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NYU Steinhardt J-Term Course in London on a Strength Based Paradigm for Autism

Today we are conversation with Stephen Shore and Kristie Patten Koenig about the Steinhardt course they co-taught at NYU London last J-Term and will soon be teaching again in January 2020. The course, Shifting to a Strength Based Paradigm: A Focus on Autism and Well-being Comparative Analysis Between the UK and the US, their experiences in London, and more is discussed below.

Kristie Patten Koenig, PhD, OT/L, FAOTA, Associate Professor, New York University, Department of Occupational Therapy. Dr. Patten Koenig is an occupational therapist, with a PhD in Educational Psychology who examines the efficacy of interventions utilized in public schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Her research focuses on utilizing a strength based paradigm and the individual with ASD’s perspective to understand the impact of these issues on quality of life and adaptive behavior in order to guide person centered interventions utilizing strengths in inclusive settings. Dr. Koenig is the Principal Investigator of the NYU Steinhardt’s ASD Nest Program, an inclusive program for children and adolescents with autism in the New York City Department of Education. She is currently Co-PI of a NSF grant entitled “IDEAS: Inventing, Designing and Engineering on the Autism Spectrum” that leverages STEM interests of middle school students with autism to develop social competence and potential career pathways. She is also PI of the GIFTED project, a 3 year grant project aimed at developing women leaders in public schools in Ghana. Dr. Patten Koenig teaches professional and post professional courses in the area of pediatric intervention, school based practice and the challenges and opportunities with autism spectrum disorders. Dr. Patten Koenig has published and presented nationally and internationally on topics related to examining the efficacy of public school interventions and examining autism from a strength based or abilities based model.

Dr. Stephen Shore is a professor at Adelphi University where his research focuses on matching best practice to the needs of people with autism. In addition to working with children and talking about life on the autism spectrum, Stephen is internationally renowned for presentations, consultations and writings on lifespan issues pertinent to education, relationships, employment, advocacy, and disclosure. His most recent book College for Students with Disabilities combines personal stories and research for promoting success in higher education. A current board member of Autism Speaks, president emeritus of the Asperger’s Association of New England, and advisory board member of the Autism Society, Dr. Shore serves on the boards of the Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism Association, The US Autism and Asperger Association, the Scientific Counsel of OAR, and other autism related organizations.

1. Can you both tell me about your backgrounds and how you came to know one another? Professor Koenig, I understand that your research focuses on using a strength based paradigm and the individual’s perspective in order to examine the efficacy of interventions in public schools for children an adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. You are at NYU Steinhardt and were recently in NYU London working with Dr. Stephen Shore, whom I understand is a professor at Adelphi University where his research focuses on matching best practices to the needs of people with autism.

Stephen – I am an autistic person. After eighteen months of typical development I got struck with what I call the regressive autism bomb. Like 30% of autistic people, at eighteen months I lost functional communication, had meltdowns, withdrew from the environment. In short, I became a very autistic little kid. There was so little known about autism in those days that it took my parents a whole year to find a place for a diagnosis and when they did the doctors said they had never seen such a sick child. The doctors recommended institutionalization and fortunately my parents, like so many parents do today, advocated on my behalf and they convinced the school to take me in about a year. It was during that year that they implemented what we would today refer to as an intensive home-based early intervention program and much of this program involved what Kristie and others refer to as sensory integration and sensory processing, so there was a lot of movement, there was also music, imitation, narration and so on. So with the work that my parents did, speech began to return at age four and it was also at that time that I acquired my first autistic deep interest, and that is contrasted with what the DSM [American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] refers to as a restricted interest. Deep interests are fascinations and mine was taking apart watches. I would take out the back, pop out the motor, take that apart, put it together again. And the watch still worked and there weren’t any pieces left over. My parents noticed this with a mindset of asking what can our autistic son do, and they soon provided all kinds of other devices to take apart and put back together again. I entered the school that initially rejected me. I got re-evaluated. Instead of being considered a psychotic, I got upgraded to neurotic, so things were looking up.

I attended public school kindergarten at age six. I was a social and academic catastrophe. A lot of bullying, teachers didn’t quite know how to reach me, but at the same time I still had my deep interests and what I would do is go into the library and get all the books on what that interest was. It could have been astronomy, weather, earthquakes, electricity, mechanics. I would read them, take notes, copy diagrams. I remember one day in 3rd grade I had a stack of astronomy books on my desk and I was busy taking notes and copying diagrams and a teacher had told me that I would never learn how to do math, but somehow I eventually figured out just enough math to teach statistics at the university level.

