"Picky Writing Rules"

English professor Ralph Cohen leaves an impact
By Sharon Thomas ('89)

Originally published in Summer 2003, this is just one of many stories from Madison magazine's award-winning Professors You Love series, written by JMU students and alumni, about the professors that have made the most impact on their lives — then, and now.

A cofounder of Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, Ralph Cohen and his troupe decided to build their own theater to bring Shakespeare to an even wider audience. The Blackfriars Theatre opened in Staunton in 2001 and offers year-round performances.

A cofounder of Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, Ralph Cohen and his troupe decided to build their own theater to bring Shakespeare to an even wider audience. The Blackfriars Theatre opened in Staunton in 2001 and offers year-round performances.

[PICKY RULE #6: Establish the context of you paper in the first sentence."] During the fall of 1987, I fell in love with three men: Randy Cover (now my husband of 12 years and the father of my two sons), William Shakespeare, and the man who brought Will and me together, English professor Ralph Cohen. I can state with absolute confidence that 1) Dr. Cohen has no idea who I am, and 2) he could never imagine his influence on my life, both personally and professionally.

I transferred from Virginia Tech to JMU during the summer of 1987 and quickly entered a fall semester scheduling session. Almost every English class that struck my fancy was full. Hurriedly, I registered for Dr. Cohen's British Literature to the 19th Century and Film as Narrative Art courses to fill up my scheduling sheet. At Virginia Tech, the emphasis in the English classes had been on turning engineering geeks into functionally literate professionals — to turn them into erudite literary types was not on the agenda. From the first moment Dr. Cohen walked into film class that fall, I knew that I was not in an English major's Kansas anymore. [Picky Rule #13: "Make the transition between your sentences and your paragraphs clear and logical. This task is the most difficult in writing, but, as you know, life is hard."]

Dr. Cohen terrified me. In terms of his physical presence, I found him to be a charismatic mixture of the stereotypical English professor (the tweed jacket, the bow tie) and the hip intellectual (the fabulous mane of chestnut hair, the subtle swagger in his carriage). His passion for his work and his emphasis on more specific, strict writing standards than I had ever encountered both thrilled and cowed me.

When Dr. Cohen distributed his "(Fewer Than 40) Picky Writing Rules," a hush came over the room. I felt fairly confident that I routinely followed at least half of the guidelines but was not sure what to do about some of them, such as Picky Rule #23: "Use your smallest, most Anglo-Saxon, most comfortable words; only high school teachers and William F. Buckley are impressed with big words," (he clearly had encountered my kind before). I received a "C" on my first paper, a mortifying experience for an English major. To make matters worse, Dr. Cohen scrawled a note at the end of my paper that read as follows. I am still wincing as I write: "You clearly have no regard for me or my picky writing rules. How can I win your respect in this regard?" I sat and waited for death to come. How could he not know how much I adored him? Perhaps I should write "Love You" on my eyelids like that girl in Raiders of the Lost Ark. An allusion; he might like that.

The next paper took days to write. I skipped other classes to edit for passive voice. I skipped dinner to find any occurrences of "It is," "There are," "There was," "There were" (and I am not the kind of girl who skips dinner). That paper earned a "B," but I could cope with that because the paper contained no circled picky rule violations and no reprimand. To this day, I still give my writing the Dr. Cohen treatment, sometimes deciding to break the rule (as evident in this essay, and, yes, I am terrified of the response) but mostly not. Dr. Cohen's high standards and specific feedback have made me not only a better writer but also a better teacher. [Picky Rule #29: "Be consistent when you have two or more parallel structures in a sentence."]

Dr. Cohen is no stranger to my students at Elkton, Md., High School. When I teach Shakespeare, I begin the unit by describing how Dr. Cohen changed my outlook on Shakespeare and English literature as a whole. I entered college with a solid background in iambic pentameter and a knowledge of the difference between "exit" and "exeunt." What I lacked was passion for the material. Back then, I read Shakespeare for the same reason I eat broccoli — I understood the importance of a high-fiber diet in terms of both literature and my digestive system. In Dr. Cohen's Shakespeare's Comedies class, however, I came to know the Bard as a brilliant, bawdy and flawed human being who also wrote the best plays in history. I got it: the puns, the vulgarity, the comedy, the pathos. I no longer read Shakespeare's works because they are "superhuman;" I read Shakespeare's works because they are exquisitely human. [Picky Rule #28: "Write about works of art in the present tense, since Hamlet will be stabbing Polonius and Charlie Chaplin will be eating his shoe long after your grandchildren have forgotten your name."]

Dr. Cohen's ability to draw his students into each play through class performance, creative projects and his own considerable charisma changed how I view Shakespeare and how I view literature. English majors view the world with a literature lens through which we associate our books with our lives and our lives with our books. Before Dr. Cohen, my lens was cloudy with a chance of pretentiousness. Since Dr. Cohen, I am more inclined to try to view my world with a lens that focuses clearly on what is human, on what counts.

I never dazzled Dr. Cohen with my intellect. I was the quiet, chubby-cheeked girl up front who was too intimidated to speak. He does not know who I am, but I think about Ralph Cohen often, as a true groupie should: What does he think about Shakespeare in Love? What does he think about Judi Dench playing 007's boss in Bond films? His spread in the pages of Montpelier [Spring 2002] hangs on my bulletin board at school to provide my students with a visual aid when I explain why I love Shakespeare. I love that article. His hair is still fabulous, he is still exacting and innovative, and he has changed not only my view of Shakespeare but also is now changing the world's view as well. Picky Rule #39: "Be sure you have come to care about your paper and its ideas by the time you give it to me."

Done.

Sharon Thomas ('89)

Sharon Thomas ('89)

About the professor
A cofounder of Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, Ralph Cohen and his troupe decided to build their own theater to bring Shakespeare to an even wider audience. The Blackfriars Theatre opened in Staunton in 2001 and offers year-round performances. The theater has hosted more than 150 worldwide Shakespeare scholars and visiting directors and sponsored a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute. Cohen retired from JMU at the end of last semester, and received an honorary degree from St. Lawrence University.

About the author
Sharon Thomas ('89) and husband, Randy Cover ('89), live in North East, Md., with their two sons, Drew, 8, and Joe, 6. After an 11-year career in medical and legal publishing, Sharon has taught 10th- and 11th-grade English for the past three years. She is chair of the literacy program at Elkton High School in Elkton, Md. Randy is assistant vice president and supervising project manager for MBNA America in Newark, Del.