NSSR and Lang Students Explore Suppressed Histories in New York City

On a sunny October afternoon in 2021, Washington Square Park was filled with just about everyone in New York City. Among them were around 25 New School students, their professor, and their guide.

Nearly 400 years ago, the area looked very different. Twenty-eight different farmsteads filled that land, all owned by Black individuals — New York City’s first Black neighborhood. Yet the park today bears no record of this history, nor that of the people who lived there.

That erasure, said Kamau Ware, is not accidental. Ware is an artist, historian, and founder of Black Gotham Experience, an organization dedicated to making “the impact of the African Diaspora missing from collective consciousness as well as the public square.” After a brief introduction, Ware handed each New School student a card bearing the name of a Black person, then asked them to focus on one name: Manuel Trumpeter, a Black farmstead owner. What are the kinds of things that might have been on Trumpeter’s mind? What might he have been feeling, frightened of, excited about as a semi-free Black man in 17th-century New York City?

This empathy-based exercise and subsequent in-depth historical tour of Washington Square Park are integral parts of students’ work in either the “Capitalism and the Settler Colonial Present in New York City” graduate course or “Blind Spots of New York City: Capitalism and Exclusion” undergraduate course, both taught by Benoit Challand, Associate Professor of Sociology.

“This is all very practice-oriented,” says Challand. “The goal is to bring students outside of the classroom and academic, book-centered learning experiences.” In addition to tours with Ware of the park and of the Financial District, students have toured Inwood Hill Park with the Lenape Center and discussed the colonial-era fur trade from the perspective of the Mohawk Nation with the North American Indigenous Center of New York for Culture, Equity, and Economic Justice — all spaces of different kinds of exploitation and erasure.

Developing a Civically Engaged Class

“How can you explain what is capitalism from a historical and sociological perspective?”

During Challand’s first year as a Sociology faculty member at The New School in 2015, he developed a Lang first-year seminar that explored this question via two major commodities, cotton and sugar. As he taught the class, he found that issues around settler colonialism — the replacement of an indigenous population with an invasive settler population — in the U.S.; extraction; land dispossession; and racialization of the other continued to crop up, especially in relation to New York City.

“The big discovery [for me] was to find out how the history of the city is connected to those two commodities all the way to recent times without acknowledging its link with slavery until the 1850s,” he says. This led him to dig deeper into the erasure of past slave rebellions in the city, as well as that of the city’s current large Native American population, and to develop the course in new directions to confront the absence of Black and indigenous people’s memory in New York City landscape, architecture and monuments.

After meeting Ware during a tour in 2017, Challand asked him to lead a tour on erasure of the city’s Black history for the Lang seminar. Following positive reviews, Challand brought Ware into the course as a partner via a Lang Civic Liberal Arts grant, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. They taught together in 2018 and 2020, and now again in 2021.

New this year is a version of the course at the graduate level at NSSR. While both courses explore the same content and read the same texts, Challand says that undergraduate students are “more creative in terms of how they express knowledge” while graduate students have a “deeper, more robust engagement with literature” in class discussion and in written assignments. The courses are now supported by a Mellon Periclean Faculty Leader grant, which has allowed Challand to bring in the additional indigenous community partners.

Assisting with the graduate course is Emmanuel Guerisoli, a Sociology PhD student who studies settler colonialism in the U.S. from a legal point of view. His Teaching Assistant position is funded by NSSR’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, which supports research on New York City and its transformation over the centuries by migration.

Bridging Sociology and History

At both levels, the courses draw deeply upon both history and sociology. At the graduate level, it is one of several Sociology courses that focus on the struggles of peripheral peoples in countries both of the global core and the periphery (read more about the Critical Perspectives in Democratic Anticolonialism project).

Says Challand, “Both disciplines concur on locating capitalism in Atlantic trade, which includes the slave trade. Mercantilism is replaced by capitalism, a new economic and ideological system rooted in exploitation and destruction of native populations….History means an understanding of historical episodes, a past-dependent development. The landscape of New York City is a byproduct of what colonial New York City was in the 17th and 18th centuries. There is continuity and rupture. And from the sociological perspective, capitalism rebundles social relations.”

Although course material temporally ends in the mid-1800s, course discussions address contemporary topics. “We try to look at the legacies, and how racial capitalism and its hierarchies have evolved and developed with time,” says Guerisoli. “In the final sections of the course, it was impossible to ignore what happened last year [uprisings following the murder of George Floyd by police] and Black Lives Matter, and the effect that it had. This is completely influenced by what happened in colonial times.” Discussion topics include the complicity of academia in erasure, pushback against monuments to colonial leaders, reparations, and the establishment of Juneteenth as a national holiday in the U.S.

