Set Up for Success: Historical Studies MA Students Accepted to Top PhD Programs

Well-known for its doctoral programs in the social sciences and philosophy, The New School for Social Research also offers terminal Master’s degree programs that allow new graduate students to dig deeply into a topic and develop their research skills while preparing for careers or for additional graduate study.

This year, several 2019 Historical Studies MA graduates were accepted at top History PhD programs that support their research interests. Their experiences illuminate how the department can help emerging historians identify, prepare for, and confidently choose the best next steps in their scholarly careers.

Ella Coon, a Minnesota native, first moved to New York to attend Columbia University where she majored in printmaking. Later, while working as an archivist at the LeRoy Neiman Foundation, she discovered her passion for combing through archives. She had long been interested in history, especially the Cold War and the political debates that underpinned it, and she began to seek opportunities for research that could combine research and art.

“I’ve always wanted to be at The New School,” Coon explains. “I was attracted by the faculty, but also to what seemed like a progressive environment.” That scholars and students in the department were unafraid to innovate methodologically or to delve into the political implications of their research “was really refreshing.” 

As she deepened her understanding of the politics and economics of the Cold War, she began working closely with Associate Professor of History Julia Ott and Assistant Professor of History Emma Park, both of whom teach classes in the history of capitalism. Coon cites their encouragement and flexibility with helping her craft a project while also gathering resources and preparing essential elements, such as a literature review, to help her write a strong thesis at the end of her second year.

“From the beginning of the program there was a sense that you should be thinking about what you’re going to do at the end,” Coon explains. A large part of that work happens during  a required third-semester seminar in which students workshop their theses and also prepare PhD applications. “Faculty would come in every other week to talk about their work and their methodology, but then some weeks were dedicated to helping us apply by going over our projects with that in mind,” Coon says.

It worked. She completed her thesis, which examines the political economy of technology transfers between the U.S. and Comecon during détente. And in Fall 2019, she’ll be heading back uptown to start a PhD in History where it all began — Columbia University.

By contrast, Deren Ertas moved to New York from Turkey at just 11 years old. She threw herself into books, primarily as a way to learn English. “Then I just kept reading,” Ertas says, reflecting on the path that led her to major in the College of Social Studies at Wesleyan University.

She discovered her passion for history while writing her undergraduate thesis on the 2013 Gezi Park protests that swept across Turkey. Through analyzing protest rhetoric, Ertas began to focus on how Turkish practices of civil disobedience and resistance had developed historically, as well as how a Turkish national identity had been constructed more generally. “In Turkey we’re kind of fomenting hatred for each other all the time and I was interested in how that dynamic had been historically configured by different political projects,” Ertas explains.

As her interests in history developed, so did her passion for political theory and theorists such as Hannah Arendt, who drew her attention to NSSR as a potential next step. “Of course I wanted a strong background in history, but I also wanted to continue to take classes in different disciplines and develop my insights through an engagement with different methods,” Ertas says. “I couldn’t go to a more traditional program, that’s not the kind of relationship I want to have to my field.” Conversations with Assistant Professor of History Aaron Jakes and the possibility of taking classes with major thinkers like Willy Brandt Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and History Ann Stoler helped her realize this was the place for her.

Ertas knew that she had made the right decision while delivering a paper at the 2018 Radical Democracy Conference. “Andreas [Kalyvas, Associate Professor of Politics] and some other students in the class really encouraged me to present this paper, and I’m glad they did because it led to a shift. I decided to dedicate myself to academic work full time and pursue my application to PhD programs in Fall 2018” she remembers.

Ertas credits Historical Studies faculty with helping her develop the content of her thesis, which explores the ways in which the project of modernizing and liberalizing reforms undertaken by the Ottoman state in the 19th century (known as the Tanzimat) can be understood as an effort to address specific problems in tax levying and military recruitment as well as a modern project of nation-building. She also examines the way resistance to these modernizing projects — much like the Gezi Park protests — established patterns of resistance that recurred in later Ottoman and Turkish politics.

“My conversations with [Professor Jakes] were fundamental in terms of my understanding of my work and how to situate it within the field of Middle Eastern history” she says. Jakes also invited her to participate in a small gathering of scholars to workshop his forthcoming manuscript, which  allowed Ertas to see different aspects of what academic life could be like. “Those experiences were intellectually enriching at every turn,” she added.

As she crafted her PhD application, she received support from other Historical Studies faculty members, and Jakes also urged her to continue reaching out to people in her top-choice programs. “He kept encouraging me because I was feeling very shy,” Ertas explains. “Pushing me to do that was very important!”

