Social Research on Plagues

The journal’s update of 1988’s “In Time of Plague” examines the human history of pandemics and what it means for the current moment

“After decades of dividing our time between apocalyptic fears of nuclear holocaust and private fears of personal ruin, we now face a threat that is profoundly social, requiring a public, community response. Most of us until recently have assumed, perhaps without thinking, that the number of life-threatening infectious diseases was finite, soon to be cured and prevented by medical science…. Now it appears that this idea—that we stand outside our own history, that we, unlike our forebears, are immune to widespread medical disasters—is very doubtful.” 

This description feels very poignant in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Yet these are the words Arien Mack used to introduce the Fall 1988 issue of Social Research, which addressed the HIV/AIDS crisis. Called “In Time of Plague,” the special issue followed the journal’s first-ever public conference, “In Time of Plague: The History and Social Consequences of Lethal Epidemic Disease.” Now, more than 30 years later, Social Research is publishing a new issue with the same title this summer — on COVID-19.

NSSR’s Flagship Journal

Social Research has been a part of The New School for Social Research since its beginning,” Mack says. Founded as an international quarterly in 1934, one year after The New School’s first president created the University in Exile as a refuge for scholars forced to flee Hitler’s Europe, Social Research aimed to create a public voice for the growing university. The flagship NSSR journal now operates in partnership with the school’s Center for Public Scholarship (CPS), founded and directed by Mack, which is dedicated to promoting “free inquiry and public discussion, bringing the best scholarship in and outside of the academy to bear on the critical and contested issues of our times.”

Arien Mack, Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology, became editor of Social Research in 1970. Under her leadership, Social Research pivoted to thematic issues, and from 1988 onward paired some of them with large public conferences that explore current, pressing social issues in their historical contexts. Past issues have looked at such complex concepts as loyalty, fairness, and unknowability, as well as more focused subjects like the future of Cuba and transitions to and then from democracy. As Mack said in a 2020 Public Seminar interview with Jim Miller, Professor of Politics and Liberal Studies and Director of the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program, Had I been in any other university, I would have been [only an experimental] psychologist. I would have published, probably more academic research. But I would not have had the kind of extraordinary run of intellectual fun that [editing] Social Research has offered me.”

“We held our first funded conference at a moment where there was an enormous amount of hysteria around the HIV-AIDS crisis,” Mack says of the program, whose proceedings were published in the 1988 “In Time of the Plague” issue. Her intention in organizing the conference was to examine the epidemic in light of the long human history of plagues, with the goal of fostering open dialogue among scholars and scientists, combating misinformation around AIDS, and offering a more effective and nuanced public response. 

The Right Time to Republish

“Pandemics and plagues have been with us since the beginning of time,” Mack continues. “There are things we have learned and things we have ignored. It occurred to us that this was a great moment to republish this issue and invite authors, some who contributed to the first issue and some new contributors, to comment on the new pandemic.” 

Cara Schlesinger, Managing Editor of Social Research, underscores this point. “One of the important takeaways from this issue,” she says, “is that there were lessons that were learned during the AIDS crisis and lessons that were forgotten… and when we forget history, we risk repeating it. Almost every event we [at Social Research] have done has addressed that idea in some way and tried to bring the past to bear on the present. Unfortunately, this time the past we are reminded of is very recent. Despite all of the powers and pressures working against that memory, maybe this time we will do a little better at remembering.”

The COVID-19 edition of In Time of Plague is divided into two sections. The new essays that comprise the first section navigate the moral dilemmas, inequalities, and misinformation that shadow the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing comparisons to the AIDS crisis. The second section republishes the complete collection of original papers. Contributors of both the original and new material were drawn from across disciplines.

Charles Rosenberg, Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, wrote a paper in 1988 on the definition of disease as well as a new piece on shaping a pandemic narrative. Willam Foege, former executive director of the Carter Center and famed epidemiologist, originally published “Plagues: Perceptions of Risk and Social Responses” and has now contributed an essay entitled “Plague Revisited.” New contributors include Teresa Ghilarducci, NSSR’s Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis and director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, with “When Economists Take a Back Seat to Virologists”; William Hirst, NSSR’s Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology, on how the pandemic will be remembered; Mariano Aguirre, advisor to the Human Rights Institute, on the connections between inequality and the impacts of COVID-19; and Mary T. Bassett, former commissioner of health for New York City, who explores how “epidemics track along the fissures of our society, exacting the highest toll among the marginalized, discriminated, and excluded.”

Join a Webinar

The Center for Public Scholarship will also be holding a two-part public webinar series to launch the new edition of In Time of Plague. See more information and register here.

The first panel, “Inequalities and Plague,” will be held Wednesday, August 5, 12:30-2:00 p.m. EDT. Panelists include Ghilarducci, Aguirre, and Bassett, as well as Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer of Universities South Africa. 

The second panel, “Comparing Plagues: AIDS and COVID-19,” will be held Wednesday,  August 12, 12:30-2:00 p.m. EDT and will be moderated by Ron Bayer, elected member of the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Panelists include Foege; Ruth Macklin, Distinguished University Professor Emerita of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Gerald Oppenheimer, Professor of Clinical Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University; and David A. J. Richards, Edwin D. Webb Professor of Law at New York University. 

Since its first issue, Social Research has aimed to preserve the founding ideals of The New School for Social Research and to make intellectual inquiry around social and political issues more accessible for the New York community and beyond. In the introduction of this new issue, Mack writes, “It is my hope that by reissuing our 1988 issue, with new comments by experts on how the current COVID-19 pandemic resembles and differs from the AIDS epidemic, we will once again help our readers better understand what is happening now and what we might expect.” 


