Seeking a Genus for My Species

A drawing of a slime beetle. Frances Fawcett, courtesy of Cornell University News Service.

This summer, a 75-million year old dinosaur skeleton was baptized the mojoceratops by Yale paleontologist Nicholas Longrich. If one Yalie made his mark this way, I thought, surely another can as well.

A new genus- or species-group name should be short and euphonious in Latin.

I, Zara Kessler  have decided to make a name for myself. To go down in history. To be eternally remembered. You’ll find this nineteen-year-old in your textbooks one day. You’ll search for this college sophomore in the depths of the jungle. You’ll watch me swim by at the bottom of the sea, study me under your microscopes. One day you’ll write E. zarae in your notebooks. You’ll mark A. kessleri on your tree of life.

In forming a species-group name from the name of a woman, a final –a or –e may be elided for euphony, e.g., josephineae or josephinae (Josephine).

I have set out to have a species named after me, to be memorialized by a zoological specimen. In the last two hundred years, about 1.8 million species have been named; and yet, still millions more await classification.  Most such creatures will be stuck with banal titles, Latin words describing where they were found or what they look like. Some fortunate creatures will instead be named after people. And soon, one particularly lucky young species will bear my name.

The honor of becoming a zoological namesake has been bestowed upon all types of living individuals, even laboratory-fearing laypeople like myself. I email Dr. Eric Sargis, Yale Professor of Anthropology and curator at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, to inquire about the route to Linnaean permanence. He responds with a single sentence: “People name species after distinguished colleagues (see etymology for Dryomomys szalayi in attached), not themselves.”

In forming a zoological name from a compound personal name, a zoologist should consider using only one of the components, giving preference to the better known, e.g. bakeri (Benthune Baker), guerini (Guérin Méniville).

I may not be a “distinguished colleague” but I’m pretty sure this campus holds a couple of the sort.  Unwilling to give up my quest, I set out to find someone who has already achieved taxonomic recognition.

Enter Carl Zimmer, Yale lecturer, famed science writer, and namesake of parasitic tapeworm Acanthobothrium zimmeri (the genus name is typically set, leaving only the species name up for grabs).  “It’s really nice,” says Zimmer. “It gives me a surprisingly warm feeling to know that there’s a tapeworm out there that’s got my name.” Zimmer’s Linnaean legacy—A. zimmeri’s name was officially published earlier this year—was the gift of Carrie Fyler, a student who was inspired to become a parasitologist by Zimmer’s book Parasite Rex. When she set about the detailed and highly formal process of naming shark parasites a few years later, Fyler figured she’d return the favor to Zimmer.

Zimmer doesn’t take his taxonomical fame for granted: “It’s neat to know that you’re in the books somewhere, even if it’s a parasitology textbook or something.” As for my own entrance into the books, though, Zimmer offers minimal assistance.  He does admit that even Linnaeus, the patriarch of taxonomy, had some fun with his names: “Apparently, when he would describe a really noxious weed he would sometimes name it after his enemies.” Zimmer also narrows my competition when he reveals that, as far he knows, egomaniacal taxonomists are not allowed to name species after themselves. I’m relieved by the his confession that he would have trouble identifying A. zimmeri from among a lineup of tapeworms. Zimmer also has to cope with every seasoned namesake’s fear of, dare I say it, extinction. If A. zimmeri were to die out, Zimmer admits,“You know I would be very sad.”

Despite Zimmer’s wisdom, he’s unable to lead me far on my quest. His tapeworm was a gift, and thus he has little counsel to impart on how to acquire a species without penning a scientific tome.

In forming a species-group name from your own name you’ll need a friend. That friend should be a skilled in the research of tiny creatures, e.g. an entomologist or parasitologist.

I need to make some friends. I summon all my charm and cunning, and I proceed. I must not solicit someone who’s already achieved nomenclatural triumph but instead find someone who baptizes creatures himself. I try for Quentin Wheeler, Vice President and Dean at Arizona State University. And insect taxonomist extraordinaire.

Wheeler is famous for leading celebrities into the taxonomic world, much to the chagrin of his more straight-laced colleagues. His retort is that he works in an underfunded, unnoticed field: “Why not spin it in such a way so that it brings media attention to the whole effort?”  Hence, since 2005, he’s helped christen beetles for George Bush (Agathidium bushi), Darth Vader (Agathidium vaderi), and Stephen Colbert (Agaporomorphus colberti), among many others.

“President Bush phoned me up to thank me for the honor of having a species named after him–that was a thrill–and actually followed up with a little handwritten note. And, I daresay–these were slime-mold feeding beetles –so I like to say that this is probably the only time in the history of the Union that the word ‘slime-mold’ was penned in the Oval Office,” Wheeler proudly announces.

I don’t see why Bush and Colbert, whose names will be memorialized regardless of their entrance into zoological taxonomy, need species when so many of us underdogs want to be remembered. I’m also resentful of Wheeler’s nonchalant comment that he’s got around four or six species named after him. He has stopped keeping track. He doesn’t fail, though, to rub it in: “You know it’s your little piece of immortality.” Yours if you can get it, Wheeler.

But as would any noble crusader, I lay aside my jealousy and frustration and concentrate on the task at hand: persuade this patronymic patriarch to put zarae in the books. After 15 minutes on the phone, I finally pop the question to Wheeler: Let’s just say I wanted to name a species after myself. How would I do it?

“Do you have a checkbook handy?” he laughs. I’m on board, reaching into my pocket. Sure I’ll pay twenty, even fifty, dollars for immortality. Sign me up. I’ll give up Starbucks for a few weeks. Welcome to the world young T. zarae.

“You know it’s funny, I led a fundraising tour cruise to the Galapagos this spring. And one of the guests along on the yacht told me—and I haven’t done it yet but I’m going to follow through—she said she would gladly pay $5,000 to have a species named after her,” Wheeler explains. “And I told her as soon as I found one elegant enough I’d be back.” Maybe I’ll have to give up Starbucks for life.

Or maybe I’ll just have to give up. But Wheeler admits, though his price is high, he’s not my only hope. Anyone who describes a species, follows the rules laid out by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, and publishes his work in the appropriate place, can be a taxonomist. “So frankly the only gatekeeper is that individual. Someone might do it for a pint of good beer, I don’t know, it’s entirely up to them.”

If only I could find that person, I’d be happy to provide him with several pints. Then again, marrying Wheeler might be a cheaper option. “I named one species after my wife and another one after my ex-wife!” he laughs.  “So there’s all kinds of possibility.”

“So my best bet is to befriend someone who finds species often?”

“Yes, absolutely the best way to go!”

But Dean Wheeler, I want to plead, I was hoping you could be that friend. “Keep me in mind if you’re naming any new species!” I make a last pathetic stab.

“Will do. Absolutely.” Wheeler’s reply seems less than sincere.

In forming a zoological name from your own personal name, you need some cash. A few hundred thousand dollars would be helpful, though you may be able to get by with only a couple of thousands.

Perhaps trying to avoid becoming my taxonomic sponsor, Wheeler later emails me a set of hyperlinks, which usher me to my next destination: organizations that formally sell species.

First, there’s a stop in Germany, which boasts BIOPAT (Patrons for Biodiversity), a nonprofit group founded in 1999. “Name a frog or an orchid!” flashes across my computer screen as I arrive at the BIOPAT website. “Names are meaningless?’ Not at all since a name identifies individuals,” it clarifies. “With a single donation of at least 2.600 Euro to BIOPAT e.V. you can eternalize a name of your choice by baptizing a newly discovered plant or animal species.”

Despite this homepage, Dr. Jorn Kohler, a zoologist at the National Hessian Museum, insists that BIOPAT isn’t really selling anything: “It’s a honor for support of nature conservation and biodiversity research via a donation (acquiring funds for these fields is the major aim of BIOPAT).” But, as I browse the site’s catalogue of species, it’s crystal clear that for 2.600 Euro, the beetle, Penthoscarpha zarae, can be mine. Upgrade to 3.500 Euro, and I can instead christen, Milichiella zarae, a fifteen to twenty million-year-old fly species. A Google currency converter computes that the cheaper beetle will cost me $3,843. Thanks, but no thanks.

Hoping that Europeans attach a higher value to taxonomy than Americans do, I travel closer to home seeking a better deal. San Diego holds the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, with a Name-a-Species program and a website asserting, “Every year collections staff and researchers discover new species of marine creatures. The cost to name one of Scripps’s newly discovered species ranges from $5,000 to $100,000.”  I start to hope that with a phone call to Greg Rouse, curator of the Benthic Invertebrate Collection at the Institution, something cheaper can be arranged for an enthusiastic Linneaus fan.

Not exactly. Rouse explains to me that when he finds a new species, if it seems suitable, he turns it over to the development office: “What we normally want is something that looks pretty good, that we have a good photograph of.” If no one purchases the species, Rouse doesn’t delay the publication of his scientific paper nor does he lower the price to increase demand (apparently he’s not in contact with the Scripps Economics department). Instead, he names the species himself. Since the Scripps project began in 2008, only one $10,000 worm and three $5,000 species have been sold. Rouse doesn’t see the pricing scheme as a problem. The problem, he gripes, is that he underwater invertebrates, “People are mainly attracted to vertebrates. It’s difficult to sell a worm.”  When I press him to expound on the exorbitant pricing, hoping he’ll offer me a discount for my valiant efforts, he only grows perturbed. “It costs a lot of money for us to name the species. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort.”

Apparently, finding an economical means of achieving taxonomical permanence also takes a lot time and effort, and I’m growing tired.  Perhaps sensing my impatience, Rouse explains that, in the past, people have come to him, explaining their desire to name a species and support the project–but without the requisite 5,000-plus dollars. He soothes them by telling them not to fret but instead to start saving. With millions of species to name, a worm will be waiting when you can cough up the cash.

But I’ve no patience for starting a piggy bank. Wanting my species and wanting her now, I’m contemplating backtracking to bargain with Wheeler. With a little persuasion, surely I can get him down to a couple hundred dollars and few pints of his favorite beer. But first there’s one last store to visit. I log onto the aptly-titled, the brainchild of 24-year-old Hunter Williams.

When the website loads, I immediately see her. A charming tan-colored midge. For $500 she’s mine. For $500, I can have Telmatogeton zarae, a two-winged fly from Iceland. She’s not pretty, enchanting, or particularly exotic. She also doesn’t cost the fifty dollars I set out to spend. But I have four months until Chanukah. Just enough time to convince my parents that all I want for the holidays is to be memorialized by taxonomic offspring.

While completing a Master’s Degree at Cambridge University, Williams became fascinated by the fact that his friend, a paleobiology PhD student, had the chance to name some species. But Williams never garnered a namesake for himself, he laments, because his pal soon switched fields. Williams realized that graduate students, always in need of a little extra cash, name many of the world’s newest species and got the idea to launch a site to sell more affordable species names. “I thought there was a real opportunity for a retail way for average people to be participating and supporting science,” Williams says. Finally, someone has heard my wallet’s cries.

“I wound up,” he continues, “only being able to find one scientist, a Norwegian entomologist.” The Norwegian handed over information about a handful of insects he needed to name in his next paper, and Williams agreed that he would give him a sizeable portion of the proceeds, which due to William’s focus on accessibility and the species’ lackluster natures, would be meager: “I didn’t think people were going to be willing to spend more than a few hundred dollars for a microbe or a midge.” launched in August 2008, to the delight of bargain species-shoppers like myself.

