Photo Credit: Sara Bell
Last autumn, I was about to fall off of the stepping stool in the Avery Library stacks when I found the report. Titled Morningside Heights: A Sketch Plan, the slim volume from 1958 detailed the then-confidential neighborhood strategy of Morningside Heights, Inc., a coalition of local educational and religious institutions known today as the Morningside Area Alliance, or the MAA. I was doing research for a feature in The Eye, Spectator’s magazine, on the history of housing activists’ relationship to institutions in Morningside Heights.
Archival boxes at the OSA. Photo credit: Teresa Brown
While in Budapest and working at the Open Society Archives, I was paired with a junior researcher who works primarily on the history of cybernetics (the science of communications and control systems in both machines and living things) during the Cold War. I was given a project to investigate how the archive catalogs materials relating to the history of science, specifically within their collection of documents from Radio Free Europe’s Research Institute.
2019 Morningside Lights: Island procession on College Walk. Photo Credit: Isabel Wong.
I attended my first thesis presentation sitting on the couch. The university had sent many of us home in March. Now it was May. Instead of facing the blank page, commencing battle with my final papers, I opened Zoom, settled into the cushions. A couple weeks prior, I had decided to conduct thesis research, enrolling in Senior Seminar. Uncertainty is an unending prickle though, and I hoped the presentations would reassure me.
Regent’s Park. Photo Credit: Sara Bell
“As a woman I have no country,” Virginia Woolf wrote in Three Guineas, and also in the Passage Identification section of my spring Contemporary Civilizations final exam. She continued: “As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
I’d bet that passage IDs rarely make top-ten lists of best moments from the Core. Most of my favorite memories of CC are the kind of experience for which students come to Columbia: debates about Aristotle lively enough to bring my classmates and I out of our seats, long afternoons outside reading Hegel during that one sunny week in March. But that passage was striking enough to make me go home that summer and reread Three Guineas. In fact, it was striking enough to make me decide to study abroad. What better way to test this proposition than to move another 3,000 miles further from home?
Statue of Stalin, torn down during the 1956 October Revolution, and now part of the Memento Park in Budapest. Photo Credit: Teresa Brown
At times, the internet creates the illusion that the whole world is available at our fingertips, the illusion that anyone can become an expert in anything. Other times, its many shortcomings are far more obvious. Take for example a side effect of the current global pandemic: employers and universities are scrambling to move as much of their businesses and services as possible online. The process has been a hectic one, driven by immediate necessity and exposing shortcomings in businesses and services that were not prepared to make the transition. But the general trend towards offering an increasing number of services online is nothing new. One example is historical archives. In an effort to increase accessibility and reduce the wear and tear from physical document handling, many archives have begun uploading some of their material onto their websites. A well-intentioned project, the digitization of archival documents raises questions about the modern role of historical archives.
Photo Credit: Araelf / Adobe Stock
At the beginning of my second semester of CC, my professor asked us all to write down a response on an index card to the question “What do you hope to get out of this class?” My response was, “The books we are reading have been used for centuries to justify cruelty against people of color, like me. I want to read and analyze these books so that I can better understand the dangerous arguments these books were used to support.” When I read John Stuart Mill’s work On Liberty, I focused on the aspects of his text that would later be used to justify the stripping of liberty and freedom from Indian bodies. When I read Nietzche’s The Genealogy of Morals, I focused on how this book was used to argue that some were just born innately with a “slave morality.” The reason I studied these books was solely due to the ways they had been used in the past.
Photo Credit: Isabel Wong
In early April, while video calling with my friends, laughing over the small, silly things that keep quarantine light, feigning quick jabs at inside jokes, worrying and luxuriating in next year’s possibilities, my friend mentioned one such possibility she was working on, her thesis proposal. I started. Were we supposed to be thinking about theses already? How was I supposed to know we were supposed to be thinking about theses? COVID-19 had already cancelled another friend’s research arrangements in Zambia I learned. As I registered everyone else leaping off the starting blocks, I remained, unsure how, or whether, to jump.