Dinner with Austin

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This evening, twelve lucky EC residents— and some prisoners of Wien —were invited to supper with the chipper, quick-witted dean of Columbia College himself, the venerable Austin E. Quigley. Bwog editor Chris Szabla was there and recounts what he learned about the origins of the major system, the progression of globalization, and British playwright Harold Pinter.

The family Harrist has, to this day, been living in the Faculty-in-Residence apartment of East Campus for thirteen months. Surprisingly, they claim, the location is not nearly as noisy as their old apartment’s, perched near that veritable magnet of late-night decorum, Pinnacle. “It can even get too quiet here,” Prof. Robert Harrist told me. The arrival, however, of the firey-haired Dean Quigley and his wife, Barnard prof. Patricia Denison, ensured the evening would be an active one indeed. While the invitees were still tearing into their Kitchenette-catered feast, Quigley launched a seminar-like discussion of the College curriculum and how participants felt it could be improved.

The first item of business was the major. Quigley asked whether, in an age of dual or treble-majors and interdisciplinary emphases, the traditional major made any sense. It had been designed, he said, for those who needed sufficient depth to go into graduate school, with the presumption many graduates would become highly specialized academics. In recent years, however, with a proliferation of CC students interested in finance and other business fields, students have become more concerned with their degrees’ marketability. One recounted his experience in consultancy interviews as a philosophy major, being continually asked to justify his major choice and to demonstrate some quantitative ability. “Did you ask them to spell that?” Quigley returned in his characteristically clipped, dry jest.

He went on to propose a hypothetical system in which students would be allowed to take classes in three clusters of six classes or so made more sense than the current major regime. Others replied that it might just make more sense to reduce major requirements in many cases. Considering this idea, Quigley noted that Columbia’s majors were indeed more cumbersome than other schools. The major system had evolved from the more loosely grouped notion of a “maturity credit” to the concentration, which was meant to mirror other schools’ majors. When Columbia did create a formal major system, the requirements often, then, went beyond those required of mere concentrators, and hence other schools’ majors as well. Asked how the cluster system would affect Columbia’s attractiveness, Quigley expressed confidence other schools would follow. “After all,” he said, to nervous laughter, “we do lead the world”.

Conversation then turned to the Core. Quigley wanted to know how students felt about its Western emphasis, among other things. Several expressed interest in integrating a more extra-European works into the curriculum, while others defended the virtues of the “historical continuity” that would be interrupted. At least one proposed emulating the GS core, which allows students to select among art and music survey classes for different cultures. Dean Quigley then interjected, noting the merits of having the entire College on the same page about certain fundmental works. He observed that, despite the rhetoric of “global citizenry”, most people weren’t quite global thinkers yet, and asked us to think about what the Core offers us “as Westerners”.

The discussion ended with some comparatively abstract notions about the skills the Core, whatever its emphasis contentwise, inculcated. Prof. Harrist praised its spirit of debate, and contributed an anecdote about teaching Art Hum; he said that students were apt to do such things as object to his portrayal of Rembrandt with a thought from Nietzsche. The Core, he observed, “gives one the ability to travel…to make the world more interesting to the student, and to make the student more interesting to the world.” The room nodded in agreement.

After dessert, Quigley began to speak of his youth and his doctoral studies at the University of Santa Cruz, where he took a class that, he was told his first day, would always meet in a beach shanty at the edge of a cliff. “It was the 60s,” he explained. He described his progression from language studies to that of drama (with a brief interlude of his own as an actor in local British pubs, typecast, he noted, as nervous and indecisive), and how he became interested in Pinter. “I’ve been working on Pinter for 30 years,” Quigley recounted, “and I’m still on page three”. A scene in one of his plays, he reminisced, involved an awkward, yet telling exchange: “Do you believe in God?” asks one partygoer to another, to which the reply is “Who?” The current generation, Quigley concluded, managed to be far more confident and articulate than the youth of his (and Pinter’s) age. “It’s just an act,” explained one attendee, before it was curtain call, and the evening’s performance came to an end.

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  1. LJER  

    This was a great, great feature.

  2. word

    That was so much more interesting than I thought it would be when I first saw 'Quigley.' Kudos, Bwoggerinos.

  3. PrisonerOW  

    "and some prisoners of Wien"

    HAHHAHAA. That's brilliant. And so true.

    I love the Quigster. Seems like a genuine guy and always happy to talk.

  4. not enough props  

    are given to professor harrist. columbia needs MORE faculty in positions like that who keep doing things like this. its a damned shame how few there are.

    I would kill for a chance to dinner with quigley, seeing as the last time I saw him speak was at convocation, and the next time will be at commencement.

    • amen  

      harrist in the year that he has been faculty in residence in ec has done a tremendous job in reaching out to students. i wish the program was transfered to other dorms with faculty that cared.

  5. ahar  

    Harrist is going to be chair of Art History next year. And he's such a nice guy.

  6. Alum

    A great article indeed. Kudos all around.

    Just one nit: Dean Quigley's Ph.D. is from the University of California at Santa Cruz. The "University of Santa Cruz" is in Brazil and is probably not a great place to get a doctorate in English drama.

  7. Owain Evans  

    great article. clear, eloquent, informative. thanks.

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