But the fate of young T. zarae is less delightful. Midway through our conversation, Williams admits that none of the initial species up for sale sold, perhaps due their lack of “sexiness.” Had I clicked Telmatogeton, I would have found that she’s been removed from the website’s inventory. In fact, none of the website’s species are up for sale any more. The Norwegian scientist published his paper; the nameless flies were baptized.  Williams is now a strategy consultant in Shanghai, lamenting the pending extinction of his website:  “It’s a concept that is currently in mothballs.” Goodbye T. kesslerae. Good thing I hadn’t ordered the personalized stationery yet.

So what, Mr. Williams, should a weary traveler with a college student’s budget do about her aspirations for taxonomic immortality?

“Meet some grad students who are in the right kinds of fields and get to be their girlfriends – that may be a pretty good way.”

A new genus- or species-group name is all but impossible to acquire for oneself cheaply.

I’m ready to log onto Facebook to scrutinize the profiles of graduate students in paleobiology and entomology.  And then an email brings me within sight of the promised land, swarming with bugs and beetles. It’s the messianic Hunter Williams, hailing from Shanghai.  He wonders if I want to be put in contact with his friend the Norwegian entomologist.  “If you would like a species named after you and do not mind that it is a midge, he might be willing to oblige.”

Yes please, pretty please, contact the Norwegian. I reply immediately. After weeks of anxious waiting and a number of insistent reminders, Williams finally fulfills his promise. Apologizing for his tardiness (he’s been busy at his real job), Williams copies me on an email to the one-and-only Professor Saether, requesting that the Norwegian entomologist speak with me. Microscopic bugs and parasites again fly through my daily thoughts. But pleading emails from Williams and from myself, remain unanswered by the Norwegian; perhaps Saether deems neither of us his “distinguished colleagues.”

I’ve been on the road towards taxonomic permanence for over two months, and I don’t feel any closer to the zoological Holy Grail than when I began. Late one November evening, I send Saether one last beseeching email, for closure more than anything else. Then I purge all memories of the Norwegian and his midges.

I wake up the next morning to find Saether’s name in my e-mailbox and curse my rash actions of the previous night. What kind of crusader gives up on a quest? When did I lose my zoological zeal? My heart beats as I open up what just may be my acceptance letter into the world of taxonomy.

“I did not answer you previously since I was quite busy and I did not have anything to say except the whole business seems to have been a failure,” Saether’s message opens.  I pray that the next sentence reads Nevertheless would you prefer to bestow your name on a midge from Iceland or would one from an island in the South Atlantic better suit your tastes? It does not. Instead, the Norwegian entomologist launches into his own sad tale. A couple of years ago, he officially bid adieu to the world of science, and, in his retirement, lost his funding.  Post-retirement and still christening little bugs, Saether hesitantly entered the world of species selling as a way of amassing money for his work. But when no one wanted to buy his midges, he baptized them himself. Changing their names now would be an arduous process.

Saether makes no offers to name a species after me and, in fact, he seems to be contemplating withdrawal from commercial taxonomy all together. When I close my laptop, there is only one word of his email that lingers in my mind: retirement.

A new genus- or species-group name is not all that is out there.

To save the day, I turn to Bond. Jason Bond.  He’s a scientist, he names species, and maybe, just maybe, he’s the one who’ll name mine. I first enter negotiations with Bond, a biologist at East Carolina University, while waiting for the Norwegian to answer his email. Before Wheeler presented Colbert with his beetle, Bond had gifted him an arachnid Bond baptized A. stephencolberti after a spider named for Neil Young provoked Colbert to complain on national TV that he wasn’t being rightfully honored by the scientific community. If Bond heeded Colbert’s cries for taxonomical renown; perhaps he might also respond to mine. As long as the written tale of my taxonomical travels is able to garner him enough press, that is.  “I’m always sort of game for a gimmick or two if it has the potential for highlighting the importance of biodiversity and taxonomic research and that sort of thing,” he says.  If I can publish my quest on a large enough scale, my odds look good.

I rush out and procure my tale a spot in the next issue of The New Journal. I can already picture Sargis’ face when he cracks open the magazine only to find that, lo and behold, a spider has been christened T. kesslerae. I excitedly email Bond to tell him that soon all of Yale will be reading of his spiders. Hoping to cement my chances for success, I mention that I’ll still shop my piece to some Manhattan publications and that I’ll also be willing to pay some fee for my entrance into the annals of zoology.

But apparently, campus publications can’t compare to the Colbert Show. Bond’s response doesn’t mention  our previous plan to barter publicity for a personalized spider. Instead he assures me that for $1,500 (the price his last spider went for at an auction), an arachnid can be mine. If I prefer goods to cash, I can also purchase a $3,000 Apple Dual Quad Core Machine for his lab: “Sometimes with a little creativity it can be easier to come up with something like a computer rather than cash,” he concludes the e-mail.

I like to think of myself as creative, but so far that trait has yet to spawn computers. I politely explain to Bond that I don’t have the financial resources for his games. Enough is enough. If the taxonomical community doesn’t find me, and the publications for which I work, distinguished, famous, or wealthy enough, I’ll find another means of immortality.

I end up paying only $18.95 for T. zarae. I order her online, and immediately receive her Birth Certificate in PDF form, to print out as many times as I desire.

“Let it be known that the star located at RA 00:25:14.030 and Declination -01:49:58.14 will hereby be known as T. zarae,” the page proudly reads.

Months ago, a friend of mine had suggested star naming, open to any web user for an affordable price, as an alluring alternative to species hunting. Offended at the suggestion that I might be unsuccessful in my taxonomical quest, I banished it, cursing the individual’s brazen attempt to distract a noble crusader of Linnaeus. But with a collection of failed mentors lying in the dust and the slim wallet of a college student, christening a star emerged as the most brilliant plan. Literally. Of course, just one name came to mind: T. zarae.  Linnaeus would be so proud.

Bond later circles back to tell me that he understands my financial woes and would be willing to compromise on a modest contribution and a widely read article as payment for a species. But I don’t need his creepy crawlers. I’ve gone cosmic.
T. zarae is not a parasite, a spider, or a midge. won’t even let me italicize her name. I can’t locate my celestial child in the night sky. But she’s mine. Forever.

T. zarae doesn’t live or breathe.  You won’t find her listed in your biology textbook or buried in the depths of the jungle. Instead, she’s high up in the night sky, a beacon of hope for lost travelers. She shines above Sargis’ New Haven abode, Saether’s Norweigan lab, and Bond’s North Carolina office. T. zarae can’t be squished under a shoe or served on a plate.
And T. zarae can never go extinct.

A Yale Guide to Icing

Six-packs of Smirnoff Ice
Elis icing elis.

Icing (noun):

ic·ing [ahy-sing]

The act of administering a Smirnoff Ice to an unsuspecting bro, thereby forcing him to chug the entirety of the sugary malt beverage whilst down on one knee.


In the olden days, attempting to buy Smirnoff Ice was a clear giveaway that you were either underage, or buying for someone who was. It has the same alcohol content as light beer, only it tastes like a liquid fruit roll-up.  Today, however, the demographic of Smirnoff Ice drinkers has been drastically altered, thanks to a guerilla drinking game gone viral.

The exact origins of Icing are unknown, but it is rumored to have emerged sometime last spring, first gaining traction amongst fraternities in the South and growing into a nationwide phenomenon. The premise is simple: if a bro hands you a Smirnoff Ice, you must assume the kneeling position and down the bottle’s contents before standing up again. But, if you happen to have an Ice on your person when a bro attempts to Ice you, then you can counter with an “Ice block,” forcing your attacker down on his knees to chug both beverages. It’s like an ongoing game of tag, only you’re not “it” … you’re “Iced.”

Rejecting an Icing is a fraternal faux-paus–a far cry from the days when drinking Smirnoff Ice was considered lame. But the phenomenon of Icing has spread beyond Greek walls, inflicting many an innocent and unsuspecting peer or colleague. By now, you may have even witnessed an Icing yourself or heard the term thrown around in casual conversation (“Yo, I got iced so bad”). Even hipsters aren’t safe, as the trend has taken hold among them, too. As one likely lax-er laments on the blog, “Hipsters have taken this shit over. Only the most epic bro icings will (now) get the attention they deserve.” So learn well, and learn fast, as we guarantee Icing will be coming soon to a social group near you.

Some of the more epic Icings are hard to beat (e.g. Icing a runner who has just finished a 5K). But there are still plenty of opportunities to get your Ice in the books. Some possible plans of attack:

1) Ice a tour guide.

2) Ice your T.A. when you hand in your reading response.

3) Dress in a black robe and Ice eager juniors.

4) Tell freshmen they’ve been invited onto the set of “College Musical” and Ice them all!

Some final tips: have good form while chugging your Ice–keep your back straight, knee sturdy, arm raised, never pause, never spill. Remember, dignity is key.

And remember: Please Ice Responsibly.

Welcome To Detention

A few blocks west of Yale University, on a gritty stretch of Whalley Avenue where disheveled old men gather in the morning with paper bags full of scotch, sits a squat tan building where children were beaten, routinely, as recently as a decade and a half ago in what was then one of three abysmal juvenile detention centers in Connecticut.

Juvenile Detention Center, New Haven. Jane Long

A few blocks west of Yale University, on a gritty stretch of Whalley Avenue where young men set up carts in the morning selling used cassettes and greasy hotdogs, sits a squat tan building where children are given the chance to play, to learn, and to start over, in what may now be the best juvenile detention center in the country.

What happened?

The answer lies partly in children charged with delinquency, assault, robbery, and sometimes nothing at all, who found someone to fight on their behalf. It lies partly in an obscure document from 1997: a consent decree, approved by a federal court to settle a 1993 class action lawsuit against the state’s juvenile detention centers. But mostly, the answer lies in a decade and a half of hard work carried out by a handful of individuals who believed that Connecticut’s most at-risk youth deserved more than solitary confinement and systemic abuse.


The New Haven Juvenile Detention Center is a holding ground. Children are brought here on charges of assault, sexual assault, robbery, or because they have broken probation. They are ordered to detention while they wait for court dates, or for the state to figure out where to put them. But juvenile detention is never a final destination, never the place for a sentence to be carried out. The average time a child spends in the Center is less than two weeks. In the early 1990s, however, juvenile detention in Connecticut was closer to hell than to purgatory.

“We had conditions of confinement that no one was especially happy with,” says Bill Carbone, executive director of the Court Support Services Division (CSSD), the part of the Connecticut Judicial Branch tasked with managing juvenile detention. “In addition to overcrowding, we didn’t feel we had the appropriate medical or mental health services or recreation services.” Detainees were forced to sleep in pairs on the floor of small, overcrowded cells. Medicine, surgery, and food were withheld from the children. Tackling, hitting, and twisting the limbs of youth were all encouraged as disciplinary tactics. Connecticut’s two other juvenile detention facilities are in Hartford and Bridgeport, two of the state’s most dangerous cities during the 1990s. In all three Centers, the state swept its youngest troublemakers off the streets and, for lack of a better option, forced them into detention.

Joe Mirto has been a Juvenile Detention Officer at the New Haven Center for twenty years. He is one of fifty-five JDOs, the direct care staff responsible for the wellbeing of the detainees on a minute-to-minute basis. Mirto is a small, pale man with a pointed nose and a slight paunch. He moves slowly and jokes easily, but sometimes, like when he talks about “back then,” he is somber. He remembers the days when the average daily population in the Center was over 40 children, though capacity was just 24 back then. Everything–doctors, beds, patience–was in short supply.

