It is with a heavy heart that we share this news. On Monday, Febrruary 22, our benefactor, founder, friend, and mentor Dr. Ralph Cohen passed away. Read his obituary here. In tribute to his memory, we've shared a letter penned by Cohen Center director, Larry Burton, below.
In 1981, I enrolled in a seminar called “Theories of Reading,” a required course in the University of Virginia’s Ph. D. program in English Language, Literature, and Pedagogy.
The man behind “Theories of Reading” was Ralph Cohen, William Kenan Jr. Professor of English, founder and editor of New Literary History, whose books included The Art of Discrimination, New Directions in Literary History, Studies in Eighteenth Century British Art and Aesthetics, History and …Histories Within the Human Sciences, The Future of Literary Theory, and Studies in Historical Change. About Cohen, I knew only what I heard from others. He had been on leave for a year, which he spent as the Northrop Frye Professor of English at the University of Toronto. He edited New Literary History, which he had founded in 1968; he was known among graduate students as one of the hardest working senior faculty, not resting on his international reputation but still racking up book after book, article after article. Among graduate students, his support was widely sought, and when received, more greatly valued. I was not sure at all what to expect from him or from “Theories of Reading.”
Each Tuesday, we met him in his Wilson Hall office, a classroom converted for New Literary History. While waiting in the hallway outside his office, we speculated on whether or not there would be a cleared off table around which all of us could sit. Every nook, cranny, shelf, desk top, wall--indeed every square inch of space--contained piles of books and journals and essays. Each Thursday he put one student in charge of what he termed “lab day,” held in a classroom in Old Cabell Hall, where the student taught a text to the rest of us in a way that exemplified a reading theory that had been under discussion.
At the first class meeting, Cohen did not lecture but asked us why we had signed up for this particular seminar. He was not killing time, or filling out the hour, or merely feigning interest in us. He never wasted time or used classroom gimmicks. The only reason he briefly interviewed each of us was to weigh our interests against his plans for the course, plans which none of us would fully understand until well into the semester. When my turn came, I remember saying my only triumphs as a high school English teacher occurred when students gave self-reflexive responses to literature. I was not looking for any special theory of reading, but I was hoping to learn ways of getting beyond self-reflexivity and allowing students to respond with whatever the literature meant to them. Cohen did not say anything directly in response. He continued speaking with each student.
As a high school teacher, I developed an interest in reader-response criticism, and in an effort to arouse my students’ interest in A Separate Peace, Hamlet, “Ozymandias,” and “The Road Not Taken,” I encouraged them to interpret texts in terms of their personal experiences. I still tested them on plot, theme, poetic diction, and character, but I no longer put the same emphasis I once had on the historical period in which Shakespeare wrote or on the biography of Shelley. The “text” was losing its importance not only to students but to my own teaching approaches, so what was I to do? Was there a theory that accommodated these changes or applied to my circumstances? Was the problem of student resistance unique to my experience or was there some explanation that Professor Cohen could provide?
Cohen assigned Louise M. Rosenblatt’s book on Literature as Exploration, which defended a transactional approach to reading, and essays by Wolfgang Iser on gaps in the literary text, by E. D. Hirsch Jr. on validity and interpretation, and by Norman Holland on the psychology of reading. I was persuaded by Holland’s argument that “meaning” was a function of the connections readers made between texts and their lives. But I was not prepared to defend Holland or my interest in his theory of reader response criticism, and therefore my defense of reader-response criticism withered under the force of Cohen’s questions. “When reading, are you merely finding confirmation for what you already think and believe? Is all that you find confined to what you, the reader, bring to the text?”
Cohen did not discourage students from using historical periods, biography, intertextuality, gaps, reader-response, or genre, nor did he argue against any particular theory of reading. But he stressed that any theory informing our teaching must be justified to students. When we squirmed and said we really didn’t think theory made a difference to a twelfth grader interpreting Hamlet, Cohen explained that denying the existence of a theory was in itself a theory. Then he reiterated we must justify our way of reasoning and theorizing. He made it clear there was a theoretical context at work every time readers construed words on a page, and he made us—and me, in particular—realize reading theory was connected to a system of language beyond any one text or even group of texts. Teachers of literature needed to explain why reading mattered not only to an individual reader but also to critics and teachers who need to share critical vocabulary if they hoped to converse intelligently about the practices of reading and teaching.
