Old School New School


In Tuesday’s session of my¬†Digital Archives class, we’re meeting with two of The New School’s archivists, the fabulous Wendy Scheir and Liza Harrell-Edge, to talk about the past, present, and future of the¬†university’s archives, including especially their¬†ongoing collaboration with Collective Access¬†in creating a new collection management system. Then, for the second half of the class, we’re meeting with Kit Laybourne and Peter Haratonik, two of the founding faculty of our Media Studies program — and of its precursor, the Center for Understanding Media.

In preparation for class, the students will have read a few published articles on New School history (most of which make use of archival material); and several representative archival documents from key moments in TNS history — the university’s founding in 1919; the addition of the University in Exile in 1933; the mid-70s, when the Center for Understanding Media was integrated into The New School, etc.


Pages from 7_Johnson_IdeasAreHighExplosives

As always happens — like that time I perused some old course catalogues and found a crapload of amazing courses from the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, ¬†taught by insanely awesome people¬†— I’m tremendously impressed by the ethos and innovation of this university. Consider this: the 1919 course catalog notes that “courses of study have not been arranged under usual departmental headings — political economy, sociology, history, psychology, etc. — for this tends to obscure the constant connection and interplay of the various interests and activities of mankind.” All that recent talk about problem- or scenario-based curricula: they were on it in 1919.

I’ve also come to appreciate, anew, just how progressive our Media Studies program was, in merging courses on the historical, philosophical/theoretical, and critical study of media; the study of media from other disciplinary perspectives; and the¬†making¬†of media. Kickin’ it praxis-style since 1969.


The Center’s 1974 guide lists several courses that were obvious precursors to those we teach today — including our “intro to grad studies” lecture course. Their version was called “Understanding Media” — after McLuhan, of course; the contemporary version is “Understanding Media Studies.”¬†I teach it occasionally. The Old Schoolers also offered a fascinating course on “Media and the Future,” which would certainly appeal to all the “speculative realists” and “design fiction”-ists and techie futurists of today.


We’ve offered courses in sound for a looong time — think Henry Cowell, Hans Eisler, Aaron Copeland, John Cage. In your face — err, ear, Sound Studies, people! We got here first! And in 1974 the Center was offering a class that built on the work of Tony Schwartz.


Inspired no doubt by McLuhan’s sensorium, the faculty were also looking beyond sound to address media’s appeals to the¬†other¬†senses. Sensory studies has certainly enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, too.


The senses were made tactile on the embossed cover of the 1975 catalog, which also included a list of regularly featured guests: from Edmund Carpenter and Bob Fosse to Eliot Noyes <sigh> and Susan Sontag.



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