The recipient of the 2019 Outstanding Master of Arts Graduate Award for Historical Studies, Ertas will pursue her PhD in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She is happy about staying in the East Coast, which will allow her to sustain the close connections she made with NSSR faculty and students. “I’m excited to go from one place where I can forge my own path to another place where I can do that,” she says.

Consuming the Past: Victoria Flexner and Edible History

Founded a century ago, The New School for Social Research sought to have leading scholars teach night courses to working professionals, fostering a community both cutting-edge and non-traditional with respect to student age and academic background, as well as to the kind of learning taking place inside its fledgling walls.

While the university has transformed since then, this vision still holds true today — at least for Victoria Flexner, a 2019 MA graduate of the Historical Studies program. Flexner’s work is unorthodox in more than one sense; a part-time student and full-time business owner, Flexner’s academic focus is on food history, an emerging field she explores with a thesis that incorporates the latest scholarship as well as historical fiction.

A native New Yorker with a French father and chef uncle, Flexner grew up in a family with a strong passion for good eating. As a teenager, she worked in food service. But she didn’t think of herself as a lover of things gastronomic until she left the city to complete her undergraduate degree in Scotland. “The food was terrible!” she remembers. She realized that if she wanted to eat well while away from home, she was going to finally have to learn how to cook.

Having learned how to fare for herself in a foreign land, Flexner graduated and returned to New York. Drawing on her passion for food and her knowledge of the city’s restaurant industry, she was able to secure a job as a publicist for celebrity chefs and restaurants. “While I was working in food PR,” she says, “I was like, ‘There’s got to be a way to take my love of history and my practical skill set of having worked in the food business and blend the two together.’”

The result was Edible History, a company that hosts themed dinners based on historical recipes. Flexner introduces each course with a short history lesson, while her team brings out authentic recreations of meals from across the centuries: three types of ceviche from pre-Columbia, colonial, and modern Peru; dinner as it would have taken place in 10th-century Baghdad; a bit of medieval Mongolian cuisine. In 2018, she hosted a feminist-focus dinner party inspired by Judy Chicago’s famous art installation “The Dinner Party”; major outlets from the New Yorker to Vogue covered it.

From Flexner’s “Feminist Food, Feminist Art” dinner

As her business expanded, Flexner was decided to pursue additional education. “I realized if I wanted to be any kind of authoritative voice on history — if I wanted to stand in front of people and talk about history and not only have them care but to take me seriously — I needed to get another qualification,” she explained.

Flexner chose NSSR because it offered freedom to do explore what she wanted — a freedom she didn’t see at other New York universities. “It felt like what I was trying to do with food and history where it’s not quite the food business, not fully academic, it’s kind of existing in this weird new space,” she said. The parallels between Flexner and fellow Historical Studies alumnus Rien Fertel, who studies barbecue in the American South, are many.

NSSR doesn’t employ any food historians, but this isn’t so unusual; the academic study of food history is relatively young, and there are few specialized graduate programs in it. “The field is kind of a mix between popular history and a newer academic version which is still figuring itself out,” Flexner said. Food historians vary in the kinds of materials they study; some are more archival materials-based while other are more theoretical  The study of food is not only the history of a cuisine — its ingredients, its influences — but also about the institutions and cultures that it’s connected to. Some food historians argue, for instance, that the desire for luxury food products such as pepper and spices paved the way for European expansionsim and imperialism. “The entire world from different spheres was drawn together because of a search for a luxury food product. That’s pretty mind blowing,” Flexner explains.

Flexner’s time at NSSR allowed her to explore food history through a variety of different periodical and regional lenses. Her work culminated in Spring 2019 with a thesis on the history of the restaurant in New York.

From Flexner’s “Evolution of the New York City Restaurant” dinner

As a social practice, the restaurant first emerged in 1760s France and gradually made its way to the United States. Flexner argues that the restaurant truly came into its own due to a number of overlapping factors, but cited one of them as the emergence of the 19th Century boarding house. During a period in which most New Yorkers lived in boarding houses,  where meals were served in a common area and at set times. “The food was notoriously disgusting at all boarding houses across the spectrum,” Flexner says. A combination of a desire for good food and lack of access to private kitchens created a market for third spaces in which people could pay to eat. “By 1855, there would have been eateries that had the components of what we now recognize as the restaurant,” Flexner adds, alluding to a public-facing private food service venue offering a menu of options and working within certain operating hours.