Cohen believed reader-response criticism was limited and incomplete, and I realized for myself why it was inadequate for my aims as a high school English teacher and as a Ph.D. student. I don’t read Hamlet because the brilliant soliloquies express recognizable feelings, or Lord Jim because of the testing situations in which Jim finds himself and because I view defining moments of my experience as “testing situations,” or My Antonia because Willa Cather depicts aspects of farming life for which I yearn, or In Memoriam because Tennyson’s example of overcoming grief affirms my religious beliefs and helps me understand the grieving process I felt after losing my father to a heart attack when he was 58 and I was 22. Before “Theories of Reading,” I would have supplied the aforementioned reasons for reading, but I went beyond these reasons as a result of Cohen’s teaching.
The second class meeting was supposed to discuss Susan Suleiman’s book, The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation (Princeton UP, 1980), in which she reviews reader response theory, but halfway through the discussion, Cohen asked for our views on historical changes, and he queried whether we believed in a history of big changes or of small changes. I remember thinking, “Where is he coming from? Suleiman doesn’t talk about a theory of history in her chapter. This is a course called ‘Theories of Reading,’ so why is he bringing up this idea?” I distinctly recall the feeling of standing on the edge of a precipice looking into a yawing canyon as I listened to Cohen connect reader-response criticism to the theory of historical change.
I can still hear him saying that what we emphasize in literature presupposes a view of historical change, and I remember thinking that I didn’t understand the connection, that I didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t like it but I went along with him. I found his words, coupled with the intensity of his delivery, to be intriguing. Did I have a theory? Does history follow any logic other than chronological unfolding of “great” events? I had never heard another professor theorize like this about literary and historical change, I had never heard any other teacher argue that literary history and literary theory were more important than close readings and explication de texte. I knew then that Cohen’s approach to teaching was entirely different from any that I had encountered.
Over the course of fifteen weeks, I inventoried my assumptions, not only about historical change but also about my reading processes, and about other presuppositions I held regarding the purposes of writing, aims of education, functions of language, the place of genre, the roles of a teacher, the ethical dimensions of education, the nature of literary change, and the value of literary study. I never, absolutely never imagined “Theories of Reading” altering my views to the extent that it did. I learned that each theory of reading had its weaknesses. It didn’t matter if I read from the perspective of multiculturalism, feminism, New Historicism, New Criticism, Deconstruction, GLBT, phenomenology, hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, or post-modernism. What I gained, thanks to Cohen’s perspective, was a philosophical awareness of issues that influenced every reader and every theory of reading. One course--the brainchild of Ralph Cohen--radically transformed me and my career.
But I am making my point weakly. Let me explain a few more of the philosophical issues that Cohen introduced to students enrolled that semester in “Theories of Reading.”
The most profound issue involved the AIM that I as a teacher needed for each class that I taught. This is not a simple concept. It does not mean “purpose,” or “objective,” or “intention.” It was more far-reaching, philosophically, than any of these terms. Cohen often said, “You have to know your aim in teaching, and you have to justify this aim in terms of its advantage to your students. Any time you justify an aim you are involved in the ethical dimension of teaching.”
“Ethical”? I thought, “Isn’t all teaching ‘ethical’? Where is the ethical dimension on Bloom’s taxonomy of objectives?” But Cohen was not using a model of Piaget’s or Bloom’s or Barzun’s or Whitehead’s. When he used “ethical,” he meant that teachers must select one point for emphasis or one point for students to “take away” from each class meeting. Over and over, he asked us, “What is your aim, why did you select it, how is it to the advantage of your students, and what do you want them to take away from your class meeting? Every act of teaching,” he said, “inevitably has an ethical dimension.” He then repeated: “Your aim should be advantageous to the students, but you waste their time and yours if you can’t articulate your aim and justify it.” He urged us to announce our aim at the beginning of each class period.
I remember a “lab” class devoted to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep in which Cohen disagreed with the student teacher’s elitist dismissal of the novel; he predicted that it and similar novels of the pot boiler genre would become part of the literary canon because of how well they captured Los Angeles in the 1940s. While conceding many of his colleagues in the English department would reject it as unsophisticated or not part of the canon, Cohen argued for “appreciation” of the mystery novel and its depiction of a lost era and of a Southern California milieu. Cohen also used “appreciation” as an aim of teaching A Midsummer’s Night Dream, because any other aim might be wasted on high school students who found Shakespeare boring or linguistically inaccessible.
This led to another nuance of the ethical dimension of teaching. When students resisted Shakespeare, Cohen said a teacher could either act like a parent and make them read it “because I told you so” or present reasons reading Shakespeare was to the students’ advantage. He cited the implications of their resistance, and illustrated it by stating that students who rejected Shakespeare on the basis of the difficult language should realize this response lumps them with a majority of students and further suggests that resistance might be a symptom of conformity to peer pressure of one’s group. Many able students resisted Shakespeare because their friends did not like or approve, but their resistance cost them opportunities to individualize themselves and set themselves apart from the group. If they wanted acceptance, then they could conform. If they wanted respect, then they could resist following the herd mentality and tackle Shakespeare’s language. One way of individualizing oneself, Cohen said, is through one’s ability to understand and use language. “Show them the implications of their resistance” became a useful principle whenever students dismissed literature as “boring.”