“I’m very happy to see the students very engaged both academically, theoretically, but also politically,” says Guerisoli, who has been a TA for a previous Sociology class taught by Challand, “and that we’re able to discuss what are very much provocative topics that are not easy to engage with and don’t have any easy answers or simple answers.” He cites a recent debate around the discourse of nativism; that indigenous people might use nativism to counter settler colonial practices, but that white supremacists use the same discourse against migrants.

Melisa Rousseau is a Sociology MA student who registered for the course without much prior academic knowledge of the topics it addresses. But with race as a primary area of focus for her studies, the course seemed like a great fit. “I really didn’t even know about what settler colonialism was,” she says. “I signed up because I had taken Benoit’s class before, and he and Emma together are a really good team, so I knew it would be a good course.”

The course has not only offered her new perspectives on slavery and the genocide of Native Americans; it’s also reframed how she thinks about race, space, and place, and New York City itself.

“The course has significantly changed the way I see New York City,” she says. “I’m not just walking through Washington Square Park anymore, right? It’s got a different meaning now. The same with Wall Street or City Hall. I never realized that interred a block away from City Hall are up to 20,000 skeletons [of Black individuals]. Now when I walk in Lower Manhattan, it has a different meaning.”

And she appreciates the multifaceted aspects of the course. “We’re able to integrate what we’ve learned on the tour with what we’re also learning in the readings,” she says. And on top of that, we’re keeping journals [which integrate] what we’re reading and our experience on the tours.”

Ware’s October tour ends outside a building just east of Washington Square Park where, in 1911, nearly 150 Jewish and Italian immigrant garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. A small plaque on the building commemorates the tragedy, one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history and a major turning point in labor history and occupational safety. He notes the differences between the site and the nearby park in terms of public memory and erasure. But one parallel remains: the extra work those “othered” must do — ideally with a wide base of support but often alone — to fight for visible change in a society built on their erasure.

Photo credit: Emmanuel Guerisoli

 

Meet Our Postdocs: Niina Vuolajarvi Brings Activism-Informed Research to the Zolberg Institute

Niina Vuolajarvi began her postdoctoral fellowship at NSSR in January 2021, bringing her long background of activism and academic research “at the intersection of sex work studies and migration studies” to the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility.

Before starting her PhD in Sociology at Rutgers University, Vuolajarvi organized around migrant rights, anti-racism, feminist movements and sexual rights in Nordic countries. Later, as a doctoral student in Finland, she became aware of the debate surrounding sex work, especially one curious characteristic of the discourse: “The way feminists have been one of the main groups promoting oppression of sex workers rights and sex workers’ self-expression,” she says.

Vuolajarvi began her doctoral field work among migrant sex workers in 2013, when discussions of the “Nordic model” of legislation—which criminalizes the purchasing of sex, but not the selling of it—were increasing in Finland. As part of her organizing work with feminist networks trying to halt the promotion of these laws, Vuolajarvi compiled a research report on the effect of client criminalization on sex workers for the Finnish National Gender Studies Association. 

“I noticed there actually wasn’t much empirical research done involving sex workers themselves, interviewing them to see how [they] themselves experienced this law,” Vuolajarvi says. “There was especially no research that would have included migrant sex workers.” 

Eager to address this disparity for organizing work and for her dissertation, Vuolajarvi interviewed over 200 people, most of whom were sex workers, in Finland, Sweden, and Norway. “I tried to talk with people from different residence permit categories, from different ethnic groups, and also different working locations to really make an intervention in the debate,” she explains. She published her results in her dissertation, Governing in the Name of Caring: Migration, Sex Work and the ‘Nordic Model’. 

Her commitment to centering the voices of directly impacted individuals in academic debates is one way that Vuolajarvi’s background in activism informs her approach as a scholar. She has thoughtfully moved between those spheres, always considering the impact her research could have on the communities it focuses on.

From 2015 to 2017, Vuolajarvi worked as the main researcher on an interdisciplinary project called Deported, which raised public awareness of the criminalization of migration’s impact on communities. The project won the 2017 Visual Journalism of the Year Award.

“You have to make sure your research doesn’t just serve you and your academic career, but that it’s really available to communities to advocate for their rights.”

