professor interviews Archive



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img March 25, 201211:30 pmimg 17 Comments

In the latest installment of TA interviews, Bwog oldtimer, Carolyn Ruvkun, returned from the dead retirement to chat with with Upright Citizens Brigade Artistic Director, Reddit meme, and Columbia sociology PhD candidate Nate Dern. Also, we may have Google stalked him and found his hilarious Tumblr.

Bwog: How’d you end up here as a PhD sociology student?

Nate: Over the last ten years of my life, my main goal has been not to have a 9-5 job.  And I thought, “Aw man, if you’re an academic, you get to think about social science questions all the time.”

Bwog: What are you researching?

Nate: How people cooperate, specifically new media technology to facilitate group collaboration like crowd-sourcing. And I’m also making a documentary film about the New York City improv comedy community, of which I’m also a part. And that’s kind of my other double life that I lead when I’m out of Columbia. I’m based out of the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre.

Bwog: That’s awesome, how’d you end up at UCB?

Nate: It is! I’m very honored to be part of the community. So I took classes there, and after a year I was lucky enough to get placed on an improv team, and I work there now as Artistic Director.

Bwog: Sounds important.

Nate: In our little world, yeah. I choose our schedule basically, I run our auditions, and I’m our industry lisason, so if CBS wants to cast someone for the Louis CK pilot, they’ll send me an email.

Bwog: Do you have a signature bit?

Nate: I have a pretty good bodega man character. He’s just worried that people will try to buy his cat and he wants to make it very clear that the cat is not for sale.

Bwog: And you’re a Reddit meme? I love Reddit, and that’s a form of internet collaboration!




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img February 27, 20123:57 pmimg 16 Comments

TAs are people professors educators, too. Sophomore Scrutineers Clava Brodsky and Raph Debenedetti sat down with gold-nuggeted  PoliSci grad student David O’Connell to find out, well, why. If there’s a professor (grad students and TAs included) that you’re dying for us to ask nosey questions to, send us an email at 

Bwog: Can you tell us a bit about TA life? How long have you been TAing? What’s the best part of the job?

David: I’ve TAed for four years and seven times for “Introduction to American Politics.” My favorite part of the job is seeing students grow—to see them developing intellectual and writing skills.

Bwog: Recently, the humanities and social sciences have taken a lot of heat at the expense of the hard sciences. Can you tell us why students should study political science (and American politics in particular)?

David: Studying American politics is useful because it helps gain understanding of how the real world works. When you’re frustrated with what Congress is or is not doing, we offer helpful understanding about the exercise of power. Furthermore, you’ll learn how to write in a clear and efficient manner.

Bwog:  Any advice for students or for TAs?

David: For students—take a reasonable number of classes so that you can actually focus on the material and learn from it. Try not to engage in a competitive stress-game. Decide to enjoy your time here- Columbia is a special place and you only get to experience it once. For TAs—be a professional, look presentable and take the job seriously! Go above minimal expectations—have review session and extra office hours before the exam. And don’t even view your TA responsibilities as a burden or as a distraction—every TA is lucky to have this incredible opportunity.

Bwog: Any great college memories?

David: I’d say that my favorite college memory comes from the spring of my last year at Penn.  A good friend and I cut our econ classes for the day and went to the Phillies home opener instead.  It was a beautiful day, uncommonly warm for April, and an exciting game.  I had not one, but two Geno’s cheesesteaks.  I was well aware that life was going to be changing for us pretty soon so I appreciated the experience even more because of that.

Bwog: Secret talents?

David: As a child, I could do a pretty good Cher imitation, but I’m really not sure why.

David O’Connell via



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img September 27, 20112:20 pmimg 2 Comments

In the latest installment of Bwog’s OfficeHop series, Senior CEO Expert Hopper Specialist Peter Sterne visited Anthropology Professor Michael Taussig to ask about… his hammock. Taussig happily shared anecdotes and observations about his prized perch, while impatient grad students grumbled outside his office. If you know a professor with a unique office, be sure to email!