The overlap between her business and her studies has been fundamental to her success in juggling her studies and a full-time job. “Research that I’ve done at school has benefited Edible History, of course, and I’ve brought my experiences from the business into school if I could. It all feels interrelated and I’m here because I want to become a better historian. It’s beyond useful,” Flexner reflects.

That interrelation inspired Flexner to propose an unorthodox approach to her thesis: As she would an Edible History dinner, she carefully blended traditional historiographical narrative with a bit of historical fiction to narrate the story of the restaurant’s development through the experiences of fictional characters like Lorenzo, an early restaurant pioneer. By adopting this approach, and with the support of her mentors Associate Professor of History Oz Frankel and Professor of History and Department Chair Jeremy Varon, Flexner hopes to heighten her ability to do what impassions her.

“I’ve had one woman tell me that recently, ‘You know, I always hated history, and then my husband started making me come to these dinners. Now I buy history books and read them for fun!”‘ Flexner remembers. “That’s the dream!”

NSSR Faculty Win Major 2019-2020 Research Grants

From the many celebrations and reflections that accompany the centennial of The New School throughout 2019, on thing has become abundantly clear: Many of the issues early New School scholars sought to address continue to be central to our thinking today. From the effects of borders and migration on refugees to rising fascism and anti-democratic politics, concerns about capitalism to growing inequality, today’s New School for Social Research faculty members are launching bold new investigations into these pressing questions, and several have won major grants to carry out this important work for the coming academic year.

Deva Woodly, Associate Professor of Politics, has been named a 2019-2020 Fellow-in-Residence at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. She focuses her attention on the ways that public meanings define the problems that the polity understands itself to share, as well as the range of choices that citizens perceive to be before them. Drawing primarily from newspapers and social media, she examines public discourse and its central practical importance to democratic politics.

While at the Safra Center, Woodly will be working on two book projects: #BlackLivesMatter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements, which explores the ways that social movements re-politicize public life in times of political despair, and What We Talk About When We Talk About the Economy, which examines public discourse and opinion concerning what “the economy” means to different stakeholders in American politics. While there, she will also participate in the Safra Center’s Working Group on Political Economy and Justice.


Miriam Ticktin, Associate Professor of Anthropology, has been named a 2019-2020 Russell Sage Visiting Fellow. Ticktin is currently at work on two related book projects: a short book on innocence as a political concept, and how it produces an unending search for purity; and a book on the way border wall technologies travel, both transnationally and cross-species, with the goal of engaging with speculative practices, and reimagining the idea of bordering. Over the past year, Ticktin has been co-director (co-PI) of the Mellon Foundation-funded Sawyer Seminar series on Imaginative Mobilities, in which an interdisciplinary group of faculty members and graduate students from the fields of design and social sciences reframed debate on the nature, purpose, and futures of borders.

As a Russell Sage Visiting Fellow, Ticktin will continue work on her second book project. She will investigate the resurgence of border walls as an anti-immigrant tool in the context of rising right-wing and nationalist populisms, concentrating on the proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Drawing from legal, historical, and ethnographic research, she aims to demonstrate how border walls paradoxically rely on transnational and cross-species technologies, ideas, and economies. She will analyze how the materials and technologies involved in the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall offer insight into the politics of borders and how rethinking border design has implications for immigration policies.

Both Virag Molnar, Associate Professor of Sociology, and Julia Ott, Associate Professor of History, have been named 2019-2020 members of the Institute for Advanced Study.

Molnar’s research explores the intersections of culture, politics, social change and knowledge production with special focus on urban culture and transformations of the built environment. She has written about the relationship between architecture and state formation in socialist and postsocialist Eastern Europe, the post-1989 reconstruction of Berlin, and the new housing landscape of postsocialist cities. Her latest book, Building the State: Architecture, Politics and State Formation in Postwar Central Europe (Routledge) received the Mary Douglas Prize for the Best Book in the Sociology of Culture from the American Sociological Association in 2014.

At the IAS, Molnar will continue researching and writing her new book, tentatively titled Marketing Radical Nationalism in Contemporary Hungary, which she began while receiving a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin. The book explores how markets can serve as crucial vehicles for promoting new interpretations of national identity and circulating nationalist symbols, thereby fostering popular support for nationalist radicalization.

Ott specializes in economic history and political history. Aiming to advance critical histories of capitalism, she investigates how financial institutions, practices, and theories influence American political culture and how, in turn, policies and political beliefs shape economic behavior and outcomes. She was the 2016-2018 co-director of the Robert H. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies and is the author of When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for an Investors’ Democracy (2011).

