Student Fellows Innovate at NSSR Centers and Institutes

How student research is informing new modes of interdisciplinary social thought

The New School was founded in 1919 as a place where scholars could advance progressive social thought and provide the public with accessible and relevant education. The school’s early thinkers came together across disciplines to explore major social issues of the day: migration and mobility, democracy and fascism, capitalism and socialism.

A century later, The New School for Social Research continues that important work through myriad classes, publications, public programs — and especially through interdisciplinary centers and institutes. In these special spaces, faculty and students meet across departments and divisions to research many of the same major social issues. Centers and institutes help fuel policy debates, promote public discussion, and welcome visiting scholars into the New School community.

Many of NSSR’s centers and institutes have robust student fellowship programs that provide Master’s and PhD students with financial support and mentorship as they conduct major research projects. Research Matters spoke to current fellows at three centers, looking at student work across issues of economic empowerment, migration, and ethnographic design

GIDEST: The Intersection of Social Theory, Art, and Design

Photo credit: GIDEST fellow Otto von Busch

The Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography & Social Thought (GIDEST) is The New School’s home for transdisciplinary ethnographic research at the intersection of social theory, art, and design. Funded by a grant from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, GIDEST “draws on The New School’s tradition of politically-engaged, historically-grounded, and theoretically-innovative social research” and connects scholars across the university, especially in their bi-weekly seminar series on art and theory.

Hugh Raffles, Founding Director of GIDEST, is a Professor of Anthropology whose work is a sustained ethnographic inquiry into relations between humans, animals, and things. As a GIDEST Senior Fellow himself, he has been completing The Book of Unconformities  (Penguin Random House, August 2020), in which he uses anthropology, history, and geology to explore the stories of stones.

“The work of the student fellows is central to the institute,” Raffles says. “They bring their own expertise and interests into the group, and help create a supportive and dynamic environment in which we can all develop our ideas. As GIDEST fellows, they gain structure and the experience of participating as peers in high-level conversations with accomplished scholars and practitioners,” and receive mentoring on their research projects.

The current cohort of GIDEST fellows include faculty and students working in Politics, Psychology, Photography, Media Studies, Historical Studies, and Sociology. Amanda Arena-Miller is a PhD candidate in Psychology and GIDEST fellow whose work explores the relationship between dance and interoceptive awareness — a person’s ability to sense internal bodily states. 

Amanda Arena-Miller, Psychology PhD candidate

“My dissertation is a collaboration between the NSSR Psychology department and the Dance Department at Eugene Lang College,” Arena-Miller says. “It was a brainchild of my advisor Miriam Steele (Professor of Psychology) and Professor Neil Greenberg, who is a choreographer at Lang. They were both interested in how dance might impact your awareness of your internal signals and how that relates to the psychology of body representation. I had been working on body image research and experience as a dancer, so I took over that research.”

Arena-Miller has been coordinating this study for over four years, and it has since branched off into additional research on how art practice can impact body awareness. At GIDEST, she is compiling quantitative data on biofeedback and self-reporting; holding interviews; and conducting qualitative research on dance, using grounded theory and ethnographic work to explore interoception. 

Although their respective work can appear largely unique — past topics have included ethnographic studies of cellphone designs in China, the research of multiple spatial “under-commons” of Black and Brown community resistance in Mississippi, and the role of television in the resurgence of the historical avant-garde in the late 1960s — GIDEST fellows are able to support and elevate each other’s research with a sense of community.

“We are all interested in how knowledge is created and perpetuated within discourses and academia,” Arena-Miller shares. “Largely speaking, we’re all interested in the production and also having a critical eye on knowledge.” And in addition to the welcome financial support, “we have a space where we present our work and give each other feedback. It’s really enriching.”

SCEPA: Connecting Policy to Economics

Photo credit: Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis

The Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) works within NSSR’s economics department as a research center focusing on policies that raise living standards and foster economic security. Collaborating with economists, SCEPA provides research analysis and policy recommendations in the areas of climate change, public finance, and retirement.

Teresa Ghilarducci, Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis, directs SCEPA and helps guide the work of its student fellows. “Educating tomorrow’s economic leaders is fundamental to SCEPA’s mission,” Ghilarducci says. “Our team of fellows and research associates learn how to use their academic and economic skills to impact policies that can better people’s lives. In turn, SCEPA benefits from the diversity of experiences, academic and professional, that our fellows bring to the team’s daily work.” 