Cohen was not merely invoking the linguistic commonplace that a speaker’s language was a representation of that speaker’s world or the related commonplace that “language reveals identity” and marks one’s economic class or level of educational achievement. Instead, Cohen argued that one’s use of language represents one’s attitudes toward growth and change. Reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to stay with the example of Elizabethan English, changes a reader’s ability to give linguistic shape to experience. It changes the reader, although the reader doesn’t think it does. Language presupposes a speaker’s view of the world, presupposes the ability to understand oneself, presupposes interaction among speakers of the same language, and, thereby, presupposes that change results from interaction.
As I listened to Cohen explain why it was useful to show students the implications of their resistance to Shakespeare’s language, I couldn’t help but flashback to my experiences as a young reader and nod in assent to the argument that reading Shakespeare was an experience that changed me, not only in the effects on my ability to understand the play on its own terms, but also in the effect that grappling with Elizabethan English altered the way I chose other courses (I gained confidence to read middle English, which led me to take a course on Chaucer) and improved my grades in all of my courses. I felt a sense of increased independence from other English majors, not to mention increased independence from my non-English major friends and from friends of mine who didn’t attend college.
Never had I imagined that “good teaching” would be such a difficult concept to master. I altered what I took from Cohen, who had received, altered, distorted, and improved upon what he incorporated from his teachers. I didn’t yet fully understand everything Cohen said about a theory of historical change, or about ways in which genres change while retaining their identity. But I realized that what mattered was what I selected, what I did with my selections, whether my students understood what I intended for them to understand, what they did with it. They could ignore what I presented to them, select ideas that mattered to them, apply these ideas to new circumstances, and add new features to old features thus inserting new instances into the flow of time. Learners make themselves.
When I entered the graduate English program, I did not realize I was searching for a teaching mentor, but clearly I was. I needed a Socrates to quiz me and turn my thinking inside out and right side out again. I couldn’t do this on my own. There was no way I could manufacture on my own the kind of pedagogical infrastructure capable of sustaining the weight of all the curriculum guides, lesson plans, standards of quality, standards of learning, cultural literacy, grammar, usage, composition skills, and all the rest of the “stuff” that I was “given” to teach by somebody sitting on a book or on a curriculum committee that never seemed to acknowledge the ethical dimension of teaching, the teacher’s presuppositions regarding language, the question of what constitutes a “text,” what it takes to for students to adopt a teacher’s goals as their own, and how it happens that some students learn not to accept mediocrity as their target but instead aspire toward originality in their thinking and in their writing.
My interests didn’t include the eighteenth century, Cohen’s area of literary specialization. What did interest me was Cohen’s theoretical mind. Regardless of the period, genre, or author, he possessed the knack for asking “releasing questions” such as “Why do we say what we do about a poem?” or “Why should we study literature?” He often linked questions such as “What is Romanticism?” “Is Romanticism something that is present only in a particular time period or is it present in every time period?” “What is it that we identify as Romantic? How is it related to the past? How does a particular movement arise?” But, given my interest in teaching, my favorite question was “Why do you teach literature aside from the fact that it’s a job for you?” because it not only made me confront my career choice but also because it forced me to identify values of mine that I wanted to express through teaching. Asking the fundamental question of why I taught literature put me once again into the ethical dimension of education.
All of these points stuck with me, and I became a better teacher as a result of studying under Cohen. I listened and observed him take the class through issues that I never encountered in my previous graduate education, and I vowed that one day I would become the kind of teacher that he helped me to create in my imagination. Under his watchful eye, I connected practical classroom problems to philosophical and theoretical contexts; for me, these were connections that I possibly had felt but probably never articulated for myself. Cohen pushed and expanded our ways of thinking about pedagogy. We had to do the rest on our own.
