“The world changed, and I changed, and this was the new way for me to make a difference.” Stony Brook University alum Ross Barkan’s five year career in journalism has resulted in by-lines with some of the most noteworthy news sources, including the New York Times, the Village Voice, and New York Magazine. However, the results of the 2016 Presidential Election motivated Ross to not merely cover politics, but to actually run for public office. He is now less than a month away from the September 13th Democratic Primary for NY State Senate District 22, which includes the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bay Ridge (of which he’s a lifelong resident), Dyker Heights, and Fort Hamilton. Despite his busy schedule, Ross was more than happy to discuss his time spent in Stony Brook University’s English Education program, his career trajectory from substitute teacher to State Senate candidate, and the advice he’d give to graduating Seniors.
Tim Fitzpatrick: Thanks a lot for taking the time to speak with me today, Ross. You graduated from Stony Brook University with a degree in English Education, is that correct?
Ross Barkan: Yes, that’s correct.
TF: Is that what you planned on doing going into Stony Brook? Or did you come in as an Undeclared Student and discovered the English Program?
RB: I didn’t have a major going into college. I had a few different interests. I definitely loved writing, and I knew I wanted to do something that used my writing and communication skills, so English seemed like a natural fit. I also enjoyed studying American History and learning about world events. So these were the two avenues that I was looking at, and then of course Journalism. I took Journalism classes, but I never completed the major. To be honest, I enjoyed Journalism writing, but I didn’t particularly enjoy the classes, themselves, I just enjoyed doing it. So I pursued English because I liked the idea of studying literature, analyzing it, and using my writing skills, and as college progressed I thought of the practical ways I could apply this, so I pursued the education track with the intent of teaching English after I graduated.
I enjoyed the English Education program a lot. It definitely prepared me, it gave me an appreciation for Public Education, and for what happens in the classroom. It was definitely a good experience.
TF: And once you completed your English Education degree, did you go directly to New York University?
RB: Yeah, I went right to NYU after I graduated college, and I was also substitute teaching at the time while going to school at night. While I was at NYU I found a job in Journalism, and I became a reporter at a Queens newspaper, which was very exciting for me because I had the passion to teach, but I also wanted to write and report. That was a very exciting time in my life: to be able to teach and to be able to work at a job that I never really thought I would be able to work at because I knew that the market was very difficult and that these jobs were scarce.
TF: So it wasn’t so much that you didn’t find English Education to your liking, you just like it all, and you had the opportunity to write for the newspaper and you just ran with that?
RB: Right. I would have happily stayed teaching. I liked teaching. I really enjoyed being in the classroom, especially in front of students, and seeing their reaction when they were engaged with the subject matter and having discussions with them. I think students are often underestimated by teachers, and teachers assume they aren’t interested or can’t do something, so for me it was always a thrill to challenge them and watch as they met the challenge.
Journalism was always another avenue I wanted to pursue, because I loved writing; I wrote for the Stony Brook Press, I wrote fiction on the side, and it was always something I wanted to do, so getting a chance to use my writing and reporting skills was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
TF: That actually connects to my next question: How would you describe your experience at Stony Brook? You mentioned you wrote for the Stony Brook Press; were you part of any other clubs, sports, or student government?
RB: My time at Stony Brook was transformative for me in many ways, because I entered school as a very shy seventeen year old, unsure of what I wanted to do not only in my life but in college, and when I left I graduated with a lot more confidence in who I was. I felt like I had found myself. I found a good core of friends, and I was able to do a lot of different things. I was a regular writer for the Stony Brook Press, I was on their staff, and an editor, as well. I also founded Spoke the Thunder, the literary magazine, which was a thrill for me because we had no literary magazine on campus, and I always felt there should be a place to publish fiction and poetry. Creating that in 2010 was a realization of another goal of mine which was to see another venue for the arts at Stony Brook.
I was writing political pieces, so it wasn’t as if I was disengaged from politics. Many of my pieces in the Press were political. That’s how I felt I wanted to contribute; not through joining a Democratic club or becoming a Young Democrat. That was not something I aspired to.
TF: So with that in mind, I know on your website you imply that the 2016 Presidential Election may have had something to do with it, but did your time covering politics contribute to your eventual decision to run for State Senate? Can you take me through how you got to that decision?
RB: I had no intention to ever run for office. It never seemed realistic, or even particularly appealing. Then Trump won, which reoriented me, and it certainly changed the lives of a lot of people. The Republican State Senator who represents the part of Brooklyn I grew up in and still live in [Bay Ridge] was unopposed, and that was very upsetting to me – that a very conservative, Trump-supporting Republican in Brooklyn, New York would not even have a Democratic opponent.
After that, I started to think seriously about it. I knew I had some friends and family in the area, I knew the issues and I had grown up here, so I really felt a calling to do it. It was a matter of not letting the State Senator, Marty Golden, run unopposed again. It was also my belief that there was another way to serve, there was another way to hold power to account. I had been doing that as a journalist, and I was very proud of the investigative work I did and the columns I wrote. I believed my reporting did make a difference, and I would have been happy to continue on that track, but the world changed, and I changed, and this was the new way for me to make a difference.
TF: To jump back to Stony Brook briefly, while you were in the English Program, did you have a favorite class or genre of literature?
