Take Five with Joseph S. Meisel ’87, GSAS’99

Joseph S. Meisel ’87, GSAS’99 Ph.D. is the Joukowsky Family University Librarian at Brown University and an adjunct associate professor of history. He has written three books about 19th- and 20th-century British political culture. Meisel was a program officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 1999 to 2010, then moved to Brown to serve as deputy provost. He is married to Felice Ramella GS’89, a former professional bread baker; their son Luke is about to start high school.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

Not very prepossessing. It took longer than it should have, but I eventually realized that all the other kids at college weren’t just smarter than me, they also put in a lot of effort. Better late than never, Columbia is where I finally learned to really hunker down and do the work.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

11th floor John Jay. Instead of the classic college roommate experience you always hear about, most of us were in singles — monastic cells equipped with a metal-frame bed, a desk and a sink. Moreover, although I was in the College’s first co-ed class, 11 Jay was (I’m convinced) the last old-school, all-male floor. Not exactly what I was anticipating. It was kind of like a big locker room, including gang showers. Maybe they ran out of time to get all the floors renovated? I certainly made some good friends on 11 Jay, but I’ve always wondered how the residential life people picked out the “lucky” freshmen they assigned there.

What class do you most remember and why?

Stephen Koss ’62, GSAS’66’s course on modern British history had a big impact since I eventually became a scholar in that field myself. Sadly, Prof. Koss died not long after I took his class. I think what really turned me on to history was experiencing the wide variety of styles and approaches that the faculty, which included a lot of major figures in the field, demonstrated in their teaching and writing. It showed me the rich variety of possibilities for thinking imaginatively but rigorously about human events.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

I hope no one will think I’m just saying this because of my recent career turn, but a lot of my campus memories take place in Butler Library. I gravitated mostly to the main reading room (hard chairs that helped me stay awake) and the galleries in the card catalog/reference room. I also spent huge amounts of time in the stacks browsing and making serendipitous discoveries for my papers. Butler is the place where I really came to love the practice of doing scholarly research.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

Two years ago, when I was still Brown’s deputy provost, I was assigned to step in as the interim chair of the music department. I really enjoyed working with the music faculty and students, and I learned a huge amount from them. I’ve always had an active recreational interest in music, including as an amateur songwriter and performer. Music is one of Columbia’s big strengths so I really regret that I never took any courses in the department (except, of course, for Music Hum). So, if I could go back, that’s one thing I’d definitely change.