Professor finds a new approach to academics with Brooklyn Institute for Social Research

Courtesy of the Grizzly Staff

Erin McKinney

ermckinney@ursinus.edu

Ursinus’ own Abby Kluchin, professor of philosophy, religious studies, and gender and women’s studies, has been pioneering a program to increase the availability of a liberal arts education.

While pursuing a Ph.D. at Columbia University, Kluchin and her peers recognized the need for a non-traditional space of higher education that could be easily accessed by a broader public than those who might attend a more traditional college or university.

Kluchin couldn’t help but wonder, “If we actually care about the so-called life of the mind, why should it end at age 22?”

This led her, along with colleagues Ajay Singh Chaudhary and Suzanne Schneider, to consider a way to fill this void. What resulted was the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, a completely new kind of learning experience.

Kluchin, Chaudhary, and Schneider now make up the Institute’s executive team, and are joined by several dozen core and associate faculty members.

According to Kluchin, “the Brooklyn Institute is a non-profit interdisciplinary teaching and research institute … which teaches courses in alternative spaces all over New York City.”

The Institute offers alternative, community-based education in the humanities and social sciences directed at non-traditional students with a strong desire to learn.

As their website states, the Institute’s initiatives are “centered around the conviction that informed conversation and learning are vital to American social life and democracy.”

The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of their first non-traditional class, a course on Plato and Aristotle held in the back room of a Brooklyn bar.

Kluchin recalls this first class.

“I remember us toting this giant portable whiteboard back and forth down the street from Ajay’s apartment to and from the bar,” she said.

Despite their humble beginnings, the BISR now teaches more than 70 courses a year to over a thousand New Yorkers.

The name is a fitting a nod to the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, another group of scholars who are often most noted for the work they created while “in exile” in New York.

Of the many notable qualities of the Brooklyn Institute is what Kluchin describes as its “labor forward model,” which is a model not frequently pursued in traditional higher education. With national trends in higher education of exponentially increasing tuition and reliance on untenured faculty in mind, the Brooklyn Institute hoped to make liberal arts education both more accessible to students and more supportive of academics.

By offering courses at an affordable rate with proceeds that directly benefit the instructors and other aspects of the Institute, the BISR recognizes and values what Kluchin calls the “intellectual labor” of its members.

This is due in part to the fact that all of the administrators are also faculty members, which can be important to understanding the actual operations of a project like the Institute.

“[The] character and values of an institution come from those on the front lines, which in this case means in the classrooms,” said Kluchin.

Partnerships with various other cultural institutions in New York as well as a membership program to generate additional funds also help to keep the financial burden low on BSIR participants.

The difference between the Brooklyn Institute and a more traditional place of higher education is not only the accessibility, but the low pressure atmosphere.

“Students are there because they want to be there—they do the reading and sometimes ask for more!” Kluchin said.

There are no grades, and no pressure to prove your intelligence, but rather open and honest discussion. According to Kluchin, those who did not pursue a traditional path of higher education or found the traditional route too elitist see this model as a welcome change.

The great strides towards accessibility being taken by the Brooklyn Institute extend even beyond the classroom.

“We [at the Institute] want to make a point that intellectual life happens and ought to happen outside of the university all of the time,” said Kluchin.

Kluchin and her colleagues also offer screenings and public conversation series, as well as office hours and one-on-one discussion with instructors.

The Institute’s newest venture is a second location—they now offer classes in Philadelphia. In the future, they hope to expand further and build similar programs across the United States, focusing particularly on “underserved areas in both the urban and exurban Midwest and beyond,” according to their website.

More information on the institute and how to get involved as a student or member can be found on their website: https://thebrooklyninstitute.com/.