Alumni Connect Across Decades to Collaborate on Research Projects
March 4, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin
Same first name. Same alma mater. Same research interests. What are the odds?
For Jeffrey Escoffier (A64) and Jeffrey Colgan (A11), 100 percent.
Though Escoffier and Colgan graduated more than five decades apart, they found themselves in the same room when Colgan interviewed for a job at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, where Escoffier worked as a research associate.
“At some point, Jeff submitted his resume,” recalls Escoffier. “I was shocked that he had gone to St. John’s. I’ve been graduated a long time and I have never come across another St. John’s graduate in my work life.”
Colgan got the job, and after connecting, the two realized they had much more than the Program in common.
“We kind of just started talking about the political and economic crisis in New York City in the 1970s and found a shared interest there,” explains Colgan. “We recognized on our part that during the 1970s and a little bit in the ‘60s and ‘80s, it was just a time of massive economic and political changes in New York City, and that coincided with extreme changes in the cultural realm: the emergence of feminism and gay liberation, an increased interest in avant-garde and the underground, a shift in art-making processes … The way people were creating culture and thinking about themselves and how to best live just changed a whole bunch during that time.”
Escoffier and Colgan began discussing how the changes in culture were related to the economic changes—first, Colgan says, “over a beer,” and then taking the form of more formal research.
Escoffier, for his part, had done his master’s at Columbia in international affairs and his dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania in economic history and worked as a “public intellectual” as the managing editor of Socialist Review and, later, the LGBT cultural magazine called OUT/LOOK before moving back to New York City and running the communications department at the Health Department. He came to the Brooklyn Institute after 20 years with the Health Department, diving deep into his research interests in queer studies, history of sexuality, and political and economic history.
Colgan had moved to Austin, Texas after graduating from St. John’s, where he spent a few years playing in “experimental noise and rock bands” before returning to school to study statistics and economics at the London School of Economics and later enrolling at the University of Chicago, where he studied cultural and political philosophy. While in Chicago, he started a research and consulting company with some fellow students called Network for Culture and Arts Policy, which still occupies a “side of the coin” of his life in New York.
It was their shared St. John’s experience, however, that made them such good research partners.
“I’ve often found that people who go to other, more traditional universities or colleges get locked into disciplinary frameworks and locked into the assumptions that those instill in you,” says Escoffier. “The big virtue of St. John’s is that I feel comfortable reading and talking about philosophy or talking about history or social theory.”
“The way that the learning is structured at St. John’s, you’re required to come to the table and be very serious about the text in front of you. Even if you’ve never read anything [about it], you’re expected to fully engage with it and try your best to talk intelligently about it,” adds Colgan. “We find that very valuable in our day-to-day life—this willingness to be multidisciplinary. That’s immediately valuable for our book, because we’re focusing on culture broadly and the relationship [between] culture and economics. So you have economics, you have cultural theory and philosophy of culture, and then even within the culture, you have disciplines of art, ideas in regards to sexual and gender identity … We find ourselves switching gears constantly and trying to synthesize these different interventions that we’re making.”
The pair have published a number of articles about New York in the ‘70s in the Gotham Center for New York City History, an organization at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and have also explored the topic on their Drop Dead podcast.
“One of the defining moments of that period was the moment when New York was on the verge of going bankrupt and the mayor at the time approached the federal government for financial support and the president, President Ford, denied the city any kind of funding,” explains Escoffier. “A local newspaper here, the Daily News, published a headline—Ford to City: ‘Drop Dead.’ So Drop Dead is a moment when everyone is aware that New York City is on the verge of complete collapse.”
The pair has worked, too, on research projects spanning the 19th-century history of sexuality, the mayorship of Michael Bloomberg, and psychoanalyst Robert Stoller. Regardless of the topic, however, the pair tends to approach their research the same way—with a mix of Johnnie analysis and cultural awareness.
“We really apply a kind of social and philosophical thinking to the topics,” says Escoffier. “We talk about how they fit into the cultural context, the cultural zeitgeist.”