-Niina Vuolajarvi

“Especially doing research with populations that have been historically mistreated by researchers, where the research has often been mobilized to initiatives that work against these communities, I think it’s very important to think about the politics of your research and what your research does,” she cautions. “You have to make sure your research doesn’t just serve you and your academic career, but that it’s really available to communities to advocate for their rights.”

“I don’t want to speak for sex workers. I think they are very capable of speaking for themselves and can voice their concerns much better than I do,” she explains. “But I also think that producing knowledge and providing tools for the movements in this ‘expert’ role can have a different impact in the debates.”

Since January, Vuolajarvi has met weekly with the Zolberg Institute, where she is developing her dissertation research into a book. “I’m really happy to be at the Zolberg Institute. I took courses there as a graduate student at Rutgers,” she says. “They nurture a very open and warm environment, so it was really easy to land even in the time of Zoom.” Vuolajarvi also hopes to collaborate with The New School’s Gender and Sexualities Studies Institute.  

“Niina will expand the focus of the Institute, through her important scholarship and new courses she will add to our curriculum,” says Alex Aleinikoff, University Professor and Director of the Zolberg Institute. “We are thrilled to have her join us.”

Vuolajarvi also hopes to begin research on “the technologies of governance and policing of sex work,” analyzing the ways that technologies like social media and money transfer companies use algorithms to police sex work. “I would like to look more into these new forms of governance, how they function and how they affect the way sex workers organize their everyday working lives,” she explains. “Also, I want to research how the communities organize to resist these new forms of control.” Vuolajarvi has already published more than 20 articles, book chapters, book reviews and research reports on the policies and politics of immigration, commercial sex, and healthcare.

 Vuolajarvi hopes to move to in-person work at The New School in Fall 2021. “It’s been a very positive experience so far,” she says. “I’m looking forward to getting into the everyday life of the New School.” 


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, Linguini and Tortellini.

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, Linguini and Tortellini.

Memory Studies Group Looks to the Past to Build the Future

After a three year hiatus, the Memory Studies Group at The New School for Social Research regrouped and reemerged in March 2020. Less than a week after their first event, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world — and halted many of their plans.

Now, just over a year later, the revived group will hold their first conference this April: “Suspended Present: Downloading the Past and Gaming the Future in a Time of Pandemic.” Research Matters spoke about with group members and leaders about the group’s history, its current projects, and its future.  

The History of the Memory Studies Group

“The idea for the Memory Studies Group came up…in Krakow, Poland, during  the Democracy & Diversity Summer Institute in 2007,” recounts faculty advisor Elzbieta Matynia, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS), which conducts the annual summer study intensive. She had just taught her first class in collective memory. As her students walked through Kazimierz, Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter, they noticed a pattern: “…beautifully renovated buildings, various institutions, cafes, restaurants, and the streets were all named for its Jewish past. The only thing missing was the Jewish people, who had been taken to the Nazi concentration camps, and murdered there. It became visible to us then, this uncanny presence of absence.”

This experience sparked an interest in memory among Institute students, who became the founding cohort of an independent Memory Studies Group: Amy Sodaro, Sociology PhD 2011; Lindsey Freeman, Sociology & Historical Studies PhD 2013; Yifat Gutman, Sociology PhD 2012; Alin Coman, Psychology PhD 2010, and Adam Brown, Psychology PhD 2008 and now Associate Professor of Psychology at NSSR. They organized a conference in the group’s first year, where scholars discussed questions like “Which past is official? What is it that we remember? How do we forget when we are not allowed to remember? How do groups remember their history when their memory is being repressed, and what is happening to people whose very existence is repressed from memory?” 

When Malkhaz Toria, group coordinator and a Sociology MA student, came to NSSR as a Fulbright scholar in 2011, the Memory Studies Group became an intellectual home for him. “That inspired me to establish a similar sort of group at my home university, Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia,” he says; he also heads that university’s Memory Center.

Upon his return to NSSR in 2019, Toria was instrumental in reviving the group, which had gone on a brief hiatus. Now part of TCDS, the group has new core members of Franzi König-Paratore, Sociology PhD student; Elisabeta “Lala” Pop, Politics PhD student; Malgorzata Bakalarz Duverger, sociologist, art historian, and Sociology PhD 2017; Chang Liu, Sociology MA student; and Karolina Koziura, Sociology and Historical studies PhD student.

“Our goal is also to have some continuity of the transnational and transdisciplinary projects and exchange that Sodaro and Freeman envisioned and implemented when they were steering the group,” König-Paratore says. “My hope is that the group continues to connect past and present members. I personally hope that we open up the group more for professionals or cultural workers outside of academia.”

