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Talks Without Borders – NYU Berlin RA Adam Silow Reflects on Tutoring a Syrian Refugee

Today, NYU Berlin Resident Assistant Adam Silow reflects on his experiences as an English tutor for a young new Berliner from Syria and the power of “talks without borders.” His initiative is part of a long-term relationship between NYU Berlin and Unionhilfswerk, a German non-profit that supports refugees and other Berliners who find themselves in need of community and resources. Since 2015, staff and students have supported the work of Unionhilfswerk and similar institutions in a variety of ways. Initiatives include coaching workshops on “Teaching German as a Foreign Language” for voluntary helpers, a community garden project with families currently living in a welcome center operated by Unionhilfswerk, and regular English language tutoring.

Talks Without Borders

By Adam Silow

The dark roast of Syrian coffee wafts between our “Denglish” conversations as we swap stories, cultural idiosyncrasies, and language tips. Since this summer, myself and a young Kurdish man have met typically once a week for an hour-long tutoring session to improve his English language skills. Both of us are new Berliners, yet our paths to this sprawling German metropolis could not have been more different. In 2015, I was wrapping up my penultimate year of university, studying economics and global studies at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. Two years ago, he was attending middle school in northeastern Iraq. Rather than return home to California after graduation, I decided to explore my European roots by using my German citizenship to move across the Atlantic and take a job as an NYU Berlin Resident Assistant. At the same time thousands of miles across the globe, a middle schooler and his family in Iraq faced an increasingly dangerous environment of instability and violence. They soon joined thousands in an extraordinary journey to escape war in their homeland for uncertain future in Europe.

Our disparate paths crossed in August 2017 in Berlin when the volunteering coordinator at Unionhilfswerk, a German non-profit that supports refugees and partners with NYU Berlin on a variety of initiatives, contacted our team to ask for assistance on behalf of a young man who was eager to find an English tutor. I had been looking for a way to more concretely engage with my newly adopted community and jumped at the chance to meet this young man. After our initial session, we agreed to meet weekly for an hour and set new topics of discussion each week. Although shy at first, his immense appetite for learning languages quickly became apparent; before arriving in Europe, he spoke numerous regional dialects of both Kurdish and Arabic as well as being almost fluent in German after barely two years in Berlin. Next on his list was English. I tried to hide my embarrassment as I realized at his age my language skills extended only to English, German, and a halting level of high school French. Yet, I was more than happy to help him continue his linguistic mastery.

His school year was starting soon and I did not want to make him sit through our sessions simply as another required course with tedious grammar lessons, which I would not have been fully qualified to teach either. Over his mother’s strong Syrian coffee, we let each session develop as a relaxed exchange of stories from our hometowns, our family and friends, recent trips, and similarities and differences between our experiences as newcomers to this quirky, graffiti-filled, “multi-kulti” community we now found ourselves in. He was skeptical during one session when I shared with him “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strips from my childhood. I translated the panels and tried to explain how the mischievous adventures of a young boy and his imaginary toy tiger were silly, yet dotted with meaningful parables (I doubt that I convinced him, but he was always kind enough to indulge my attempts). Other days, we joked about the Doc Martens-wearing hipsters who seemed to fill Berlin to its artisan-coffee-roasted brim all the while sheepishly admitting that a part of ourselves was slowly assimilating into Berlin’s

alternative culture. At other times, we discussed the reality that even among the seemingly open and inclusive community in Berlin and other parts of Europe, dark and xenophobic factions not only remain entrenched, but have gained traction in certain political wings. Whether light or serious, these conversations flowed between English, German, and a sprinkling of Arabic and Kurdish. It soon became a highlight of my weekly life in this new community.

