The back-room Walter Benjamin: The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and its serious moonlight scholars
7:54 am Apr. 27, 2012
The topics under discussion—“Portlandia,” “Mad Men,” the feminist blog Jezebel, hipsters—were perhaps typical of a Tuesday night at a Brooklyn bar/restaurant fashioned from reclaimed materials.
The occasion, however, was more unique: a course titled “Shocks and Phantasmagoria: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project” offered by the newly formed Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.
On this first day of class in early April, ten people in their twenties, thirties, and forties had convened in the back room of Boerum Hill’s Building on Bond to scrutinize the homework: a dense critical essay on Benjamin’s 1,088 page tome by the eminent philosopher and intellectual historian Susan Buck-Morss. As the participants drank Six Point drafts and munched on pesto chicken sandwiches, the instructor, Ajay Chaudhary, encouraged them to seek contemporary correlates to Benjamin’s nostalgia for nineteenth-century Paris—a glamorous world in which top-hatted flaneurs strolled aimlessly through glass-covered, shop-lined arcades.
“I hate to bring up ‘Mad Men’ again,” one student said tentatively.
“Please, bring up ‘Mad Men’!” Chaudhary said.
Afterward, Chaudhary (pictured at left), who teaches in Columbia University’s Core Curriculum, in which students read the masterpieces of Western literature and philosophy, explained that college professors often have to suppress students from talking about themselves.
“But this course is about how we relate to philosophy in the everyday,” he said. “I want people to bring their own experience to the texts we read.”
The Brooklyn Institute is Chaudhary’s brainchild. A 31-year-old doctoral candidate at Columbia’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, Chaudhary conceived of the school in 2011 as a way to make liberal arts education and research more accessible to those outside the academy. Classes consist of six two-hour sessions over the course of six weeks, and cost $295, including the price of course materials. Each class is followed by a voluntary cocktail hour, intended to further the discussion outside the “classroom,” even if that classroom itself is inside a bar (Building on Bond kindly offers space in its back room for classes at no charge to the Institute).
“Our target audience is working adults interested in education for the sake of education, whatever that entails,” Chaudhary said. “Some may want to be more critical or creative in their field, others may be interested in self-actualization.”
The previous night saw the debut of another course offered by the Institute: “Telegraphs, Pneumatic Tubes and Teleportation; Or, the Way We Communicate Now.” Advertised for “people who love or fear (or both) their iPad/Kindle/Twitter/Facebook/etc.,” the course, taught by Maeve Adams, an associate fellow at the Institute with a Ph.D. in English from New York University, draws on readings from Charles Dickens to Michel Foucault. Summer courses, now open for enrollment, include the ambitiously titled “Philosophy and Film” and “Realism,” whose tentative reading list features Emma, Madame Bovary, The House of Mirth, and Remainder by Tom McCarthy.
Staging educational events at bars, clubs, and restaurants is nothing new, of course, especially in Brooklyn. The Secret Science Club—a five-year-old monthly lecture series now resident at the Bell House in Gowanus—regularly draws more than 400 people, who come to hear Nobel laureates in physics and astronomy hold forth on their latest research. Nerd Nite, which packs capacity crowds into Galapagos Arts Center in Dumbo, hosts amateur lectures on aliens and cyberhacking. And Moonlighter Presents offers artists, writers, and academics the chance to declaim on subjects outside their zones of expertise; recent classes have included “The Literary History of Hay Fever” and “Unpacking the Hoodie.”
But whereas these events lean toward entertainment and social lubrication (Nerd Nite also hosts speed-dating sessions), classes at the Brooklyn Institute feel more like rigorous graduate seminars. Difficult homework is assigned, class participation is strongly encouraged, and failure to do either will not go unchecked.
“If someone makes an unsubstantiated claim, we’re going to go after that,” Chaudhary said.
The Brooklyn Institute may have more in common with The Public School, a continuing education collective based in Greenpoint. Designed to match teachers with students who want to study a specific subject, its participants show a fondness for the esoteric reaches of the humanities; a forthcoming class is described as a “four-night theoretical exploration of mysticism in dialogue with ‘Du noir univers,’” an essay by the French philosopher Francois Laruelle.
Still, the Brooklyn Institute is in many ways more conservative than any of the alternative education options in New York City. It’s less an alternative to the university model than an informal extension of it. This alone makes it somewhat radical, since universities often vigilantly protect their borders with the world of the un-enrolled.
