Jeffrey Cohen described his 23-year tenure at GW as “magical” – and not only because of the legends and myths he taught in his Medieval Literature course.
It was the first course he ever taught at GW and Cohen, the director of the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies and an English professor, said he immediately “clicked” with his students, keeping in touch with them decades after they graduated from GW.
“I’ve watched them grow up, I’ve watched them have families, I’ve watched them start to have older children and it’s been an amazing thing,” he said. “We bonded in that course.”
“I’ve had some of the worst of GW and some of the best.”
But Cohen’s time at GW will soon come to an end as he leaves at the end of the semester to become the dean of humanities at Arizona State University. Colleagues said Cohen has been an asset to the English department because of his wisdom, commitment to students and deep passion for issues he has studied throughout his life.
The Massachusetts native first began his career at GW as a professor in 1994, and later became the chair of the department from 2006 to 2009. His interest in literature dates back to when he was an undergraduate taking a course in medieval studies at the University of Rochester. He later earned his doctorate in English, American Literature and Language at Harvard University about 26 years ago.
Cohen has taught medieval literature throughout his time at GW and founded the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, created in 2008 with the help of faculty and students in English, history and romance languages.
Cohen was the first to teach a literature and environment seminar at GW this semester – part of a new series of research seminars for sophomores. He said the course is part of what he loves about the University because it features students from different educational backgrounds coming together to learn about diverse topics in literature.
“That’s what seems to me such a GW ethos, where you take something – and you’re a little perplexed by it because you don’t know what to make of it – but instead of running away, you just keeping thinking with it until you can do something with it that makes you really happy,” he said.
Cohen’s interest in the environment and ecology also spurred him to co-author “Earth,” a book that sought to offer a new perspective on how humans view the Earth as an object from space. In total, Cohen has written, edited and contributed to more than a dozen books on topics ranging from post-humanism, eco-criticism and monster theory – the idea that beasts and demons personify cultural anxieties.
Not all of Cohen’s experiences at GW were positive – from supply closet-sized classrooms to rooms with no technology and even one Phillips Hall classroom last year that smelled like sewage, Cohen wasn’t afraid to speak out about issues faculty and students faced.
“I’ve had some of the worst of GW and some of the best,” he said. “The good thing is, even in those situations, the students made the best of it. They approached it with humor.”
The English department has also shrunk in recent years as the department wasn’t able to replace retiring faculty, leaving fewer professors to teach advanced courses, Cohen said.
Cohen said he will be able to work on a larger scale with more resources as dean of humanities at ASU. He said he plans to develop programs in environmental and public humanities and aims to increase community across humanities departments at ASU.
“It is a huge move. I’m very excited to have resources on a scale that I do not have access to here at GW,” he said. “They have an administration that wants to make the humanities flourish, so how could I say no to that?”
Colleagues said Cohen’s teaching style, leadership and charisma will be missed at the University.
Marshall Alcorn, the chair of the English department, said Cohen’s achievements in academia over the last 20 years have made him “one of the most influential and imaginative thinkers of his generation in English studies.”
“He challenged our assumptions of history through literature and brilliantly overlaid classroom topics with issues in the present moment.”
“Few universities have faculty with the intellectual stature of Jeffrey, even fewer universities have faculty with such profound awareness of global issues and moral responsibility,” he said.
Holly Dugan, an associate professor of English who worked closely with Cohen, said he inspired her to change her style of teaching to be more compassionate in the classroom and spurred her to be more vocal about the issues that she studied.
“He leads through example and has shown me the value of advocating for the people, issues and ideas that I care about. That’s been transformational,” she said. “I can’t imagine this place without him.”
Danielle Heflin, a former student of Cohen, said his classes are interactive and engaging and he encouraged his students to think about familiar topics in new ways.
“Dr. Cohen provided new perspectives about a historical world many of us thought we already knew everything about,” she said. “He challenged our assumptions of history through literature and brilliantly overlaid classroom topics with issues in the present moment.”