A noted expert and media authority on retirement policy, Ghilarducci has launched SCEPA’s Retirement Equity Lab, which is dedicated primarily to conducting research on the U.S. retirement system and vulnerable older workers. ReLab engages with both the media and policymakers to share their data and seek major structural reform. 

Owen Davis, a former financial reporter, and a first-year Economics PhD student, works as a research assistant at SCEPA’s ReLab. His work helps to illuminate vulnerabilities that have fueled the growing retirement crisis and led millions of American workers to downward mobility in retirement

“We use government and survey data sets to explore how retirement policies and labor market trends affect older workers’ retirement prospects,” Davis explains. “For example, last semester I used a nationally representative data set to show that the financial fragility of older workers has been rising since the 1990s, and remains elevated since the Great Recession. In short, the typical older worker has more debt relative to their assets than they did before the last recession.”

Owen Davis, Economics PhD student

Student fellows contribute their own interests and areas of expertise to  SCEPA’s work and also gain hands-on experience in the economics field.

“In many instances, we end up working with our former students as professionals, such as former SCEPA research assistants Kate Bahn, who is now Director of Labor Market Policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and Kyle Moore, senior policy analyst with the U.S. Joint Economic Committee,” Ghilarducci says. 

The center’s work is often shaped by movements and financial trends in real time. 

“Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, we have devoted virtually all our attention to predicting how the crisis will affect older workers and determining what policies would be most important to ensuring income and retirement security, as well as basic safety, for older Americans,” Davis says. “We’re hard at work seeing how all of these phenomena will play out for the current crop of retirees and near-retirees. Hopefully we can get our message out to policymakers.” 

Zolberg Institute: A New Understanding of Human Movement 

Zolberg Institute fellows in Amman, Jordan, summer 2018

The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility examines human movement in the age of globalization. Building on The New School’s tradition of migration studies, the institute combines art, activism, and research to create a forum on issues of human movement. 

Catherine McGahan is the Associate Director at the Zolberg Institute and previously worked for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility is the first institute to focus specifically on mobility,” McGahan says. “We pull in different disciplines to create programming that is accessible to the general public, outside of academia. We are working on research, we are working on policy, we are working on academia, we are creating a more robust view of migration and mobility, not just for New York City or the country, but also for the world.” 

The Zolberg Institute is also supporting the next generation of migration scholars and immigration advocates. Graduate student fellows come from a diverse range of scholarly backgrounds; NSSR students from Anthropology, Politics, Sociology, Liberal Studies, and Psychology collaborate with students from other programs at The New School, including International Affairs, Public and Urban Policy, and Transdisciplinary Design. They work on a host of projects, including writing content for the Mobilities Seminar series at Public Seminar, NSSR’s publishing initiative, working in specialized faculty research clusters, and producing the Zolberg Institute’s immigration policy podcast, Tempest Tossed.

Special Zolberg-IRC fellowships allow students to work directly on global issues, piloting interventions and policy recommendations that then get rolled out to a global community at large. 

Mat Cusick is an MA candidate in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program and a current Zolberg fellow. Cusik is an editor at Public Seminar and works on Tempest Tossed.

“I would say that the Zolberg Institute is where I feel the greatest sense of community in the entire university,” Cusick says. “All of my colleagues share a commitment to issues that matter to me, and we have the opportunity to work together on these issues in various practical ways — writing and editing articles, researching and planning the podcast episodes, hearing and discussing scholarly work in progress, and attending and supporting public events.”

With their robust public events calendar currently on pause, Zolberg has gone digital, launching an online series of discussions with scholars and activists on migration-related issues and COVID-19.

 Mat Cusick, Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student

The upcoming season of Tempest Tossed, produced by the student fellows, is a deep-dive on the Trump administration’s immigration tactics, their impact, and their potential lasting legacy.

I have responsibility for researching and editing the script for an episode on the Trump administration’s ‘virtual wall’ — another way of describing the systematic dismantling of the asylum system,” Cusick shares. “The fellowship has provided me with my first opportunity to be involved directly in a podcast, at all levels of production, from proposing subjects, speakers, and titles, to recording interviews and editing scripts, to strategizing about marketing and promotion.”

As an editor at Public Seminar, Cusick has written his own pieces on migration as well as commissioned and edited the work of major scholars in the field for the Mobilities Seminar, on topics such as asylum policy, offshore detention of refugees, climate change, forced migration, and sanctuary movements.

“Zolberg fellows are engaged in a wide range of important and exciting work around what I consider to be one of the most fundamental political issues of our time, transcending borders,” Cusick says.