certain communities of people, certain races, certain ethnicities, are superior or have a sacred space in the world. Their leaders appear able to reveal a “sacred old truth” that certain spaces or certain people are sacred and therefore they need to act upon it. And this is, going back to the El Paso and Christchurch shootings, the idea of the replacement theory, that these people believe that migrants or foreigners of people who are not white or Christians are invading and spreading disease, or contaminating, polluting the romanticized idea of their society.

Finchelstein: ….This is exactly what I want to say. It involves racism because fascism historically has been racist. So basically, the idea of truth in fascism, which is, of course, a lie for the rest of us, is a racist lie. It involves demonization, discrimination, and racism. And there uou see the connection between the past and the present. 

And here I would like to stress a distinction between the current populism and far-right populism, the current one…I mean Trump, I mean Bolsonaro, I mean Orban, I mean Narendra Modi and others, is that as opposed to most populists in history — starting with Juan Peron to Silvio Berlusconi or Hugo Chavezmeaning populism left and right — they did not exactly engage with lies in the same way. They were much more pragmatic, closer to the liberalism way of lying. Whereas what Trump and Bolsonaro share, not with the populists in history but with the fascists themselves is the idea, this belief in their own lies. A good example of this is that we have a lie that divides us, the lie being that you don’t need a mask to protect yourself from the virus. Even in this country now, people are divided across two ideological lines. I mean, you wear a mask if you believe in science. You don’t wear a mask if you believe in Trump. But Trump himself exposes himself to the disease because he doesn’t wear a mask. There you have a perfect demonstration of how he believes in his own lies. 

I think here you see the connection between populism and fascism in a very particular way. The current populism, the current post-fascism, is very different to the post-fascist populism of the past. It’s different in the sense that it is racist, it glorifies violence and also lies as fascists lie.

That connects them not only with the fascists of the past…but also with the fascists of the present, as these terrorists that you were talking about. So this terrorism involves the same lies and even kill, as the fascists did, for these lies. But these lies are also the lies that are being involved by Trump. I mean, this idea of replacement, this idea of invasion. Sometimes it’s even verbatim, that these terrorists use the same words that Trump is using. So Trump is not responsible for their violence, but is enabling it. I mean, he’s not legally responsible for the violence, but he has a responsibility…He’s spreading the same lies as they do.

A good example of this is that we have a lie that divides us, the lie being that you don’t need a mask to protect yourself from the virus. Even in this country now, people are divided across two ideological lines. I mean, you wear a mask if you believe in science. You don’t wear a mask if you believe in Trump.

Finchelstein

On the psychoanalytic history of lying

Andriichuk: ….In the book…you’re stressing that this kind of fascist lie and populist lie is not conscious or intentional. So the person who is lying does not necessarily imply there is a lie. So there is not necessarily a knowledge of this lie.

Finchelstein: Sometimes. 

Andriichuk: So it’s kind of subconscious or a gray area. You approach this matter from a psychoanalytical point, and this matter is revealing. My question would be what those populist or fascist lies might reveal in themselves. 

Finchelstein: So there are a couple of things….From Hitler, Mussolini, Goebbels, at some level…they recognize that these lies were lies. But even then, the idea was that these lies were servicing the truth, or were enabling the truth, or were at the service of the truth. Sometimes in a minimal way, they were acknowledging to some extent that they were lying for the truth, rendering these in a way smaller than the truth, which was an ideological one, such as racism. Even if this particular person is not spreading disease at the current moment, they insisted on the fact that this person was spreading disease because at the end of the day, what mattered was the big truth, as they understood it. Even Hitler himself will say about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is one of the craziest lies of anti-Semitism and racism…When they asked Hitler about this, Hitler would say, “Even if there are aspects of the Protocols that are not correct or true, they speak to a greater truth.” …. Now, regarding the question of psychoanalysis, as you know from the book, there are different levels of this. The book is about how the fascists understood their lying, but also how anti-fascists at the time were trying to think about the lies of fascism. Among these anti-fascists, many of them were very interested in psychoanalysis, starting, of course, with Freud…but also people like Adorno, people like Mariátegui…Many of them thought that the concepts of psychoanalysis and its approach to the unconscious could help us understand this irrational belief in a form of truth that basically rejects empirical demonstration but have faith as truth in emerging in the inner being. 

Traditional media still are looking for a middle ground that doesn’t exist.

Finchelstein

At the beginning of the book, I quote Trump, Hitler, and Mussolini. I compare their understanding of the truth, which of course is quite similar. The truth is not being based on empirical demonstration. Perhaps the most explicit among the three of them…is Trump, who says, “Don’t believe in what you are seeing.” How can you not believe in what you are seeing?..This is extremely irrational, and the unconscious has an important role to play… The other level is that…the fascists themselves were quite obsessed with psychoanalysis. There is a chapter on this issue…and why they thought that psychoanalysis was so problematic for fascism.