In 1993, conditions were so bad that then-director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union Martha Stone filed a lawsuit against the state’s three juvenile detention centers. “We had been notified by the public defender’s office about overcrowding,” recalls Stone. “The places were in poor condition – there were not enough services, especially mental health services, for the children.” Stone’s class-action lawsuit, Emily J  v Weicker, was filed on behalf of eight specific children and, more broadly, all the young people detained in New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford. The suit accused the state Judicial Department, the Department of Children and Families (DCF), and the three city education departments of 114 kinds of mistreatment and neglect of detained youth.

In 1995, two years after Stone filed Emily J, the suit was still stuck in the courts when the Director of Detention Services, Tom White, decided to try to move it along. White asked Stone and the federal court to settle the case in a consent decree, rather than continue the case through a trial and a potentially lengthy appeals process. In doing so, he acknowledged the merit of many of Stone’s allegations and agreed to work towards her proposed changes. “I felt that the conditions in the centers were unacceptable,” White explained. “If we felt we wanted to make dramatic changes to detention in the state, why fight the lawsuit when we could partner with the court and the CCLU under the consent decree?” Doing so, White explained, would be less expensive in the long term and would give the state a court-ordered reason to continue to improve conditions.

The 1997 consent decree and additional agreements negotiated in 2002 and 2005 have transformed the Connecticut juvenile detention centers from some of the worst in the nation to some of the best. Today, Connecticut is the only state nationwide whose public juvenile detention centers are accredited by both the American Correctional Association (ACA) and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), the two standard-bearing organizations in the field. These accreditations are not nominal. To be accredited by ACA alone, detention facilities must go through an involved, three-year process that measures more than four hundred criteria, down to the types of screws used in window frames.  Dual accreditation signals that the Connecticut centers are among the most progressive in the nation, emphasizing detention as an opportunity not just to house children but to rehabilitate them. The New Haven Center scored above 99% on both accreditations, an unprecedented feat.

The progress has been a direct result of the original lawsuit filed by Martha Stone. It is no surprise, then, that the allegations Stone laid out in the “statement of facts” portion of her lawsuit act as a guide to the biggest changes that were needed, and made, in the New Haven Center over the last decade and a half. The difference, says current New Haven detention superintendent Jack Fitzgerald, is night and day. But really, the difference is Fitzgerald. For it was he – a silver-haired, professorish man who talks just as frequently about feelings as about actions – who brought on the dawn.

“1993 Statement of Facts

Description of Plaintiffs:
Michael is sleeping on the floor because of the overcrowding, locked in a room with another child.”

After four consecutive years of decline in the number of juveniles detained in Connecticut, the state’s detention centers began to crowd again in 2010. Owing to Stone’s lawsuit, the New Haven Center, at least, is better equipped to deal with the uptick. It has improved medical and mental health services, recreational options, education, and disciplinary tactics. But most obvious to the naked eye are the changes to the building itself.

Superintendent since 1999, Fitzgerald is a congenial man with small, piercing eyes behind round silver frames. He is tall, a commanding presence softened by tweed jackets, nubby sweaters, and a constant, vaguely Southern-sounding “ya know?” that punctuates his sentences. On first impression, and even second, he seems more like a librarian than a warden. Fitzgerald has perfected the air of a man charged with overseeing a high-stress environment: relaxed but unquestionably firm. And at the core of his work is his conviction that he runs a detention center, not a prison. He seems to have a personal stake in the distinction.

The consent decree mandated better living conditions, and Fitzgerald obliged. “The original plant was poorly designed for children,” he explains. “It was more like a prison than any prison we had built for adults.” The interior had minimal recreation space. Sparse, dark rooms tripled as classrooms, rec rooms and spaces for group meetings. The building was devoid of any natural light. For twenty-four hours a day, children lived, worked and fought under a dull fluorescent glow. “The rooms were dark, dank,” he says. “The upkeep of the painting wasn’t done.” In the cells, beds – of which there were usually too few – were steel platforms jutting out of the wall a few feet from a steel toilet. Children who didn’t have a bed got a sleeping pad on the floor.

Perhaps because they no longer feel like jail cells, no one who works in the Center calls them “cells” anymore. They are “individual bedrooms” on the “residential side” of the building. Now, each small room has a bunk bed made from smooth, curved tan plastic that matches a few other pieces of furniture in the room. The bed looks, if not quite like a bed, at least like a comfortable resting place in a child’s jungle gym. On each bunk is a thin mattress and the types of pillows, sheets, and blankets you would find at an airport motel. There are no toilets in the renovated bedrooms. “You shouldn’t have to go to the bathroom in front of anyone else,” says Fitzgerald. There is still little natural light on the residential side – just a square foot of glass close to the ceiling of each room – but the overall effect, Fitzgerald says, is a vast improvement. He is right. A room full of plastic furniture and no light can’t be called inviting, but at least it does not feel like punishment.

In the 1990s, overcrowding compounded the already depressing conditions, making the Center unbearable. Today, JDOs like Joe Mirto work one or two of three eight-hour shifts at the Center. When it was filled above capacity in the 1990s, Mirto remembers, Fitzgerald would need to staff twelve JDOs on each of the two daytime shifts and six JDOs on the graveyard shift from midnight to eight in the morning – in total, six more officers daily than he now needs. Back then, Mirto recalls with a shake of his head, everyone was stretched thin.

Today, capacity in the facility is 42, but no more than twelve are generally there on a given day. Until 2005, children identified by DCF, Connecticut’s child welfare agency, as members of Families With Service Needs (FWSN) were detained in the Center. “They didn’t have to have done anything illegal,” says Joe Ezekiel, one of Fitzgerald’s deputies. “FWSN (pronounced fwiz-en) kids could be running away from home, skipping school, having sex too young – anything that made the parents nervous. The parents could ask DCF for help.” Throughout the 1990s, most of the children in detention were designated as FWSN kids. By the time Martha Stone filed Emily J, the state had filled one of the more violent detention centers in the country beyond capacity with children who often hadn’t actually broken the law.

In 2005, Connecticut decriminalized FWSN so that in most cases, children could no longer be placed into detention merely for worrying their parents. The population at all three centers has dropped dramatically as a result.

The biggest changes to the building are the most recent. In September 2008, New Haven finished construction on two new classrooms, an administrative wing, a weight room, two recreation rooms, a recreation office, and a gymnasium with high glass windows that fill the entire new wing with natural light. The extra space has given the Center more options for how to keep children occupied throughout the day. “These changes impact the rest of the environment,” says Fitzgerald. “We build our programming so that kids can be in that area, exposed to the natural light as much as possible.”

Fitzgerald speaks constantly about bringing light to the building, not just for the children, but for the staff who spend their days inside. One of the worst parts about working in the Center in the 1990s, he says, was that no matter which shift you worked in the winter – 12am to 8am, 8am to 4pm, or 4pm to 12am – it would still be dark on the way to work, dark all day inside the building, and dark again when the shift was over. “You could go entire weeks without seeing really any natural sunlight,” he explained. “Can you imagine? And if the staff were so down because of this – how must the kids feel?”

Fitzgerald is good at his job and the New Haven Center is one of the best nationwide precisely because the superintendent makes it a point to imagine how the kids feel. Every other week, he has lunch alone with the children, using the time to ask what they would change about the Center. Often, Mirto says, Fitzgerald takes these suggestions.

“Michael has been diagnosed as having a systolic heart murmur and an umbilical hernia. Although he is in need of an operation, he has not yet received it.”

Before Emily J, remembers Joe Mirto, the Center’s veteran JDO, medical care was almost nonexistent. Mirto talks often of the years when the job was done differently. “We had a med box that we kept in the control room,” he says. “It wasn’t kept locked. A lot of kids come in here on controlled substances – lithium, Ritalin, Depakote. The kids would line up outside the window and we’d yell out for him: ‘Jimmy, it’s time for your lithium.’ We realized, if I’m a fifteen year old kid, I’m probably not too happy if that’s being yelled out in front of everybody.”

In conversation, Mirto is careful never to tell stories of specific children. He makes oblique references: Imagine if you were fifteen… When you come into the Center with mental health issues… Probably, the references are composites – the common tendencies of boys and girls he has seen over almost twenty years in the Center. But in his plainspoken way, the habit seems respectful, as though the children who confide in him have a right not to have their vulnerabilities shared with the world.

Back then, medical care began and ended with that med box. About a third of the children were given no physical examination while in the Center. Doctors were only available a few days a week, so staff with no medical training performed the exams instead. According to Stone’s federal complaint, children were admitted to the general population of detainees “with significant communicable diseases such as hepatitis, chicken pox, measles, and staph infections, as well as conditions such as ring worm, lice, and scabies” because there was nowhere to quarantine them.

The consent decree brought major changes in the medical treatment given to children in the Center, according to Bill Carbone of the Judicial Branch. Doctors and nurses are now available around the clock in the medical suite, a small room that looks exactly like an elementary school nurse’s office, complete with the requisite posters (“How to Prevent the Common Cold,” “Abstinence lets you choose your future”). Medicine is no longer dispensed by the line staff, but by a licensed nurse.  Yale psychiatrists regularly examine those on psychotropic medication. Every child is given a physical, and children in need are taken to dentists. For some, this is the first check-up they’ve had in years. For others, it is their first check-up ever.

Medical care was one of the easier things to improve in the building, it seems. Carbone, who controls most of the New Haven Center’s budget, was “very insightful of the need” for better healthcare, says Fitzgerald, and the superintendent was thankful for this. “You can’t do this on the cheap,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s kids lives we’re talking about.”

“Emily has not received any counseling or other mental health interventions.

She has gone to bed crying at night.”

By the time a child reaches the New Haven Juvenile Detention Center, he or she has usually seen things that would drive most adults to therapy. Though detention isn’t intended as a permanent residence, both Joe Mirto and Jack Fitzgerald understand that some kids don’t want to go home. “Some kids are going home to things that are worse than what they have here,” says Mirto. “Mom may have five other kids. She might be 33, and I’m a fifteen-year-old kid and I come home at night and see her on the couch… you know… with a man. You can understand how that would make me feel.”

Single mothers aren’t the worst of it. A 2001 study published in the Review of Psychiatry series found that over 90% of children in juvenile detention in America have experienced at least one traumatic incident. Often, this includes physical or sexual abuse, or domestic, community, or gang violence. It should be no surprise, then, that depression and suicidal thoughts are common among youth in detention. Yet before Emily J, children with mental health needs were not counseled – they were reprimanded for acting out. “From what I understand, fifteen years ago, it was a largely punitive system,” says Donna MacComber, Director of Social Problem Solving Training (SPST), a program that educates children at the New Haven Center about how to manage stressful situations. “There were very few therapeutic opportunities.”

Today, an awareness of mental health and suicide prevention is behind everything the children do. WELCOME TO DETENTION reads a letter taped to the desk on the intake room where children are sent when they first arrive. It continues: The first thing you need to know is that you are safe. You are going to be fine. We are here to help you. Welcome. – Jack Fitzgerald. “We try to make the process as comfortable as possible for the child, to explain every step,” he says. “It’s not supposed to be prison.” Fitzgerald’s own appearance echoes this. As he makes his way around the building, stopping to meet with children and go over paperwork with staff, he clasps a white ceramic coffee mug with “MICKEY!” painted in bright red letters under a picture of the grinning cartoon mouse. It is difficult to feel scared of a grown man toting Mickey Mouse.

It is easier to be scared of other parts of the Center. Later in the welcome letter taped to the intake desk, the seventh thing a child needs to know is this: A staff person who is the same sex as you is going to do a strip search of you. No one is going to touch you. They will have you go in the shower area and have you remove your clothes and observe you from several feet away. This is to make sure you have no injuries. The letter is calm, understanding, even comforting, but upsetting nonetheless. The same might be said of the Center itself.