The school’s three other core faculty members—Christine Smallwood, 31, Abby Kluchin, 30, and Michael Brent, 33—are all also Columbia Ph.D. candidates, and all have also taught in the Core Curriculum. For them, teaching outside the university informs the work they do inside it.
In June, Kluchin, who studies French feminist theory and the philosophy of religion, will teach a class called “Dreams and Hysteria: An Introduction to Freud.” Participants will be encouraged to keep dream journals, she said. “Not because it’s a therapy session, but because I want to experiment with ways of teaching. And you can’t necessarily ask students at Columbia to keep dream journals.”
Smallwood, who is writing her dissertation on the novels of William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence, intends to teach “Realism” in July. "It's a great opportunity for everyone involved,” Smallwood said, “because what we call 'scholarship' is truly meaningful to everyday life."
Though the faculty members are unquestionably pro-university, they admit that the system contains serious flaws—particularly the swollen costs of tuition. “The average post-baccalaureate class in New York City brings in around $250,000,” Chaudhary said, citing his own “back-of-the-napkin” calculations. “But only about two percent of that”—around $5,000—“goes to the teacher.”
At the Brooklyn Institute, 80 percent of the class revenues go to the teachers, and 20 percent to the institute. If a class draws 12 students, raising $3,540, then the teacher receives $2,832.
“A lot of teachers could do better with us than they would adjuncting,” he said.
This partly explains the deluge of applications Chaudhary has received from teachers since founding the school late last year. He has collected all the applications in a folder, and means to respond to each of them in turn.
The response from students, meanwhile, has been less overwhelming, if only for a lack of visibility. Chaudhary’s marketing campaign was limited to flyers in bookstores, postings on Facebook, and a few ads on scholarly websites. Half of the people at “Shocks and Phantasmagoria” had heard of the school only a week before it began, through an article in New York magazine’s Intelligencer column. All of them, however, seemed excited to be studying the Arcades Project.
“I’m on Facebook and Twitter all day for my job, and everything comes in these little bits,” said Julia Wu, 29, a digital marketer for independent films. “So it’s important for me to go really deep into something.”
Wu had taken the institute’s first class, "Politics in the City," which focused on Plato and Aristotle, in January. “I’d find myself at work talking about Plato, like, ‘Isn’t it crazy that he said that?’” she said.
Ken Riley, 44, a Manhattan-based director of engineering for an e-commerce site, said the class was his first experience with continuing education. “I double-majored in economics and philosophy in college, and I wanted to get my brain firing again.”
Looking professorial in a blazer and glasses, Riley said he actually found the class’s proximity to the bar conducive to serious scholarship. “My college advisor Bob Solomon”—a respected Hegel scholar—“said the worst thing that ever happened to undergraduate education was raising the drinking age from 18 to 21. It drew a bright line between students and faculty.”
And yet liquor-friendly seminars are only one facet of the Brooklyn Institute. This month, the group launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the Archive roject, which Chaudhary describes as an attempt to find rare, deteriorated, or out-of-print books and reproduce them electronically. An open-access, interdisciplinary journal called Arcades, in which peer-review commentary will appear in the margins around an original text, Talmud-style, is also in the works.
Already underway is the Podcast for Social Research, a forum for the school’s staff to discuss books, films, current affairs, and other pressing concerns.
“In the last one, Michael and I started arguing about whether language is transparent, and it devolved into an analysis of ‘Downton Abbey,’” Kluchin explained during the cocktail hour, which stretched until last call. “There are not a lot of easy agreements on the podcast.”
To liven things up, Chaudhary, a classically trained trumpet player who sings and plays guitar in a “country-noise” band called El Diablo Robotico, curates the opening soundtrack.
Ultimately Chaudhary wants to expand the course offerings beyond the humanities to the sciences and social sciences, facilitating cross-pollination. “Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic was inspired by conversations he had with chemists,” he explained, adding that he is currently in talks with an art historian and a paleontologist.
The Brooklyn Institute’s current model seems to be working. Whether it can be replicated elsewhere remains to be seen. Boerum Hill, after all, is one of the most literary neighborhoods in the country (Building on Bond hosted advanced screenings of “Bored to Death,” the HBO show created by local author Jonathan Ames).
Earlier on the day of that first class, a delivery of ten copies of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, one of the required texts for the Benjamin class, disappeared from Chaudhary’s stoop down the street. He discovered the box hours later, stuffed into a nearby trashcan.
“Whoever stole it took two copies of the book, and left the rest inside,” he said. “I dream that there’s a thief in Boerum Hill right now reading Minima Moralia.”
All photos by Dana Hammer
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