Guerisoli: …I wanted to point out that this issue connects to the idea of race, because in the end,… the concern is that Freud is attacking the idea of myth, but particularly what is sacred to fascists, which in this sense would be the nation, particularly for fascists. It’s not that Freud is directly attacking fascists, although in the end he will, but that

by attacking the idea of anything that is sacred as something that is not truth, then what fascists are saying is that “Freud is saying this because he’s a Jew and not loyal to the nation and therefore he’s a virus in our own societies. And you see going around not just in Europe, but also in Latin America, with the clerical fascism types, from Mexico to Argentina. 

With the case of Trump, or at least today…you mentioned also that what’s most dangerous is this relationship between conspiracy theories that are believed by a lot of people, but then public officials like Bolsanaro or Trump talk about them as if not facts, but as possibilities that should be addressed and discussed as they have enough evidence of any other type of historical facts. You add to that liberal societies with new media, you have the perfect environment for these to become mainstream, like birther conspiracy and everything else.

Finchelstein: The point here and the problem here is that it’s very hard to discuss lies. Generally, in a rational discussion…arguments need to be supported by facts. Now, if you have on one hand an anti-fascist critique that is supported by facts, and on the other hand pure racist fantasies and xenophobic fantasies, on the other hand there is no middle ground. So that’s why, sometimes,  traditional media still are looking for a middle ground that doesn’t exist. Because quite simply, as many of the anti-fascists from the 1970s and 40s pointed out ,on one side, there is the truth and on the other one is fascist lies….you will see sometimes  the New York Times…when Trump says something outrageous, or I will say, Trump says something outrageous about the coronavirus. So Trump says there is a miracle cure; experts disagree, somehow implying there are two sides. There are not two sides. Trump is lying; science tells you otherwise.

Making a Magazine in a Pandemic

A Back Matter staff member shares the process of creating the publication (partly) remotely

After being admitted to the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism (CPCJ) Master’s program at The New School for Social Research in Spring 2019, I was invited to the launch party for a student-created magazine called Back Matter. 

With an open bar at Von in NoHo to commemorate the end of their semester, Back Matter editors gave toasts to months of production and passed out copies. Nervously mingling with my soon-to-be professors and peers, I flipped through the pages of the magazine, enamored.

Producing Back Matter has become a rite of passage for CPCJ students. The magazine typically covers the publishing industry at large, and students in the relevant course direct their issue’s theme and aesthetic, filling roles across editorial, design, web development, social media and marketing, publishing and business. 

Formally known as the Multimedia Publishing Lab, the class was designed by CPCJ co-founder Rachel Rosenfelt, former publisher at The New Republic and founding editor of The New Inquiry, as a kind of capstone project, an opportunity for students from across The New School to apply their skill sets and interests to the full process of creating a magazine. 

Now, the class is co-taught by Jon Baskin and Jesse Seegers. Baskin, who handles the editorial mentoring, is the CPCJ Associate Director and a founding editor of The Point, a thrice-yearly magazine of philosophical essays and criticism. Seegers — who has worked architecture, design, writing, editing, publishing, and research — serves as the design beacon and teaches core classes in CPCJ and at Parsons School of Design.

After that night, I committed to the CPCJ program. I was drawn to how it merged design and writing practices. Now, I am finishing up my second semester and pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate minor in Design Studies. At the beginning of Spring 2020, I enrolled in Multimedia Publishing Lab with the intention of stepping outside of my editorial comfort zone and getting more portfolio experience with print design.

“This goes to the heart of what CPCJ was designed to achieve,” Baskin said. “I think the founders, Jim Miller and Rosenfelt, saw from the beginning that too much of professional publishing is bifurcated into different departments that barely communicate with one another. One of the goals of the program, embodied most successfully in this class, is to help graduate students who can work across those divides.”

We began the semester applying for and receiving our positions, noted in the masthead above. 

The editorial team picked out submissions, working with Baskin to guide student writers through the editing process. Second-year CPCJ students Taia Handlin, Editor-in-Chief, and Shulokhana Khan, Managing Editor, spearheaded this effort.

Meanwhile, the design team began to envision how the magazine would look and feel like. Creative Director Annika Lammers, a Parsons Master’s student, managed the overall visual concept, applying her spatial design skills to construct the physical publication. As Art Director, I spent hours with her pouring through other magazines and taking trips to Printed Matter, an artbook distributor in Chelsea, for inspiration. With the help of Seegers, we made mockups, printed them, printed them again, and then printed them yet again. We had big ideas of unique binding techniques, using the school’s risograph printer, experimenting with paper weights and textures. We worked with the editorial team to blend the thematic contents with visual expression. We created a graphic treatment to begin laying out the print product. 

The publisher began seeking printing quotes, and the digital team drew up plans for a website and social media marketing. We set editorial calendars, print dates, and budgets, and we started planning our own launch party. 

Then the world changed.

AAnnika Lammers and Alexa Mauzy-Lewis working on Back Matter in the before-times | Photo by Hector Gutierrez, Back Matter Marketing and Communications Director
Jon Baskin on a class trip to Printed Matter in the before-times| Photo by Annika Lammers, Back Matter Creative Director
Back Matter staff meeting in the before-times | Photo by Hector Gutierrez

“We began this second edition of Back Matter in January. Then, none of us was imagining our current reality, structured by daily video chats and people actually debating if silk scarves are better or worse than bandanas in stopping a pandemic,” wrote Handlin in her Letter from the Editor.  “We just wanted to make a sassy magazine that pokes holes in the immense, white, privileged landscape of publishing.”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to trudge on virtually. We launched the new issue on the magazine’s website and began to roll out the articles and illustrations we had crafted.

It wasn’t easy. “We have had to relearn ways of communicating, sharing information, and effectively coming together to cohesively formulate the vision and content of the publication,” says Lammers. “We are now sharing different time zones from Australia, to Korea, to the U.S.”

“I cannot help but think that the initial design decisions made at the very start of the publication are reflective of our current surrounding environment,” Lammers says. “Back Matter’s hand-drawn illustrations, risograph-printed pages and sewn-bound finish strips back the complexities and reveals insight into the way we had to critically adapt and think about the publication.”

The Back Matter team is continuing to build out the website, publishing new pieces weekly. Cailin Potami wrote a piece on underrepresentation in publishing. Jessie Mohkami explored the gender gap in book club culture. Adji Ngathe Kebe explained how comp titles paved the way for the racist bestselling disaster American Dirt

Soon, we’ll share a special section that responds to the landscape of media in a crisis. We are working to finish our final print design, with hopes of printing it in the fall, if those who are not graduating will be able to return to campus by then.

Screenshot of the print title for a piece by CPCJ student Fareeha Shah.
Full article available online.
Screenshot of the first-page layout for a piece by CPCJ student Cailin Potami.
Full article available online.

The ending of this semester is bittersweet. Instead of celebrating our work together at a bar in the city, we are sitting alone in our respective homes at our computers. Through blood, sweat, and InDesign tears, we will have the final design for a print magazine, but its future, like many things, is TBD. Still, we were able to provide a digital home to the works of some incredible New School writers and illustrators — graduate work and research that was produced in the face of global chaos.

Publishing, at large, has been forced to adapt. This issue of Back Matter will always be a relic of this time.

Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is the Art Director of Back Matter magazine and a Master’s student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism Program. Cover art is by Hector Gutierrez. 

Terry Williams: The Cosmopolitan Life of an Urban Ethnographer

“To see the real city you must descend deep into the shadows, go into the bowels of the city and be guided through history, remembrance and the sensorium, capturing a mosaic of people and places; the adventure will take you underground, in sex venues, crackhouses, teenage hangouts, toxico-maniac dens, as these physical spaces juxtapose the romantic reality of a multi-ethnic metropolis.”

Terry Williams, introducing his Cosmopolitan Life Series

On a chilly Sunday afternoon in a February, a crowd gathered at the home-hosted Harlem Arts Salon to hear about the latest book from Terry Williams, Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research. As filmmakers, musicians, artists, poets, sociologists, and current and former graduate students entered the inviting apartment, Williams warmly greeted them by name, creating a sense of community and connection rare at academic book talks.

But this wasn’t a ‘regular’ book talk. For one, host and Harlem Arts Salon founder Margaret Porter has known Williams for decades. Both grew up in Mississippi, found their way to New York City, and moved to Harlem in 1979. Guest moderator Hakim Hasan, a poet and former Director of Public Programs at the Museum of the City of New York, also cited a deeply personal relationship with Williams, whom he called “gracious, soulful, and dedicated.” 

And Le Boogie Woogie: Inside an After-Hours Club (Columbia University Press, 2020) isn’t a ‘regular’ academic book, with obscure jargon and heavy prose. In it, Williams deftly weaves together ethnography, sociological sources, and storytelling to create a fascinating and accessible account of the cocaine culture at a Harlem club in the 1980s and 1990s — a book for, in his words, the “cosmopolitan nonspecialist.”

A Multiethnic Panorama

“I am insatiably curious about the life of other people,” says Williams. “Some would say I’m nosy.”

A keenly observant scholar, Williams has turned being “nosy” into a decades-long career studying urban life and policy. His preferred methodology is ethnography, embedding himself in different situations to observe how people interact with each other and their surroundings. “I try to see the world as other people see it,” he explains.