Michael Taussig lying in his Colombian hammock

Professor Michael Taussig is most famous in his field for showing that South American miners’ fear of the devil is a powerful critique of capitalism, though these days he is more interested in looking at the significance of color in colonialism. Here, he is most well-known for his incredible fashion sense and extremely polarizing teaching style.

And, to the best of our knowledge, he’s the only Columbia professor with a hammock in his office.

“Oh, I’ve had hammocks for decades,” Professor Michael Taussig tells Bwog, “I got this one from San Jacinto, Colombia, in the ’90s. “That was around the time the department reformed, and we were very anti-colonial.”

But wait—isn’t Taussig… still anti-colonial?

“Well,” he pauses, “We were much more so back then. And Joyce Monges [the department’s administrator] said we should get hooks put in the ceiling of the student lounge to hang hammocks, but the hooks were never installed.” Arguing that hammocks can be considered anti-colonial symbols, he cites French sociologist Marcel Mauss, who considered the ways that peoples’ bodies and physical habits are shaped by societal and cultural forces. Such forces program Americans to sit in chairs, so going out of your way to lie in a hammock could be considered a subversive act. So are chairs colonialist? With a hint of indignation, Taussig admits, “when you put it like that, it does sounds crazy.”



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img April 06, 20117:55 pmimg 2 Comments

If Barnard’s psychology Professor Robert Remez had a spirit animal, it would be the Sphinx. The one perched on his desk, he explains, reminds him to “maintain an eloquent silence, but it’s not working.” Lucky for Bwog, the eloquent-but hardly silent-professor shared his office for one of our more scholarly features. Katheryn Thayer stopped by his office hours…

Professor Remez’s office in Milbank has a view of the 1 train’s tunnel entrance and Joe’s tall cafe windows. From his fourth-floor summit at the corner of Broadway and 118th, he watches trains emerge at street level and vanish underground, often inviting toddlers from the psychology research center to join him. The activity is “endlessly amusing, to a two year old, and to me.”

His other favorite view, he recalls with nostalgia, gazing out at the towering NoCo, was of the tennis courts that once filled that corner of the campus. When the trains rushing out of their subterranean portal failed to relieve writer’s block, he would turn to the east window and watch bad tennis, waiting for one of the players to lob a ball onto Broadway. Apparently this happened with surprising frequency.

His penchant for unprofessional tennis aside, Remez welcomes the new building. He says he schedules meetings there and “though I haven’t yet cultivated voyeurism for the café [like Bwog has], I do have a good vantage point.” Professor Remez spends much of his time here in quiet meditation, slowly and thoroughly peeling a grapefruit from his bowl of fruit, making Fairway Santo Domingo Coffee in his French press (better than Joe!), or flipping through his book of Mao quotations. This is symbolically bookmarked with a fake $50 bill and placed in a mug featuring a picture of his renowned linguistics professor, Arthur Abramson.




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img March 29, 20111:00 pmimg 12 Comments

In this installment of Professor Interviews, Conor Skelding sat down with Professor Gareth Williams, whose Selections from Latin Literature: Horace class you ought to take. His office is filled with many leather bound books and boasts a prominent ligneous writing desk, while his computer is relegated to the corner and rarely used. He’s also reeaaally into Lit Hum (aren’t we all?). If you have a professor you want to see interviewed, let us know at

In one sentence, describe how you spend your day.

After getting up early, and after readying myself for the day’s mission, with consideration I need to do in teaching and in my research, I speed ahead on my morning’s activities, whether in class or in Butler or in some other library, and then I launch the afternoon with teaching or writing, before finding time to read, hopefully for an hour, Latin and Greek, as I do everyday without fail; evening comes, evening goes, the day is done, and so am I.

Why classics?

It’s a subject area that combines scientific principles and methodology with a humanistic base and impetus; the texts I read and the cultures I study are endlessly fascinating and very relevant to today’s society.

What do you do when you’re not teaching?

Lots of different things, really. I like sports, I like hiking, museums, playing darts with my daughter, and gently pushing my wife into swimming pools.

Any funny Lit Hum stories?

Yes, but I’m not going to tell you any.

Is the Iliad really ‘like gangster rap’?

Well, truth be told, I don’t know much about ganster rap. But it seemed to strike a chord with many of those in the room.