At the IAS, Ott will work on her latest book project. Wealth Over Work: The Origins of Venture Capital, The Return of Inequality, and the Decline of Innovation examines the history of venture capital as an idea, as a form of investment, and as a politically-mobilized industry. In the half-century after start of the Great Depression, beliefs about the centrality of venture capital for innovation, jobs, and growth shaped economic policy and corporate behavior while gradually transforming U.S. financial system. Concerns about venture capital – voiced from all across the political spectrum – slowly steered American political culture in a neoliberal direction, in favor of investors and the wealthy.  The result was the less innovative and far more unequal economy that we live with today.

Dean’s Fund Supports 2019 Graduate Student Conferences

A glance at the history of The New School for Social Research and the work done here reveals a shared commitment by faculty and students alike to critical reflection and analysis that helps transform our social reality.

That theory is important for practice, and that practice can but only enrich theoretical pursuits is something of a given at NSSR. When we move beyond what’s given, however, the collective task becomes clarifying and understanding the implications of the relationship between theory and practice in and on our time. The idea that the academy is situated within a socio-historical reality and should be responsive to that reality rests as a leitmotif in much of the influential discipline-shaping work that has been and is being done here. It can be experienced not only in the classroom and in faculty research, but also in the many public faces of NSSR, such as the online intellectual commons Public Seminar. But focusing on this side of NSSR alone risks overlooking  the rich and dynamic projects and conversations being had by that other important academic population: graduate students.

Much like the faculty that advise them and the institution that houses both, the master’s and doctoral students at NSSR form a dedicated and eclectic group of scholars and activists who come from all over the globe. As active members of the school’s intellectual life, they add to the research community by organizing conferences and workshops on topics and themes that allow their studies to meet contemporary issues and connect with the world outside NSSR. Often times trans- and interdisciplinary, 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 NSSR. They are where the students begin to make their mark as active scholars in their field.

To support students in these important efforts,  Dean William Milberg offers funding for student run-conferences and workshops each academic year via the Dean’s Conference Fund. In Spring 2019, the Dean’s Conference Fund is supporting the following conferences:

  • April 4-5Paranoid Encounters  (Philosophy) engages with a perspective often disregarded, even rejected by philosophy — that of paranoia — in order to understand and gauge whether philosophy offer anything with respect to the contemporary intellectual and political climate of post-truths, surveillance, xenophobia, and ecological disaster.
  • April 8-9What is to be Done in Brazil? (Multiple Departments) is a conference organized by The Reconvexo Collective at NSSR dedicated to explore and investigate new avenues for social, economic, cultural and political transformations in Brazil in the wake of the far-right’s rise in Brazil.
  • April 27Theft (Anthropology) gathers scholars, activists, and authors together to discuss the uncanny pervasiveness of theft that shapes the contemporary moment — gentrification, the trafficking of bodies, fast-fashion, and the housing of stolen objects in museums — in order to ask whether subversion or subterfuge is possible in overturning the present conditions.
  • May 3-4 Kierkegaard as Educator: Paideia, Seduction and the Ways of the Negative (Philosophy) represents a collective inquiry by philosophers and readers of Kierkegaard at different stages on life’s way into how Kierkegaard conceives, enacts and transforms philosophy as paideia (education, a person’s intellectual and moral formation) through techniques of communication, eroticization and seduction

While the summaries above only briefly capture the intellectual depth, critical tensions, and political urgency that motivate the students’ organizational efforts, it should be clear that NSSR’s commitment to socially engaged and meaningful research — research that isn’t afraid of challenging intellectual orthodoxies and academic norms — is in good hands.

Occupying the Interstitial: Multidisciplinary Scholar Shannon Mattern Joins NSSR

What do the Helsinki Central Library, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and an Urban Studies conference in Toronto have in common? In just one month, Shannon Mattern has appeared at each of them as, alternately, an exhibition curator, a research workshop participant, and a panelist — all before starting in her new role as Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research.

A veteran New School faculty member, Mattern taught for 14 years in the Media Studies Department at the Schools for Public Engagement, where she developed her research interests in archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition. Visually oriented, she found that collaborating with creative practitioner colleagues helped her explore sound and other multisensorial modex of experience and ways of knowing. “I’m interested in how epistemology is materialized and how information is made manifest in the built world” in a variety of ways, Mattern says.

That interest in information and organization began at a young age in an unlikely setting: her father’s hardware store in Pennsylvania. “In such neighborhood institutions we find a vernacular classification system that also manifests embodied and community knowledge,” Mattern explains.