When Williams was a doctoral student at CUNY in the early 1970s, ethnography was not a part of a sociologist’s toolkit. Focusing on non-quantitative social science made him an outlier in his department, and he instead found mentors at the University of Chicago, well-known for its pioneering work in urban sociology and advocacy for ethnography as critical to sociological research. Ethnography has become such a staple of his work that he even co-wrote the book on it; On Ethnography (Wiley, 2018), with colleague Sarah Daynes, shares lessons learned from decades of research in the field.

Williams publishes prolifically, and Le Boogie Woogie is the latest book in what he terms his Cosmopolitan Life Series; previous subjects include con men, Harlem building superintendents, crackhouse residents, and teenagers who self-harm. The series is a multivolume ethnography of place and behavior, and while the topics are diverse, none are forced; all evolved organically from Williams’ established relationships and interests.

Inside the Club

That’s especially true in the case of Le Boogie Woogie. While Williams’ father had run a small after-hours club in Mississippi, Williams was never allowed to get too close to it — a fact that only attracted him more. Once in New York City, he became connected with Le Boogie Woogie and other clubs like it via former students he taught at Rikers Island correctional facility and later befriended. He became curious about the club’s patrons who shared a lifestyle based around the enjoyment of cocaine and, with a professor’s encouragement, he began to work out a plan for research.

“No study had been done on cocaine users in their natural setting or to describe users as they lived,” he writes in the book’s introduction. Others told him it wasn’t a good idea, “…but my job as a researcher is to see if I can gain the trust and acceptance of people other than my kinfolk.” He pressed forward. 

Granted access to the club by way of his connections, Williams began to attend regularly. When talking with patrons and workers, he listened closely, keeping mental notes so he could later reconstruct dialogue. “Only on a few occasions did I use a tape recorder or openly take notes. I relied on memory for the most part, even though I was concerned that reconstructing conversations was problematic and porous and would affect my narrative,” Williams writes. He later opened up to some patrons about his research, and they began to share their extended stories with him.

The result is a vivid narrative that brings the setting, the scene, and the many characters who populate Le Boogie Woogie to life — so much so that the reader begins to feel like a nightly regular. “What he unveils,” says a recent Kirkus review, “is a subculture with its own codes and language, with moral values at odds with society at large, where drug use isn’t a sickness, addiction, or character defect but rather an ‘example of present-day resistance to conservative values and the desire of human beings to seek pleasurable ways of being regardless of risk.’”

Not only did Williams have to reconstruct dialogue after the fact; he had to reconstruct the entire scene years later. By the time Le Boogie Woogie was published in 2020, the club had been closed for decades. At his publisher’s encouragement, Williams broadened his research to the current day by studying Murphy’s Club, an after-hours club on the Lower East Side frequently mainly by wealthy, white millennials. In doing so, Williams is able to draw important connections and contrasts over time around drug usage, buying, and consumption; nightlife; sex work; race; class; gentrification; the War on Drugs; and the transformation of New York City itself.

“From a methodological perspective, most urban ethnographers do not imagine themselves to be historians in the classical sense of the word,” writes Williams. “Yet there is an inherent and unavoidable historical framework to all ethnographic work.” Le Boogie Woogie is a journey through time, through space, through states of consciousness, and through discreet worlds, each with their own cultural practices and lexicons.

The Sole of the Matter

Williams with his latest project: shoe construction

While Williams continues to prepare new books for his Cosmopolitan Life Series, he’s sharing his research skills and gift for storytelling with NSSR students in his classes on ‘Ethnographic Field Methods’ and ‘The Living Book: From Research to Manuscript.’ 

He’s also collaborating with Catherine Murphy, Senior Research Associate at Parsons School of Design, on ‘The Social Life of Stuff,’ a course that examines the social world of objects, products, and people. Their guiding questions: “What discoveries do we make when we trace the life of the objects that surround us? How do we understand craft? What does the spirit of capital mean in present-day life and the act of making and re-making? What responsibility do we have in addressing the impact products have on the worlds we live in? As we think about examining unusual materials and items of the sacred what remains sacred today? Where does the moral compass stand as it connects to the Internet and places like Silicon Valley?”

That insatiable curiosity that’s led Williams across New York City and around the world of stuff has also led him to a new field: shoe construction. In between teaching and writing, he’s been studying the ins and outs of creating shoes, and currently has prototypes of five different models made from mink, pony, leather and raffia. Several are named after his books or his ethnographic subjects and evoke something about the topics in their design and construction. He hopes to begin selling his shoes in 2021, with profits going to support the Harlem Arts Salon’s Gloster Arts Project and Parsons School of Design students. For Williams, it always comes back to creativity, connections, and communities.