When I first landed in Berlin, I was fully aware that I was one of countless newcomers to this city. I knew, though, that many had arrived here not by choice and privilege as I had, but by necessity and loss. There were moments when the political turmoil and divisive discourse that splashed across newsfeeds and headlines made me feel overwhelmed and uncertain as to how I could find space to engage with my new community and fellow newcomers in a way that was humble, constructive, and human–stepping beyond digital echo chambers. For me, these English sessions were a refreshing opportunity to do just that. And what began as a simple request for an English tutor soon blossomed into a warm friendship.

Today, my phone continues to buzz with news alerts and social media notifications about the ongoing challenges that rack my adopted and native homes on both sides of the Atlantic as well as in places further abroad. Violence, instability, social and economic inequality, myopic policies, and fear-based politics are but a few of the immense challenges that are dividing communities, cities, and countries. Our weekly sessions have certainly made no material impact on these events. Yet, even when things seemed too out of reach to change, I found that I can still dream big while learning and building bridges within my reach. From that vantage point, stumbling together through new languages to have a conversation–one that stretches across differences, cultures, and borders–seems like a pretty good place to start.

NYU Berlin Considers Democracy in Crisis

On Thursday, November 30, NYU Berlin is hosting an event, Democracy in Crisis, that will explore pressing contemporary political questions in a global context. The discussion will feature Dr. Christian Lammert (Freie Universitat Berlin) and Dr. Boris Vormann (Bard College Berlin) and be moderated by Dr. Margit Mayer (Technische Universitat Berlin). Dr. Lammert and Dr. Vormann recently co-authored a book on democracy in crisis and they will present their work.
Questions to be considered include: What is common to the crises of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic? In which ways do they differ? How has economic liberalization hollowed out the political values of liberalism as an ideology and a set of political practices? What are the roots of a “politics of inevitability” that deems marketization to be the only and best way to govern societies? 
RSVP here: goo.gl/X5mu6F

NYU Berlin Hosts a Discussion on Europe’s Centrist Backlash

On Tuesday October 10, NYU Berlin will host a discussion program, A Centrist Backlash?, with Fabrizio Tassinari, PhD, Executive Coordinator, School of Transnational Governance, European University Institute, Florence and moderated by Site Director Gabriella Etmektsoglou.
Last year, the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the aftermath of the eurozone and refugee crises in Europe shook the political systems of the West to their very core. By contrast, this year’s election results in the Netherlands and France, and the results of the recent elections in Germany, point to something of a centrist backlash, with moderate movements gaining back some of the voters’ trust. In this seminar, moderated by NYU Berlin Director, Dr. Gabriella Etmektsoglou, Dr. Fabrizio Tassinari will look at the reasons and prospects of populism’s enduring appeal in Europe and beyond. Subsequently we will examine the responses that the European establishment has provided to the populist challenge. Finally, we will focus in on the refugee crisis and its aftermath as a case study of both populist and centrist discourses and policy making.

Tisch at NYU Berlin – An Integrated Approach to Actor Training

Stanislavski, Brecht and Beyond: An Integrated Approach to Actor Training in Berlin is a one-semester program in theatre and actor training for advanced drama students. It is offered by NYU Berlin in conjunction with the Tisch Department of Drama, in affiliation with faculty from the world-renowned Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts, the Berlin University of the Arts, and the internationally acclaimed Berlin Schaubuhne.

The program encourages students to create and perform realistic and devised theater, to strengthen and deepen their presence on stage and to craft performances that are intellectually informed, viscerally exciting, and theatrically courageous.

Students are able to experience a cosmopolitan city that holds a complex and crucial place in modern European history. Youthful, artistic, and hip, Berlin has traveled a path that led from the defining cultural avant-garde of the Weimar Republic to the devastation of World War II, from a divided city symbolizing the Cold War to today’s reunified and renewed capital.

A trailer video of the final performances form Spring 2017 is available here.

Professor Arjun Appadurai Discusses His Time in Berlin

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Today we are in conversation with Arjun Appadurai, Goddard Professor in Media, Culture and Communication at NYU Steinhardt, where he is also Senior Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge. He is currently in Berlin for a year and in this interview discusses how being there has informed his scholarship and vice versa.