The revived group’s first and only in-person event was a March 2020 book launch for Museums and Sites of Persuasion, which was edited Sodaro and Joyce Apsel, and includes work by Alexandra Délano Alonso, Associate Professor and Chair of Global Studies at the School of Public Engagement, Toria, and many others. Since then, the group has held several online lectures and webinars and on discourses within the field, from a look at revisionist narratives in Russia to an examination of how Frida Wunderlich — the first female economist at NSSR and a founding member of the University in Exile — is remembered.

Memory Studies: A Transdisciplinary Field

Memory Studies spans disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities to explore the ways collective memory is constructed, experienced, repressed, and rebuilt. “The complex field of memory studies employs whole repertoire of approaches from different disciplines including  comparative literature, history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and politics, among other areas, to address the multifaceted phenomena of both individual and collective memories ,” Toria says. Matynia describes the field as “transdisciplinary.”

For example, Silvana Alvarez Basto, Liberal Studies MA student, looks at the intersections between politicization of art, history, and visual representations of memory in her home country of Colombia. “The topic of memory is very popular right now, since in 2016 the government ended an armed conflict with the FARC,” she says. Her research focuses on the construction of Simón Bolívar’s image as a national symbol across Latin America, in groups like the FARC and beyond. “I’m interested in how his face has become a guiding locus or a symbol for these movements,” Alvarez Basto explains. While her work has primarily dealt with 19th century portraits of  Bolívar, she has recently begun looking at the ways “new technologies modify our relationship with canonical images and with the Western tradition of painted portraits.”

Toria works on the role of memory construction in authoritarian regimes and their aftermaths. Collective memory, he explains, does not come into existence organically. “It’s controlled and dependent on political conjunctures…Across the globe, if you have a totalitarian government, they are more keen to control how you remember.” His research looks at citizens in countries that were part of the Soviet Union. “Ukrainians, Georgians, and Estonians have different pictures of the past and past relationships with Russia. That’s why these clashes in questions of the past happen; it is quite a universal mechanism.”

“My first encounter with the Memory Studies Group at the New School was in 2009 when I was pursuing an MA degree. Through the [group] and TCDS I became connected with the interdisciplinary research and networks of the field and it greatly influenced my own MA thesis work,” Pop explains. “Now [that] I’m back at NSSR, I’m excited to be part of the team of graduate students continuing the group’s work and re-launching its activities.”

Memory Studies Today

Memory Studies takes on particular relevance in periods of upheaval, when democracies come into existence or are threatened, when social movements gain power, or when societies experience unprecedented change — periods like today.

Matynia points to several factors that make the current moment crucial for the field. Many countries have experienced what Matynia calls “de-democratization,” under the influence of dictators and “would-be dictators” who weaponize collective memory. “Politics of history and politics of memory became a part of the playbook of many dictators and aspiring dictators,” she explains.

Additionally, social movements have begun exposing and dismantling parts of the past that had been manipulated or repressed out of collective memory. Think of activists taking down statues of Confederate leaders in the U.S, slaveholders in the U.K., and a conquistador in Colombia. “There’s this rippling where people want to ask, ‘what does it mean to memorialize these figures?’” Alvarez Basto says.

Memory Studies doesn’t just look at the past; the field is equally interested in the ways that people form collective memory now in preparation for the future. The massive shift in March 2020 into lockdown and onto Zoom inspired the group’s April 21 conference, “Suspended Present: Downloading the Past and Gaming the Future in a Time of Pandemic.” Speakers will include Marci Shore, Associate Professor of History at Yale University; Hana Cervinkova, Professor of Anthropology at Maynooth University; and Juliet Golden, Director of the Central Europe Center at Syracuse University.

Toria explains, “There’s a kind of eternal presence that feels never-ending. Our world is reduced to these small screens, where our lives are… We’ll cover multifaceted aspects of Memory Studies in this new light, the context of the pandemic, like problems of democracy, remembrance, the problem of forgetting, shifting senses of time and space, and new issues in memory discourse surrounding gender and race.”

“We call it memory studies, but so much of what we think we are rooted in and call our past actually projects into the future,” Matynia adds. “So which past will we download as we moveout of today’s situation, and draw upon as a springboard for reinventing our intellectual lives, spiritual lives, and social lives?”


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, Linguini and Tortellini.

