Blue Notes, February 2018

While the vast majority of students can at least acknowledge the history of groundbreaking research and academic progress to which Columbia’s faculty has long contributed, there are few among undergraduates who have ever heard of the University Seminars.

The passion project of Frank Tannenbaum, a mid-20th century Columbia professor of history, the Columbia University Seminars were first approved under the presidency of Frank Fackenthal in 1944. With a focus on a borderless sense of contribution towards rigorous study, the University Seminars meet at various points throughout the year and offer the unique opportunity for academics between Columbia’s various departments, and even those outside of the institution, to come together in discussion and critique.

Illustration by Jennifer Bi

The seminars’ focus is academic in the purest possible sense. Those with an invitation-only membership to any of the various seminars neither pay nor are payed for their contribution, and visitors—with a explicit emphasis on the press—are expressly forbidden.

Under the eye of current director Robert Pollack, the seminars have grown from five in 1944 to over 90 today. Three of the original seminars continue to meet (Peace, Religion, and The Renaissance), but the breadth of study has expanded dramatically. Now seminars meet to ponder a kaleidoscopic set of topics including ‘Neo-Confucian Studies,’ ‘Memory and Slavery,’ and ‘Global Mental Health.’ A seminar even meets which is dedicated simply to the topic of ‘Death.’

As the conceptual progenitor of the University Seminars, Tannenbaum once stated, “University departments are not departments but compartments and, classically, progress is made at the interstices of the traditional disciplines.” And with this emphasis on freedom of thought and collaboration within a broader intellectual community, the seminars have continued to be curated. Nevertheless, it could be said it is something of a shame that members of the undergraduate colleges are entirely unwelcome in these seminars. Certainly there is a fair motivation to avoid the disruptive pressures of sometimes curious, and perhaps often antagonistic, outsiders. But maybe there is a future in which undergraduates can silently spectate the seminars, joining in, if not for their contribution, but for their edification.

Isaiah Bennett

On Amsterdam and 108th, La Taqueria y Fonda may seem like a hole in the wall, but it’s been a Columbia favorite for ages. If you’re a diehard Vampire Weekend fan, you might have become acquainted with La Taqueria y Fonda before even you set foot on campus. La Taqueria gets its own shoutout, “through half the taquerias y fondas” in their song “California English: Part 2.” Vampire Weekend’s infatuation with La Taqueria can be understood by anyone who has been surrounded by La Taqueria’s lime green walls. Though the seating only consists of a couple of wooden tables that line the side of the restaurant as you enter and some are scattered in the back, La Taqueria is always filled with Spanish music, beer, and tacos from 11 a.m. to
11:45 p.m. each night.Jorge López, the owner, opened La Taqueria y Fonda on May 1, 1999, as he struggled to find a place in the city to eat his native cuisine. López is from Guerrero state in Mexico which borders Oaxaca and Puebla, and the two regions’ influences are found his cuisine. You can find anything from chile en nogada to cactus tacos at La Taqueria. With its long history in Morningside Heights, La Taqueria has had “a lot of generations work in the business,” according to López. One of his favorite parts of the business is seeing “new generations come visit the business.”

Illustration by Rachel Chin


Kyle Fram, SEAS ’20, has been going to La Taqueria since his freshman year. Fram says he goes with “too many people for the tables, which makes the dining experience very intimate.” Despite its small size of the restaurant, La Taqueria does not lack in its food portions. Fram says that La Taqueria’s giant burrito is “about the size of a bowling pin with the top part cut off.”

López appreciates that La Taqueria makes students’ lives more enjoyable at Columbia. But even more, he admires the effect the students have on the restaurant. “You guys live a very special moment where you are still students, and we feel that moment in the Taqueria y Fonda, [and] we feel the vibration and the energy you guys have,” López says.

La Taqueria y Fonda has thrived despite the various obstacles it has faced over the years. La Taqueria has endured much during its 18 years in Morningside. From technical gas issues to fires, La Taqueria still thrives on 108th each night, filled with Columbia students and Morningside Heights locals until it closes.

Allisen Lichtenstein

Have you ever walked out of the Barnard gates and crossed Broadway at 118th and thought: Wow, I’d really like to look at a revolutionary soldier in an impressive male power stance in period pantaloons to remind me of my patriotism? Well, you should look no farther than the stone wall just North of the Earl Hall Gate, on the West side of the Mathematics building. Embedded in the stone, a heavily oxidized copper relief memorializes the Battle of Harlem Heights.

More than just a dramatized war scene, the piece of artwork is a particularly beautiful thread of the woven history between Columbia and the Revolutionary War. The plaque commemorates the death of Colonel Thomas Knowlton and the Battle of Harlem Heights, fought on what is now Columbia’s campus, on September 16th, 1776. Proudly thrusting a sword in the air, a soldier stands over the wounded colonel who is clutching his chest in the foreground. British soldiers creep into the frame, pulling themselves from the background to remind the viewer that the victory is temporary.

Illustration by Jennifer Bi

This moment of success, preserved on our campus walls, marks General Washington’s first victory in the Revolutionary War. The attack exemplified the reckless tenacity and incendiary courage that founded the original American reputation. This victory, though followed by a string of miserable defeats, inspired a hopeful confidence, or at least established potential legitimacy for the American military.

So, the next time you walk down Broadway past 117th street, imagine a scrappy band of 150 colonists trapping British troops in a buckwheat field that once occupied where Barnard’s campus is now.

Natalia Queenan



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