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.  

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, Linguine and Tortellini.  

Meet NSSR’s Fall 2020 MA Project Grants and Dean’s Conference Fund Award Recipients

As part of a commitment to socially engaged and meaningful research, the NSSR Dean’s Office supports a range of student-organized projects and conferences each year. Even amid a pandemic, NSSR students have envisioned incredibly creative, intellectually rigorous, and community-minded projects and conferences. Read on for more about the Fall 2020 recipients of our MA Project Grants and the Dean’s Conference Fund.

MA Project Grants

NSSR launched the MA Project Grant program in 2016 to improve the research environment and academic life for master’s students. Every semester, student join together to create and launch projects across disciplines that address pressing contemporary questions while also building lasting community at the school.

The Fall 2020 recipients of the MA Project Grants are: 

Disaster Magazine

An NSSR-Parsons collaboration, Disaster Mag will focus on unemployment in its second issue through 15 essays and various artwork.

Alexa Mauzy-Lewis (Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism)


Future Subject Matter: Selected Texts of Kato K Trieu

The recent passing of Kato K Trieu (MA Liberal Studies ’20) left his peers with a body of work to study, publish and disseminate. Future Subject Matter will collect Kato’s work in a book-bound copy, and cover the themes of gender and sexuality, trans theory, mind and embodiment, science and technology studies, and comparative literature.

Leo Zausen (Liberal Studies)


Critical Race Theory Group

This reading group will help Sociology students link their research and knowledge into critical perspectives on race, discuss elements of race at different times and locations in history, and analyze how theorists and scholars comment on issues of race.

Melisa Rousseau (Sociology)


Anthropology & Design Exhibition (ADX) Student Working Group

This group of Anthropology students — who have either a background in design and/or an interest in exploring the
fertile intersection of anthropology and design both theoretically and methodologically — meets weekly to develop programming around an inaugural conference in April 2021 (see more below).

Oscar Fossum, Lilah Doris, Leila Lin, Elif Geçyatan, Clemente de Althaus (Anthropology)


Gestalt-themed Mini Speaker Series and Events

Max Wertheimer brought Gestalt psychology to The New School, and the university became a center of Gestalt theory within the US. This project will host interdisciplinary events with speakers working in the Gestalt tradition.

Hong B. Nguyen and Mariah Woodruff (Psychology), Leonhard Victor Sedlmayer (Philosophy)


Unbound Podcast

This podcast series will highlight the voices and work of people with underrepresented identities in philosophy and academia
specifically New School PhD students and faculty whose research focuses on diversity, feminism, gender studies, and fields of study that are often not categorized as belonging to the traditional Western canon.

Giuseppe Vicinanza, K. Eskins, Madison Gamba, Emre Turkolmez (Philosophy);
Olivea Frischer (Parsons School of Design); Andres Volkov (College of Performing Arts)


LGBT COVID-19 Ethnography & Mental Health Impacts

An ethnographic and psychological survey investigating the social behavior, community resilience, and mental health of the LGBT community in New York City in comparison with cishet residents. With the effects of the COVID-19 in mind, such a project will demonstrate the impact of removing physical community spaces on risk behavior and loneliness.

Julien Lenaz (Psychology)


Dean’s Conference Fund

Often times trans- and interdisciplinary, NSSR student-run conferences blur and contest traditional lines inside and outside of academia and are one of the most productive sites for intellectual growth at the school. They are also where students begin to make their mark as active scholars in their field.

In 2021, the Dean’s Conference Fund will support the following NSSR student-run conferences:

Future Ontologies: Afrofuturism and Indigenous TEK

In response to the worldwide need to elevate discourses that contribute to a decolonial turn in academia and culture in general, the Liberal Studies Student Association is planning a conference that
centers the voices of marginalized communities, specifically BIPOC. Taking Afrofuturism as a starting point, this conference will explore its history and contemporary manifestations in order to start a conversation with indigenous traditional ecological knowledge (TEK).