How did you first come to NYU? What drew you to the institution?

I came to NYU in 2009 from the New School. So I was not physically very far away, but institutionally NYU is quite different. I had previously been provost at the New School for couple of years so was engaged with the large issues related to educational institutions. For various reasons I stepped down from that role to focus on my professorial work, but the transition was hard. I was not unhappy but it was a challenge, so when I received an offer from the Media, Culture, and Communication department at NYU Steinhardt, that seemed compelling. It offered a good opportunity to fully reenter the academic world in a very appealing department. NYU was just entering to its global phase so that was an added appeal for someone with my interests. The department seemed interesting, NYU’s global moves also seemed interesting. So NYU was a good place to shift to in 2009. I have not been disappointed.

How did you come to NYU Berlin? I understand that you received support from the Provost’s Global Research Initiatives program. I also understand that you are now a visiting professor at Humboldt University in Berlin. What work have you been focusing on while in Berlin?

I am on sabbatical for this year and was additionally supported with a GRI stipend for the autumn. I am here for the whole academic year – at Humboldt for the full year as a sabbatical and I remained linked to NYU through the GRI last term. My affiliation with NYU Berlin technically ended in December so I am now a just visiting professor at Humboldt. Throughout the year and with the various affiliations, I have been working on the same things: two very short book projects and one other project that has grown out of my time here. Starting with the latter, in response to news and recent current events in Europe, I was asked to a contribute to an edited book with eleven other authors about “the great regression’ – the global swing to right wing leaders. The book will be published in German and simultaneously translated into twelve other languages. This affiliation has lead to other contributions to the European media. I was recently interviewed by the French paper Journal du Dimanche. I also appeared on a German television program, Kulturzeit, which airs on an educational channel comparable to PBS in the United States. Because of the engagement with this book project, I have been able to participatee in a most interesting, unplanned public engagement while in Europe. My essay for that book is entitled “Democracy Fatigue.” I wrote it during the fall and finished it about three weeks after Trump’s victory in the US election. It has considerably broadcast my interests and arguments in the German and European press. In general over the eight months that I have been here, including during my time at NYU Berlin, I have had a considerable engagement not just in the academic world in Berlin but also outside Berlin, with quasi-public institutions, cultural institutions, and academic institutions concerned about my interests. Some of my long-term areas of interest – migration, refugees, globalization, the future of Europe, the future of nation states – are of great interest in Europe at the moment. So I find myself discovering and becoming part of the very wide flow of ideas and events that straddle academia and public institutions.

In terms of the two books I have been working on, one is related to this set of topics, the other less so. The one less related is a short book on failure – in design, technology, states, markets but also in life – careers, marriages, and such. What do we learn from failure that we do not learn from success? I raise that question and also consider how failure is historically and culturally defined. I ask what is failure and what is not; what parts of thinking about failure are interconnected and what are more idiosyncratic and particular to a particular place or moment in time.

The other book seeks to explore the prima facie contradiction between the ideals of enlightenment entitlement – freedom, equality, humanity – that took hold precisely as Europe went about mass colonialist projects that were racist, exploitative, and seemingly trampled the universalist values of the Enlightenment. Entitled Enlightenment and Empire, this work is a deeper historical look at how Europe has for a very long time had internal debates about itself and a certain measure of volatility about its identity or essence. I consider whether current concerns might be just a recent chapter in this history as opposed to a crisis in an otherwise settled European project.

How have you found the experience at NYU Berlin and at Humboldt University? How has researching Germany influenced your scholarship? What has been most challenging and what has been most rewarding? 