A humorous chord?


Reading anything good for pleasure?


Would you care to share any specific titles?

Yes. Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo.

I see you have a very old computer here, do you consider yourself a Luddite?


Why the old computer, then?

It works. It does what I need it to do, and I have no wish to have a piece of equipment, a computer that has one thousand capacities when I only have one capacity.

Gerry Visco is quite a prolific figure on Bwog, both in the articles and in the comments. What are your thoughts on Gerry Visco?

I’m extremely fond of Gerry Visco, and I think I speak for many people who are equally fond of her. She has her ways, and she is slightly idiosyncratic; but compared to many people I know…

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img October 13, 20103:39 pmimg 3 Comments

Bwog hops all sorts of things: lectures, dorm rooms, holidays, clubs. Now we’re hopping your professors’ offices. Send suggestions to This week, meet Richard Pious, beloved political science professor at Barnard, and make yourself comfortable in his cozy office on the fourth floor of Lehman Library. His ceiling might not be perfect, but at least it doesn’t look like a junior high school. Katheryn Thayer reports.

How much time do you spend in your office?

I prepare for class, write articles, and hold office hours. I live out of the city, so on days I teach I’m here the whole day, and on the other days I work at home.

What do you wish you did/didn’t have in your office?

I have everything I need in here, the only thing I would want to change is the ceiling.

What’s your dream office?

Wood paneling, cherry bookcases, and a big ol’ desk.

If you were a student at Columbia, where would you study?

Well I was, I went to grad school at Columbia, and I liked to study in the fourth floor reading rooms at Butler. And now it’s gotten so beautiful! It used to look like a bad junior high school.

How many books do you think you have in your office?

I never counted, too many.

Why do you have vodka/wine in your office?

I don’t drink, but occasionally, for some reason, my students bring me booze! These are from Russia. The wine is from when I finished as department chair. I prefer to keep them unopened to remember how nice it was to not be chair anymore.



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img October 09, 20106:00 pmimg 7 Comments

Photo via Columbia

In our latest installment of professor interviews, Adam Kuerbitz talked camels–just camels!–with history professor Richard Bulliet, who you’ve definitely heard of and may have taken History of the Modern Middle East with. Read on to find out everything you’ve ever wanted to know about camel historiography (you know, good for cocktail parties). Also, Richard Bulliet likes to paint. If you’ve got a suggestion for a good professor interview, email us at

How did you first become interested in camels and animals in the Middle East in general?

In the spring of 1967 I was at home in Illinois and I tried to think of the Arabic word for wheel and I couldn’t think of it. So I decided either my seven years of Arabic study had been misspent or I’d never run across the word and so I decided that rather than give up my Arabic, I’d ponder whether or not there’d ever been any mention of wheels. I realized there hadn’t been and that struck me as odd because the Bible has stories about chariots and ox carts and so forth, but here you had a Middle East in the medieval period, which is what I was then studying, that appeared to have no wheeled vehicles. I decided that was a good historical problem.
So I worked on the disappearance of wheeled vehicles and that brought me to the issue of the relative cost of hauling a load on an ox cart as opposed to hauling it on the back of camel. It turned out that the camel was substantially cheaper and that the camels drove the ox carts out of the transport market at some point. Since camels proved to be the key to the disappearance of wheels, it raised the question as to why camels hadn’t caused wheels to disappear a thousand years earlier or five hundred years later. Why was it then? And when was then? And that required me to reconstruct the history of camel domestication, which in as much as camels don’t actually do any writing, meant reconstructing the history of camel saddle design because the saddle proved to be the primary indicator of changes in the economy and use of camels over the centuries.
So I wrote a book called The Camel and the Wheel that spelled out why camels became important at a certain time. It had to do with the design of a certain saddle and the book ended up getting into saddle designs in North Africa, central Asia, India and generally was a work on technological history. After that, I was asked by some people why I hadn’t talked about donkeys. So then I did some work on donkeys and ended up doing as much work on donkeys as I had ever done on camels. Putting the donkey, camels, horses, and cows together, I became interested in the history of human animal relations as a general topic and for many years taught a course [titled] Domestic Animals in Human History.

