Jeffrey Cohen to join ASU as dean of humanities


Emma Greguska

The night before Thanksgiving, while traveling with his family for the holiday, Jeffrey Cohen sat down in his hotel room for a Skype chat with Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow. Cohen listened as Crow recalled his time at Columbia University, particularly the several English courses he took and how they changed what he thought was possible to accomplish in higher education.

“I felt very moved by that,” Cohen said. “For me, Michael’s articulation of humanities being an affirmative force in society, moving people forward, inspiring them to want to make better futures. … I thought, 'That is exactly the humanities I want to participate in.'”

Jeffrey Cohen

In January, Cohen will bring that mindset to ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, where he has been named dean of humanities.

“It is a great pleasure to welcome Jeffrey to ASU,” Executive Vice President and University Provost Mark Searle said. “His work as a leader and a scholar and his commitment to the humanities as a discipline that can help us solve society’s greatest problems make him a perfect fit and a welcome addition to the CLAS leadership team.”

Cohen comes to ASU from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he served as a professor and chair of the department of English. During his tenure there, Cohen founded the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, which brought together 22 faculty members across nine departments, as well as allied faculty from Georgetown, American University, Catholic University and the University of Maryland.

The institute operates on the principle of “radical welcome” — that is, all who are interested have access to its programs — and emphasizes including students in research, increasing diversity in the field and communicating the importance of its work to the general public.

“The best work that we do is work that isn’t solitary,” Cohen said. “Working with people in different disciplines allows us to frame our questions differently [so that] we wind up intensifying the research and coming up with surprising outcomes.”

Under Cohen’s guidance, both the institute and the department of English saw robust progress, including several hundred thousand dollars in fellowship support awarded to faculty and the transformation of the department into a research-oriented entity known for its excellence in teaching.

Passion for the humanities and interdisciplinarity

As an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, Cohen considered majoring in biology until he took a course with a professor who specialized in medieval studies. As part of the course, he translated a shoebox full of Latin manuscript fragments that had been donated to the library.

The tedious task that might have turned off some students only piqued Cohen’s interest.

“I came to see through this labor that when you work to understand a story written in another language and part of a distant time, a window opens into a lost world,” he said. “What could be more exciting?”

Later, as a graduate student at Harvard, Cohen explored the idea of monsters and their societal implications in his dissertation, which became the book “Monster Theory: Reading Culture.” That process involved working with a group of scholars who specialized in many different time periods to get an idea of how society’s view of monsters evolved over time.

Through that experience he learned two things: One, humanities is a great field in which to think about some of the most pressing contemporary concerns, and two, how much can be gained from thinking about projects in a collaborative team. 

“I was trained at Harvard in a traditional way, and I am grateful for that education,” Cohen said. "But that training has its limits. I yearned to ask questions that could not be well-framed through a single discipline. … The solitude of my study paradoxically reaffirmed for me the necessity of collaboration: We do best when we work together, in conversation.”

Scholarly inquiry

“Monster Theory” resonated outside of academic circles, as well. Since its publication, Cohen has been called on to serve as an expert witness in a copyright-infringement case for the movie “Monsters, Inc.” and as a consultant for children’s books on monsters.

“The invitation to step out of the university and be a part of the larger public made me realize there are a lot of people in the world who want to hear more about the work that scholars in humanities are doing and why it actually matters,” he said.

Two decades later, “Monster Theory” is still in print and is often used to teach freshman composition courses. 

Cohen has since shifted his scholarly focus to topics related to ecology and climate change, something he says is influenced by his New England origins.

“There’s something about growing up by the ocean and pines and granite that makes you want to think about ecology,” he said.

"Humanities scholars and the students they teach have a talent for asking difficult questions about what it means to be human, to create art, to live and love in the world — and they are very good at framing vibrant responses. What could be more relevant? What could be more necessary?” 
— Jeffrey Cohen, new dean of humanities at ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

One of his most recent books, “Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman,” he describes as “an intellectual puzzle of unlocking what is interesting about the dullest substance in the world.”

“It’s just rocks, the everyday material of the Earth,” he said. “But turning to the rich history of ways in which humans have thought about earth, gems, rocks, and using that to think about our place in the Earth and our responsibility to the environment opened up new doors to me and re-solidified the importance of doing work that has one foot in the past, one foot in the present.”

The book was recently awarded the Rene Wellek Prize for best book in comparative literature from the American Comparative Literature Association.