Nowadays teachers are more aware of this type of deep interest and find ways to use it to teach the curriculum and make it intrinsically reinforcing. So moving on to middle and high school, most people find middle and high school difficult. It was actually easier for me because I was able to engage in my deep interest in music. I joined the band. I got so fascinated with music that I got it into my head that I needed to learn how to play all the instruments. I’d spend hours in the instrument closet figuring them out. I didn’t get them all down, but I did learn to play about fifteen instruments. And then when I heard that a requirement for a degree in music education was that you had to learn all the instruments, well, it didn’t seem better than that. So, off to college I went. There were no autism support colleges like the program at NYU and the one at Adelphi University. At that time it was thought that autistic people couldn’t even talk. Anyways, there I was, I got through my bachelor’s degree and went on to the master’s program in the same subject and then on to a doctorate in music education. I got through all the coursework. Then I started getting more interested in autism. So I defected over to the school of education and got my degree in special education with a focus on autism. During that time, during my doctoral degree, I had written a few books including an autobiography and another book on self-advocacy for autistic individuals, understanding autism for dummies, and I might have written more at that time but my advisor kind of gave me what for and said stop writing books and finish your dissertation. So I did. And then I was graduating in 2008 and beginning work as a professor of special education at Adelphi university and also working at NYU as well. So I divide my time now between teaching and researching on mostly autism related things, traveling and talking about autism, consulting about it around the world.  I have talked about autism in 48 countries so far. The number of those countries is growing through my work with Kristie and with co-presentations and collaborations. Kristie and I met in 2005 at the world autism congress in Cape Town, South Africa. We connected, we started doing various projects collaboratively, talking with each other, and it has now grown to a point where Kristie and I are collaboratively teach a course focused on strength-based supports to support autistic individuals. We have taught the course now three times. Two times on campus and this last January we taught in London. What else do I do? I give music lessons to autistic children and write books and articles. I am a clinical assistant professor of special education at Adelphi University.

Kristie – I am an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy at Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. I am also the principal investigator of the NYU ASD Nest Support Project that supports the New York City’s Department of Education’s ASD Nest program which is the largest inclusion program in the country. This program uses, like Stephen said, a strengths-based approach. Stephen has done several projects with the Nest program. I have learned throughout my life as a professional and researcher that anything I do around autism isn’t authentic unless I am collaborating closely and authentically with autistic individuals and stakeholders. So Stephen and I started off in different areas, though now we are increasingly authentically collaborating. This included living in the same flat for almost three weeks in London and we are still talking to each other! So it is really that we both feel the same way and that we both value each other’s input. We each have our own areas that we look at and things that we do, but when we both come together it really is an enjoyable collaboration. Often he will be on a plenary that I am moderating, for example at our national conference in April, with other autistic individuals talking about what OT should be researching and setting the agenda and priorities from their perspective.

2. I understand that you recently lead a course together in NYU London, Shifting to a Strength Based Paradigm: A Focus on Autism and Well-being Comparative Analysis Between the UK and the US. Can you describe the purpose of the course? What kinds of students participated and how was the course structured?

Kristie– The purpose was to really focus on this shift to strengths because a lot of people get trained in a deficit model of remediation with autistic individuals. Stephen comes from special education. I come from occupational therapy. We really like to have a diverse group of students that can kind of go back and touch their respective disciplines after being “brainwashed” with a strengths based approach by us. This is a graduate course and we had over 40 applications for the first time that it was offered as a global course in London so it was a successful course right out of the gate globally. We had 28 graduate students from ten different programs.

3. How has your work together on this comparative analysis and your experience in London informed your future research?

Kristie – Absolutely. One example I can mention was a meeting with autistic researchers and non-autistic researchers at London South Bank University where they have a collective called PARC – Participatory Autism Research Collective – that truly is a partnership between autistic researchers and non-autistic researchers. I am in discussions now with Stephen and a number of other people to do the same type of collaborative research collective here. Also we met with people from the University College London CRAE – the Centre for Research in Autism Education – and they have a project called “Know your Normal” which is a collaboration between PARC researchers and researchers ad UCL about mental health and knowing what is normal for you as an autistic individual and knowing what is not normal so you can seek out assistance and help and really know when you are not feeling like you should. So, for example, an autistic individual lines up things normally or puts things in order normally, that is not a sign of a mental health issue and that is where that phrase “know your normal” comes in.  I actually talked to people at the Department of Education and we are actually looking to bring Laura Crane and people from the “Know your Normal” project to do some work with us and the Department of Education and the ASD Nest support project and here at NYU with our autistic students. Those are two examples that come to mind.

Stephen – We had great experiences and saw how they are moving research and benefitting autistic people. We also got invited to the House of Commons where they were interested in my experiences around the world. I remember them asking me if I could rank countries in order of service provision and what I found is that it is impossible to rank countries but what one can do is look into areas of best practices in Peru, Russia, Japan, China, and so on. And there is always much to learn from people in other countries supporting autistic individuals. There was the autistic choir Kristie mentioned which was a choir of autistic individuals who just recently felt comfortable enough to disclose their being autistic to the greater public so that is very exciting.

 4. I understand that you both were invited to two meetings at the British House of Commons and the Member of Parliament Stephen Twigg to discuss autism, best practices in supporting people on the autism spectrum, and the ASD Nest Support Project. Can you tell us how those meetings came about and what was discussed? Do you expect further engagement within the UK?

Stephen – They were very interested in what I had to offer, my insights in terms of supporting autistic individuals in other countries and I felt that at the end of it they had understood that it is probably not that useful to be ranking countries in terms of support but so much more useful to be studying what is happening in particular countries. So that was exciting.

Kristie – They were familiar with Stephen’s work and by extension my work. Stephen is a rock star internationally. And then I came along to talk about the work we are doing on inclusion which they were very interested in. They are ahead of us I think in engaging autistic individuals in research and partnerships and I think that they are doing some great work in terms of collaboration with the autistic stakeholder community. One of the things that we talked to Stephen Twigg about is just this idea of comprehensive inclusion programs. NYU’s ASD Nest support project in NY demonstrates that autistic children are capable of doing grade-level work with the proper supports. Often with inclusion, if the kids are capable of doing grade-level work they just kind of throw them in the right class and hope for the best and may provide some therapy where it is not really integrated into a comprehensive program and that is not really the best way to educate and do inclusion. So they were very interested in our program. We have already replicated the program in Denmark  and we are in talks right now with school districts in California, Florida, we have another one that just signed a contract with us in NY. So we have had success replicating that model and there seemed to be interest for London as well. So we’ll continue to see what happens there.