Tentative date:
First week of April 2021

Silvana Alvarez Basto, Nicholas Travaglini, José Luna, Katrina Schonheyder, Walter Argueta Ramírez (Liberal Studies)


Animalhouse: Animals and Their Environs

The relationship between animals and their environs has become one of the paramount political concerns of our time. While a particular urgency motivates current discussions of animate life and its
habitat, examining this relationship has yielded significant philosophical development throughout the
20th century. This conference will question if and how philosophy’s treatment of animals and their environs can help us make sense of our current situation.

Tentative date:
April 1-2, 2021

Aaron Neber, Weiouqing Chen, Kyle O’Dowd (Philosophy)


Anthropology & Design Exhibition (ADX)

ADX presents NSSR and Parsons grad student works at the intersection of Anthropology and Design.
Topics may include applied anthropology, community-oriented design, design research, material studies, critical design and creative
technologies. ADX will include three parts: workshops; a VR exhibition with live discussions; and a website portfolio with recordings of the main event.

Tentative dates:
April 2021: Virtual exhibition of student works

May 2021: An edited recording of the exhibition, and an analysis of Anthropology and Design based on data from attendees and their projects

Oscar Fossum, Lilah Doris, Leila Lin, Elif Geçyatan, Clemente de Althaus (Anthropology)


Decolonizing Birth and Mental Health

This conference focuses on the enduring impact of colonization on birth practices in the United States. Topics include the medicalization of pregnancy and birth; erasure of indigenous practices and
tribal health care practices, ethnoracial disparities in maternal mental health and mortality, anti-racist
psychological and medical models of care, the importance of amplifying BIPOC birth practitioners as
doula activists,
LGBTQ + inclusive reproductive healthcare, and more.

Tentative date:
October 2021

Koret Munguldar, Hillary Litwin, Deniz Kocas, Ellen Yom, Lindsey Myers (Psychology)


Human Considerations: rethinking space habitats


Address approaches to thinking and designing space habitats, and sketch founding ideals for a more just and equitable approach to exploring outer space. From the architectural and engineering questions of livability and survivability, to the artistic and sociological considerations of enjoyability, the conference will host a series of speakers and two panels in an attempt to re-
imagine the scope of what is at stake when we think about leaving earth.

Tentative date:
April 24-25, 2021

Weston Finfer (Liberal Studies)

New NSSR Student Group Radically Rethinks Space Exploration

In February 2020, during “those gray days before the pandemic struck,” a new interdisciplinary student group emerged at The New School for Social Research (NSSR). Affectionately nicknamed “Space Squad” or sometimes “that weird space thing,” New School Policy and Design for Outer Space (NS-PDOS) examines the dynamics and distribution of egalitarian models of governance and design in all aspects of space exploration, areas that are frequently overlooked and under-researched in space studies at large. Specific areas of focus include space habitat governance, economy, existential risk, communications & information theory, and bioastronautics.

Asking the Right Questions

The founders of NS-PDOS — Weston Finfer, Rae Rosenthal Boehm, and James Boyd, all NSSR Liberal Studies MA students; Collin McClain, a student in the Bachelor’s Program for Adults and Transfer Students at the Schools for Public Engagement; and Dalia Amellal, from Parsons’ Theories of Urban Practice MA program — met in Post-Planetary Design, an interdisciplinary course at Parsons School of Design taught by Ed Keller, a former Associate Professor. “So many of the questions placed in that class spilled over into everything else we wanted to keep doing,” Finfer says, “so we were like, ‘Let’s keep doing it.’”

One of the fundamental questions that NS-PDOS inherited from Post-Planetary Design is that of scale. How do we think on a microscopic level? Conversely, how do we think on a planetary level? Keller’s September 2020 lecture for NS-PDOS’s launch event, “The Cosmopolitical Gesture — Coordination, Recursivity, and Universal Models,” (embedded below) built on this: “How might we design across a range of different scales and link those design moves and analytical moves back to universalist models?”