Student-Led Symposium Explores Psychology and the Pandemic

On December 4, near the end of a year defined by COVID-19, MA and PhD students from the Psychology department at The New School for Social Research gathered on Zoom to present their research on the global mental health landscape amidst the global pandemic. 

The symposium was organized by Julia Superka, a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology, and Olivia Cadwell a PhD candidate in Cognitive, Social, and Developmental Psychology. As members of the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab, both have been working on pandemic-related mental health issues for months. But they didn’t realize that so many of their peers were as well.

NSSR’s Psychology department is a collaborative space. “I have always thought of this department as a community who uses tools, theories, and methods from psychological science as a way to inform and respond to our most critical challenges,” says Adam Brown, director of the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab and Associate Professor of Psychology. Students conducting research throughout the department’s 16 labs have opportunities to discuss their work and its implications for broad-scale problems. Amid a shift to remote learning, those interactions have changed. “The chats that happen before class and collaboration that sparks in the hallways are much harder to organically build,” Superka says. Brown approached Superka and Cadwell with the idea for a student-led symposium to bring those students together.

In November, Cadwell and Superka circulated flyers inviting Psychology students with research at any stage related to COVID-19 to present their work. They received 12 abstracts with extraordinary breadth, and then coordinated across different labs, countries, and time zones to make the virtual symposium a reality. Topics included “data about clinical symptom severity and possible predictive markers for developing psychopathology during the pandemic…different ways technology was impacting the therapeutic process and being developed to reach as many people having difficulty coping as possible,” and “the implications of COVID from a global lens, including international research specifically in Turkey, India and China,” Superka recounts.

Research in Action at The Safran Center

Brown opened the virtual space by celebrating the adaptability of the students, so many of whom made changes in their research to address the urgent mental health needs the pandemic caused or exacerbated.

“One of the most remarkable things about being at NSSR is being surrounded by peers who have pivoted and adapted their research so quickly to this crisis,” Superka echoed in her opening remarks.

Olivia Cadwell, Safran Center for Psychological Services director Richelle Allen, and Julia Superka discuss overlaps across different research projects.

While national studies have looked at the impact of the pandemic on mental health generally, they have not closely analyzed symptoms for people already receiving treatment when the stay-at-home order began. The first project, presented by Clinical Psychology PhD student Hally Wolhander from the Psychotherapy work group from Safran Center for Psychological Services (directed by Richelle Allen, Assistant Professor of Psychology), focused on this often-overlooked demographic and measured patients’ symptom-severity during the pandemic. The group’s research showed that Safran Center patients with strong therapeutic alliance — the cooperative, working relationship — with their providers seemed to remain on track for reducing the severity of their mental health symptoms. Wolhander added that the group was still curious about the impact of teletherapy (versus in-person therapy) itself.

The Safran Center gave students the opportunity to observe the effects of COVID-19 and teletherapy on mental health services.

A group led by Psychology MA student Leslie O’Brien took up that very question in their presentation on “The Effect of the Transition to Teletherapy on Therapeutic Alliance during COVID-19.” O’Brien began, “Previous literature has indicated that psychologists have raised concerns about the impact of virtual conferencing on the psychotherapy process and therapeutic alliance.” To this group’s surprise, the patients and therapists they surveyed developed a high degree of therapeutic alliance, equal to previous years. The Center did increase the number of appointments patients receive in response to the pandemic, so the research might imply that the additional appointments had some success in preventing symptom deterioration–additional research could show whether that’s the case.

Another Safran Center work group focused on how the shift to teletherapy affected PhD students completing their training at the Center. Many student therapists initially opposed the switch to telehealth, Wolhander explained, because they were concerned that they would receive less broadly applicable training. But by June, students largely reported a neutral or positive experience, and most reported that they felt they had developed new skills.

The Psychological Life of the Pandemic

NSSR’s Psychology labs have also turned their attention to the relationship between mental states, emotions, and navigating these famously unprecedented times.

Clinical Psychology PhD student Emily Weiss from the Psychopathology Lab (directed by McWelling Todman, Professor of Clinical Practice) presented on the implications of a familiar emotional state during the pandemic — boredom. Different people, she explained, have different propensities toward boredom generally. But people who have felt increased boredom since stay-at-home orders began don’t necessarily have a higher boredom propensity. The differences, while subtle, could have a significant impact on distress. While boredom proneness and state boredom both are associated with higher rates of depression, for example, people with lower boredom proneness and higher state-boredom seem to have higher rates of hope and optimism for the future. Likewise, higher boredom-proneness is associated with higher COVID-19 infection, but not higher concern about the virus.