Next up is a book Cohen is co-writing with a fellow scholar about Noah’s Ark.

“It’s the first story humans have told about survival of climate change,” he said. “It’s a myth that has new relevance in this moment.”

Real-world impact

Though Cohen has an extensive resume that includes more than a dozen books and even more scholarly journal articles and essays, as well as a host of public and private lectures, what matters most to him is the impact he has had on his students.  

“I’m at year 23 at George Washington University, but I’m still in touch with students who were in the first class that I taught,” he said. He has watched them go on to become professionals in their fields. “I saw something unfold in the classroom space that they took with them for the rest of their lives.”

In December 2015, Cohen came to ASU for about a week to work with School of Earth and Space Exploration Director and Professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton on the book “Earth,” a re-examination of our home planet from the perspectives of a planetary scientist and a literary humanist.

During that time, he said he had a chance to explore the campus and soak in the culture of the university.

“I really liked the energy,” Cohen said. He even sat in on a few classes and was impressed by the modes of teaching he witnessed. So impressed that he brought it up to Elkins-Tanton one evening on the drive home.

He remembers telling her, “You’re so fortunate to be a faculty member at a university where the answer to anything that seems like it might bring its students and its faculty somewhere new and exciting is always, 'Yes! We should try that,' instead of, 'These are the reasons it won’t work.'”

“That lack of negativity was refreshing to hear, that yes was spoken more often than no,” he said.

Cohen was particularly excited about what that meant for humanities, the downfall of which publications from The Atlantic to Inside Higher Ed have been bemoaning for the past few years.

But Cohen sees things differently — especially at ASU.

“These days it is not unusual to speak endlessly about the crisis in the humanities: lack of funding, declining institutional enthusiasm, decreasing enrollments, the whole apocalyptic thing. Sadly such talk seldom leads to much action — and is disheartening, even paralyzing,” he said.

“One of the many reasons that I am excited about becoming the dean of humanities at ASU is that where others see a crisis, ASU — from President Crow to the leaders and faculty of the various schools — see an opportunity. This is the moment not to bewail the state of the field but to reinvigorate the study of the humanities," he said.

"Humanities scholars and the students they teach have a talent for asking difficult questions about what it means to be human, to create art, to live and love in the world — and they are very good at framing vibrant responses. What could be more relevant? What could be more necessary?”

Shortly before announcing Cohen’s impending arrival at the university, ASU was ranked No. 4 in humanities research expenditures in the latest National Science Foundation Higher Education Research and Development rankings, ahead of Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia.

“Humanities research helps explain topics that are of critical importance to Arizona, the United States and the world, such as water scarcity, food ethics, immigration, war and the role of religion in public life,” said Matthew Delmont, director and professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

“If you pick up a newspaper on any given day, humanities scholars are best positioned to explain why the world looks the way it does today and to provide context to understand how we can navigate the future.”

Looking forward

With an eye toward that future, Cohen is getting his ducks in a row, preparing with great enthusiasm to continue stoking a passion for humanities at ASU, which he feels is uniquely poised to excel in the area of environmental humanities given its groundbreaking School of Sustainability.

“There’s plenty of room for humanists to be part of that conversation,” Cohen said. “The environmental humanities cast a wide net in terms of research that many faculty and students can participate in, and already are. … I believe ASU could be the world leader when it comes to environmental humanities.”

He’s keen to share that viewpoint with the public, which will be another focus of his.

“It’s very important to me that humanities be public-facing and able to communicate with a wide audience outside of the university. I want to start that conversation with the community and get humanities out there in a way that they can be amplified and heard in the current climate when we need to be having deeper conversations about the future.”

Cohen’s final (at least for the moment) priority at ASU will be to lay the groundwork for a project he’s calling “The Future of the Past,” which will aim to support, build upon and intensify the work of scholars of color in fields such as classical, medieval and early modern studies in order to ensure the next generation of scholars in those fields are the most diverse to date.

“If the study of the humanities in every time period better resembled the actual student population of an institution like ASU,” he said, “we would be making a great deal of progress. The humanities are for everyone.” 

Elkins-Tanton is thrilled to have Cohen joining the university and is excited at the prospect of future collaboration.

“I don’t know very many people more ethical, more deeply thoughtful about leadership and the role of academia,” she said. “I think he’s going to love ASU, and I think ASU is going to love him.”

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now