 5. While at NYU London, Professor Shore was interviewed by BBC Russia about his work with autistic children, including music lessons and other offerings. Professor Shore – Can you tell us more about this work and how it drew the attention of the BBC?

Stephen – I have been to Russia eight times already and I have been involved with an organization called Our Sunny World. This is a center for mainly autistic individuals, 350 at last count. What I found fascinating about the center is that they too follow a strengths-based approach and the idea of matching reasoned practice with specific individual needs. So, for example, they look at applied behavior analysis as one of the tools that can be helpful for autistic individuals as well as daily life therapy, and other methods. I find that very exciting. There is also a large sensory component that I find very helpful as well. It is organizations like this that perhaps aren’t that well known but are doing some incredible work and we better collaborate with them.

6. As part of you course, you had some remarkable guest lectures and panel discussions, including a panel related to Pablo, a BBC Children’s program about a five-year-old autistic boy. The panelists included the program’s creator, Grainne McGuinness, its head writer Andrew Benner (who is also the head writer for the popular children’s show Thomas & Friends), autistic writer and the voice of Wren on the show Sumita Majumdar, and an autistic consultant Paul Issacs. What did you and the students learn about the creation of the show, its production, and its audience? How has it been received? Why is it important to have autistic characters portrayed in children’s television?

Stephen – It lends a certain amount of authenticity when you have autistic people involved in anything related to autism. In this case we’re talking about a tv series, but the same holds for research, the same holds for education, which is why Kristie and I deliver our course collaboratively. I provide the autistic point of view as related to education, Kristie provides the professional a point of view of occupational therapy. Working together in education, in research, in media, and in all aspects involving autistic individuals provides a more authentic view of autism and better illustrates what we can do to promote fulfilling and productive lives.

Kristie – I think that the Pablo show is unique in certain ways. There are a few shows featuring autistic characters. For example Sesame Street has Julia, the autistic Muppet, and the puppeteer for Julia is a mother of a child with autism. With Pablo what they did was really beautiful. The head writer Andrew Benner set out to talk to adults that are autistic in the UK about their experiences and challenges to simply get their perspective on the show. And I think the originator Grainne McGuinness was really mindful of talking to autistic individuals and including their voices. What happened was that as he went around he had a whole bunch of autistic writers and autistic actors that he could hire and I think that just like in different fields, autistic individuals are looking for employment opportunities. And he hired them. So to be gainfully employed in children’s television representing your authentic selves is really powerful. A lot of times tv shows will portray someone that’s autistic with a non-autistic actor which is unfortunate, really unfortunate, when there are a lot of autistic actors who are looking for work. So this show becomes an extension of their worlds and their perspectives and because of that it just becomes a really funny, quirky show. Not necessarily because they are all autistic but because of their point of view that it is an autistic point of view that makes it really interesting and something that any kid can relate to.

7. Do you believe it is important for research relating to autism and interventions to have an international perspective? Was there anything you learned while in London that was surprising, noteworthy, or that may influence your work moving forward?

Stephen – Interestingly, after we had gone through the course, we felt that all of the guest presenters were great and it all went really well and there weren’t any regrets with what we had done which was really cool.

Kristie – We really saw the transformation in the students. It was really something to see. Their transformation of really looking at something in a fundamentally different way. This was perhaps in part because the students were all from different programs so may not have been exposed to this kind of work before. And the predominant narrative around autism is this kind of remediation, let’s fix it, let’s normalize behavior so those messages are often received in many programs so this was a very opposite message.

8. Is there anything else that you would like to share about your work, your time at NYU London, or beyond?

Stephen – It is important that the primary question be: “What can the autistic individual do?” That said, there can be significant challenges that come with being autistic and if there weren’t, why would this course exist? However, we need to flip the paradigm around that Kristie so beautifully shows on her power point slide when we look at typical reports of presenting problems – there is a big section on the top weighing down this little section on the bottom  with one or two lines presenting strengths and it needs to be the other way around.

NYU London Student Life Coordinator Julia Thanh Interviewed by BBC

NYU London Student Life Coordinator Julia Thanh, who runs NYU London’s volunteering program, was interviewed by the BBC about her life. Her interview was posted to the BBC’s Vietnamese web service this July. Fortunately for those of us who do not speak Vietnamese, the interview is in English. Julia talks about her “very meaningful” work for NYU London towards the end. She also shares her work on a photography exhibition featuring portrait Vietnamese British people in London, demonstrating the diversity of that community. Julia’s thoughtful discussion of matters of identity and finding one’s place in the world in the interview reflects the rich perspectives of NYU’s global staff.

You can watch Julia’s interview here.

NYU London Students Support the City’s Homeless Youth

NYU London’s Richard Twiddle, who works in student life, tells us about a new initiative enabling students to give back just as they are arriving in their new city.
1. How long have you been at NYU London and what is your role? I have been with NYU since April 2017 and work as part of the Student Affairs Team as a Residential Life Assistant.
2. How did the NYU London Spring 2018 Pop-Up Donation Bookstore develop? I understand that a personal experience was a source of inspiration for you. Can you describe that for us?
A couple of months ago I was asked for money from a guy begging outside a local supermarket near to the NYU London Academic Centre and he had a similar accent to mine (I’m originally from near Manchester) and it made me look twice. I looked at him and could see he was pretty young so I got chatting to him and he told me that he needed money for a hostel. He then went on to tell me that he wasn’t looking to have a nights sleep as he found the hostels scary but just really wanted a shower. He had been sleeping rough for a couple of months and his leg had become infected and really needed to be seen by a doctor. He wanted to go to the local NHS walk-in clinic but as he hadn’t showered in 5 days, was too embarrassed to go to there smelling the way he did! As I listened to his story and also found out he was just 22, I became sad but also pretty angry that as a rich country we aren’t doing more to help young homeless people. All he wanted was a shower, something we all take for granted everyday!
I couldn’t really stop thinking about the conversation we had and realised that I had to something and as I had recently sorted all the books our incredibly generous previous students had left for the incoming students, I had an idea to organise them properly and charge a small donation through a start of semester sale. I fleshed out the idea a little a put together a proposal which I sent to my senior management. I was really pleased that they gave it the green light and it really started from there.
3. What was the goal of the Bookstore and how was it structured? How did students respond to the initiative?
The goal of the Bookstore was really to make as much as possible for Centrepoint which is a young persons homeless charity in London, through charging £1 per book to new and returning students in NYUL Spring ’18 orientation week.
I basically spent a couple of weekends sorting all the books, building ikea shelving units (which was possibly the hardest part), and then clearing, cleaning and rearranging a disused office into a bookstore. As my Dad works for Penguin books, I grew up with a passion for books and especially bookstores and the way they can become great spaces for learning and sharing ideas so I really loved creating the space.
In the end the books were divided general into key texts and course books, not quite as accurately as I hoped but time was pretty short and after sorting them all I pretty much knew each title we had, so I could direct students to where their books were located.
The student response was amazing and I was really touched by their interest in what the money was going to and many students gave much more than the suggested £1 per book price tag. I wasn’t sure anyone would come to be honest, so it was even more amazing when I opened the door 15 minutes before the official opening and there were students waiting outside. From there it went a little crazy for a couple of hours as the space is not the biggest, but it was a great way to see everyone interacting and chatting about the books they needed and the courses they were on.
4. How much did you raise and where was it donated?

Student customers browsing at the Bookstore.

On the day we raised £612 which was way beyond anything I had expected to raise. Since the opening day I have placed ‘honesty boxes’ in the room and students can go in anytime between 7am-11pm and take a book and leave their donation in the box. Since the opening day we have already raised another £100 and are now looking to hit the £1000 mark in the next few weeks.

All donations are going to Centrepoint London (centrepoint.org.uk) which provides a real home for young homeless people aged 18-25 and allows them to stay with them while attending school/courses or training for work and provides them with counselling and any additional support they may need.
5. Do you think this event will be repeated or a similar event organised?
Yes, I hope to repeat the sale every semester. We hope the students who bought books either from our store or from regular bookstores, will donate these back to us at the end of the semester, as they have generously done in the past. They will then be sorted and made ready for the next semester students and hopefully we will continue like that for years to come.
I have also been chatting to the guys at Centrepoint about how we could possibly help some of their residents out with things they need for when they move into their own homes. As we get a lot of items left by students who don’t want to pay for extra baggage on their flight homes, these items could be donated for the guys who leave Centrepoint and often don’t have a lot of money to set up home.
6. Do you have anything else you’d like to share?
I have spoken to the guy who made me think of doing this several times since and he got to the doctors and is much better. He doesn’t want to move into a shelter but appears to be looking after himself much better. Hopefully one day he will benefit from Centrepoint’s amazing facilities, which NYU London students help to make happen. Students can now come to NYU London and give back to their new ‘home’ city within days of arriving so I’m pretty happy I was able to facilitate that. 
THANKS NYU London Spring ’18 students, you’re the BEST!

NYU London Student on Volunteering – Changing Hearts and Minds in Calais

This reflection comes from NYU London student Destiny Gallegos, who shares her experiences during the joint NYU London and NYU Paris volunteer trip to Calais and Dunkirk.

What better way is there to start the best month of the year in France doing something that matters for people who need it? That’s exactly how I spent the first and second of December during the Calais Volunteer Trip to assist Help Refugees in their efforts to provide the refugees in Calais with provisions they so desperately need. There was plenty of sorting and cooking and loving happening at the warehouse those two days.

Admittedly, before going on this trip I did not know as much about the whole situation in France with the refugee crisis as I do now after the trip. It wasn’t until our debriefing upon arrival at the warehouse that I learned how awful the refugees have it in Calais. From sleepless nights and severe police brutality to their tents being slashed and them and everything they own being sprayed in teargas to suffering through endless days and nights in the miserable, wet weather — the refugees need any bit of help they can get. All of this appalls me. I couldn’t have been happier to be there helping this organization give these people some hope and kindness each day.

For both days I was on kitchen duty. I volunteered with amazing English and French people who were running the Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) and even had the opportunity to mingle with and work alongside students from NYU Paris. The people behind RCK were so unbelievably devoted and made the hard work we did enjoyable. There was music. There was dancing. There were jokes and giggles. All of the people in charge went out of their way to make us feel comfortable and happy while we were working for them. They also fed us some really yummy (and VEGAN!) lunches that warmed us up after spending hours in 1°C weather. Good food, good company, and good work for a good cause? I wouldn’t even have to think twice about signing up for this trip again if there was a second, third, or fourth opportunity to do it.