During intake, children are screened for traumatic events that may have occurred in the past. They are asked about school, family and friends, as well as about their history with alcohol, drugs, and other red flags. “We aren’t just looking for how they answer the questions verbally,” says Ezekiel, Fitzgerald’s deputy. “We pay attention to how they say it, if they’re forthcoming.”

What they’re looking for, among other things, is how closely the child needs to be watched. In response to Stone’s contention that the Center made no effort at suicide prevention, Fitzgerald installed a watch system. Next to every residential room is a small, circular metal “hit pad.” When children are in their rooms, a JDO is responsible for “the pipe,” a data recorder that looks like a flashlight with no bulb at the end. Every fifteen minutes, the JDO must walk the line of rooms, looking through the doors at each child and touching the pipe to each hit pad. The pipe’s internal data recorder keeps a history of the times that the pipe made contact with each hit pad. At the end of each day, the information in the pipe is downloaded onto a computer that charts the hits, showing Fitzgerald that his charges are being cared for. Children who raise suspicion during their intake screening – through what they say, how they sit, whether they make eye contact – are checked every four minutes rather than every fifteen. And about once every two months, the Center has a child on “constant” – acute suicide watch that requires a JDO to be within arm’s length of the child 24 hours a day.

Staff note how seriously Fitzgerald takes what he refers to as the most pervasive suicide prevention plan in the country. “Jack will never take a kid off constant,” says Ezekiel. “He doesn’t feel he is medically trained to judge mental health with such high stakes, and so he will keep a kid on constant, even if the JDOs think the kid doesn’t need it, until the child can be examined by a trained mental health professional.”

Fitzgerald defends this paranoia. “A kid doesn’t have to say they have a plan to hurt themselves for me to put them on constant. If I feel he doesn’t look right – that’s good enough for me.” The bottom line, he says, is this: “I am their guardian here. I am responsible not just to the court, but to their parents.” Because he has children of his own, Fitzgerald says, he tries to give other parents’ children the same attention that he would want his kids to have if the situation were reversed.

Ezekiel is more blunt: “Kids harm themselves,” he says. “If they’re doubled up, they might harm each other. This way, they know we’re always watching them.”

The watch system is just a small part of what is now a facility-wide hyperawareness of mental health. The once-idle afternoon hours have been filled with group counseling sessions and education programs developed by psychologists. These programs – Social Problem Solving Training (SPST) and Trauma Adaptive Recovery Group Education and Therapy (TARGET) – encourage children to talk about their feelings and experiences and teach them how to best manage the two in a way that won’t land them back in custody, or dead.

Even before the Center started running SPST and TARGET in response to the consent decree, Mirto says, he operated under the philosophy that the children in the New Haven Center needed to be taught how to articulate their darkest thoughts. If a child acts out, he says, he rarely chooses to “punish” the child. “I’d rather talk you down – teach you how to calm down.”

It is difficult to tell, in 2009, if Mirto really did have an awareness of mental health in the early 1990s, but the evidence is strong: of the more than fifty JDOs who work in New Haven, Mirto is the only one who has spent his career representing children in hearings when they act out in detention and face disciplinary measures, like solitary room time. Mirto insists on advocating for minimal punishment even for the children who are in trouble for disrespecting Mirto himself. For this, he has earned the nickname “Crazy Joe”: crazy, he laughs, because he is nearly impossible to anger.

“William has not been outside since being incarcerated except for a one and a half hour furlough for a funeral and a preplacement visit.

Outside the Center, a basketball court sits waiting for good weather. If it weren’t for the fact that entering the Center’s indoor gymnasium requires going through many locked doors that must be opened by staff, recreation here would feel like that in any middle school gym, complete with professional looking floors and a hoop for half-court ball. The walls are covered with standard blue gym mats for safe games of tag, and the ceilings are high, giving a sense of freedom to the place. The weight room adjacent to the gym looks like a small sports club: treadmill, bike, free weights, weight machines, and exercise balls fill the space. “The boys spend a lot of time here,” says Ezekiel.

In the 1990s, recreation at the Center, if it existed at all, consisted of cards and outdoor basketball. Girls sat idly while boys monopolized the court. On cold days, there was nowhere to move around, so everyone sat idly, staring at a TV in a room that might have also housed English class earlier that day. Because school and group counseling only lasts from about 8am to 4pm, Fitzgerald now schedules structured recreation to fill the hours between counseling and bedtime at 9 or 10pm. “We want you to be a kid here, too,” he says. “Recreation is an important part of being a kid. We try to create environments here where you can thrive, where it’s not just basketball every day.” A typical monthly rec schedule rotates small groups around different sports and activities one might find at a summer camp: Knockout, Reading, Weight Room, Sorry, Checkers, Spelling Bee, Blob Tag, Crossword Puzzles, Wiffle Ball, Drawing, Obstacle Course. Shattered is the stereotypical scene of lifting barbells in a prison yard.

Around the Center, rec rooms are filled with art supplies, Ping Pong tables, Guitar Hero, and board games. One locked cabinet holds real African drums – “two grand each, at least,” says Ezekiel – that the Connecticut Ballet uses on Monday nights when they visit the Center to teach the kids about African music and dance. The Open World Leadership Center funds trips to New Haven for visiting dignitaries. Last year, the Chief Justice of Liberia came to speak to the children, says Fitzgerald. “That’s like Chief Justice Roberts coming to speak in your classroom, ya know?”

“Michael’s educational program has not been more than two hours a day. Because on many occasions it consisted of watching nature films, he has not been attending school.”

Every day, Mrs. Michaud begins English class in the Center with the same greeting: “Good morning my shining stars.” The classrooms at the Center look like a regular middle school, and the students are treated, to the best of everyone’s ability, like they would be “on the outside.” In Michaud’s room, rows of individual desks – grey metal tabletops and maroon chairs bolted together – face a SmartBoard that doubles as a slide projector. In the far corner, her desk is piled high with files, papers, and framed photographs of her family. The walls are covered with possible role models: Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, John F. Kennedy, Rodin. Everywhere, students are confronted with people meant to inspire them.

This classroom didn’t exist until Emily J. “Before, we were tight,” says Fitzgerald. “Your learning space was a multipurpose room; you might have been in those rooms for sixteen hours a day doing recreation. It was not a school environment.”  For kids with learning disabilities, spending rec time in a room used for education made it difficult to differentiate between the two. “Now, you have a classroom that looks like a real classroom. It’s normal. It promotes the mindset that what they’re doing here is real school.”

Until 2000, “real school” would have been a stretch of a description. The New Haven Board of Education was responsible for the education of detainees. Today, the teachers are staff of Area Cooperative Educational Services, a private company that specializes in alternative and special-needs education. Darrylle Olsen, the current math teacher, remembers that the public school teachers who preceded her at the Center assigned mostly “busywork out of old textbooks.” Children were grouped by age or by school grade: “a nightmare,” says Olsen, because kids were coming from vastly different backgrounds. In order to focus the mostly-special-needs youth enough to be able to actually teach something, Olsen realized early on the importance of having the right surroundings.

“First we had big, ugly round tables with sand in the bottom so the kids couldn’t flip them, and mushroom chairs with weights in the bottom so the kids couldn’t throw them,” says Olsen. “Then we had long folding tables, and the kids would pull the screws out and they would collapse. It was ugly, depressing, and dark – not conducive to good learning. The visual aspects of this room are a lot brighter now.”

Ten years ago, Olsen showed up for her first day on the job fearful of what she might find. She was pleasantly surprised, not by her classroom, but by the children. “They liked learning,” she recalls. “They liked people treating them with respect.”

Today, children are grouped based on behavior and maturity levels, not age or academic ability. Because the average child is in the center for less than two weeks, “lessons start and end in a day,” says Olsen. “That way, kids can pick up where we are without feeling they’ve missed a bunch prior.” Teaching at the Center requires flexibility. “If a child doesn’t write well, we use verbal cues,” she says. “We do different forms of communication, so the kid who’s a struggling reader can still succeed.” Olsen doesn’t use formal testing, choosing instead to look over her students’ work to make sure they have understood their lessons. “A lot of these kids have a tough time with formal testing. The word test brings up a lot of anxiety.”

Fitzgerald takes special pride in the educational environment he has created. “I went to my daughter’s school when we were designing the new classrooms,” he says. “See the color of the tile on these floors? Bright yellow – it’s so warm, so happy.” He points to the paint trim around the hallways and inside the classrooms: “Maroon and Connecticut Blue, the same colors that are inside public schools across the state. It looks like the outside world. We want them to feel like their life here is as normal as possible.”

When Fitzgerald speaks, as he so often does, about making the children feel comfortable in detention, he makes clear that even the guilty ones – the ones who have robbed, or raped, or shot at someone, and landed back in detention on a violation of parole – aren’t monsters or burdens inside his walls. They are sons and daughters. Inside detention, ironically, is the closest many of these children will come to a normal childhood.

“Ramon has witnessed staff hurting children by bending their arms and legs until they cry, slamming them on the floor, and dragging them across the rug.”

Fitzgerald knows that most kids come to the Center fearful. “Their only glimpses of detention come from shows like Lockup Raw,” he says. In the 1990s, those fears would have been justified. Perhaps nowhere are the changes in the New Haven Center as noticeable as in the use of discipline. Until Emily J brought the practices to the attention of the courts, the line staff in the Center were beating children as young as eight years old on a regular basis. “We used to restrain kids using very barbaric and crude methods,” recalls Joe Mirto. Training was purely physical: karate, jujitsu, submission holds. Mirto remembers working an overnight shift and being taken by the local FBI into a back classroom around three in the morning. “They taught us how to kick, punch, how to hit with the heel of our hand.” At the time, it was standard operating procedure. “We used to use something called an arm bar a lot. That’s when you lift a child’s arm behind his back, whichever arm you want, as far as you can go without breaking it.”

Room confinement was the other major form of discipline before Emily J. “If a kid swore at you in 1991, he or she was probably given ‘room time,’” says Mirto. “We’d use a method of punishment called stacking. If you were a kid, and you told me to go reproduce myself, you got 24 hours of room confinement. If you told me to fuck off when I gave you room time, you’d get another 24 hours stacked on the first 24 for basically the same offense.”

Staff in the 1990s resorted to violence and room time because they were not trained on how to treat the children as anything but criminals. “If the only thing a carpenter had was a hammer and nail,” explains Karl Alston, now deputy director of juvenile residential services for CSSD, “that’s all he would use. But if he had a full toolbag – his router, his screwdriver, the hammer and nail, a saw – he’d be more productive. That’s how we look at our staff. The more we give them tools to use, the better our environments will be.”

Both Mirto and Fitzgerald are quick to point out that the Center now strives to minimize room time and physical submission. When Fitzgerald came to the facility as superintendent in 1999, he started by retraining the staff. “In reality, the JDOs are closer to your parent than your prison guard,” he says. “They needed to start thinking that way, in order for the kids to start thinking that way.”

Training is no longer on how to hit a child effectively. It was imperative to Fitzgerald that staff be trained “not to react, but to interact. We spent more time on interaction, communication, avoiding conflict. When they learned those concepts, it transformed the facility.”

The job of a juvenile detention officer can lend itself to power trips, and some still have their moments, says Mirto. “Some staff think they’re officers. We’re not really officers. I’m a caretaker. I take care of your kids.”

Most of the boys who come through the Center have no positive male figure in their lives. It is paramount to Mirto, he says, that he act as a role model, not another disappointment. He is known throughout the Center for his hesitance to lay a hand on a child. “Regardless of what your child may have done – murder, rape, not going to school – I take care of your child. Do I get mad? Of course I do. Do I abuse them? No way.”