NS-PDOS has adopted the strategy from the class of subverting questions to reframe problems of development on Earth and beyond. McClain explains, “One of the things I took from Ed’s class and try to bring to NS-PDOS is using space, using science fiction, and cosmopolitics, to think about geopolitics and think about very earthly issues with a new perspective, but also to consider how we get [beyond Earth], because if we don’t handle issues here on Earth, we can’t get to these eventual futures that we dream of and work towards.” Recalling a class in which Keller coupled footage of burning oil fields with the question “What does oil want?,” Rosenthal Boehm adds that this question, “what does a thing want?”  has become her go-to in exploratory conversions, because it ”puts us face-to-face with the limits of our ontological frames and invites us to push beyond them.”

A Social Perspective on Space Exploration

Much of the existing scholarship on space exploration contains thorough design and engineering plans, but doesn’t leave room for error or for the texture of human experience. McClain gives two examples: the assumption that agriculture will thrive as long as we bring the right crops and select out pests, and proposals about governance that do little to address the skewed power dynamic of a governing body controlling the most basic elements of survival —food, water, and even air. Part of NS-PDOS’ work is calling those assumptions into question and seeking radical solutions.

NS-PDOS is a chapter of the international organization “Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS).” SEDS has historically focused on engineering, technology, and space design, but NS-PDOS brings a different perspective to space exploration by taking social research as their primary mode.

Nick Travaglini, also a Liberal Studies MA student and a core member of the group, says “one of the interesting ways that we try to differentiate ourselves and distinguish ourselves is through making sure that we are very explicitly focused on aspects of the social — coming out of NSSR, we want to make sure social research plays a key role.” In fact, NS-PDOS is at the cutting edge of SEDS’ movement toward incorporating the humanities. The theme of SpaceVision, SEDS’ 2020 international conference, was “Beyond Earth: Humans as an Interplanetary Species.” As part of the conference, Travaglini led a panel discussion called “STEM to STEAM,” about incorporating the arts into space studies.

The conversation brought Travaglini back to questions Keller raised in his NS-PDOS opening lecture: “Suppose we find life in space. How do we think about the dynamics that may play out between humanity and/or other species that we bring into space, away from earth, when we interact with whatever other forms of life may be out there?”

One way to approach these questions, the group proposes, is to take seriously not only hard research, but also speculative writings and films about space, like the 2016 film Arrival. “We need to look at these works and ask, ‘What does this tell us about society now? What does this tell us about changes we can make if we don’t like the speculative futures that may come out of this?’” Travaglini says.

Building a Group in a Pandemic

NS-PDOS’s inaugural meeting — the only time they’ve met in person — was March 10, 2020. Students built NS-PDOS amid a lockdown, working to create relationships and develop a routine. “I know that when I see something coming up in the [NS-PDOS] group chat, it’s going to be something good to discuss this week,” Finfer said. “When we all sign in on Wednesday at 6 PM, we’re going to have a lot to talk about, and that becomes an exciting thing to look forward to.” Over the summer, NS-PDOS members created two working groups, and core membership has grown to 25 students.

The Future Ontologies working group challenges the colonialist and white supremacist thinking that underlies much of the scholarship on space exploration. Rosenthal Boehm, a core member of the group, explains: “In Future Ontologies, we…try to imagine what could we possibly think if we were outside of the moment that we are in, with all known data about failed utopian projects or settlements or outsider projects.”

The group turns to critical theory to unravel a legacy within space studies that includes colonialism, capitalism, and even Nazism. Rosenthal Boehm poses the questions: “If we are living in a community where all of our biometrics are collected by the operating system that runs the community, are we still human? But also, is that fascism? What is the relationship between the technological, the material, the individual and the ideological that plays out in a space habitat that has such radically different terms for existence?” 

The Cybernetics and Systems Theory working group looks at the concept of systems broadly, and what it means to think in systems. This overlaps with Finfer’s Liberal Studies MA thesis work on cybernetics, algorithmic information theory, and geoengineering. He has particular interest in the concept of Algorithmic Randomness, a limit in computation that makes absolute certainty impossible.

Graphic from the NS-PDOS Instagram promoting Valerie Olson’s lecture for the Transceiver series

In addition to the working groups, NS-PDOS also runs the Transceiver Speaker Series, which has, to date, featured Keller, Valerie Olson, and Allison Duettmann. The group is also planning two major events for the Spring 2021 semester:

  • A conference on Space Habitats, which will bring together designers, architects, artists, social theorists, and web designers, and which will also include an interactive web-design element that weaves together several space habitats, with attention to detail and consideration for the human experience.
  • A conference on Space Laws and Policy. Finfer moderated a panel on the subject at SpaceVision, and hopes this NSSR conference will create a space for more in-depth thought. “ What are the global accords that can help us address planetary scale issues? Our entry into space is such a closed system. It has to be so technically perfect that it doesn’t have room for leaks, errors, entropy, randomness in the same sense that we do on this planet.”

Calling All Space Enthusiasts

NS-PDOS welcomes members from all academic backgrounds and disciplines. Current members includes designers, software engineers, students of Western esotericism and alternative religions, media and culture theorists, and philosophy students. Those interested or curious need not have any background at all in space studies,  only need a desire to learn together and an investment in the group’s overall goals.

 “We’re interested in bursting open the door to radically new futures,” Rosenthal Boehm says. “Yeah,” adds Finfer. “Basically, we want to change the world.”

For more information or to join NS-PDOS, please visit their website, and follow them on Instagram @newschoolspace and Twitter @nspdos to keep up with upcoming events, like the next installment in the Transceiver Speaker Series.


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.  

Deva Woodly on Power, Organizing, and the Future of the Polity

Deva Woodly, Associate Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College and 2019-2020 Fellow in Residence at Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University, has organized a new home at The New School for interdisciplinary research on politics in action. The Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the United States will hold talks, host a conference, and produce a publication on its 2020-2021 theme: The Politics of Care.

“Power and the Politics of Care” Panel, the ISPPO’s first event, took place on November 13, 2020 with panelists Monica Atkins, Christopher Paul Harris, and Miriam Ticktin.

Research Matters talked with Woodly over Zoom to discuss the Initiative’s purpose, its theoretical foundations, and the role of organizing in our communities and universities. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Organizing and Political Power

Research Matters: Congratulations on launching the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the U.S.! Can you talk a little bit about what the inspiration for that was, and what the vision for it is?

Deva Woodly: The reason for the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics and Organizing in the U.S. is that The New School actually has relatively little in terms of research on American politics, and American politics is one of my specialties. I wanted to bring something to us that would be interdisciplinary in nature, and yet focus on the U.S. as a case.

I also wanted to highlight the intersection between power, politics and what I think is  a lesser-studied, and yet very politically important phenomenon, which is political organizing… In political science, we often talk about mobilization. In sociology, they talk about activism in social movements. But mobilization and activism are both distinct from organizing.

Mobilization is when you assemble people who already have the requisite knowledge and skill to do a thing—you get people who are already registered to turn up to vote, for example—and you remind them to get out and do what they know how to do.  

Activism is when people turn up outside the regular institutionalized boundaries of the state to make their voices heard. This is the thing that we normally associate with protest and direct action …But activism doesn’t necessarily involve sustained social  analysis or the idea that you’re trying to achieve particular goals, or that you’re necessarily working with other people over time.

Organizing, on the other hand, is the long-term process of relationship-building and the changes in our subjectivity that make us understand that we are agents who can act to make change, and that we are, furthermore, agents-in-context, agents in a collectivity—that it is the power of the people acting together, over time that makes change. Organizing teaches us not only that we can act in a particular instance, but that we’re the kind of person who can act to make political change. So, it creates a fund of knowledge and a disposition toward civic action that’s good for the long-term….Organizing changes who we think we are in the polity. It creates us as an active citizenry.

There’s a ton of organizing that takes place all over the United States, and indeed it’s accelerated in this moment, but we as scholars know very little about it, and the fact is that organizers very rarely write down what they know, so we have very limited texts to teach us about organizing …I think it’s a fertile ground for scholarship to explore the nature, impacts, and efficacies of organizing.

