Transatlantic Exchange: The NSSR-TU Dresden Connection

That a leading expert on fascism and populism should find a second home at a top engineering and technology university seems, at first glance, unlikely.

But a home was exactly what New School for Social Research (NSSR) Professor of History Federico Finchelstein found during a faculty exchange at the Technical University of Dresden (TU Dresden).

“There are strong shared intellectual affinities between TU Dresden and NSSR,” says Finchelstein. “Professor Hans Vorlander and his colleagues, who are the world experts on German populism, have taught me a great deal, and students at Dresden are really interested in these topics.”

That academic compatibility has helped the program flourish and, more recently, evolve into an important transatlantic exchange primarily for students. Each year, TU Dresden graduate students come to New York to take courses and join the NSSR community in conferences and more, while advanced NSSR doctoral students travel to Dresden to teach a compressed two-week course to undergraduate and MA students.

The exchange program was started by New School Board of Trustees member Henry Arnhold. Born and raised in Dresden, his grandfather and father had served as honorary senators at the university — until the family fled Germany for New York in 1937.

“After the reunification in 1990, I returned to my former hometown,”  he remembered. This historic occasion prompted Arnhold to create a fertile new connection between his birthplace and his adopted hometown of New York. “Since we do not believe in collective guilt and I like to build bridges, I proposed an exchange program in the social sciences, supporting three TU Dresden graduate students at The New School yearly.” The first group arrived in 1992 and included “young historian Prof. Dr. Simone Laessig, who is today the head of the German Historic Institute in Washington, DC,” which has since collaborated with The New School’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility.

Research Matters spoke with NSSR’s most recent exchange participants: Randi Irwin, a PhD candidate in Anthropology, and Miguel Paley, a PhD candidate in Philosophy. Chosen for their strong teaching records as well as faculty commendations on their research, they have served as visiting lecturers in the political theory department at TU Dresden, focusing on migration

Irwin’s research centers on the plight of Sahrawi refugees in Algeria. Displaced from their homeland in Western Sahara, the refugee community has retained a state structure that manages the refugee camps, providing some services and dealing with governance issues in preparation for the day when Western Sahara can regain its independence. This research, as well as Irwin’s previous coursework at NSSR, formed the basis for her Dresden course syllabus.

PhD candidate Randi Irwin

“I taught a survey on postcolonialism and decolonization. I had one graduate student, and the rest were senior-level undergraduates. They were all from philosophy, political theory, and a few from international affairs. Anthropology was something they were quite new to.” Irwin explained that her students seemed eager to engage with the course topics from an anthropological perspective. “They never had classes on gender, they never had classes on race or colonialism, so I ended up with a bunch of students who were really interested in these ideas and for the most part didn’t have access to [them],” she said. “They were really theoretically sophisticated…[but] pretty new to applying theory within a given context,” such as the political question of the aftereffects of colonial intervention.

To aid their learning, Irwin created assignments that she described as “critiques of the construction of the other, critiques of the commodification of knowledge as it relates to the colony. [We] moved through some concepts like knowledge-creation and disciplining and looked at how the political project of colonialism worked,  then moved to considering how that project might remain in place today.”

PhD candidate Miguel Paley

Meanwhile, Paley taught an interdisciplinary class on alienation and ideology. “It aimed at presenting students with readings not always studied in political theory courses, including things like design theory and phenomenology,” which he’s worked on during his time at NSSR.

Paley noted that while the mostly MA students were “from all different disciplines,” they were enthusiastic and engaged with the topic, which they studied intensely. “The class only lasted for two weeks but our time was equivalent to a semester, so we spent 14 hours inside the classroom during that week,” he says. Despite the long hours, he says the students were great. “It was really fun to work with them, and the Dresden faculty were very generous and very welcoming. I really loved it!”

NSSR Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs Tsuya Yee sees the effects of the program from a wider perspective. “The exchange creates great teaching opportunities for our students” to work with new and different student populations being educated in different theoretical approaches, she said.

Of course, the benefits of the exchange are felt in New York as well sometimes in unexpected ways. “Some TU Dresden students who come to study at NSSR apply to stay on as full-time students here. It’s a prestigious visiting lecturer position that… allows students to develop their pedagogical and course planning skills in an international setting, all while receiving a healthy stipend and and having their costs covered,” Yee said.

While the program has evolved greatly since its inception years ago, the energy of in-person intellectual and cultural exchange continues enriching both research and relationships. It is what keeps students like Irwin and Paley participating and what keeps faculty like Finchelstein returning year after year and hopefully for years to come.