I find that my stay in Berlin is particularly timely in relation to how my interests have evolved over a long time. I have come to be very interested in the European story itself – in terms of ideas, politics, the nation state, the economy. Earlier I saw this from an Indian or South Asian or “Third World” perspective which pre-disposed me not to look very carefully inside Europe. I saw Europe broadly and without nuance. Then I began to question how Europe made itself and to wonder what were and are the stresses or uncertainties of that enterprise. I had been doing this for a few years so when I had the opportunity to come here I had some hopes that the interest would find fertile ground. It has been much more fruitful than I had anticipated. In Berlin perhaps especially there is an active search for the hidden histories of Europe and a focus on Europe’s entanglements with the rest of the world. There is lots of active research at universities, think tanks, and other places exploring the histories that have been marginalized and seeking to bring them back to light in part to offer different alternatives for the present. So my timing in being here and my experience has been better than I had hoped.

Your last book, The Future as a Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition (2013), was the product of many years’ worth of research and writing and an important contribution to globalization studies. It has been described as laying the foundation for “a revitalized, and urgent, anthropology of the future.” Can you tell us more about this book? How do you see the future of higher education, and NYU’s global presence, in the context of globalization?

The book is indeed a collection of essays with some highly connected themes and it is in part a manifesto to say that anthropology has not paid sufficient attention to what is coming next. We usually look to custom, tradition, habit – the past – but all societies also have views about what is coming next – how to ensure it, realize it, achieve it. But the book also asks what are the lightest and darkest sides of current global horizons. It takes a generally hopeful view of the future, and for the anthropology of the future, focusing on ideas like design and research that need to be pursued in a global, cosmopolitan way that involves egalitarian transactions and interactions between institutions in other countries and the West. It is within our powers to put ourselves on the same plane. Although I am not an expert, having only been to Abu Dhabi and Berlin, my view is that NYU global has the potential for helping to create an egalitarian, mutually recognizing and affirmative climate for research, teaching, and learning. This requires a great deal of of commitment and value-driven institution building. This is happening at a time when the countries or regions that drove us in the past will not necessarily drive us tomorrow. China and India are powerful, as are Brazil, Russia, and Turkey. All are now facing some form of political dampening, but they will are major powers. But the idea of a university in which in undergrads, graduates students, and faculty are in different orbits but are circling the same globe while remaining connected vertically through interactions between research and teaching, is exciting. This is a most hopeful idea. NYU’s global locations can play an important role in trying to forge connections perhaps not so easily made at the home campus because it is so large and established. For example, getting US scholars to meet local scholars, having students meet local students. Having the single global umbrella is a terrific opportunity with a powerful potential. What makes NYU special is experimenting with how the university could or should work.

You are an acclaimed author and scholar who has not only lived a globalized life but thought critically about globalization and the serious issues of our time – design, planning, finance, and poverty. You have been described as embracing the “politics of hope.” Can you tell us what that means about what you are currently working on?

The idea of the politics of hope is tied up with another phrase I have coined – the capacity to aspire. That concept was my effort to intervene or contribute to a debate among scholars about inequality and how to rectify it. Some thinkers, for example Charles Taylor, focus on recognition, while others focus on redistribution.

To me, if you look at the capacity to think optimistically, to look ahead, to aspire, no one lacks that, but poorer populations lack the experiences upon which to build robust ideas about where they would like to go or what they would like to do or be. This is not an inequality of the mind, but of experience. They simply have a smaller stock of experiences to draw on in thinking about their own future. They lack, but need, the capacity to aspire and that is where we should focus our attention.

The capacity to aspire sets the foundation for the politics of hope, which endeavors to find methods to look for better solutions to our biggest problems. Problems like inequality, racism, exclusionary politics, and climate. And solutions that that include poorer populations and so are not merely solving them for the few. Such an approach emphasizes the capacity to look ahead, design, and plan in the long run. The politics of hope is made up of whatever methods can strengthen the capacity to aspire – the capacity to research, to design, to make your world more as you would like it to be – for all people.

Do you think that time abroad is valuable for students’ academic and personal development? If so, how do you think that value manifests?