RM: I think the word “organizing” and “get organized” are things we see and hear a lot right now, and it’s possible to feel a sense of embarrassment at not knowing what that means. You can have a toe in it without knowing what it means.

DW: Yeah, but the nice thing about organizing — both the thing that makes it so powerful but also the thing that has caused people to overlook it — is that it’s an extremely long-term process. It’s something that takes place over years. So, what political campaigns have typically done and called “organizing” is not organizing; it’s mobilizing.

But we see now that particularly Black women, Black feminists, are revolutionizing organizing in political campaigns, and we see the results of that led out by folks in Georgia, like Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, and Nse Ufot. We see that happening in other communities, as well, particularly among indigenous folks in Arizona and New Mexico. These are long projects, they’re about engaging with people about the political problems that they identify for themselves in their communities, and trying to work with people and enable them to fight for themselves—resource them and give them the type of knowledge that they need to make changes locally. And as people get a taste of making changes locally, their political imaginations begin to expand and their political efficacy begins to increase. 

RM: I love to hear you bring up Arizona—that’s where I moved from before coming to The New School, and that’s where I learned about organizing. The different groups that are at work in Arizona are doing such good work. I’ve loved to hear them get a small portion of the recognition they deserve in the last week [following the 2020 election].

DW: Oh, absolutely. I so agree. So, another goal for this initiative is to have a space to bring together political practitioners and scholars where they can inform each other and think through the common problems and contours of this political time; a place to jointly imagine the political possibilities for the 21st century.

The way that I do work is inductive. That means that the way that I work is kind of opposite the Western tradition, which is deductive. If you take a deductive approach you start with a big concept and then you go down to the particular, or try to fit instances of the particular under the big concepts. I work from an inductive approach. I start with the particular, people’s lived experiences, and try to relate those to overarching concepts that we have or create new ones. Whatever I do, I always start with people, and one of the things that has led me to understand is that we, as scholars, need to be always in contact with practitioners in the world. We have a lot of knowledge to offer each other!  

I also think that universities need to have institutional pathways that allow them to have regular contact with people doing political work on the ground, particularly with organizers. So what I always try to do in any kind of educational initiative. Whether it’s creating a class I’ve taught called “Becoming a Generation Citizen,” which put [Lang] students in high school classrooms so they were interacting the world. Or with bringing in an Activist-in-Residence, which brought someone doing the work of political change to our community and providing them a space in the university to think, reflect, write, and teach which they usually don’t have time to do. And it also to informs the academic community about how our theories actually play out in the world and the questions that people who are actually doing the work would love to have answers to. This is the way to create an ongoing and fruitful interchange between theory and practice. My opinion is that the only way to achieve praxis is to actually have scholars and political practitioners in contact and helping each other think through the problems that we are witnessing and experiencing in common.

RM: I’m also curious about where “the politics of care” come into this. What makes that a research interest for you, and what made you decide to make it the organizing principle of the Initiative?

DW: Well, the politics of care is something that I became interested in as I was working on my forthcoming book, Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements (Oxford University Press, 2021). As I was researching that book, doing interviews with people in the Movement for Black Lives, there was a series of principles and values that people kept espousing. I ended up   codifying those ideas under the term “Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism.”

One of the key aspects of Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism is the politics of care…[which] says that we need to think about politics in a completely different way. The primary subject of politics is not “rights,” the subject of politics is not “institutions,” but is instead the fact that people matter and deserve care. So, if that is the basis of our political thought, if that is the way that we think about how to design systems and to collect and aggregate resources, then it changes the whole way that we talk and think about what is necessary for the governance of the world that we share.

Organizing and Activism on Campus

RM: What do you see as the role of campus organizing and activism, something we’ve had a lot of at The New School over the last few years?

DW: Campus organizing is critical. It’s part of political organizing writ large. A campus is a community. A campus is a locality. People who are members of that community, who are members at the campus as a polity, should absolutely be in connection with each other and organizing. They should be creating relationships of political friendship and reciprocity and it is an aspect of organizing in the polity.