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz

Making a Magazine in a Pandemic

A Back Matter staff member shares the process of creating the publication (partly) remotely

After being admitted to the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism (CPCJ) Master’s program at The New School for Social Research in Spring 2019, I was invited to the launch party for a student-created magazine called Back Matter. 

With an open bar at Von in NoHo to commemorate the end of their semester, Back Matter editors gave toasts to months of production and passed out copies. Nervously mingling with my soon-to-be professors and peers, I flipped through the pages of the magazine, enamored.

Producing Back Matter has become a rite of passage for CPCJ students. The magazine typically covers the publishing industry at large, and students in the relevant course direct their issue’s theme and aesthetic, filling roles across editorial, design, web development, social media and marketing, publishing and business. 

Formally known as the Multimedia Publishing Lab, the class was designed by CPCJ co-founder Rachel Rosenfelt, former publisher at The New Republic and founding editor of The New Inquiry, as a kind of capstone project, an opportunity for students from across The New School to apply their skill sets and interests to the full process of creating a magazine. 

Now, the class is co-taught by Jon Baskin and Jesse Seegers. Baskin, who handles the editorial mentoring, is the CPCJ Associate Director and a founding editor of The Point, a thrice-yearly magazine of philosophical essays and criticism. Seegers — who has worked architecture, design, writing, editing, publishing, and research — serves as the design beacon and teaches core classes in CPCJ and at Parsons School of Design.

After that night, I committed to the CPCJ program. I was drawn to how it merged design and writing practices. Now, I am finishing up my second semester and pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate minor in Design Studies. At the beginning of Spring 2020, I enrolled in Multimedia Publishing Lab with the intention of stepping outside of my editorial comfort zone and getting more portfolio experience with print design.

“This goes to the heart of what CPCJ was designed to achieve,” Baskin said. “I think the founders, Jim Miller and Rosenfelt, saw from the beginning that too much of professional publishing is bifurcated into different departments that barely communicate with one another. One of the goals of the program, embodied most successfully in this class, is to help graduate students who can work across those divides.”

We began the semester applying for and receiving our positions, noted in the masthead above. 

The editorial team picked out submissions, working with Baskin to guide student writers through the editing process. Second-year CPCJ students Taia Handlin, Editor-in-Chief, and Shulokhana Khan, Managing Editor, spearheaded this effort.

Meanwhile, the design team began to envision how the magazine would look and feel like. Creative Director Annika Lammers, a Parsons Master’s student, managed the overall visual concept, applying her spatial design skills to construct the physical publication. As Art Director, I spent hours with her pouring through other magazines and taking trips to Printed Matter, an artbook distributor in Chelsea, for inspiration. With the help of Seegers, we made mockups, printed them, printed them again, and then printed them yet again. We had big ideas of unique binding techniques, using the school’s risograph printer, experimenting with paper weights and textures. We worked with the editorial team to blend the thematic contents with visual expression. We created a graphic treatment to begin laying out the print product. 

The publisher began seeking printing quotes, and the digital team drew up plans for a website and social media marketing. We set editorial calendars, print dates, and budgets, and we started planning our own launch party. 

Then the world changed.

AAnnika Lammers and Alexa Mauzy-Lewis working on Back Matter in the before-times | Photo by Hector Gutierrez, Back Matter Marketing and Communications Director
Jon Baskin on a class trip to Printed Matter in the before-times| Photo by Annika Lammers, Back Matter Creative Director
Back Matter staff meeting in the before-times | Photo by Hector Gutierrez

“We began this second edition of Back Matter in January. Then, none of us was imagining our current reality, structured by daily video chats and people actually debating if silk scarves are better or worse than bandanas in stopping a pandemic,” wrote Handlin in her Letter from the Editor.  “We just wanted to make a sassy magazine that pokes holes in the immense, white, privileged landscape of publishing.”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to trudge on virtually. We launched the new issue on the magazine’s website and began to roll out the articles and illustrations we had crafted.

It wasn’t easy. “We have had to relearn ways of communicating, sharing information, and effectively coming together to cohesively formulate the vision and content of the publication,” says Lammers. “We are now sharing different time zones from Australia, to Korea, to the U.S.”

“I cannot help but think that the initial design decisions made at the very start of the publication are reflective of our current surrounding environment,” Lammers says. “Back Matter’s hand-drawn illustrations, risograph-printed pages and sewn-bound finish strips back the complexities and reveals insight into the way we had to critically adapt and think about the publication.”

The Back Matter team is continuing to build out the website, publishing new pieces weekly. Cailin Potami wrote a piece on underrepresentation in publishing. Jessie Mohkami explored the gender gap in book club culture. Adji Ngathe Kebe explained how comp titles paved the way for the racist bestselling disaster American Dirt

Soon, we’ll share a special section that responds to the landscape of media in a crisis. We are working to finish our final print design, with hopes of printing it in the fall, if those who are not graduating will be able to return to campus by then.

Screenshot of the print title for a piece by CPCJ student Fareeha Shah.
Full article available online.
Screenshot of the first-page layout for a piece by CPCJ student Cailin Potami.
Full article available online.

The ending of this semester is bittersweet. Instead of celebrating our work together at a bar in the city, we are sitting alone in our respective homes at our computers. Through blood, sweat, and InDesign tears, we will have the final design for a print magazine, but its future, like many things, is TBD. Still, we were able to provide a digital home to the works of some incredible New School writers and illustrators — graduate work and research that was produced in the face of global chaos.

Publishing, at large, has been forced to adapt. This issue of Back Matter will always be a relic of this time.

Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is the Art Director of Back Matter magazine and a Master’s student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism Program. Cover art is by Hector Gutierrez. 


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz