BISR Network: An Interview with Stefany Anne Golberg and Angela Roskop Erisman

As part of our mission to integrate rigorous but accessible scholarly study into the everyday lives of working adults, we have spent all Winter working to develop a new program in the Midwest, focusing in particular on urban, suburban, and rural areas whose social fabric has been stretched by economic insecurity, demographic change, and racial tensions. After several months of hard, yet incredibly exciting work, we are proud to announce that BISR Network is officially underway. Anchored by two regional centers located in Cincinnati, OH and Detroit, MI, BISR Network offers radically affordable educational opportunities in the humanities and social sciences to communities in Michigan, Ohio, and Northern Kentucky. The program will start with at least four courses taught in June and July by local scholars working in a wide range of disciplines from religious studies to urban studies to philosophy to art to psychoanalysis.

In order to make BISR Network as widely accessible as possible, tuition costs have been dramatically reduced so that everyone who wants to can participate. As a result BISR Network relies on the generous support of individual donors, family foundations, as well as regional and national organizations to run. To update you on the program, we sat down with Angela Roskop Erisman and Stefany Anne Golberg, our two new regional directors on the ground, to chat about the program, upcoming courses, and their vision for BISR Network.

Stefany (left) and Angela (right)

Where are the classes going to take place and what will they be about? Who do you envision will be taking them?

Angela: In Cincinnati, our first round of classes will include a course on the flood story in the Bible that I will teach myself, a course on the Public Sphere, taught by Timothy Brownlee, and perhaps one other to come; hopefully more on this by early next week! We are also excited to partner with some fantastic organizations in the area, including The Mercantile Library in Downtown Cincinnati, New Riff Distilling in Newport, Kentucky, and Myrtle’s in the Walnut Hills neighborhood of Cincinnati.

We welcome anyone with curiosity about life’s biggest questions. Whether you just graduated from high school or college, or you have two advanced degrees — whether you work at a major corporation or in a restaurant, or are unemployed — whether you grew up here or you moved here from elsewhere… If you want to find out what some of the world’s greatest literature has to say about these big questions, and what others in your community think, BISR courses are for you. They give everyone the opportunity to come together, in community, and be asked about everything from how they read, to what they imagine their cities and communities should be like, who they are, and more. A real space for social inquiry. Network courses are funded mostly by foundations and individual donors, which allows us to make them very affordable and accessible to everyone. No one should feel like they haven’t got the intellectual or financial means to take a BISR course.

Stefany: In Detroit, the first round of classes will be about Sigmund Freud and his theories of dreams and sexuality, a class on Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic ideas (through close reading of The Critique of Judgment), and a class about The Care of the City specifically designed for Detroit. As Angela was saying for Cincinnati, most of these courses will take place in partnership with local businesses and organizations, who already serve and help shape communities. Our headquarters will be a community space in the lively Mexicantown neighborhood.

All our classes and spaces appeal to a variety of people, from autoworkers to waitstaff, from autodidacts who never had the chance to go to college to lifelong learners, from recent immigrants to long-time residents of the area with much knowledge to share, to anyone with a desire for intellectual community and a love of learning.    

A BISR classroom in New York

How did the two of you get involved with this project? What experience do you bring to it and what do you hope to get out of it?

Stefany: I saw a notice that BISR was coming to Detroit. My immediate thought was that this seemed like a cool and exciting program, and that BISR might want to know about some of the interesting people and intellectual resources already in the area. I sent Ajay a note telling him about some of these resources, and that developed into me applying to become Northern Midwest Regional Director. Working with BISR fits well into things I’ve done in the past (I am a co-founder and first Executive Director of Flux Factory in NYC), and with what I’ve been doing in the last year in Detroit (I started a conversation series at The Scarab Club called The Regulars’ Table, which brings people in Detroit together to talk more casually about art and philosophy).

I’ve always loved the idea of the “classroom under a tree.” So, I’m naturally attracted to BISR’s notion that big and beautiful (or weird or uncomfortable or important) ideas can (and should!) be shared outside institutional walls, that everyone can ask, answer, and be asked questions that are too often sequestered in elite spaces: What is a good life? What is a fact? How do you imagine a good city, a good community? Why is twenty-first century American society organized the way it is? And what do thinkers who are deeply influential – or deeply critical – of that society have to say about these questions?

Angela: I am scholar with a passion for literature and how it intersects with history, culture, and ideas. I was already involved in making serious intellectual conversation accessible to the public as the Editorial Director of The Marginalia Review of Books when I met BISR Associate Director Abby Kluchin and learned about BISR. My first question was: How can I be involved? The answer came when Ajay reached out to me with the opportunity to develop BISR programs in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area. I’ve been rooted in the area for nearly two decades as a graduate student, a professor at Xavier University, and an Americorps community organizer. And my whole family is invested in local culture — food, ideas, the arts. So I am very excited to be part of bringing together people from all across the area around great ideas and great conversation (and over food and drink!) that has the potential to enrich individuals as well as our community.

Detroit Industry, north wall, Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts (engine and transmission production)

Places like Cincinnati, Detroit, Newport, Kalamazoo, and Toledo are pretty different from Brooklyn! How does this new program fit into local cultural and political landscapes? 

Stefany: The Detroit area has a long history of community-centered learning (think Grace Lee and James Boggs). Also, there are a number of wonderful cultural institutions around like InsideOut Literary Arts, 826 Michigan, and The Boggs School that offer intellectual opportunities to kids. BISR programming complements these existing opportunities by creating access to critical education in spaces that are already a vibrant part of life in the Detroit area. Through conversations with local organizations, teachers, and organizers it became clear that there was both a space and a desire for the rigorous but accessible, formal but convivial, kind of learning that BISR has been developing for the last five years. From these conversations and other research —and Detroiters will surely correct me if I’m wrong!—there are not, currently, such opportunities for working-age adults. BISR fits right in there.

Angela:  The Cincinnati area is culturally rich, with many programs in the arts and literature. We’re also home to a number of top-notch institutions of higher education. But the kind of learning one can get there is not widely accessible to working adults who are not in degree programs. BISR increases that accessibility and works to enrich and strengthen intellectual culture in the area by partnering with fabulous organizations already doing this work. The Cincinnati metro region is often described as an urban area full of small towns, and BISR seeks to bring people together from across the area in order to create intellectual culture across these boundaries.

The BISR Network curriculum is by and for residents of our region, which means it speaks specifically to the present needs and interests of our locality. For instance, my upcoming course on the Biblical Flood story takes on big, perennial questions about ethics, justice, and the power of narrative but it’s also tailored very closely to our current place and moment in history: What does it mean to read the Bible in the twenty-first century? How does what we learn from it relate to issues we face specifically in Ohio? How could the story of the Flood enrich our contemporary conversations about destruction and recovery, whether in terms of ecological disasters, politics, or the social fabric of our community, both globally and locally?

In some ways, it’s a matter of balancing questions that are broadly relevant with questions that might have special import for people in the region. We don’t want to assume nothing is shared geographically across cultures but we also don’t want to assume everything is the same everywhere. After all, the Flood story might be just as important to think about in New York as in Cincinnati, but that’s not to say it means (or should mean) something equivalent in both cities. Our curriculum honors webs of connection both large and small.

 

Why is this important? Why does it matter?

Stefany: Why shouldn’t the people of Detroit and southern Michigan and northern Ohio have access to intellectual community at the highest level? Is there some unwritten rule that these conversations should only happen within rarefied, inaccessible spaces? And why shouldn’t local scholars have the opportunity to teach beyond the university, engaging students who are interested in talking through questions of art, culture, society, politics, and more? I think, in this time of obsession with education for particularly individualized, economic success or “results”, study that is more engaged with people’s passions, study that offers tools for reflection, that builds community and networks of inquiry–these are actually quite inspiring and even radical ideas.  

Angela: Exactly.  We are committed to the idea that knowledge is power — power to strengthen ourselves as people and to strengthen our communities. So we’ve built a program that is administered locally and taught by fellow members of our community with expertise and experience to enrich the conversation.  BISR really stresses both affordability for students and reasonable compensation for faculty in order to reduce the barriers to entry as much as possible. These discussions should belong to everyone! We want to do what we can to make knowledge as widely accessible as possible, so that anyone who wants to has a chance to read texts and discuss ideas that are profoundly relevant not only globally but for our local community. With BISR Network we get to quite literally democratize these conversations, spread them round into new places, new formations, with each new classroom and each new set of twenty or so students sitting down, together, face-to-face, studying and learning together. We believe that people learning and discussing some of the most important questions facing our society, and how some of the most important ideas could influence how we answer them, is a genuine individual, civic, and social good.