Some of my tasks included washing and drying a seemingly endless mountain of dishes, opening gigantic cans of this and that, cutting, chopping and peeling various vegetables, and trying my hardest to stop the tears from escaping my eyes as I dealt with onions. When I wanted a different task, all I need do was ask the people in charge and they automatically had something else for me to do. It was definitely a hustle-and-bustle environment in the kitchen at all times because RCK provides lunch and dinner to the refugees in The Jungle (the area in the forests where the refugees congregate) every day. Everyone was aware at all times of the urgency and importance it was to have the food done and ready for distribution on time because we knew how hungry and cold the refugees must have been if we ourselves were shivering with our coats and hats and scarves surrounded by stoves of boiling foods. There were a few times when I became rather upset and bothered with myself and others because we commented (even complained) about how cold we were when we didn’t even have it nearly as bad as the refugees do day and night on end.  

For the night we stayed in a French hotel in Dunkirk. It had heat, warm water, and comfortable beds. That in itself was more than the refugees have and I went to bed that night counting my blessings for things that I before considered to be givens in my life that would actually be luxuries to others. It’s saddening to know that I live in a world where some people can have so much while others have nothing, not even the treatment of human decency.

To say this trip was humbling is an understatement. Not only did it make me really see how privileged I actually am, but it challenged me to want to use that privilege to benefit people who do not and never will have it as easy as I do in life. It was beautiful to see so many people wholeheartedly committed day in and day out to show the refugees that they matter and that they have not been forgotten. I’ve done some charity work in the past, and while all my experiences have affected me in one way or another, I have never felt as touched as I do after having worked with Help Refugees and Refugee Community Kitchen. The greatest takeaway I have from this trip is how easy and meaningful it is to make a difference when you’re in a position to do so.

My only complaint is that I, and everyone else from NYU, felt that we could have done more volunteering. Hopefully the next time this trip rolls around, NYU will make it a full weekend commitment. It was more than worth the £50, wearing Crocs all day in the kitchen, and the newly acquired permanent stench of onions on my hands that won’t go away despite numerous washes and showers. If you want to take a part in something that matters and have fun whilst promoting humanitarian greatness, the Calais trip is for you. The hotel being in Dunkirk was also nice because it was a 10-15 minute walk away from the beach of Mal-les-Bains. I woke up really early the second day of the trip and went to the beach after breakfast to watch the sun rise before we headed back to Calais for more volunteering.

It’s not every day that you get to have experiences that touch the core of your humanity and leave an imprint on all of your values, so if the chance to work with Help Refugees ever crosses your path, you MUST do it. But if you aren’t physically able to help the cause, then please donate. Any amount of money you give can help make the difference that these people need. It’s been said time and time again but only because it’s so true– I’ve witnessed it firsthand. Be one of the reasons a refugee finds the strength to not give up hope.


The original post can be found on the NYU London volunteers blog here.

NYU London Student Reflects on Volunteering in Calais Refugee Camp

Austin Basallo, a Gallatin senior studying philosophy, studied abroad in Spring 2016 as a sophomore. While there, he participated in a volunteer trip to the Calais refugee camp. The trip involved students from both NYU London and NYU Paris and was both illuminating and intense for all involve. Austin reflects upon his experience for us:

I did not appreciate the gravity of the situation NYU London was signing me up for. It was a simple email invitation, like so many others, offering abroad students another extracurricular chance to do something “neat,” and for free, in another country. When we boarded the coach parked parallel to Coram’s fields I had little idea how we were getting to France, nor what I’d be doing. It was until a few hours later when our vehicle entered a train which ran through a tunnel to the coast of France that it dawned upon me: I was in a very different place.

Once we exited the train, we drove on a long dirt road along the coast. To our right, the small town of Calias. To our left, a chain wire fence separating us from an appalling site: an endless ocean of tents—rags really. Blues, reds, orange, tattered, high up, down low, and all dirty. All belonging to the refugee camp. We were brought to an isolated warehouse, surrounded by greenery, a quasi-secret base of operations. We actually were at a refugee distribution center, a joint effort ran by Help Refugees and L’auberge des Migrants, two refugee aid organizations.

The moment we hopped out of the coach we were given forms indicating that we would not take photos advertising the location nor would we be handing out this sensitive information once we left. Quasi-base was turning into actual base. I was beginning to experience firsthand just how charged the subject of refugees, and more controversially helping them, was in Europe.

Once signed and handed off, we were guided into the distribution center. Divided into three main sections, the warehouse was home to the three essentials for any human’s survival: food, clothing, and shelter. The food for feeding, the clothing for warming, and the shelter for protecting. All things the refugees were fighting for. Each section had its own system of packaging and sending out their specific materials.

I was assigned to the food section, experiencing firsthand how efficiently 10 people could assemble “care packages” of food. The system was based around packaging boxes based on family size. For a family of ten: 2 liters of oil, 5 kg of rice, 4 cans of beans, etc. Hopefully, enough food to last the recipients a week. Surrounded by industrials racks holding large reserves of food, a collection of tables had bins filled with all of the supplies required. Warm folk music turns on, and people get moving. The veteran volunteers run laps around the newbies, deftly filling up box after box with a variety of food items, knowing that the rice stacks well with the beans but not the oil, and sugar and spices always go at the top so the bags aren’t damaged and the contents spilled. But as time passes, the newcomers find their stride and began filling up boxes just as quickly and effectively. Not much talking happens, everyone is laser-focused on filling up the boxes, as though if lives depended on it. I only realized later that lives did, and continue to, depend on it. Within hours, some two hundred boxes were packaged and ready to be delivered.

