Teacher Spotlight: Mike Russo Assigns Knish Tastings for Homework

For years, Molloy College Professor Mike Russo has been taking his students outside the lecture hall and onto the streets of New York City. His course “Gotham: The New York Experience” is a popular Molloy course, and we’re proud to say the Museum at Eldridge Streets plays a major factor in Mike’s syllabus. He recently visited to the museum with a summer “Gotham” class, and our Manager of School Programs, Rachel Serkin, asked him some questions about this unique and interactive course. Mike’s such an engaging and interesting teacher, the conversation even made Rachel a bit wistful for her time in college! Here’s her conversation with Mike Russo:

How long have you been teaching and what subjects do you teach?

I have been a college professor now for 22 years at Molloy College in Rockville Centre in New York.  Although my specific subject area is philosophy, I am also the director of Molloy’s “Gotham: The New York Experience” class.  This is a four-credit course focused on the history, art, architecture, and social movements of New York City. It involves faculty from disciplines including sociology, English, art, and communications.

What inspired you to start teaching a course on New York City and what do you hope your students will come away with from your class?

I have to confess that originally I had a very negative feeling about New York City.  As a New York City native (born in Williamsburg and raised in Jackson Heights) my memories of the city were from the 1970s when New York City was at its low-point.  For over a decade, I had been running school programs in places like Belgium, Italy, France, Thailand, and Japan. Compared to the cities in these countries, New York seemed dreary and uninspiring to me.  But when I returned to New York and began to investigate the city with fresh and unbiased eyes, I was shocked to realize just how much it had to offer.

The course I run involves 60 hours of hands-on learning on the streets and in the museums and cultural institutions of Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. But New York is so rich and diverse, I realized it would probably actually take at least double that to really do the city justice (basically, the equivalent of two four-credit college classes).

In the nine years since it was launched, the course has become one of the most sought-after in the college, with many sections typically filling up on the first day of registration. We had hoped that our students, many of whom are native Long Islanders, would want to continue to explore the city on their own, and this has proven to be the case. In fact, many of our nursing and education students opt to work in New York City after taking the class.

Mike’s students don’t just learn about culture in a classroom, they get out to experience – and eat – it.

You have told me that when you bring your classes to the Lower East Side you have them go on a scavenger hunt. Can you tell us more about that? 

The only way to fully experience the richness of communities like the Lower East Side or Chinatown is to take the time to dip into interesting establishments, try the food, and interact with members of the local community. Our Lower East Side scavenger hunt gives students the opportunity to explore on their own, unmediated by any faculty member’s perspective. Part of the experience involves sampling the food (knishes at Yonah Shimmel or pork buns at Mai Lai Wah) or stepping into a synagogue or Buddhist temple. This gives them a chance to get out of their comfort zones a bit and explore an environment that would otherwise be alien to them.

How do you think visiting the Museum at Eldridge Street impacts your students’ understanding of the immigrant experience in the United States? 

I had passed by your Museum many times while walking through Chinatown and had always been impressed by the façade. One day a notable New York guide, Jim Mackin of Weekday Walks, expressed shock that I had never been inside. “It’s one of the most interesting places in the city,” he said to me.  Embarrassed, I made it a point to visit the inside of the synagogue the very next time I was in Lower Manhattan. And what I saw completely blew me away.  Although, prior to this, the “Gotham” course had done tours at the Tenement Museum, I quickly realized that the immigrant experience on the Lower East Side could more intimately be conveyed through the story of this historic synagogue.

“Gotham” students on their Museum at Eldridge Street tour.

The student response to the experience has been amazing.  As one student recently put it in her weekly journal, “I had never been to a synagogue before and thought that the Eldridge Street Synagogue was absolutely beautiful, with gorgeous chandeliers and stained glass. I’m happy they were able to restore this synagogue, not only because it’s so visually stunning, but because of how historically important it is. I was surprised that the tour guide allowed us to go up and touch everything and walk everywhere. Usually in such religious places you’re not allowed to go up to the podiums and interact with the religious items. That really impressed me.

At the end of the course, we always ask students which site or sites they experienced made the greatest impact on their understanding of the history of New York. Invariably, the Eldridge Street Synagogue comes up as one of the first responses.

We’re honored! From everyone at the Museum, we thank Mike and his students for bringing their curiosity, enthusiasm and thirst for new experiences through our doors. 

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