“IRT Moments”

by Alejandro Velasco, IRT ’99
Associate Professor, New York University and Co-Chair, IRT Advisory Board

They happen unexpectedly. Sometimes while I am teaching, often while I am reading, occasionally in random conversation. I call them my “IRT Moments.”

One took place just a few weeks ago, while teaching NYU’s core PhD seminar for modern Latin American history students. We had been discussing recent books on cultural politics in 1960s and 1970s Argentina, a fraught time of growing political tensions eventually culminating in a brutally repressive military dictatorship that murdered tens of thousands of its own citizens. How did cultural producers, we wondered, navigate this landscape of heightened repression, censorship, and recrimination?

Obliquely, it turned out, through pathways of dissimulated meaning that conveyed and critiqued power more through metaphor and implication than direct allusion. Drawing on subtle but unmistakable codes that went unstated but were widely understood by the population at large, artists, novelists, and cartoonists turned words and images into searing indictments of their political context, and from there, into sources of resistance and hope. “In other words,” I added, much to my own surprise as the reference was decidedly unplanned, “through what Julia Kristeva calls poetics.”

I say surprising because the last time I read Kristeva’s writings on poetry as a tool of political struggle was over twenty years ago, during a sweltering summer in Andover as an intern at IRT’s 1999 summer session. A rising college senior at the time, I had come to Andover knowing next to nothing about critical and cultural theory, about power relations, about liberatory pedagogy. I knew even less about graduate school, academic life, or teaching in practice. Over the course of four weeks, morning and night, in classrooms and dorm rooms, our cohort of interns soaked up knowledge like dry sponges dropped on the sea, reading widely, debating passionately, and above all, struggling mightily with texts and ideas whose deeper meanings we knew were of vital importance but nevertheless seemed just beyond our full grasp.

In the ensuing years, like Kristeva suddenly coming to mind in my seminar, those texts, their deeper meanings, and the context in which I encountered them would surface without warning, helping me make connections across time and ideas. As a graduate student, they provided a foundation to engage and debate colleagues from various disciplines, while also tempering my imposter syndrome when someone name-dropped this theorist or that. When writing my dissertation, often late at night on too little sleep, they reminded me that intellectual work matters, especially when understood as a way to help chart ways past historic and structural injustices. As a junior faculty member facing a fast dwindling tenure clock at a PWI, they saved me time and again when I recalled the passion and energy and encouragement that IRT faculty and staff devoted to all of us interns and associates, and drew on that energy to redouble my own commitment to a life of learning and teaching.  

Now as a tenured professor, those texts and ideas continue to surface at random moments, connecting my here and now not only to my time at IRT, but also to the experiences that have followed. The common thread is that with each “IRT moment,” I am instantly taken back to that sweltering summer, and jolted anew with the excitement and urgency of IRT’s mission, promise, and challenge: to imbue generations of educators with a vocation to learning and teaching through, with, and for social justice.

Today, as co-chair of IRT’s Advisory Board alongside Andover alum and steadfast IRT supporter Alarik Myrin, I am grateful for the chance to help continue and expand IRT’s mission at a time when that mission not only remains but has grown ever more urgent. That work begins by acknowledging that much like IRT’s curriculum has changed over time to reflect new ideas and debates, so too must IRT adapt to fast moving debates –and opportunities– around the promotion of justice and equity in the United States and indeed, the world.  With over thirty years of IRT moments to draw from, I am confident every IRT alum stands ready to meet that challenge, and excited for what it portends. 

Alejandro Velasco is an Associate Professor of Modern Latin America at the Gallatin School and Department of History, New York University. He received his doctorate in History in 2009 from Duke University and is the author of Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela (University of California Press, 2015). For more information please visit his NYU faculty profile.