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Through the Gates: New Paths

Rosalind Rosenberg, photo by Mark MahaneyRosalind Rosenberg

Her profile on the history department’s Web site notes that Professor Rosalind Rosenberg “specializes in American history, with special focus on women’s, social and legal history.” In fact, Rosenberg is a crucial part of Barnard’s history—having joined the faculty in 1984, the year after Columbia College went coed. “It was a time of exciting discussion,” she recalls. “I was impressed by the strong sense of community at Barnard and the dedication of the faculty and staff to each other, to the students, and to women in general.

“We had a pioneering women’s center and women’s studies department. We made gender a central concern in our first-year seminars as well as in courses across the curriculum.”

Over the past 27 years, in addition to the history department, Rosenberg has also taught in the departments of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, and American studies. In 1992 (revised in 2008), her book Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century was published. Her 2004 book, Changing the Subject: How the Women of Columbia Shaped the Way We Think About Sex and Politics, is the most comprehensive look at the roles various women played in the history of the university and how they affected women throughout academia and American society.

“In the late 1990s, my colleague Bob McCaughey asked me to participate in a university seminar on the history of the university in anticipation of the 250th anniversary of Columbia in 2004. I wrote a paper on the woman question at Columbia. In conducting my research for it, I was startled to discover that Columbia had produced more female PhDs than any other university in the country, including many that were far larger. I wanted to understand how that happened, so I decided to write a book about it,” Rosenberg says.

When she approached Columbia archivists, she was presented a single file folder marked “Women at Columbia.” She adds, “It was not a topic that really had engaged anybody’s interest.”

 Rosenberg spent several years researching, interviewing, and organizing the information. Much of the material she unearthed is now part of the university’s archives. “Women are so often overlooked, forgotten, or misunderstood,” she says.
“It seems as though every couple of years, some news magazine runs a story about the death of feminism or women giving up on careers. I take it as my responsibility to set the record straight on that subject, in my classes and in my writing.”

Her impact on the history department at Barnard extends beyond her own areas of specialization. As its chair from 1987–1990, and again in 1998–2000, she helped strengthen the department by encouraging the hiring of professors who taughtsubjects other than American and European history. “I wanted our own department to reflect the world, so we began to hire in Latin American, African, and Asian history,” she says. “This is a college for women, so we hired faculty who showed a strong interest in working with women and advancing their interests. We also looked for faculty who cared as much about teaching and advising students as they did about their research.”

In addition to teaching at Barnard, Rosenberg, a member of the executive board of the Society of American Historians, has taught graduate courses at Columbia, and she says wherever the classroom is, students keep her motivated. Her youngest student was 16 and her oldest was 74. She has also loved working with Columbia’s Lifelong Learners Program for individuals 65 and older interested in auditing courses.

Her life and teaching have been impacted by the amazing women she has met and worked with, including longtime Barnard sociology professor Mirra Komarovsky; they first met when Rosenberg was an assistant professor of history at Columbia from 1974–82. “Mirra’s books were a major influence on me as a graduate student and shaped my understanding of women’s lives in the post-World War II period,” she says. “I tried to get Mirra to do an interview with me for the Columbia Oral History Project, but she always refused. Fortunately, her younger sister, Dolly, saved her papers. I was able to interview Dolly after Mirra died [in 1999], and that interview helped me greatly in writing Changing the Subject.

Although Rosenberg’s official retirement date is December 31, 2011, she will be back on campus in the fall of 2012 to teach. This year she is focused on research and writing for her biography of Pauli Murray, a civil-rights advocate, feminist, lawyer, writer, poet, teacher, and clergywoman. “Time to make progress on this book,” says Rosenberg, which she began in 1994.

Turning 65 earlier this year, she feels it’s right for her to officially “retire,” but she eagerly looks forward to the continuous inspiration she receives from Barnard students. “They are so energetic and have so many great ideas,” she says. “I’m sure that I learn more from them than they learn from me. It’s wonderful to see their intellectual curiosity and their enthusiasm for life.”

