After he finished his undergraduate education at the University of California, Berkeley, Prof. Ross Brann, Near Eastern Studies, said he knew he wanted to remain on a college campus.
“Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the incredible energy and the obvious significance of ideas in transforming public debate on issues of racial and socio-economic justice and war and peace was so much a part of being on a campus in the late 60s, a time of immense social and political change in the United States,” he said. “Campuses were alive with intellectual and political energy, and it was not a conscious choice but I just kept going to school. I never wanted to leave the university setting.”
This view of campuses has shaped Brann’s approach to teaching.
“As an educator here at Cornell, my job is to engage students in inquiry about matters typically spoken about as if they are simple or straightforward,” Brann said. “My goal is to render these issues complex and rich.”
Although he started out as a mathematics major, Brann said he was drawn to other kinds of complex issues, and he hopes even today that his students come away from his class with an appreciation for complexity.
“I’m drawn to inquiry concerning questions that are complex but that most people tend to oversimplify,” he said.
Brann said his commitment to humanities goes beyond the pre-modern Islamic and Jewish cultures he studies. He said he believes that humans are “inherently curious” about each other and that the humanities help humans understand one another.
“Human beings are not simply curious creatures about the physical and biological world that we inhabit. We are inherently curious about one another, about our behaviors, about for want of a better term, our diverse cultural practices,” Brann said. “The humanities employ tools we need to use in order to understand one another and appreciate differences across time and place. They enable us, when we’re paying close attention and reflecting critically, to understanding the complexities of human creativity, human sensitivities, and human behavior in all its various manifestations.”
Brann was also among the original group of faculty members who created the current West Campus Housing System. In the mid 1990s, President Emeritus Hunter Rawlings III appointed Brann to be the first House Professor at Alice Cook House.
“Those houses were and still are the embodiment of connecting Cornell undergraduates to Cornell faculty across the seven undergraduate colleges,” he said.
West Campus housing aims “to assist students and faculty to understand that we’re here to work with one another in a variety of ways,” according to Brann.
“The House System is still a work in progress, but it was a real turning point for the undergraduate experience for some here at Cornell,” Brann said.
Brann can recount many exciting stories from his time living in the Alice Cook House, from throwing a Saturday Night Live-style dance party for former Attorney General Janet Reno to the time a fire alarm woke up Bill Nye ’77 in the middle of the night while Nye was staying in the guest suite.
“We really had a wonderful series of guests during those six years from every walk of national and international life,” Brann said.
Brann emphasized that while the house community had a lot of fun with the guests they invited, they also developed intellectually from the guests’ presence.
“The idea is hold social and cultural events but also foster intellectual engagement for students outside of class,” he said. “My goal was to have many Cornellians come and talk about how what they studied at Cornell bore no resemblance to what they ended up doing professionally. To reassure students to not worry so much, but rather to utilize their time here at Cornell to expand their horizons.”
Brann said one of the highlights from his time at Cornell was addressing and arguing against islamophobia with a group of students and faculty in the central New York region following the September 11 attacks.
“I’m very close to most of the students I did that with down to this day,” he said. “We shared a very powerful social and educational and political experience as educators working to combat some of the hysteria that was prevalent in the United States, even in Ithaca, even in Tompkins County, even in Central New York and even on the Cornell campus during that particular period.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said that Prof. Emeritus Isaac Kramnick, government, appointed Brann to be the first faculty-in-residence at Alice Cook House. In fact, President Emeritus Hunter Rawlings III appointed Brann as the first House Professor of the residential college.