When was the first time you ever rode a camel?

I’ve only ridden a camel once. I was in Tunisia in the south where I actually discovered some very important evidence for the history of camel use and somebody offered me a ride on a camel. So I got on and rode around for a while. Pretty boring. It’s just riding on a camel. It’s the getting up and getting down that is the exciting part. (more…)



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img April 29, 20105:00 pmimg 8 Comments

In this installment of professor interviews we present Professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner —  filmmaker/writer/scholar/everything who teaches in the Department of English & Comp Lit and at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. Bwog’s Michael Adame sat down with her to talk cognitive channels of reggaeton, belt buckles and Ethiopian food in Morningside Heights.

So you’re originally from Puerto Rico.  How did you end up at Columbia?

Well I was living in Miami with my partner and one day I received a phone call from the university.  They were familiar with my film work and they said they had an opening.  I said “What’s the worst that can happen?” Then I got it!  And now I’m tenured, if you can believe it! It was never in the cards, never in the plan to be in academia, New York, the Northeast, the Ivy League.  I’m doing everything I told myself I wouldn’t do when I was younger.

In class you’ve said you’re a big fan of reggaeton.  For Latino Studies that may be a little expected.  Any musical tastes that people may find surprising?

Well, first, about reggaeton, funny story: I was at a party and a friend plays me a Calle 13 song.  She turns to me and says “I have no idea what he is saying.”  So I listen—and I don’t understand what he is saying!  So it became a puzzle.  Engaging with Calle 13 presented different cognitive channels. Its Poetry of Filth.  A Puzzle.

And other music. Well, I’m a big fan of opera.  Oh! And Bhangra! My New Year’s resolution actually: learn how to dance Bhangra.  It’s hard!  With Latin dancing, the dancing I grew up [with], there’s a certain type of coordination that requires the whole body.  Bhangra makes simultaneous movements not found in Latin Music.  You have to rewire the body to really enjoy it.  It’s great.

Personal question: one day a girl in class turned to me and said “Check out that belt buckle!”  And I did—a bedazzled Madonna on your belt buckle…

(Laughs) Actually it’s a Guadalupe! And it was a birthday gift to myself one year.  I picked it up from a street vendor in South Beach.  And it is definitely a conversation piece.  You go somewhere and suddenly — boom! Conversation.

I was at a conference in San Antonio and I met a women there who told me she knew who made it.  She said it’s a particular Mexican-American designer and you can tell because there is a heart on the back.  I took it off and sure enough, there was a heart on the back.  Anyway, when I was there, I noticed how many Guadalupes there are.  It’s got nothing to do with religion.  It’s the memory and the history.

So suddenly I began collecting Guadalupes.  People give them to me all the time.  Artists friends have painted them for me, I have handmade little statues, kitschy items.  Peruvian versions, Puerto Rican versions…I think I have 50 or so.




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img April 21, 20108:00 pmimg 23 Comments

Office hours: they’re the best! For the latest in our ongoing series of professor interviews, Sam Schube spoke with old Bwog favorite Bruce Robbins. While you might know him from that one essay you skimmed for University Writing (that’d be “The Sweatshop Sublime”), Robbins is a man of many interests—chief among them plumbing and the plight of the New York Knickerbockers.

Just to settle a personal bugaboo, you’re not the Bruce Robbins who pitched for the Detroit Tigers in the late ’70s, are you?

I’m not. I actually threw four no-hitters in my last year of Little League, and if that had gone further, I would not be here today. I would have much preferred it, frankly, but everyone else kinda grew a lot faster than I did. I threw my best fastball and just watched it disappear. End of career.

I remember you made a subtle basketball reference in class early this yearlikening an authorial choice to a “non-call” by the referee. Are you a basketball fan?

Yeah, I’m a Knicks fan. It’s a hard time to be a Knicks fan. But the future…

You think so?

