We spoke to Robert Barsky and he’s the coolest man alive
He rides a motorcycle around campus, he hikes through Switzerland and sits in on lectures for fun
Robert Barsky is the Faculty Head of West House on Vanderbilt Campus.
I myself took a literature class with him called “From the Romantics to the Beat Generation”, but he is also an expert on Noam Chomsky, literary theory, Convention refugees, immigration and refugee law/borders.
You may have also seen him baking bread in West House for his students, riding his motorcycle around campus, hiking with students in Switzerland, or sitting in on classes – he still audits classes such as Italian in order to further his education.
This man has epic stories to tell of his own education, travels, and literary work, but we got an exclusive interview with him on advice he would give to the average, Vanderbilt student for how to have the best college experience:
Get out of the country
“I have been leading a Maymester for 12 years now, and it an indescribably amazing opportunity for students. Studying abroad should be essential to the college experience, in my opinion. The problem with these programs is that they’re exclusionary in terms of cost, although the good news is that Vanderbilt has developed a scholarship program for students that has helped diversify the group of applicants to spring and summer programs.
“Getting away from the physical campus offers educational opportunities that you can’t have in any other way. To stand in the exact spot where Percy Bysshe Shelley conceived of his poem Mont Blanc, while we reading what he eventually published, and then trying to write our own versions of it – there is just nothing like that.
“While in Switzerland my students also have the opportunity to meet with top officials from United Nations organizations and NGOs, and that means getting to know both the organizations themselves, and the relationships that exist between them. Studying such entities as the UN, the UNHCR and the OIM in isolation wouldn’t help you understand how they work in concert with others in order to address complex crises, such as the war in Syria, and encountering officials who can speak directly to the issues can sometimes provide far more information than what can be gleaned from books or articles.”
Explore other languages
“You should try and study 1 or 2 other languages while you have the chance in school. I still to this day take language classes among Vanderbilt students, humiliating myself with pleasure, because I know that ultimately the opportunity to learn new languages is a way to expand my horizons.
“People often think of language studies as a ‘requirement’ that they need to satisfy; what they don’t realize is that having experience in other languages can reveal an array of unexpected possibilities. Every language opens up another cognitive planet, and as a student, you have easy access to that freedom of exploration.”
Find a mentor
“There is an enormous value in getting to know at least one professor really well, because mentors can remain important long after graduation. When I was an undergrad at Brandeis University, I met an amazing poet (Allen Grossman) whose words seemed so profound that I believed that he must hold keys to the truth of the universe. I took all his courses, and did my senior thesis with him, and then stayed in touch with him for decades after graduating.
“There is something special about entering into an entire milieu, like poetry, and this is something that we discuss while visiting the Villa Diodoti, in Geneva, where Mary Shelley recounted her first version of Frankenstein to Percy Shelley, John Polidori and Lord Byron on a dark and freezing night in 1816. By reading Frankenstein, we necessarily learn something about Switzerland, about Chamonix and the Mer de Glace, and about the poetry and literature of that period.
“That love of community and the study of milieus is why I chose to take the role of Faculty Head of House in the Commons. A community like that one can bring out the best elements of an education because it involves mentorship and a form of learning that doesn’t start and end with the classroom. As such, I often suggest to students that they fall madly in admiration with somebody, and then pursue work with them. I had that kind of experience with Noam Chomsky, as a graduate student, and three books later I’m still writing about him, and assimilating his incredible insights.”
Don’t stress the major
“Don’t believe that your major will have the slightest effect on your future. Thatis the biggest misconception ever. With the exception of those who wish to attend medical school, for which there are fixed requirements, you can virtually study anything, without any prescribed path, and still find a way to relate it to whatever work you go into.
“The idea of having all these majors and minors is a relatively recent development in the academy. A popular major on campus today is, for example, HOD and Economics, with a minor in Corporate Strategy.
“For most employers, such a combination probably suggests that the student was hedging his or her bets or trying to please too many people. Students later on regret that they didn’t explore the amazing resources that the university had to offer, including the chance to follow passions and dreams.”
Diversify your education
“Culture matters on a college campus. Use your time to take an extra class every semester if you can: audit classes, work for the professor, take huge diversity of classes. Cross-disciplinary internship-style studies will only deepen your education.
“Many advantages in life are geographical or are related to chance encounters, and Vanderbilt’s layout makes it such that you can literally throw baseball from Furman Hall to the Law School, the Business School, and the Engineering Department, and if you have a good arm, you could also reach Religious Studies or even the Medical School.
“This is a real advantage for the really big questions, like how human beings learn language, because many of the current breakthroughs are happening in realms as diverse as neuroscience, engineering and medicine.
“As a result, the more silo-based approach to big questions can be challenged in diverse institutions like this one, and studying from a multivalent perspective provides more breadth and also more depth to your education.”