RB: Yes! Though as a candidate I don’t have much time to read, otherwise I am a voracious reader. I really love American Literature of the 20th Century, and I also love Modernism, including some of the works by the great European authors. I really enjoyed Professor Marshik’s class on Modernism, which I took in my Junior year and it really opened my eyes to Virginia Woolf, in particular, who I believe is one of the most brilliant prose stylists of an era. Though I didn’t read him as much in class, I’m a major fan of Don Delillo, and Philip Roth, as well.
I enjoyed Professor Spector’s class on Old and Middle English, and while I don’t necessarily have any interest in the literature of the period, I found it fascinating how the English language evolves. That was really his specialty in showing us how language and grammar is very fluid, it’s not fixed. What we view as a permanent way English is spoken is actually one phase of many. I remember when I learned about that, it was very eye-opening for me. It also made me less of a grammar snob.
This was something also underscored to me as an undergraduate in the teaching program, which is that a knowledge of grammar does not necessarily equate intelligence. Just because a person’s grammar is not as good as yours, doesn’t mean they’re any less intelligent. It’s just a matter of being aware of semi-arbitrary rules. Learning that in the program was definitely eye-opening for me.
TF: This one may be a little obvious, but I’m going to ask you anyway. What skills do you feel you learned in Stony Brook’s English Program that you use in your career as a journalist and now as a candidate?
RB: The teaching program, in particular, was very instructive for me, because it made me very aware of the forces that determine what education looks like in The United States of America. Also, how teachers approach the transmission of knowledge. Again, grammar, and the discussion of grammar, was very revealing to me because the instructors at Stony Brook really underscored that grammar and language is fluid. If you’re more or less aware of the rules, or the game, or you carry more or less cultural capital, you’ll be prejudged, or you’ll be presumed to be something that perhaps you’re not. So as a candidate, as a writer, and as a journalist, I try not to prejudge people. I also try to be very aware of what cultural capital I have, what cultural capital others might have, and how it doesn’t mean, just because someone has less of it, they’re any less of a person, any less intelligent, or any less able to contribute to the dialog or contribute to society.
TF: So obviously you spent your undergrad in the humanities, and you did your graduate work in English Literature, I believe.
RB: Yes, I studied 20th Century American Lit, and I did my thesis on Don Delillo’s Libra.
TF: Do you feel like your time spent in the humanities informed your political beliefs, or do you feel as if they were fully-formed by the time you entered college?
RB: I do believe that the humanities teaches you to think in more complex ways. I always try to be more self-critical and more self-aware of how I’m approaching an issue or how I’m approaching what’s going on in the world. I have to think about it analytically. I have to think, ok, “how does the other side feel about this?” Or, “what does someone else think about this?” [It’s about] being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, being able to engage with empathy, which in politics we don’t really do anymore, which is sad. There’s a lack of empathy in politics now. I think as a reader of literature, you have to engage with empathy because you’re reading about experiences that are not your own. That’s what underpins literature, that’s why it’s so valuable, because you are inhabiting things that are not your own and worlds that you’ll never know otherwise. When you don’t read literature and you close yourself off, you live a very circumscribed type of existence. That was never the existence that I wanted to live, and I’m very happy that the Humanities program at Stony Brook allowed me to see new horizons.
I believe it was just the experience of reading many different books, taking many different types of classes: I took a class on Slave Literature, I took a class on Victorian Literature. I’m also not a particular fan of Shakespeare, though I know that’s not a very popular opinion….
TF: ::laughs:: It is within this particular conversation.
RB: Ok, good. It’s not that it doesn’t have value. Reading it was important, engaging with a wide range of literature is very important: reading writers from different parts of the world, from a variety of backgrounds, not just reading white literature, or male literature, or American literature, but really engaging with everything. That all helps you. That entire experience informed me and who I became.
TF: I have one more question for you, and it’s kind of a boilerplate one, but I do feel it’s an important one to ask those who graduated with an English degree or an English Education degree. What kind of advice would you give to graduating Seniors, or people within the program who may be concerned about finding a career path that suits them? Maybe just give us a very condensed keynote speech, if you want.
RB: It’s very natural to want stability, and it’s something you should seek, because no one wants to live a life of precarity. I certainly don’t. I want to have resources to be able to pay for my apartment and other things. At the same time, if you’re creatively-minded, if you want to write fiction or poetry, I would say do it. You will need a day job, that’s just the reality of it, and just because you have a day job maybe it’s something you don’t particularly have a passion for. If you are writing, creating, or engaging in the arts in some way, do it very seriously. As a writer, I always utilized my free time to write as much as I could. If you’re an English or Humanities graduate, and that’s what your passion is, my advice would be to do it, do it a lot, and do it very aggressively. You can’t write or create art casually, and that’s where a lot of people who are otherwise very talented lose their way, because they lacked the work ethic. Put in the time, put in the hours, and if you are passionate about it, pursue it. Don’t not pursue it because the financial rewards aren’t great, pursue it because you want to live a life of purpose.
Actually, the other transformative class I took at Stony Brook was a class on Transcendentalism. It was on Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman. I had read a lot of Thoreau but this was the first time I had really engaged with him. It wasn’t just Walden it was the other essays, and it had a very profound impact on my life, and especially the essay “Life Without Principle,” which is all about living life with purpose. Thoreau had a great quote in another one of his essays: he said “It’s not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?” That always struck me as an 18 or 19 year old, and then again as I aged: What are you working toward? What are you doing? Are you living this life of purpose? And if you aren’t, how can you? Read Thoreau, and not just Walden, but also the other essays of his which are quite amazing. Live that life of purpose.