RM: I think one of the challenges of campus organizing could be that, as you mentioned before, the thing about organizing is that it takes a long time.

DW: Right, and the university is full of a transient population: students. That is the nature of organizing at the university, but that’s also why students have to build institutions that can handle succession…Because of the nature of the population, the wins that you have are less likely to be driven only or solely by students. They often have to be in collaboration with people who have long-term stake at the university, like unionized staff and faculty. That’s also a lesson to learn, in terms of organizing: it’s coalitions that have the biggest bang, because everybody is structurally positioned in a different way…That’s why it’s not just organizing; it’s also power and politics. You have to understand power in the place that you’re trying to make change, and that’s really where the full expression and magnitude of influence will be realized.

Journalism and Democracy

RM: I have personal stake in this question, because I’m in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program—what do you see as the role of media and journalism in the way the average person understands their political environment and role?

DW: I think that media, in terms of political journalism, needs to focus a lot more than they often do on accuracy over trying to be unbiased. The “both sides” norm is actually really detrimental to the rendering of reality, so I think that the idea of objectivity insofar as it means “both sides” needs to be put to bed. Instead, we should be interested in facts, authenticity, accuracy, and nuance. These are things that are much more descriptive of reality than objectivity, which is a thing that just doesn’t exist.

I think that media, particularly journalism and political journalism, helps us when it gives us context, and hurts us when it deprives us of contexts and reproduces stereotypical narratives that are easy to digest but don’t expand our understanding.

In the actually existing world, there’s more than two sides to almost every story, and the power that those sides wield is very rarely balanced. Their intentions, their imaginations, and their impact will not necessarily be equal, so we shouldn’t pretend that that’s the case. We have to accurately render the world as it is, or journalism ceases to be useful and that’s bad for journalism and bad for democracy.

Movements, Crises, and the Political Future

RM: How do you see the pandemic impacting political participation moving forward?

DW: The pandemic, combined with the movements and the contentious cycle that we’ve been in, the #MeToo movement, the Movement for Black Lives, the Sunrise Movement, the March for Our Lives—this is just in the US, not to mention global movements—I honestly think that this confluence of circumstances has re-politicized public life in a really beneficial way.

Not that it’s smooth; it’s not all a happy story. Like, right now we’re in a moment in which autocracy is a real possibility, in which the current administration is trying to overturn the results of an election in which more than 150 million people voted. It’s a time of danger, but also one of opportunity. Democracy is always dangerous…You’re leaving everything up to people, and people can disappoint you and make catastrophic choices. However, people can also impress you and make revelatory choices. It’s a moment in which the contingency of everything is clear to us but it’s also a moment filled with possibility.

Organizations and practices among people are huge: the way that people have remembered that they can take to the streets to make demands; the way that people have started to actually educate themselves about civics, about the way that the American government works. This past week [of the election] was insanely stressful, but do you know how many Americans learned geography? Do you know how many Americans learned what the Electoral College is, and how many electors each state has, and what kinds of officials are in charge of making what kinds of decisions? All of that is amazing and really good for democracy, to have a politically educated and engaged populace that is capable of acting on its own, capable not only of pressuring the state, but also acting autonomously.  This is one of the reasons the rapid increase in the scope and coordination of mutual aid that has happened since the pandemic began is so interesting. These are the kinds of things that democracy needs.

What I’m saying to you now is basically the legacy of American pragmatism — this is straight John Dewey — which is to say that democracy requires democratic citizens, and for a long time, we haven’t had a democratic citizenry; we’ve had consumers. I think that, if we survive this time as a democracy, if the democracy stays intact, we will be really strong going forward and have the possibility to make really good changes in the future, just because so many more people will understand what can be done. So many people will have had their subjectivity reformed, having been organized in this moment. So many more people will understand that they are capable of being authors of the world that they want.

RM: That’s incredibly encouraging to hear.

DW: Well, we have to survive it. I don’t make any guarantees on that score!

The first event from the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the United States is a panel on The Politics of Care on Friday, November 13, at 4PM ET. You can register here.