After all of this work, lunch time came about and the community of volunteers came together to break bread. All walks of life were present. An old French pair, chatting while eating lentil soup. Several groups of students from both NYU London and NYU Paris, exchanging their experiences abroad. World travelers, people who can’t stop moving but help everywhere they can along the way. A gypsy couple tattooed from head-to-toe with ornate dreadlocks. The environment was so peaceful, removed from all of the politicking about the refugee crisis. These were just people who wanted to help. From the moment I entered the warehouse, I felt like I was a part of a community. A community of helpers, working towards something greater than all of us individually. It did not matter where we came from, or where we were going—the problems of the refugee were so great we all wanted to do something about it, even if only for a moment.

The day was coming to a close. Packages had been sealed, clothes organized, and the warehouse a little tidier than when we found it. We said our goodbyes to newfound friends, walked out of the warehouse, and boarded the coach. On our way back to London, I just began realizing that the experience had been surreal. I accidentally became part of movement that is rocking a continent. The implications are huge, brining in questions of human rights, national sovereignty, and international politics. These controversies played out in my head, inundating me into a deep sleep. A few hours later, I found myself waking up in Bloomsbury. I’m still not sure if I ever left.

NYU London Professor Philip Woods Publishes New Book on Media Covering the British Retreat from Burma

Today we hear directly from an NYU London Professor, Dr. Philip Woods. Professor Woods teaches two classes at NYU London: Britain and Slavery 1492-1865 and Cultures and Contexts: Multinational Britain. He has been teaching at NYU London for more than fifteen years and says “it has been a really good experience.” Professor Woods also enjoys teaching American study abroad students, saying “They tend to be very enthusiastic and keen to learn about the country they are studying in.” He also is a “firm believer” in the benefits of studying abroad. He has seen students “transformed in terms of their increased confidence and broadened in their understanding of the wider world.” Professor Woods especially “appreciates[s] the importance that US universities, especially NYU, give to study abroad and opening up opportunities regardless of income. The book he recently published and describes in the post below, which involved studying war correspondents, was a new venture for him. Professor Woods describes himself as “still learning,” and notes “I will continue my research looking at media management in the Second World War in the Burma campaign, the longest of the war. |it is interesting how many people have told me about relatives who were involved in the campaign since they heard about my book.”

This post originally appeared on the South Asia @ LSE blog of the London School of Economics and Political Science. It is available here.
The beginning of the end of Empire? Reassessing the reporting of the British retreat in Burma

The British-Indian army fighting in Burma during 1942 is sometimes misleadingly referred to as a ‘Forgotten Army’. In fact, the army’s long retreat was given good coverage in the western press which provided twenty-six correspondents to cover the campaign. Philip Woods’s new book is the first scholarly analysis of media coverage of this retreat, focusing on newsreel, magazine and newspaper correspondents. It argues for the historical value of the journalists’ contribution, most especially in their published memoirs. The book has implications for the study of journalism and the history of Burma and India.

The British defeat in Burma at the hands of the Japanese in 1942 marked the longest retreat in British army history and the beginning of the longest campaign in the war. It also, arguably, marked the beginning of the end of British rule, not only in Burma but also in south and south east Asia more broadly. There have been many studies of the military and civilian experiences during the retreat but my book, Reporting the Retreat: War Correspondents in Burma 1942 (published by Hurst on 3 November 2016) is the first to look at the way the campaign was represented through the western media: newspapers, pictorial magazines, and newsreels. There were some twenty-six accredited war correspondents covering the campaign, and almost half of them wrote books about their experiences, mostly within a year or two of the defeat. Their accounts were heavily criticised by government officials as being misinformed and sensationalist. Historians have tended to avoid using them, except to add colour to their accounts, perhaps because they are seen as being too patriotic and optimistic in their coverage and thus giving the public an unrealistic view of how the war was progressing.

My book draws on archival sources to assess the validity of these criticisms. How do the war correspondents see their role? It is clichéd to talk of war journalism in terms of ‘The First Draft of History’ but in view of wartime censorship restrictions it does seem that correspondents were keen to have their experiences recorded, especially when they could publish less censored versions usually within a year or two of the key campaigns they were covering. What were the constraints on war correspondents, other than censorship?  Clearly, there were limits resulting from the nature of the media that they worked in, often exacerbated by wartime considerations, such as the reduction in newspaper space. This can be seen very clearly in the case of the newsreel cameramen, two of whom covered the Burma retreat. By examining their films and the supporting documentation, one can see how they needed to meet the requirements of the newsreel business, which acted as a largely patriotic, rather anodyne adjunct to the main films which audiences had come to see. Even so, the newsreels and the photographs which appeared in the popular pictorial magazines of the day, provide very good evidence of the way that the war was represented to the British, American and Australian publics in the days before television.

Indian Kumaonis of the Burma Frontier Force hustle into sampans to cross the river at Shwegyin while the main British force attack the Japanese in the background. Credit: George Rodger. Image adapted by CBI-Theatre from 22 June 1942 issue of LIFE.

There is, of course, the issue of authenticity in the reporting: did the journalists make up stories or present them in a misleading way?  Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel Scoop (1938) famously depicted the way in which journalists would sit in the bar far from the action and file reports which started ‘From the battle-front…’ Journalists in Burma were sometimes caught out, claiming to be witnessing events first-hand when they were reporting second-hand accounts. From the First World War there were clear examples of battle scenes being faked or re-enacted for the cameras. During the Burma retreat I did find a clear case where a battle was re-staged for newsreel and still cameramen, but this was exceptional and went against clear company guidelines. As in the First World War, it resulted from the difficulty of getting good action pictures, in this case because of jungle and night-time fighting.