As Fitzgerald points out often, the New Haven Center’s dual accreditation by the American Correctional Association and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care place it among the best in the nation. In his office, the certificates from the first time New Haven was accredited in 2003 hang behind his desk, so that guests who sit and face him cannot help but notice.

His voice swells with pride when he talks about working on that first accreditation. “When I was preparing for ACA, I called fifty facilities in the country that had been through the process to really learn how it was done and what we had to do.” Like many of those facilities, New Haven was motivated by a court order to make changes to the facility. But unlike most, the Center, under Fitzgerald’s leadership, decided to try for regular reaccreditation every three years. “We want to continually test ourselves against the national waters, to ensure that we are continually at the forefront of juvenile detention.”

The accrediting organizations look for excellence in all of the areas where the Emily J consent decree ordered change: living conditions, medical and mental health care, recreation, education, discipline. And by those organizations’ standards, thanks to the hard work of people like Jack Fitzgerald and to the empathy of people like Joe Mirto, the New Haven Center is nearly perfect.

But what does it mean to be the perfect juvenile detention center?  What does it mean to be the best of all the futures that parents fear for their children: the best of all the places no one wants to end up?

Group therapy and real classrooms and African drums can go a long way towards making a child forget that the rest of the world sees him as a criminal. But when beds made of plastic and not metal are a victory, when strip searches are routine and when privacy is an unrealistic wish – through no fault of Fitzgerald’s, or Mirto’s, or maybe anyone’s at all – the shadow of being in an institution will always preclude some light from shining through.

Nonetheless, it is important work to try to give children their youth back. And the detainees that Fitzgerald and Mirto care for are just that: children. They are young, and have been taught badly by the people and places where they grew up. Thanks to Emily J, the staff in the New Haven Center understand that it is someone’s duty not only to teach these children but to teach them well. You are worth teaching, Fitzgerald seems to say.

On Capitol Hill

Kevin Hu interned in the office of Representative Judy Chu over the summer. Max Ehrenfreund

The week of July 4, Congress is in recess. The cafeteria’s patrons, lining up with trays of food at the row of checkout counters, are dressed casually in polo shirts, tank tops, and khaki pants–no neckties. The cafeteria is in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill, one of several granite and marble blocks clustered around the Capitol in Washington, D.C., where members of Congress and their staff have their offices.

In fact, you might think for a moment that you’re in a cafeteria at a large university. Most of the several thousand staffers running the day-to-day operations of the nation’s legislature are under thirty. They are recent college grads, off to research for their senator. They are high-school interns and undergrads, off to sort papers in exchange for just being here in this place. A few of the bunch will rise quickly to take on responsibility and influence. One or two of them will be leading our country twenty years down the road. But for now, they’re running the show from behind the scenes. Capitol Hill has a culture of youth, ambition, and idealism, and it is the source of federal law in the United States.


One of the cafeteria’s patrons today is Matthew Ellison ’10, a newly-minted staff assistant in the office of Rep. Jim Clyburn, the Majority Whip and third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. He is one of about twenty-five current Yale students and recent graduates working for members of Congress in Washington this summer.

“I love the Hill,” Ellison tells me.

Like many others who seek jobs in Washington, Ellison moved to the capital after graduation without knowing where he would work. Graduates entering other fields may be able to line up a job in January of their senior year, but vacancies in politics need to be filled quickly, he explained. Most people have to be in the District before they can have a chance of finding a position.

Ellison knew when he arrived in Washington that he wanted to work for Clyburn, a powerful legislator from his home state of South Carolina, and was able to meet with the chief of staff for Rep. John Spratt, who also represents South Carolina, through a friend of the family. Spratt’s chief of staff was impressed enough to put Ellison in touch with her counterpart in Clyburn’s office, who got him a position.

Ellison started as an intern, working without pay, a few weeks before I met him. When one of the staff assistants left, Ellison stepped in to fill the role. I met him during his first week in this new capacity.

This summer wasn’t the first time Ellison had been inside an influential lawmaker’s office. In the summer before his freshman year at Yale, Ellison interned under then-senator Joseph Biden from Delaware.

As Ellison tells the story, his geometry teacher’s band was performing at an event that Biden happened to be attending. Ellison–in what would later become a wise political move–came along too, and introduced himself. After the show, Biden spoke with the members of the band, and the geometry teacher let it slip that Ellison would be attending Yale in the fall. The senator decided there was room for this student in his office.

By the end of that first summer, Ellison was hooked. “The Hill is where all the action is,” he says. It’s where lawmakers and their aides are creating national policy, and there are opportunities even for a junior staff member to make the country a better place. He worked at a federal agency last summer but was frustrated by the bureaucracy there. He says there’s less red tape in Congress, which answers only to voters.


The first time Kevin Hu ’11 walked into the Longworth building’s basement cafeteria, he recalls seeing Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat with thirty years experience, just sitting at a table there, with his jacket off and his shirt un-tucked. “It’s always shocking,” Hu says of sightings like these.

Unlike Ellison, however, Hu and most of the other Yalies working on the Hill I talked to got their positions through the front door, by applying online or submitting a resume and cover letter.

One of Hu’s fellow interns, however, is the congresswoman’s nephew. It is not unusual for one of the interns in a congressional office to be a relative of the legislator, especially since the tasks interns complete don’t require much expertise. Interns, according to Hu, are “the moat that separates the staffers from everyone else.” They take calls, respond to letters from constituents, and give tours of the Capitol. They’re also given tedious research assignments. Hu recently was tasked with fact-checking hours of testimony from Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings in the Senate.

But there are other assignments that make interning worth it. Emily Villano ’13 says her interest in the legislative process led her to apply for an internship with Rep. Greg Walden, who represents her home district in Oregon. The internship allowed her to listen in on briefings and hearings and to see how a congressional office operates from the inside.

Villano recalls one memorable hearing on the controversial Arizona law aimed at reducing undocumented immigration. The witnesses, all women, testified on how the law would impact their lives. They spoke of the abuse they had suffered at the hands of deputies and the trauma of children whose mothers were detained. Some listening were moved to tears. (The law is currently suppressed under a court injunction.)

Experiences like this made Villano’s time on Capitol Hill worthwhile, despite other, less glamorous assignments she received. She recalls days spent entering names into a database. “That would just be mind-numbingly boring,” she remembers. “I felt like I was wasting my life away.”

Friends and family from home tend to view these internships as prestigious, even though entry-level work in an office on Capitol Hill, as in any other office, can be dull.

“We’re certainly expendable,” jokes Hu. “There’s an army of us.”

There are about two thousand interns on Capitol Hill every summer, sprinkled across all 535 congressional offices. It’s enough undergraduates to form a small liberal arts college.

Hu expresses frustration over those interns who aren’t humble about their jobs. “You need some perspective,” he said. A congressional internship “inflates people’s egos. It’s horrifying.”

David Manners-Weber ’10 spent two of his undergraduate summers working on Capitol Hill. “I think there is an impression that Hill interns are bright, ambitious, and sometimes a little too big for their britches. As far as stereotypes go, it’s not a bad one,” he wrote in an email message. “You go to work in important-looking buildings and are in close proximity to important people—it’s easy to get it into your head that you’re an important person.”

There is even a widely-read blog dedicated to mocking interns who think too highly of themselves called “Spotted: DC [Summer] Interns.” The blog’s readers e-mail the editors with stories about interns embarrassing themselves. The following post is from this July:

Heard: The Fifth of July

I was in Longworth Cafeteria last week when I overheard two valley girls with red badges the table over. There was nothing out of the ordinary until the following exchange:

Intern 1: Is July 5th, like, a federal holiday?

Intern 2: Ummm. I don’t think so.

Intern 1: Then, why do we have off?

Intern 2: Maybe it’s because, like it was the first full day they really got to celebrate the Declaration of Independence.

Posts on the site feature interns all over the city, but most of the blog’s unwitting protagonists are wearing the ubiquitous red identification badge of congressional interns, which the blog’s editors have nicknamed “the red badge of courage.”

“God, it’s awful,” says Hu, when I ask him about the site.

Villano thinks this stereotype of congressional interns isn’t quite fair. “Potentially, people come in with greater ambitions –- and then they end up making coffee,” she says. “But for the most part, the interns I interacted with were good-natured people who were interested in politics the way I was.”


With so many young people in the city, congressional interns and staff can enjoy a busy social life. Hu and the other interns in Chu’s office go out for dinner regularly, and when there’s a chance to eat for free anywhere on Capitol Hill, they take advantage. When I met with Hu, they had recently sampled corn products at CornFest, an event for congressional staffers and interns sponsored by the National Corn Growers Association.

And at nighttime, Hu and his roomate band with other Yalies to visit clubs and bars around Washington, which are filled with revelers working in advocacy groups, lobbying firms, policy research centers, the press, and every branch of government.

“It’s amazing how much of the government is run by people under 35,” as Manners-Weber wrote.

This is especially true of Congress, where legislators depend heavily on their aides’ advice. “There is no way members of Congress can make informed decisions on every vote,” Hu insists. There are too many issues, committee meetings are scheduled for overlapping times, and most members return home on weekends to talk to voters.

That leaves much of the work of legislating with senior staff, who are often relatively young. “If you’re committed to what you do, you can move up the ladder pretty fast,” Ellison explains.


Ned Waller ’09 interned on Capitol Hill in the summer of 2006. His time there left him with little desire to return. Waller now lives in the capital and works for IBM.

I’ve met him for lunch at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Washington landmark and guidebook destination. Ben’s is noisy and crowded on a Saturday afternoon. There isn’t room to stand on the restaurant’s checkered floor and all of the bright red booths are occupied. Large grills behind the counter are covered with roasting hot dogs.

Ben’s is about twelve blocks away from the part of the city dominated by federal office buildings, and the atmosphere is different. A crowd of tourists and locals with their families has replaced the mix of government officials, political operatives, and wonky-looking economists that flood lunch spots downtown during the week.

Waller contrasts the distribution of ages in Congress with the corporate world. “We have a range of ages in the office, not a gaggle of 17-year-olds.”

“The Hill is very young, very personality-driven, very partisan,” he adds. The policy research congressional aides do can be fascinating, he admits, but “even when you are way down on the totem pole, as I was as an intern, you can sense the desire for power and (federal) money that many on the Hill have.”

As we eat, Waller points out the black-and-white photographs decorating the walls, which show Ben, the restaurant’s owner, with a number of civil rights leaders. Ben’s, one of the few establishments to survive the race riots that devastated this neighborhood in 1968, is a local symbol of reconciliation.

Politics are everywhere in Washington, even in this back room of Ben’s, but it’s different on Capitol Hill. As Waller puts it, “The Hill has a crassness to it.”

Waller’s colleagues there loved to talk about elections, which frustrated him. “I take great pride in being well-informed and I like knowing what’s going on, but I don’t feel the need to discuss a Montana primary race, being a D.C. resident and a Louisiana native. That’s the kind of thing the Hill does,” he says. To Waller, Congress is as much about playing an intricate and high-stakes game as it is about creating a more perfect union.


Ellison sees it differently. Even a well-designed bill won’t become law unless enough legislators vote for it, so it matters who and what has the support of the public and of key interest groups. “Politics and policy can’t be separated. You need both to get anything done,” he says.

Most congressional offices have two components, he explains. Part of the staff focuses on legislative issues—researching problems in society and designing laws to address them. But another part of the staff is dedicated to communications—talking to constituents, representatives of interest groups, and other lawmakers.

The intersection of politics and policy makes Congress intriguing for Ellison—and it’s why he wanted to work in the Majority Whip’s office. Clyburn has a third group of staffers, the floor team, who are responsible for counting votes and making sure that bills the speaker brings before the House have enough support to pass. They have an important responsibility in the chamber, and Ellison hopes to work with them in the future.