Perusing Mattern’s website, one quickly realizes that she’s interested in this same idea across all magnitudes of scale – hardware stores, library systems, entire cities – each of which has implicit or explicit systems of classification that help organize our lives, often invisibly, and bear witness to the ways we organize the world for our own use. In analyzing them, she extracts layers of encoded political, philosophical, and artistic significance to examine “how the design of the interface and the attachment of metadata shape the way we search for information, or how the design of a desk  or a shelf shapes our interaction with knowledge objects, or how architectures have been constructed to store and organize our media objects and to embody particular classification systems.”

A scene from The Library’s Other Intelligences, an art project curated by Mattern and Jussi Parikka, and organized by the MOBIUS Fellowship Program of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York in collaboration with the Helsinki Public Library. Photo credit: Juuso Noronkoski

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mattern is on the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council, which serves hundreds of archives and libraries throughout New York City, from the Museum of Modern Art Library to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “We just worked with the city’s three public library systems on a distributed exhibition that explores how patrons, particularly the people who are not well served by other cultural institutions, can assert their right to digital privacy, both in the library and in their everyday lives,” Mattern says.

This sort of engagement speaks to Mattern’s role as a gap-bridging intellectual. At The New School she bridges NSSR and Media Studies, and also helps bring academic discussions to a variety of public audiences. She believes the type of work she does lends itself more readily to reaching a variety of people. “I’ve found that having a material thing – an object, a site — to unify and ground a discussion can really help in translating ideas to people who aren’t speaking the same language,” Mattern explains.

In this 2018 talk, Mattern surveys a variety of sites where the ethereal and datalogical become material — and where built and natural environments become informational. She considers those dimensions of thought and experience that resist containment, as well as the politics of imposing order.

Mattern’s preferred style of publication reflects this desire to reach out to a broader public, and to include art and media that are essential to understanding her work. These days, you’re more likely to find her work in venues for public scholarship like Places Journal, magazines like The Atlantic or industry publications like The Architectural Review than in academic journals. “When you write about fast-paced contemporary phenomena like digital urbanism, traditional peer-reviewed publications are often too slow,” she says. “Writing online, you can share richly illustrated and still rigorously edited projects that reach an international public immediately. That’s something that you can’t always do when you are writing for a specialized audience in publications hidden behind a paywall.”

Mattern’s more academic publications are also quite successful; her most recent book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt, won the 2019 Innovative Scholarship Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. In the book, Mattern engages with “media archeology,” which builds upon Nietzschean and Foucauldian ideas about genealogy and archeology to study media history – particularly the technologies that get left behind. Code and Clay, Data and Dirt includes discussions of “smart” cities laced with fiber optics and studded with digital sensors, as well as much older (and, in some cases, defunct) technologies like clay writing tablets and mud-brick structures, which she argues are more than merely things from the past. She aims to question the novelty of digital urbanism and “smart” technologies by demonstrating that cities have always been “smart” – and that “new” media aren’t all that “new.” “Perhaps we don’t use the telegraph much anymore but, even in this digital age, inscription and printing and radio communication are still vital to urban communication. As is the voice, one of the oldest media,” Mattern says.

Mattern also brings her pairing of assiduous scholarship and public engagement to her NSSR classrooms. “I tend to do hybrid classes that have some component of making and engaging with material environments or talking to professionals who are practicing the concepts we’re reading about,” she states. While students in her Data, Archives, Infrastructure class, for instance, read typical fare such as Foucault and Derrida, they also dive into the bowels of a municipal archive, a conservation lab, or a digitalization lab to engage with the physical texts upon which scholars rely, and to meet with the staff responsible for making these texts widely accessible via electronic repositories and climate-controlled archives. In  Thinking Through Interfaces, which she teaches together with Associate Professor of Philosophy Zed Adams, they explore not only interfaces themselves, from smartphones to Chinese typewriters, but also the pressing social and political issues around them.

Along with her new appointment, Professor Mattern will work to develop interdisciplinary ties between Parsons School of Design and NSSR, as she explains, “to imagine how considerations of the designed world and design methods can enhance social scientific and humanistic research, and, at the same time, how social scientific and humanistic approaches can serve designers” Her fall graduate Anthropology seminar, “Anthropology and Design: Objects, Sites, and Systems,” will survey these points of intersection.

For Mattern, this opportunity accords the benefit of staying exactly where she wants: the in-between. “I’m hoping to bridge anthropology, the design fields represented in Parsons, and media studies. And I like being in such interstitial spaces,” she says.