Generally speaking, I believe the war correspondents did a good job within the constraints they faced. The job was both dangerous and very emotionally taxing. The Hemingway-style machoism expected of them served to cover up what today would be described as post-traumatic stress.  It made a definite difference to the quality of the reporting when they were able to cover the fighting directly, as against newspapers relying on army communiques. However, it is in their memoirs rather than in their contemporary dispatches that the best quality is to be found. Using notes and photographs taken at the time, they reconstructed fuller and more analytical accounts of the campaign. Most correspondents had left-wing sympathies, which were usually strengthened by their wartime experiences. They pressed for political concessions to be made to India and Burma if the allies were to win the support in these countries that was necessary to win the war. They were saw the need to support Nationalist China under Chiang Kai-Shek, whose armies playing a major role in Burma, although they provided damning evidence of the Chinese corruption and politicking that was undermining the Lend-Lease supplies sent by the USA. The American and Australian reporters were the most critical of the hierarchical, racist and bureaucratic nature of British colonial regimes in India, Burma and Malaya.

Although my book may seem narrowly focused on a few months in 1942, it has much broader implications both for the study of journalism and for the history of Burma and India. A good deal of attention has been given to the loss of Singapore in February 1942 but the fall of Rangoon and the subsequent inevitable loss of Burma was actually much more serious, opening up major threats to India and China. The loss of Burma’s rice exports to India and the implementation of scorched earth tactics would soon have disastrous effects on Bengal, contributing to devastating famine in 1943. The mass migration of hundreds of thousands of Indian refugees from Burma and the tragic loss of life involved contributed to a devastating blow to Britain’s image as protector of its citizens in the region and proved impossible to repair.  I examine the way that sheltering and evacuation from Rangoon was mishandled by the Government of Burma and its hapless Governor, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith. I also look at the way that journalists had to contain their private views on these issues in their newspapers but made them very clear in their later memoirs. The Government of Burma continued to operate in Simla after the retreat and devised detailed plans for their post-war return. But as Chris Bayly and Tim Harper have so admirably shown in Forgotten Armies (Penguin: 2005), there was to be no lasting return for either the Governor nor British rule in Burma. The war had given rise to more radical nationalisms in the region that could not be assuaged.

Reporting the Retreat: War Correspondents in Burma 1942 is now available here.

About the Author

Dr. Philip Woods studied History at LSE and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He has published on British-Indian politics after World War I, and the British use of film as propaganda in India. He has taught at the University of West London, Kingston University, and now teaches at NYU London. 

How January Term is Redefining Education

This is a post from NYU Abu Dhabi. Although January Term originated with NYU Abu Dhabi, now other students in NYU’s global network, notably those from NYU Shanghai, have the opportunity to experience a January Term.

Education at NYU Abu Dhabi is not just about learning facts from textbooks and passing multiple choice exams. It’s an immersive experience for NYUAD students, who, each January Term choose hands-on classes in cities from Al Ain to Buenos Aires that challenge their perceptions of the past and enrich their visions of the future.

There are dozens of courses offered in J-Term that get students out of the classroom to learn about the world as it was before, and experience the world as it really is today, like Jazz or the Financial Crisis taught in New York City, Emirati Arabic in Al Ain, Museum History in Berlin, and these seven examples that span the globe. Note: course descriptions have been edited.


Oasis Coast and Mountain

Faculty: Steven C. Caton and Donald M. Scott
Course location: UAE and Oman

A course that challenges students’ perceptions of Arabian landscapes as being mainly desert by showing them three distinct habitat zones: desert oasis, maritime ports, and mountain farms all within 250 kilometers of each other across the UAE and Oman.

Students learn through observational site visits, direct encounters and interactions with local peoples and places through walking tours, interviews, photography and sketching.

Imagining the Renaissance City

Faculty: Jane Tylus
Course location: NYU Florence

Northern and central Italy’s bustling towns inspired many of today’s modern cities and also pioneered recognizably modern artistic, cultural, and engineering practices. Florence was a powerhouse of culture and industry and Siena the ‘Wall Street of Europe’ with the skyline to match.

Students spend three weeks getting to know these towns intimately. Explore downtown Florence, Siena, and the Tuscan countryside. Walk from the town of Fiesole (with its Etruscan ruins and Roman theater), to Monte Ceceri (from whose summit a student of Leonardo da Vinci’s tried to fly; good start, sad ending). Visit seats of government and Renaissance orphanages, climb towers for bird’s-eye views, prowl a crypt recently excavated under Siena’s cathedral, visit churches on hills overlooking Florence and the cells of monks, and walk the trail of the stonecutters to see where Michelangelo found his stone.


Coastal Urbanization

Faculty: John Burt
Course location: Sydney

Over 80 percent of the Australian population lives within 100 kilometers of a coast and virtually all major Australian cities occur on coastlines. As a result, Australia’s coastal environments have been substantially modified to suit human needs.

Using Sydney’s terrestrial, marine, and built environments as a natural laboratory for field research, students collect environmental data throughout the city and use geographic information systems (GIS) to examine the spatial patterns of human impacts to Sydney’s environment and compare their results with patterns observed in other coastal cities.


Faculty: Professor Michael Beckerman
Course location: Prague

Prague should have been destroyed during the Second World War, like other major cities in Europe, but somehow it wasn’t. Its remarkable survival allows us to explore Central European history and culture in the context of a completely preserved inner urban core dating back to the Middle Ages.