My intellectual development needed Cohen. I resisted the tight guidelines that told me what to teach and where I needed to take my students. I refused to follow the same plans that a committee chose for me. Once, before starting a tenth-grade teaching position, I was handled a three-inch notebook entitled The Curriculum Guide for Tenth-Grade English, which listed the books for the academic year, objectives for each grading period, points to be learned, behaviors to be achieved, and paper topics to be assigned. Within the guide, each teacher was given freedom to emphasize crucial points, and I remember one of my colleagues devoted six weeks to teaching “the comma.” I couldn’t follow this guide or abide by the approach to teaching English. At the other extreme, before the start of my very first teaching job, during my interview, I asked the principal for the curriculum guide, but he only smiled and told me to create my own. The books for ninth grade English had been selected by a committee, and all ninth grade classes used them. I could not add books but I was “free” to teach the way I decided was best for my students. The school system dictated what should be taught but I chose how my students would learn. I didn’t know where to begin.
Luckily for me, during one semester of fifteen weeks, I made connections between everyday, practical realities which I had faced in my high school classrooms and the intellectual questions which Cohen posed. It became clear that he theorized teaching in ways that I doubt any of the seminar students had ever heard before. I stopped writing lesson plans that separately targeted cognitive and affective behaviors and I started conceiving of “aims” that I had for each class meeting, each month, and term. No matter how the seminar students conducted “lab sessions,” in which the works under discussion represented a hierarchy of literary genres from Wordsworth’s “Yew Trees,” Don Quixote, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lord Jim, The Big Sleep, “The Purloined Letter,” and Joseph Andrews, we learned to select one major aim on which to concentrate and to defend this aim in our Tuesday discussions.
What I also took away from Cohen was that content knowledge was crucial but that I couldn’t become a fully accountable teacher without learning more history, more literary knowledge, more philosophy, and more theory. I couldn’t fully connect historical and literary forces, which I inherited but would never understand unless I brought my questions into conscious awareness, without deciding exactly how what I chose to emphasize was in fact advantageous to students. Without articulating such advantages, I might as well return to my self-reflexive, throw-the-material-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to teaching. I refused to take that route. Instead, I became intellectually accountable to an ideal of teaching larger than myself and more comprehensive than any single method of teaching or one school of criticism.
Of course, I sometimes speak in clichés regarding teaching, such as “Good teachers teach to their students.” “Teachers influence eternity.” “You start where the students are.” But I internalized new beliefs. I needed to construct or, as it were, reinvent myself as a teacher. I didn’t have to teach the way I was taught or the way I was told to teach. I had to create my teaching persona, and not imitate Cohen or any other teacher. Inevitably, I would incorporate his ideas but I would inevitably alter them, too.
Let me be clear that Cohen doesn’t favor one theory of reading over another. He’s not dogmatic. He’s a realist. He is looking for interesting ideas in his students while continuing to analyze literature and culture in his inimitable way and unique style. As a philosopher, Cohen’s vision of teaching is more comprehensive than seeing genres, generic continuities and discontinuities, permanence and impermanence, wholes and parts, constancy and change, order and disorder, structure and formlessness, content and process, the tensions between a fixed center and mutability. He has never taken sides with the conservative interests in academia, the essentialists, the naysayers, the opponents to change, and the classicists. He does not align himself with any camp or school of criticism. Throughout his publications, he holds up a mirror to artists, their works of literature and art, and he channels seemingly inexhaustible energy into making readers rethink their established ideas, their interpretations set in stone, their understandings and their misunderstandings of the positions to which they are most deeply committed.
At UCLA in the 1950s and 1960s and at the University of Virginia since 1968, Cohen attracted a following of graduate students, humorously called “Cohen-Heads” in the days of the “Cone Heads” on Saturday Night Live, to courses entitled “Genre,” “Theories of Literary History,” “Classic to Romantic,” and “Problems of Literary Theory.” Students wrote dissertations under him and moved on to teaching careers across the United States. I’m sure these courses were challenging in every sense of the word, but I doubt that they offered the same view of teaching methods that I enjoyed as a student in “Theories of Reading.” There, Cohen raised the curtain, so to speak, to let students understand the questions he asked himself when planning a class.
These days, in the second decade of he 21st century, Ralph Cohen is responsible for creating the Cohen Center for the Study of Technological Humanism. He remains a mentor to me, to his other students, and to hundreds of scholars whom he has published, helped to publish, or published as co-authors. I have interviewed him several times about his teaching philosophies and practices. Although his former students invited him to speak at their colleges and universities, it’s unfortunate that more teachers haven’t had the privilege of watching Cohen elevate teaching into a philosophical inquiry where “why you teach” determines “what and how you teach.” “Articulate your aims for the sake of the students,” he said every class meeting during the fifteen weeks of “Theories of Reading.” Until that class, I never knew how to lift my sights above tedious, practical necessities and to create an invigorating, intellectual atmosphere that fans deepest instincts for learning. Cohen is unforgettable. He fans the fires of curiosity that burn within learners of all ages.
Thank you, Ralph.