 

Serge Gavronsky

Serge Gavronsky, photo by Mark Mahaney

Scholar, teacher, novelist, poet, and translator, and in the past five years, a painter with several exhibits to his credit, Professor Serge Gavronsky has spent 51 creative and productive years at Barnard in the French department and will retire—only “officially” that is—on December 31, 2011. “The reason I’ve been here for so many years is a question of enormous admiration for my students without whom I believe I probably would have retired years ago,” he says with a firmness not be questioned. The professor adds that only people unfamiliar with Barnard ask how students have changed since he began teaching in 1960. “We had brilliant students 50 years ago ... and that has not changed,” he affirms. “Barnard has given them the intellectual and emotional material allowing them to move forward after graduation.”

Most of Gavronsky’s life has been spent on Morningside Heights. Born in Paris to Russian parents, the family moved to the United States in 1941, fleeing Hitler. He attended Columbia College then received both a master’s degree and PhD from Columbia. “As an undergraduate, I was accepted in an illustrious seminar conducted by Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling. It was because of them and an ‘A’ paper I wrote, that they convinced me to go on for a PhD in history.” The paper, “The French Liberal Opposition and the American Civil War,” went on to become a book that explored Napoleon III’s official support of the Confederacy and the Liberal Opposition’s affirmation of the Union.

In 1960, Gavronsky began teaching at the College—his first teaching position—as a part-time instructor. The following year he taught an ambitious two-semester course on “The Writing of French History from the Middle Ages to de Gaulle.” In 1975, he became chair of the French department, bringing fresh perspectives and energy to the position, which he held until 2001.

He initiated two curricular developments: translation and literature, and French and Francophone studies, a literary and ideological movement first developed in Martinique and Senegal in the 1930s by black intellectuals and poets. These thinkers and their writings strengthened and affirmed black identity with their poetry and political activities. Over the years, he brought influential thinkers and writers to the campus—organizing Thursday meetings to which he invited people like Anaïs Nin and Susan Sontag. Gavronsky says, with a puckish smile, the only part of being department chair that made him uneasy was doing the budget: a lack of mathematical capacities made that a challenge, and someone in accounting always assisted him.

In addition to teaching, Gavronsky has been published extensively—poetry in French and English as well as 19 livres d’artiste and criticism. His first novel, The German Friend, dealing with politics, terrorism, and sexual intrigue, was published in 1982, and translated into Italian; the Italian translation featured a preface by Harold Bloom. His most recent novel is The Sudden Death of Serge Gavronsky, and he is currently working on a new novel. His scholarly works include two studies, Francis Ponge: The Sun Placed in the Abyss (1977) and Francis Ponge and the Power of Language (1979) about the French essayist and poet who worked mainly in the first half of the twentieth century, and was celebrated for seemingly fusing the two literary forms into prose poetry that eschewed symbolism and sentimentality. His latest translation and preface is Essential Poems and Writings (2008) by Joyce Mansour.

The professor has been the recipient of some of the most prestigious academic awards: In 1979, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, one year later, there was a Camargo Foundation Fellowship. In 1990, he received a Mellon Faculty Grant for outstanding teaching. He was also honored by the French government, which named him Officier dans l’ordre des Palmes académiques in 1991.

While Gavronsky is not teaching a course this semester, he will lead a seminar for graduating French majors in the spring. “I’m going to give them a great deal of liberty,” he says. “I will remind them of the major tracks—language, literature, translation, and French studies—and let each one decide which one they wish to concentrate upon.” He adds, “I’ve never done that before, but they will share each other’s papers. As a result, they will not only learn from their own papers, but will be enriched by the others. I’m looking forward to that and I think I’ll become very sentimental at the end of the seminar.”

Unsure what the future will hold, Gavronsky does not believe retirement means finality. Ever since a former art student, Constance Lane ’77, knocked on his door about five years ago and encouraged him to paint, he’s had two one-man shows in Manhattan and another in Brooklyn, and took part a group show in Brooklyn. An abstract expressionist who likes to work in acrylics, he says, with a classic Gallic shrug, “I refuse to look into my glass ball and predict.”

-Lois Elfman ’80