Well, the tricky thing is, does LeBron James want to come to a team that looks as feeble as the Knicks? Anyway, they need somebody with serious low-post moves. (more…)



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img April 14, 20106:00 pmimg 14 Comments

Kosto and the office petIt’s been a while since the last one, but we’ve finally collected ourselves enough to head back to office hours. Liz Naiden got up at 9am to visit the castle keep of medievalist and long-time CC professor Adam Kosto. Read on for the earnest, conscientious prof’s views on weird medieval people, Columbia undergrad culture (THAT’S YOU), and the story of But Not the armadillo, pictured at right.

So the focus of your work is medieval history, how did you get into that?

Actually, a great teacher in college. When I entered I was going to be a math and science guy, and I’d done so much math and science in high school that I figured I had room to take some fun courses and I took a fun course and got hooked on medieval history.

What “hooked” you about it?

What I like about it is that it’s such a puzzle. And it’s such a puzzle because we have so little information from a thousand years ago that trying to piece together the lives of these people – who we tend to forget were people, not caricatures in books – is really challenging. That’s what makes it fun for me, I like puzzles. Plus medieval culture is very strange and foreign to us, mostly I think because it is so much more religious. I think to someone in a religious community it would be less strange. But a lot of the things we find strange in medieval culture are the expression of religious belief and practice. For example, today I’m going to be talking about the cult of relics. These are the bones of saints that people would pull out of the tombs and parade around towns as people were going off to war or on other festive occasions. Very, very bizarre. (more…)



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img February 16, 20104:00 pmimg 9 Comments

His preferred portrait

Bwog needed an excuse to hang out with our professors more, so we’re dropping by the office hours of our favorite teachers and asking them about their research and favorite foods. Liz Jacob visited beloved French Professor Vincent Aurora, an espresso-fueled whirlwind of knowledge and passion, who imparts to his students far more than just French grammar and swear words.

So how did you end up at Columbia, and why French?

Why French? Well, I was good at it when I was in high school. I liked languages, and the one that got my attention the most—the one that seemed I could make the best living out of—was French. So I went to Georgetown, where they have a very good language program and where I was a French major. Then, I came to Columbia to do my grad studies, and part of the deal was that if I taught, I wouldn’t have to pay tuition. So, I started doing it, and I liked it. And I’m still here, twenty years later!

Do you have any vices?

[Noting the wine bottle and glasses sitting on his office shelf] Wine. Red wine. Yesterday was a snow day after all. So classes were canceled and…fun ensued. It was a snow day.

What are you researching now?

Right now? I always like Surrealism. Surrealism is the thing that gets me because it’s so hard to understand. You just have to learn to let your unconscious rather than your consciousness perceive. You’re reading a dream, in many ways. And there’s something really rich and raw about that. That’s what I do. It’s the same pleasure doing that as doing a crossword. There’s always one or two answers that you can’t get.

Working on anything you plan to publish?

Oh, I would love to publish, but it’s very difficult. The way you get published in this country is that you have to write a letter describing what the story’s about and then you send it out. The problem is, I don’t think my ideas are that…normal. [Laughs] Because nobody seems to understand them! One that I was working on just recently takes place in fifth century Tunisia, so it’s not a big seller of an idea. Not too many people are interested in that time period.

How many shots of espresso do you take a day?

Maybe about eight. [Pours himself another shot] Actually more. This is about my fourth or fifth, and my thermos is full. [Laughs] So I would say about fifteen.

Read on for Professor Aurora’s encounter with the Pope, his thoughts on 5th century Tunisia, and his research on muscle relaxation techniques.




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img June 28, 20063:14 pmimg 10 Comments

On June 13th, Professor of English and Comparative Literature James Shapiro won the BBC 4 Samuel Johnson Prize for his work, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. shapiro bookShapiro’s tome, a partial biography, details the 35-year old Bard as he works on As You Like It, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. Herewith, the Bwog plays Boswell to Professor Shapiro, who spoke over the phone from Vermont.


Bwog: What was winning the Prize like?
Professor James Shapiro: The award ceremony, there’s nothing really like it in the States. It’s more like the Academy Awards, by which I mean you’re sitting around with cameras a few feet from your face, ready to register excitement or disappointment. It was something I’ve never seen, that is to say, a literary awards dinner on primetime.

9 o’clock on a Thursday night. The BBC.

And you were not told beforehand whether you had won?
It came as a complete surprise.


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