Congress is not for everyone, Ellison concedes. “There are some people who had some connection to an office and got the internship, and this may be a good way for them to decide that politics is not what they want to do,” he says.

Ellison, however, hopes to continue working here as long as the opportunity lasts. He will matriculate at Georgetown Law School in the fall of 2011 and take night classes there while continuing to work on Capitol Hill during the day. Hopefully he will have a position with more flexible hours by that time. Currently, Ellison works late, taking messages for the chief of staff, drafting emails to Democratic members of the House, or supervising the office’s interns.

Every Thursday morning he helps set up the whip’s weekly breakfast for House Democrats. Clyburn’s office also provides dinner for the caucus whenever the chamber holds an evening vote. The office orders take-out, and Ellison and his coworkers bring the food on carts up to a conference room where lawmakers can help themselves.

For Ellison, even these small tasks are rewarding.  “Everything we’re doing has an impact on a huge number of people if we’re doing our job right,” he says. “If we get the votes for something we support, then people’s lives improve. If we don’t get the votes, people’s lives don’t improve.”


Sipping a gin and tonic in the Hawk and Dove, a Capitol Hill bar that serves congressional staffers of all stripes, Hu recalls the 2000 presidential election. On Election Night that year, his homework was to watch the news and color each state on a map of the United States red or blue as the newscasters announced results in favor of then Governor George Bush or then-Vice President Al Gore.

Hu’s relationship to politics in high school, however, was “kind of like cheering for a sports team, an undying faith in the Democrats or liberalism.” None of his friends were interested in politics or read the news regularly. Hu began to develop his political views seriously only when he joined the Yale Political Union. He became interested in social justice, an issue for which Chu has a record as a firm advocate.

Now, Hu has a place at the source of decisions on social justice—but his experience working on Capitol Hill has made him less idealistic. “It’s made me appreciate the complexity of the political process a lot more,” he explains. Things are no longer so black and white, or red and blue, as the case may be.

For example, he had been disappointed with President Obama for not insisting on a government-operated health insurance option and for continuing much of the previous administration’s policy toward terrorism. But Hu’s experience this summer has made him feel that the president is less to blame than Congress, where it takes a lot of e-mails, phone calls, and meetings to move anything through the tangled network of legislators and their aides.

It takes optimism. “I refuse to believe the world we live in now is as good as it’s going to get,” Hu says.

For people like him, work on the Hill can be frustrating, but it is never futile.

The New Yale Man

Takes one to know one. Or does it? Courtesy Ike Wilson

Mr. Ike Wilson is a 21-year-old student at Yale University in New Haven, CT. He’s currently working as a teacher at a summer program called Ulysses S. Grant. We call it U.S. Grant for short. Ike is teaching a class on the first-person narrative in which I am one of his students. At first I thought his class was BORING. But as time passed it started to become kind of fun.

Mr. Wilson has curly brown hair that comes to an Elvis Presley-looking point at the top. He has an interesting face with bushy eyebrows, squinty eyes, a pointy nose and an odd-shaped mouth. Overall, he has a super small head.

Ike can usually be seen wearing a pair of old-man loafers, straight-legged pants and a solid colored shirt. He’s approximately 5’11” and is a super skinny dude. Ike has ears that look like question marks and quite a few bags under his eyes. These bags are so big that you could go on a week-long shopping spree with Oprah and still have room under his eyes to store your stuff. Ike is as busy as a bee, so he is often very sleepy.

Mr. Wilson loves basketball. When he was a kid, he was obsessed with Nerf. He used to think he’d be the new-age Jordan. But then he came to his senses. He realized that his dream team “The Secret” would never be and that the NBA wouldn’t be calling. So after years of perfecting his made-up moves, Ike called it quits. It was time for him to come back to the real world. Now, Ike only plays for fun. At lunch he can be seen playing taps with Mercedes, another one of his students. People say that she sleeps a lot, but if you put a basketball in front of her, she becomes wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. But enough about her.

Mr. Wilson is a sneaker freak. When asked how many pairs of sneakers he has, he obnoxiously replied, “I have like somewhere around 40 pairs. Sometimes I Nike ID them, but most of the time I buy them as is.”

Ike is obsessed with his name. On his Nike ID’d sneakers the “N” is in one color and the “IKE” is in another. If you haven’t noticed, he highlights the part of Nike that is his name. If you take the “N” off of “Nike”, what do you get? IKE! Ike Wilson, that’s his name, and playing basketball is his game.

But as of right now, Ike isn’t playing ball. He’s playing with his black and yellow pen. It sort of looks like a bumblebee. Now he’s looking at some black and white “Thank You” cards that sit on a very manly hot pink file organizer thingy. Now Ike seals the envelope with a lick of his tongue. Ewwwww! Get some tape, man.

Mr. Wilson is a rising senior at Yale University. I don’t think he has a girlfriend. He’s never texting and doesn’t have any pictures in his wallet. He also mopes around all day like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Ladies, there’s a single man on the loose. For all you cougars out there, Mr. Wilson is lonely.

Mr. Wilson has an odd-looking piece of hair that sticks off the top of his head. It looks like this Greaser needs a haircut! Maybe Mr. Ternus can hook him up with a fade and a fresh edge.

Mr. Wilson loves to hit the books. He hasn’t gotten more than five hours of sleep in eight years. No wonder he’s always so grumpy. Or at least that’s what he says about how many hours of sleep he gets.

Ike loves to visit his family. Sadly, his mother and brother were in a car accident recently. The car flipped over four times! Luckily no one was hurt.

Ike is from California. He lives in San Francisco. Yeah, I was disappointed too. I thought he lived in Hollywood. But what man in his right mind would leave HOLLYWOOD and come here, all the way across the country to New Haven, Connecticut?!

Mr. Wilson has his own style. Sometimes his skinnies have a few wrinkles. That just makes me wonder what his room looks like. I’m going to just take a guess.

No man who gets just under five hours of sleep has time to keep a neat, clean room. I get nine hours of sleep and my room’s still a mess.

According to Ike, his childhood Nerf goal is on the back of his dormitory door facing the big common room. He says his dorm consists mostly of a desk and bed, so where does he store his clothes? There has to be someplace he stores all those old-man loafers. And what about those pants? He has to have at least five pairs: two blue, two khaki and a black. Then there are all those shirts. On July 13th, Ike was wearing a blue, grey, and white striped polo with his blue skinny-legged jeans. And last but not least, he was wearing his navy blue old-man loafers. Now, that outfit deserves to be on the cover of a magazine. NOT!

Today, Ike edits more work. He could really use a break. Maybe while he’s on that break he could brush up on those handwriting skills. I mean, he writes like my doctor in that yet-to-be famous chicken scratch.

But there are some things that Ike is good at, like basketball and teaching. If he puts those skills together he could be a basketball coach. It’s a very doable job. My Social Studies teacher, Mr. Civ, does it and he works full time. Coaching basketball is just his side hustle.

On a regular basis, Ike is a pretty cool dude. Although he is often tired, he gets his work done. Ike is dedicated and that is why he’s #1. That is why I like IKE.

My name is Tatiana Gay and I approve this message.


Tatiana Gay is an eighth grader at Conte West Hills School in New Haven.

When I Grow Up

A fork in the road on Old Campus.

Perhaps I will be a teacher when I grow up.

I taught this summer—and it was wonderful. There was Ryder, who’s tiny, and writes with neat handwriting, and Jenna, who walks that fine line between popular and kind. There’s Raheem, who, at eleven years old, is an adorable lump, and Jorge, who doesn’t know how to be cool, who has the most earnest eyes and the most staggering optimism.

When you’re a teacher, each day brings rollicking surprise and comforting consistency. You read sentences about cars made out of purple pizza sauce, about instruments of cow bones that a dinosaur plays. You get used to the student who raises her hand every time, and you get used to the student who wishes he were a fly on the wall so he could just, please, listen, without being asked to speak.

I adored the children I taught. I was stunned by the curve of their learning and the depths of their hearts. I thought, daily, that I had the most wonderful job in the world, that I could do it forever.

But then came the nagging Yale Voice. The nagging Yale Voice that says, Kate, you need to run the school system. You can teach for two years – Teach For America, obviously — and then you can go to law school, and then you can be the superintendent….

This is the voice that puts the word “just” before the word “teach,” the voice that asks if it’s the “best use” of my education, the voice that suggests that I’d be bored by the daily grind of a seventh grade classroom.

But teaching is harder than Yale exams.  Teaching is the hardest job I’ve ever done. You need to be on. You need to be on from the moment you walk in at eight thirty, thinking you’ve got half an hour until the kids come—and then realizing they’re already arrived. You need to be on at lunch. You can’t just corral and silence them, because you want them to talk. You want to smile enough—but not too much—and you want to be real, but not like a friend. You can’t swear. You lose your first name. You’re trying to keep up with this flock of chatty human hummingbirds, and your feet hurt. You wonder if they won’t learn if you make jokes. You wonder if they won’t learn if you’re too serious. You wonder if they won’t respect you if you are too kind; you wonder if they’ll hate you if you’re stern. You can’t go out at night. You’ve got to sleep. You get home hungry, and tired, wishing you had the energy to run, or to talk, but you are beyond exhausted. And in the morning, it all begins again.


Or maybe, I’ll be a writer when I grow up. I think writing is a high form of magic. A writer gets to send pictures to your head, like telepathy. A writer can conjure those slippery sliver-memories: she can bring you the wet-fresh summer camp art room, the lemon-salt air of a laundry machine, the spice of your aunt’s kitchen.

So I proudly told a friend the other morning that I would bartend when I graduated from Yale.

I was as bold as Kerouac. I told him I’d travel the country, hitting up six states in one year, six new bars.  I’d stand each evening pouring drinks and drinking in stories. I’d write by day, observe by night. I’m not sure when I’d sleep, or where. I would eat peanuts and pretzels for meals. I’d have bags beneath my eyes. My hair would get curlier, messier, and my clothes might fray. I felt brave just thinking about it.

Fifteen minutes later, sitting in lecture, I started to fill out an application for Bain & Company—a multi-national management consulting firm.  I couldn’t even wait until class ended. And while I ignored my professor’s lecture on 19th Century Mexican immigration, I crossed the border between Dreams I Have and Goals I Don’t Quite Understand. Before I was even finished listing my previous employment history for Bain, I had opened up an application for Boston Consulting Group, too. I’d been getting emails about them for weeks—it felt concrete and proactive to plug myself into the forms online. Something about them felt safe. I could imagine the skyscraper I’d work in, as a consultant. I could imagine the outfits I’d wear. I know people who do it. I know people who love it. I figured that, in theory, I could love it, too. And it seemed so together.

But in my three years of college, I’ve dropped out of Intro Economics and First-Order Logic. I think I’d be sad that I couldn’t title the “incentives” section of a management case report “Good things!” and that there wouldn’t be time to hear the ‘highs and lows’ of all my co-workers’ days amidst the New York abustle. I think I’d get lost in imagining stories about my clients—wondering whether or not the CEO of the Nature Conservancy we’re working for has a favorite place in Central Park. I think I might end up turning a page of 000,000,000’s into cute little centipede armies. It’s not that I can’t do serious work. It’s just that, a lot of the time, I want my serious work to be correcting Tales of Centipede Armies, by Josh, Grade 3. I want it to be writing a novel about a high-up executive who meditates at lunch in Central Park.

But I’m still uncertain. Am I following my heart, or am I just postponing adulthood—merely playing with words, teaching stories to children?