I think it is not only valuable, but vital. However, the structure is very important which is why the nature of NYU Berlin and the other NYU programs is consequential. How you help students see their new situation and do your teaching and relating is vital. Having the best of human talent engaged in that really helps, and this is true at the NYU global sites. In our world this kind of education is urgent and indispensable because today time studying abroad has the capacity to do something that the cosmopolitan urge in earlier times did not. Earlier this was only a self- broadening endeavor – you become a fuller person. But today you develop the capacity to live with, recognize and address harsh realities for other people. Now the global study experience is about collective horizon expansion, not only about US students becoming more mature or wise. It builds their capacity to be global thinkers and doers. That is the gold standard and NYU is a part of it.

NYU Berlin Hosts Women, Gender and Media Images of the Refugee Crisis: Germany in Global Perspective

On 21 April, NYU Berlin will host an event, Women, Gender and Media Images of the Refugee Crisis: Germany in Global Perspective, that will bring together scholars to discuss this complicated and vibrant topic.
The panelists will include:
Radha Hegde, Professor, Department of Media, Culture and Communication, New York University
Regina Römhild, Professor, Institut für Europäische Ethnologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Arjun Appadurai, Professor, Media, Culture and Communication, New York University & Visiting Professor, Institut für Europäische Ethnologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
The program will be moderated by Taiye Selasi, a writer and photographer.
This public engagement brings three scholars together in conversation about the ways in which media help us to understand (and sometimes misunderstand) the role of gender in the current refugee crisis in Germany and the wider world. We hope to stimulate constructive debate about the following questions:
How can we place gender issues related to migration within broader geopolitical contexts of violence, trauma and gender?
How are visual representations of refugee women and children framing responses to migration?
Is the refugee crisis producing certain types of documentation and genres of narration?
Ogranized jointly with the Institut für Europäische Ethnologie der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, the program is 5:00 – 6:30 pm in the Auditorium of the Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum, Geschwister-Scholl-Straße 1–3, 10117 Berlin. A reception will follow.

NYU Berlin Hosts Event: Migration in the Age of Globalization

On Tuesday February 21, NYU Berlin will host an event entitled Migration in the Age of Globalization Challenging the Concept of the Nation-State and Cultural Identity. It will be held 1:30 – 3:00 pm at the NYU Berlin Academic Center, Room Prenzlauer Berg. Moderated by NYU Berlin Director Dr. Gabriella Etmektsoglou, this will be a discussion-based presentation with Astrid Schmidt-King, J.D., LL.M., NYU Gallatin alumna and current Visiting Professor of Law and Social Responsibility at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore. Considering current political discussions and developments in the US and Europe, the event will explore questions such as What is globalization’s impact on the cultural identity of a nation and the role of a state? and Why and how has immigration, specifically the ‘migration crisis’ in Europe, highlighted this question and reinforced the idea of the ‘other’?

Singer-Songwriter Kate Yeager Reflects on Studying at NYU Berlin

Today we are in conversation with Kate Yeager, who studied at NYU Berlin for the fall semester of 2016.

What is your school affiliation and what year are you? What is your major?

I am a student at The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music in Tisch majoring in Recorded Music as a Junior.

What inspired you to study in Berlin?

My program was moving to make Berlin mandatory for all students. I always wanted to study abroad in either Prague or London, so I decided this was the best fit for me as a transfer because it was giving me both the experience of studying away while maintaining my the push of my curriculum.

How was your experience? What was most inspiring, surprising, or moving about your time there? What did you find challenging?

My experience was every bit inspiring, surprising and moving. The history is what really did it for me. Every day, Germans walk on the street and are faced with their history– A constant reminder of a really troubled past and how it shaped who they are today. The ability to experiment out of this is incredible. It’s the idea that the abundance of cheap space and abandoned space gives. Like after the wall fell, everyone was on a search for interesting spaces to express themselves without judgement. “Oh there is an abandoned Nazi bunker…let’s turn it into queer night club.” Now that bunker holds the most incredible private art collection I’ve ever seen, while still maintaining its history as one can see the graffiti inside from the bunkers club era. The mentality of creation is invaluable there. It is truly priceless. It’s a constant search to make somethings and everythings and to make a place where you can loose yourself, or find yourself, or be yourself. It’s a special mentality.