Class time includes walking tours around Prague, trips to museums, castles, theaters, classical concerts including Mozart’s Magic Flute and Janacek’s From the House of the Dead, and several excursions outside the city to the Eastern Province of Moravia, birthplace of Mahler and Freud, and to the UNESCO Heritage site of Cesky Krumlov.

Democracy and its Critics

Faculty: Philip Mitsis
Course location: Abu Dhabi / Athens

An examination of one of history’s most radical and influential democracies, ancient Athens.

Students assume historical roles in key decision-making institutions and debate questions about democratic procedures, the extension of voting rights, religion and free speech, foreign policy, etc., often in the very locations where these ancient debates occurred.

The Idea of the Portrait

Faculty: Shamoon Zamir
Course location: London

The course draws upon the rich resources of London’s museums and galleries to examine a wide range of portraits and self-portraits in painting and photography from different periods of history and from different cultures.

Students visit The National Gallery, British Museum, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the Queen’s Collection, the Courtauld Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, as well as the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Creative Cities

Faculty: Arlene Davila
Course location: Buenos Aires

Latin America has been undergoing rapid urbanization and is increasingly recognized as a continent made up of “countries of cities,” yet the dominant Latin American image has been on indigenous or traditional communities, which are always imagined as rural and authentic, rather than modern and urbanized.

Buenos Aires provides an urban laboratory to explore culture in urban development, urban tourism, and the marketing and internationalization of tango. Guided tours and guest speakers enrich students’ appreciation of contemporary Buenos Aires.

Original post by Andy Gregory, NYUAD Public Affairs, available here.

Gary Slapper, NYU London Site Director, 1958-2016

Gary Slapper, NYU London’s beloved Site Director, and an NYU Global Professor, passed away on Sunday after a brief and sudden illness.

Gary Slapper

Gary Slapper

“Gary was one of the first members of the NYU community I came to know, and we have not only lost a great site director, but also someone of great humanity,” said NYU

President Andrew Hamilton. “Gary helped to build London into one of NYU’s premier sites with grace, attention to detail, and of course, a sense of humor that was second to none.”

Gary was named Site Director in 2011, after serving as director of the Open University’s Centre for Law. During Gary’s tenure, NYU London experienced a nearly fifty percent increase in enrollment, with more than 1,000 students studying at the site each year, and the site expanded its academic breadth to include disciplines such as education, public health, and fashion.

Gary Slapper

Gary Slapper in his NYU London office (photographed by Hannah Slapper)

“Gary was a cherished member of the NYU community,” said Linda G. Mills, Lisa Ellen Goldberg Professor and vice chancellor for Global Programs and University Life. “His commitment to NYU’s students, lecturers, and administrators was at his very core, closely rivaled by his sense of humor and great intellect, all of which brought smiles as well as keen insights on a daily basis.  We are all in shock that such a rich and generous life has been extinguished far far too soon.

Gary was a true renaissance man, nimbly switching between law, philosophy, football, the environment, and pop culture (with The Simpsons holding a special place in his heart). He was also an accomplished writer, penning The Times [of London] Weird Cases column, in which he explored particularly strange legal cases, bringing immense entertainment to his readers – and we think it’s safe to assume, to Gary himself.

“Rarely can a ‘boss’ have been a more popular and revered figure,” said Eric Sneddon, associate director, NYU London. “We all recall a man of warmth, great humor, gifted at once with a razor sharp mind and a common touch.  The university has lost someone truly special; anyone who moved within Gary’s orbit would feel enrichened and would know the world is now poorer.”

A graduate of University College London, Gary received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. He was the author of some 15 books concerning law and the English legal system, and was also a visiting professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The NYU community extends its deepest sympathies to Gary’s wife, Suzanne, his three daughters, Charlotte, Emily, and Hannah, and the rest of his family, friends, and colleagues, in the UK and beyond.

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NYU London Professor Clive Bloom Book on Thatcher’s Secret War Nominated for Outstanding Radical Book of 2015

Clibe Bloom Thatchers Secret WarNYU London Professor Dr Clive Bloom’s recently published Thatcher’s Secret War: Subversion, Coercion, Secrecy and Government, 1974-90 has been nominated for the Bread & Roses Award for outstanding radical book of 2015. The book focuses on the rise of the British secret state (a secret bureaucracy) in modern times and the way the state-within-the-state warped the history of Thatcher’s premiership. Bloom argues that the secret bureaucracy of the state has become an uncontrolled, hidden political power in Britain, where power is no longer decided by parliamentary process. Dr Bloom teaches Gothic Literature and Cultural Foundations at NYU London. More information can be found here: www.clivebloom.com

NYU London Professor Sophie Von Stumm Launches New iPhone App

Sophie Von Stumm moo-Q-logoNYU London Professor Dr Sophie Von Stumm, who teaches Personality, has launched a new iPhone application with her laboratory (The Hungry Mind Lab) that allows people to track their mood and brainpower over time. The app – ‘moo-Q’ – can monitor your cognitive function throughout the day (you can set how often it sends you alerts) and will tell you when your brainpower is at its best. The application will also track your mood and aims to analyse how mood changes are related to within-person differences in cognitive function. The app works by the user completing a series of tests – including memorizing and adding up a series of numbers – throughout the day. Users’ data will be confidential but the results will be used for a University of London research project. It is available for free and more information can be found here: www.hungrymindlab.com/moo-q. Sophie also won the 2015 Rising Star Award by the Association for Psychological Science (APS).