A few weeks ago, science journalist Robin Marantz Heing, in her New York Times feature “What Is it About Twenty Somethings?” wrote that we young folks are curly-queing our way past the “lockstep march toward adulthood” that our parents may have expected. Jobs are harder to find. We have broken the go to school, get a job, get married pipeline of the past. Blogs, radio shows, newspapers and magazines joined the conversation. Everyone was talking about our broken career ladders, our uncertain futures, our supposed fancy-free vision about growing up. Heing did not tell me whether or not I wanted to be a teacher, or a writer, or a consultant. She did not tell me much that I didn’t already know. But Heing assured me that, in my uncertainty, that I was normal.

For most of us at Yale, it’s not that we’re uninterested in getting a job. We are, in general, quite motivated, and pretty damn stressed about finding something to do after senior year. It’s just that we’re not ready for our Final Answer. We’re convinced we don’t need the job just yet—rather, we’re looking ahead to the next few years.

But we’re the exception. As soon as Heing’s article had come out in the New York Times Magazine, been analyzed on Slate, and discussed on National Public Radio, folks made the point that these were elite journalists and scholars talking about a very small pool of Americans. Center for American Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias, for instance, wrote that the deluge of media coverage was myopic. He argued that Heing’s argument applied only to graduates of selective universities—that, for the majority of Americans, getting a job to support oneself or one’s family was enough, and that “finding oneself” while exploring a few career paths was just not an option.

Yglesias rightly nabs the unfair privilege of Yalies. We’re graduates of one of the lauded institutions of the East, where just forty years ago, smart meant rich and diverse meant Congregationalist; here at Yale, we are cushioned by a legacy of prestige, manuscripts, and ivy.     Our college lives are full of options. Instead of picking classes, we “shop.” We get two weeks to hone down our neurotic/lovely wish lists and spreadsheets from twenty classes to eight, then eight to five. If, when the semester starts, there’s one we don’t like, we can usually drop it. Choices abound, and they don’t stop at academics. Be you a poet, politico, or prankster, a gamer or a goalie, an actor or artist, there’s a campus group to suit you.

We pick our suitemates.

We pick our suites.

We pick our meeting times on Doodle polls, and if we don’t like them any more, we switch them with a last-minute text.

We pick our dining halls – Commons? Calhoun? Hall of Graduate Studies? Then, falafel balls or turkey burgers?

So, when we graduate, we want to pick. We want control over which job we get. We want it in just the right city, with just the right boss and co-workers, just the right salary, just the right “fit.” But career ladders are just that—ladders; they start at the bottom—and this isn’t something we’re used to.

We’re stressed because we’re used to endless choices, and we don’t want to settle for anything less than Just Right. For the most part, we don’t have to. I’ve got time to find my Just Right.  This is an unfair freedom, and I know I deserve it no more than anyone else.  But I will honor it, as best I can, by doing the work that I love in this moment. I will try to help others, and I will recognize the value of my opportunity.

I’ll work with my options. I will teach about writing, I will write about teaching, I will make purple pizzas and orchestrate dinosaur bands. And I will, I hope, be happy.

Dinner in the Year 5771

Serving up special food at the Kosher kitchen.

Jewish law holds that meat and dairy must be stored apart, served with different utensils, and consumed separately. Shaking his head in somber embarrassment, Timothy Frye, who has been head chef at Yale’s Slifka Center for five years, admits he doesn’t know why. He must not realize he is in the majority. Stumped by the same question, medieval Torah guru Maimonedes reasoned that meat boiled in milk was too filling and “undoubtedly gross.” But most follow Kashrut, Jewish dietary law, because it is just that: unequivocal, concrete, law–the will of God as expressed to Moses and codified in the Mishnah.

Tonight, Rosh Hashanah, is a meat night.

The sun has set behind West Rock and the evening is one of mandatory rest, just not for the staff of the Slifka center’s Kosher Kitchen. Yamulked boys and girls with pearl necklaces stream up to the serving station in droves, platters extended.

“Is the peanut butter on the table parve?” a bespectacled girl shouts over the line.

“Can we get more challah?” asks another.

Shana tova!” calls a girl in a lace dress, to no one in particular.

The serving station resembles the skeleton of a steel barn, the gabled roof gently dividing the servers and the served. The kitchen itself is split into two chambers that join in front at the serving area: dairy in the smaller left ventricle, and meat on the right.

Dressed in a black double-breasted cooking shirt with woven balls for buttons, Tim flits around the kitchen, gingerly lifting Saran wrap veils off of his creations. A chef of nearly two decades, he casts a trained eye over each pan, straightening the rows of chicken breasts and tossing the mélange of pearl onions, peas, eggplant and peppers so that it resembles an avant-garde children’s ball pit. Scratching his head, Tim wonders out loud where the cauliflower is. He spies it across the kitchen and nods. Satisfied, he claps his hands and his staff grab red-handled tongs and prepare to start serving.

A formidable army of such blood-colored utensils hangs at attention on a steel rod above the meat sink, like disembodied lobster claws–though according to Kashrut, real lobster would never be allowed in the kitchen. Over the dairy sink a complementary infantry of blue tongs dangles idly, off duty.

Dante, a hulking man in a red and black flat-brimmed hat, heaps flakey mountains of brisket onto platters next to Jezarelle, who handles the roast chicken and tomatoes. A wing tip of her butterfly tattoo peeping from behind her hoop-laden ear, Ronesha hacks away at a pan of sweet noodle kugel, sliding ragged-edged rectangles onto students’ plates. She doesn’t like the stuff herself–“Sweet pasta? Weird.”–but seems pleased that her a dairy-free concoction of egg noodles, brown sugar, eggs, cinnamon, margarine and raisin studs is disappearing faster than the potato version Dante baked.

While the meat side of the kitchen hums, the dairy side sleeps. Leek stalks lie in the sink, their fuzzy roots still covered in water droplets, and beet plants rest on a cutting board next to a bowl full of pomegranates. Six small pumpkins beg to be carved, or at least made into pie. On top of a heated convection oven sit cobalt cooking mitts labeled DAIRY, in white lettering. Small images of a fork, spoon and knife follow the Y like exclamation points.

None of the staff is Jewish, but out of habit, Tim shops kosher for himself as well as for the Slifka kitchen. On the wall of his Lilliputian office in the back corner of the meat kitchen, he has tacked a sheet of permissible kosher symbols–block letter Ks, encircled Us, and Cs enveloping the letters HK and topped with regal crowns. Tim must inspect every processed food item that enters the Slifka building for such a mark. It has taken him years, but he has finally memorized all 96.

Meats pose an even greater challenge. Only animals that have both cloven hooves and chew their cud are considered kosher; this bars hares, pigs, hyraxes and camels–though Tim mentions those last two are rarely missed.  These pronged-footed masticators must die at the hands of Rabbis who slit the animals’ throats to most quickly end their pain. Jews must not consume the creatures’ blood, and once their veins and capillaries have run dry, meat must be hewed from the animals’ shoulders, never the rump. Leviticus pronounces all fish with both fins and scales pure, and dismisses the rest–shellfish, squid, shark, and catfish–as filth.

Tim views the Slifka kitchen as a haven – a place where kosher students can enjoy meals without worry and non-kosher students can relax and simply enjoy good food. “A home away from home,” he calls it. Tim urges kids to bring him family recipes and immortalizes regular patrons like Nate Glasser ’11–the inspiration for “Nate’s Famous Corned Beef” –on his menu. Josh Price ’11 still awaits a namesake, but not for lack of rapport with the Slifka kitchen staff. He has eaten almost every lunch and dinner there since his freshman move-in night and often hangs to shoot pool with Tim and Dante after they close down the kitchen. “Dante taught me most of what I know about pool,” Josh says. “But I beat him pretty regularly now.”

It is an unlikely image: Josh, a compact Judiac Studies major predisposed to cable-knits and side-parts, taunting the colossal Dante across Slifka’s well-varnished pool table. But it’s what the Slifka kitchen–where muscle and milk cannot touch, but Muslims who observe Halal and Jews who keep kosher discuss literature over Parve pasta cooked by bacon-loving Christians–is all about. A place where food must bear a kosher label, but labeled folk–“football jocks”, “section assholes”, “uber jews”, “hipsters”, “staff”, “students”–mix like racked stripes and solids before the break.

Say Cheese

The first ingredient of a good sandwich. Jacque Feldman

Inside the cheese truck, I am sweating like a wedge of parmesan in the sun – it’s just a quarter past twelve, but already, a line has formed outside. Caseus, the three-year-old bistro and fromagerie at 93 Whitney Avenue, officially owns the vehicle, but Jeff, a Caseus chef and self-identified “cheese truck dude,” calls it his “current baby.” Jeff’s helpers today are Krystle, whose favorite topping is guacamole, a new trainee named Raven, and me.

The four of us are packed so tightly that only I can reach the fridge, so they let me serve Perrier, Coke, and Diet Coke to customers. Krystle explains that the soda—in glass bottles, made with real sugar, not corn syrup—comes from Mexico. The sandwich du jour is a grass-fed beef patty, and today’s tomatoes hail from a farm in Washington, Connecticut. “I know the farmer,” says Jeff, who likes his ingredients to be as local as possible.

Besides four people and a fridge, the small van contains a grill (Jeff’s hands deftly feel out the hottest zones), a vat of tomato soup, a stack of sliced sourdough, coolers of vegetables, a prep surface for salad, and a big box of grated cheese: comte, cheddar, swiss, gruyere, gouda, and provolone. The walls are clean, shiny metal, and the skylight is propped open. Caseus found this specially outfitted vehicle through a Craigslist post from New Jersey.

When business is slow, customers take time to chat, usually to express happiness at stumbling upon the truck: “I was just walking by and I was like, wait, Caseus truck! Awesome.” When the line grows long, Krystle begins to yell orders—“Tomato!”—to Jeff, who stands just two feet from her and confirms, “Tomato!”

“The challenge of trying to hustle sandwiches as fast as possible”—Krystle pauses to confess—“is a lot of fun.”

Within minutes of each other, two young men ask us about The Challenge. To rise to The Challenge, customers must design a sandwich and down ten within an hour. Survivors win a t-shirt, naming rights, and free sandwiches for life. “If you don’t make it,” the truck’s menu cautions, “you must pay in full and you get nothing but full of cheese sandwiches.”

“Does it say without vomiting?” asks one curious customer. (It does.) “Don’t come overly hungry,” Raven warns. “Your stomach shrinks.” Another customer asks whether it is enough to add just one topping to the sandwich. “Yeah,” shouts Jeff from the grill, “but you don’t want to be that arugula guy.”

The man who came closest to meeting the challenge inhaled seven guacamole and onion cheese sandwiches before throwing in the napkin. Only one other person has attempted, and he topped out at only four. Will anyone ever succeed? “I hope so,” says Jeff. “Somebody has to.”

Caseus owner Jason Sobochinski and his brother, Tommy introduced the cheese truck in February. The truck brings publicity to the restaurant, but Jeff describes its main mission as bringing sandwiches to the masses. “Everybody,” he says, “loves grilled cheese. I see people smile because they eat grilled cheese. That makes me happy.”

Many Yalies are familiar with the truck’s Tuesday and Friday visits to York Street and its Wednesdays on Cross Campus. Other regular stops include Yale-New Haven Hospital on Thursdays and the Wooster Square Farmers’ Market on Saturdays. The truck also made an appearance at the September 10th Train concert in Trumbull, Connecticut. “It’s the first concert we’ve done,” Jeff says. That same weekend, the truck served customers at the Fall Festival and Green Expo in Edgerton Park.