Heleen E. Raes, an MA student, presented research, also housed in the Psychopathology Lab, on the impact of pandemic boredom on substance use, hypothesizing that people more susceptible to boredom may be more likely to use alcohol and drugs.

MA student Ali Revill’s group within the Safran Center found that extraverted patients and patients with lower emotional dysregulation — inability of a person to control or regulate their emotional responses — have experienced higher mental illness symptom severity.

A group based in the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab developed a self-efficacy app and presented their findings.

MA student Olivia Friedman presented on an app designed in the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab to build self-efficacy, a critical tool in a moment where feelings of helplessness run rampant, and Cadwell presented research on the influx of politically-fueled COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

Superka presented on behalf of her research group of NSSR and Suffolk University students, which looked at the risk of moral injury — an injury to an individual’s moral conscience and values resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression — for people navigating social distancing and other transmission-related guidelines. Actions that feel like moral failures, like forgetting to wear a mask, can lead to feelings of moral injury, which has long-term negative mental health outcomes. “The pain experienced by individuals who suffer from moral injuries confronts us with the fact that we are, at the core, empathic and moral beings, for whom living in a just world may be just important as living in a safe world,” Superka concluded.

International Research

NSSR Psychology students come from dozens of countries around the world, and many have taken an international approach to their research. Cognitive, Social, and Development Psychology PhD student Meymuna Topcu, presenting research conducted within the Cognitive Psychology Lab (directed by William Hirst, Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology), compared perceptions and projections of COVID-19 between the United States and China, including individuals’ perceptions of personal and governmental efficacy, and their estimated death and infection numbers.

Busra Yaman researched stress and resilience among Turkish and American graduate students during the pandemic.

MA student Busra Yaman, from the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab, focused on “Perceived Stress, Achievement Motivation, and Resilience Among Domestic and International Graduate Students,” comparing Turkish international students to American students. While she found no significant differences in stress levels between the groups, she did find that international students did not lose motivation despite their high stress levels, while domestic students did. Likewise, international students with higher motivation had higher levels of resilience, while domestic students did not.

A group within the Center for Attachment Research looked at loneliness and mental health among women in rural India.

MA student Zishan Jiwani turned the symposium’s attention to India, which has had the second highest COVID-19 infection rates and an extremely strict lockdown. Little research has looked at the virus and lockdowns’ impacts on rural parts of the country. Jiwani presented on behalf of a group within the Center for Attachment Research (co-directed by Howard Steele, Professor and Co-Chair of Psychology and Miriam Steele, Professor of Psychology), on “Understanding the Mental Health Impact of Fear of the Coronavirus amongst Low-Income Women in Rural India,” where women have been cut off from their communal spaces. The group analyzed data from surveys given to women in their homes in the Bahraich District in Northeast India, asking questions about fear of the virus and perceived loneliness. Research found that increased loneliness, increased fear, and increased mental health challenges are all highly associated with each other. Jiwani suggested that these results could influence public health decisions — the epidemic of loneliness requires care and attention, too.

Fostering a Collaborative Space

Around 50 people attended the event, including faculty and students from across the psychology department and throughout the university. By the time presentations came to a close, the collaborative spirit that characterizes NSSR was palpable — students with overlapping research swapped information in the chat, and some of the presenters had already begun answering questions before the formal Q&A began.

The Q&A included many suggestions for furthering research, like including job-loss data in boredom analysis. Adam Brown also proposed a question about the surprising results of the research on telehealth and therapeutic alliance, and Howard Steele sparked a conversation about therapeutic alliance and cultural crises.

Cadwell and Superka hope to recreate this digital community space in the form of future symposiums that highlight ongoing research from within the Psychology department and beyond.

“We saw this [symposium] as a great opportunity for people to come together and talk about the research that we’re doing. It’s really incredible how much everyone has adapted. There is other research being done throughout NSSR broadly…so we are really interested in organizing a recap symposium of the ongoing crisis points we experienced in 2020, including the economy, protests and police brutality, the election cycle, and other global catastrophes,” Cadwell says.

“After we moved to remote learning, I was proud to see how quickly our students stepped up and adapted their research to study the complex psychological impacts of COVID-19. The symposium underscored the breadth of research being carried out across our labs and the sophistication in which our students are doing this work,” Adam Brown reflects. “This end-of the-semester student-led event was a wonderful opportunity for them to share their cutting-edge findings with one another and to create that much needed sense of community that we all miss.”   


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, Linguini and Tortellini.