It was challenging for me to do music in Berlin because of the varying genre popularity. In New York, I can pretty much go everywhere with my guitar and I and be fine. The majority of people aren’t seeking out singer-songwriters in Berlin, they’re seeking out techno, which is wholeheartedly fine. That was genre the city was built on and I am not trying to change the places I go, just try to hold hands with the places I’m with. But I did grow incredibly found of the folks I met in the open mic circuit in Berlin. I will never forget them, they have given me some of the best nights of my life.

I understand that you are a singer-songwriter and that you developed new content while in Berlin. Did your experience studying at NYU Berlin influence this content and your work?

Absolutely. I absorbed as much as I could while I was there. Both feeling submerged in one culture and isolated from my own. It’s a polarizing feeling that contributed to a lot of creative moments. I got to experience spaces I never thought I would like attending music festivals and recording sessions at Funkhaus, to recording at Red Bull Music Studios to going to a concert at my favorite artists house since I was 12 years old. These things change you and the way you work and create. I write about people, places, and things– nouns if you will, and when all of that changes, so does all of the vocabulary around those things. So it becomes an entirely new vernacular to work with.

Were you able to perform while in Berlin? How did being there influence your development as an artist?

I was. I was truly lucky to be able to perform in Berlin. I had a couple of solo shows. I played a Sofar Sounds while I was out there and got to perform in other countries in Europe.

Well for Germany in particular, I was able to experiment more. It turned from, I am Kate the girl with an acoustic guitar to, let’s try these electronics and this effect on my instrumentation here. Let’s really see how to make this music mine. It pushes you and its accessible there. Time away makes you find a different part of yourself and your artistry.

Do you feel as though you were able to engage with Berlin’s artistic community, explore the city’s cultural landscape, and connect with local artists?

Yes and no. I was such a lucky person to as submerged as I was in the local community and cultural landscape. When I entered the open mic circuit, they truly welcomed me with open arms as they literal brought me into their homes and hearts. I drank whiskey with people from 5 different countries and a couple of locals as we talked about queerness and politics and art. We all wound up in Berlin for the creative prospects. Berlin is a hub for artistic people and being welcomed into that environment by people who have been there far longer than I have was so special.

No, because that was a very specific subculture of Berlin’s landscape. I am not an electronic artist and that is such a big part of the culture there, that I didn’t get to connect with local artists involved in that world on the same level as I did with other non-electronic musicians.

How do you feel your experience performing complemented your academic experience at NYU Berlin?

I was really lucky that sometimes the two over lapped. I was able to perform at places like Machinenhaus and the Hamburgerbanhof because of Recorded Music performance workshops. Hamburgerbanhof is such an iconic place in Berlin and I would have never thought to play there if not for the NYU Berlin team.

Has your time studying at NYU Berlin, your experiences there, or the content you developed there informed your thinking about your future plans? If so, how?

When I was gone I travelled to over 14 cities and 10 countries. The most important take away from traveling and living that much in other areas of the world, is how vital the music culture is to me when picking a future place to live. I can’t be in a place that doesn’t embrace music. It’s so vital in locations like Berlin and Dublin, that when I go there I feel the pulse of the city through the music. I can’t really say if its effect my future plans. My google calendar only goes so far, but it definitely has and will inform my choices in the future. To be in a completely different music industry, however, made me realize how different cultures care for music. That will inform the way I carry myself back in the states always.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your time in Berlin or while at NYU?

I grew up on a tree farm, so never in my life did I think I was going to live in Berlin. It is a time in my life where I learned a new level of creativity, responsibility, and independence and I am really excited to let that come through all the new music and projects coming up this year.