The cheese truck may be going places, but at its heart will always remain a good grilled cheese sandwich. I ask Jeff for tips. “The trick is butter,” he replies, dipping a ladle into a Tupperware container and splashing it on the grill. One ounce per sandwich. “Let the bread swim in the butter.” Then, add cheese, “squish it together,” and fry. Perfect, every time.

Click to Read More

The class of 2014 effectively shares a birthday with the Internet. Netscape Navigator, the first major Internet browser, was released for public consumption in 1992. The newest Yalies were still growing teeth while Netscape and Yahoo were growing roots, and by their first high school term in 2006, 57 million households in the U.S. were already broadband subscribers. That number has since grown to over 81 million, according to 2009 statistics from the OECD, which tracks Internet usage in 33 countries.

A Yale student computing survey conducted in 2007 by Information Technology Services (ITS) revealed that 80 percent of students were using the University wireless network that year, compared with just 20 percent in 2003.  2007 also marked the first year the university took interest in students’ online activity, asking about their Facebook use (78 percent were members then), their online music purchases (56.5 percent had patronized iTunes). Nationwide, trends are similar. An exhaustive report published last year by EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association devoted to IT initiatives in higher learning, found that 90 percent of the 29,000 students at American and Canadian universities surveyed used social networking sites every day, and 84 percent were downloading music or videos on a weekly basis.

Like the printing press before it, the Web marks an epistemological turning point: a moment when what we know and how we know are critically expanded and transformed. While university  authorities might once have taken a tongue-in-cheek or turn-the-other-cheek approach to today’s prevailing fads, they’re now following them closely, because the what and how of knowledge are the basis of their careers. How should a university react when the mental processing of its students is fundamentally altered, at times even replaced, by computer processing? How, and what, does one teach this new generation of savvy undergraduates?

During the 2009-2010 academic year, the Yale College Programs of Study offered 15 undergraduate courses that featured web-related topics.  But these classes are anomalies among a mostly Internet-free curriculum. However, the Internet has significantly changed the ways in which Yalies experience their education.

Online scholastic resources are ubiquitous. The Classes*v2 server is the most familiar, hosting some 1500 undergraduate and graduate courses each semester. Of the $115 million spent each year on Information Technology (IT), roughly $5.5 million goes to technological resources in teaching and learning, which covers everything from installing and distributing clickers in large lecture courses to creating downloadable virtual art museums for the Art History department.

Chuck Powell, the Senior Director of Academic Media and Technology—a subdivision of ITS—has observed markedly positive trends in digital education on campus. “The bar keeps rising every year,” he says. “Four years ago, the percentage of faculty who were using installed projectors to display media or PowerPoint in the classroom was probably around ten to twenty percent. These days, we count it at around sixty, sixty-five percent.”

Many of these faculty members, including tenured professors and the occasional Luddite Emeritus, have sought to push the envelope further than PowerPoint. One famously taught Beowulf 2.0, using student wikis to promote and expand conversation about the epic poem. Another used 3D and geo-technology to enhance the study of ancient Rome, making artifacts and historical geology pop and, in the words of Powell, “bringing that ancient subject to life.”

In this regard, Yale’s humanities departments respond more or less like the rest of the community, greeting online resources with vigor rather than vinegar. They upload their syllabi to Classes*v2 and readily communicate by email. They have vocally endorsed Yale’s digitization projects, which involve the ongoing transfer of hundreds of thousands of slides, manuscripts and news archives from the shelves of Yale’s libraries to a tagged-and-searchable online sanctuary.

Some professors, like Pericles Lewis of the English and Comparative Literature departments, have even ventured into cyberspace on their own. Lewis founded the Modernism Lab, a collaborative research site on early 20th-century writers, which hosts around 4,000 primary sources and a wiki of editable articles. He has encouraged his undergraduate classes to use the site as a research tool, which is widely praised among administrators, faculty, and ITS staff members as an exciting step for the digital humanities at Yale.

If humanists like Lewis are embracing Web-based classroom tools, it may be because these pose no direct threat to their disciplines. “The approach to studying the material may be different, but ultimately the questions at the center of it are still traditional humanistic questions,” Lewis says.

Answering those questions today might involve a six-second Google search for “Shakespeare” and “water,”  as opposed to six weeks reading the Bard’s entire oeuvre with a highlighter. Still, Lewis argues, “the scholarly work of figuring out what’s going on with a symbol still hasn’t changed very much.” In other words, the word “water” might appear 177 times in Shakespeare’s plays—that figure thanks to open-source site—but no algorithm on the Net will turn that number into an argument.

Online textual concordances like those found on are beloved by undergrads. Though it’s easy to envision their abuse (why read all of Moby Dick when you can just query “Thar she blows”?), they’re considered benign by most educators—a convenience, rather than a chance to cut corners. The intellectual activity involved in research remains the same, though computational data has the potential to energize, expand and enhance it.

Brainpower, revved up by signal strength. That’s the core idea behind Yale’s many tech exertions and expenses—that the Internet can improve what was already good to begin with. It’s also the idea that motivates Ken Panko, the manager of Yale’s Instructional Technology Group and the man responsible for turning  Lewis’ classroom vision into virtual reality.

Part of what Panko likes about tools like class blogs and wikis, he explains, is that they boost student creativity onto a level where their ideas have practical, tangible value. “When you write an academic paper and you give it to your professor, what’s the authentic value of that? Obviously you’ve learned a lot in the process of creating it, but the artifact of your knowledge isn’t useful in a way that can be shared with the rest of the world. But when you publish to a blog, you have the opportunity to show people what you’ve done.”

Panko also favors “active learning,” a buzzword among educators and technophiles. “Try to envision a model of teaching where instead of going to lectures, you get that content online,” says  Panko. “Course sessions would then involve the kind of close interaction you might get in seminars, or actual hands-on work. And the professor becomes more of a guide and mentor, rather than someone who just stands onstage and delivers content.” It would be a turning point in Web pedagogy: the moment when these tools become not just facilitators, but educators in their own right. In a way, active learning has already begun at Yale. Video recordings of lectures have been online at Open Yale Courses since 2007. The courses can’t be taken for credit and there are no discussion sections. But for undergrads who overslept and those who weren’t enrolled in the first place, the online courseware system is an important and valuable development.

Of all the ways that Yale has implemented the Internet as a teaching tool, Open Yale Courses might also be the most surprising—a bit, one might argue, like thunking down the drawbridge to the ivory tower. But professional Web innovators think that free, online courseware is a natural upshot of larger trends toward self-directed learning, international presence, and the value of knowledge as a public good.

One such innovator is Eric Jansson, Director of Labs at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE). “Networks have exposed us to an enormous amount of resources, which are increasing in sophistication all the time,” he says. “Projects like MIT’s OpenCourseWare are emblematic of this. You’re taping some of the finest undergraduate lecturers out there, and publishing that online—it creates a really incredible resource.”

But as Jansson points out, not even Web-based tools come risk-free, and Yale’s investment in these resources could eventually backfire. Thanks to open course offerings in particular and the Internet in general, Jansson says, “there’s been an explosion of this ability to manage your own education. The question is, how do you react to this institutionally? Do you let students consume this material on their own, and assume more of a guide-on-the-side model?”

These are the same questions that Yale administrators have already been asking themselves. By placing course materials online, or condoning the use of concordances, or introducing class blogs and wikis into the syllabus, Yale is fostering the very skillsets that could throw its institutional value into question. Sooner or later, someone’s going to wonder: if all this stuff is online, then why am I still sitting here?

Someone has been wondering, namely Anya Kamenetz ’02, former New Journal editor and the author of the recently published DIY U: Edupunks, Entrepreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. She writes, “Rather than layering new technologies as bells and whistles onto existing classes…courses need to be completely redesigned using information technology strategically.” If the classic liberal-arts model isn’t reformed, what Kamenetz calls “edupunk”—do-it-yourself Net-based learning—will eventually dominate the pricey, elite system that currently reigns supreme.

But how likely is “edupunk” to affect Yale and institutions with similar values and methods? Could the Internet ultimately destroy the liberal arts establishment?

Jansson, for one, believes that liberal arts education will continue to be valuable in the Internet age. “In fact, we really need more of it,” he argues. “The modern world is really telling us that we don’t need people with discrete professional skills, but people who are lifelong learners.”

Modern-day success requires rapid adaptability: to new media, new voices, new careers. In 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average job tenure was 4.1 years, a figure that suggests that if you want to join today’s workforce, you’d better keep your bags by the door and your brain fully charged.

Unlike for-profit and vocational schools, liberal arts institutions pride themselves on creating exactly that kind of flexible intellectual. “The goal is not to prepare students for any particular vocation,” says George Levesque, Yale’s Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs, “but to give them the skills to be prepared for any.” So even as the Internet alters the need for Yale’s teachers, it creates a need for the supple minds they produce.

But even if liberal arts education endures, that doesn’t mean liberal arts schools will. “One of the problems is, we’re not sure how stable the vessel for that type of education is,” says Jansson. He explains that a place like Yale is protected by its sturdy reputation and generous endowment, but smaller institutions might have to make major changes in order to survive.

While Yale students use the Internet extensively, Adam Lior Hirst ’10, a recent graduate and history major, expresses reservations about the changes brought about by new media. “Look, I’m the kind of guy who’ll get really bored during lectures, and sit there responding to emails,” he confesses, “but I think there should be a switch to turn off the Internet in classrooms.”

When asked why, Hirst offers surprising rationale for someone of his generation: Yale is a liberal arts school, not a WiFi hotspot. “The purpose of Yale seems to be to spend four years considering the best that’s ever been thought, written, said and so on,” he says. “The university should force us to do that if we can’t do it ourselves.”

Hirst points out that student proficiency or fixation does not always equal enthusiasm. We “digital natives” log on because we don’t know how not to, but just because we’re media-literate doesn’t mean we value media literacy, or seek its implementation in a classroom. In fact, by the time they reach college, many students feel quite the contrary. The Web may be a teeming information ecosystem, but a flesh-and-blood professor provides the invaluable service of organizing, prioritizing and situating that information. We can surf on our own, but how effectively can we learn on our own?

Nor is this tepid response to Web learning just a Yale phenomenon. EDUCAUSE’s 2009 report found that while 70 percent of surveyed students felt positively about the use of information technology in their courses, 60 percent wanted just a “moderate” amount, and only a few loose cannons—3.5 percent of the sample—craved an exclusively digital experience.

If Yale students aren’t lobbying for digital freedoms, then why have Yale faculty members and administration worked so hard to bring the Web into curricula? Is reframing education still an issue if student ambitions are the same as they always were? For all the Web’s purported interfacing, it looks as though something important has failed to transmit.

Maybe Yale students are just more shortsighted about their education than those who provide it. The current crop of Yale undergraduates might still bow down to the historic mystique of the Ivy League, but that doesn’t mean that future generations will feel the same way. As the Net Generation, we feel the loss of a culture that we never had in the first place.  We are not digital natives at all, but the children of digital immigrants, raised in a virtual society but molded equally by the views of our analog forbears.

An inherited sense of old-world nostalgia is what makes students pore fondly over the archived, handwritten notebooks of old Elis and wonder if they’re missing out, even though they can take the same notes on a laptop in a quarter of the time. It’s why Yale is still a tourist attraction, and why the campus bookstore can still sell Yale sweatshirts that cost more than a WiFi router.

But that nostalgia won’t last forever. Jansson’s prediction that Yale can subsist on its reputation and endowment will only hold true as long as we continue to value academic isolationism, and the idea that spending four years reading Kant in a wood-paneled wonderland still constitutes a modern education.

Eve Binder is a senior in Pierson College.