by Sarah Galer
Photo by Chris Strong

Cathy Cohen specializes in American politics, focusing on outside perspectives, the extra-systemic struggles around power, and how political engagement, political theory, and ideas of power evolve over time. On sabbatical this year, her usual courses explore social movements, new media and politics, race and politics, and theories of deviance, power, and marginality.

How do you feel about receiving the Quantrell Award?

It was a surprise and an incredible honor. The dialogue I have with students, the way in which they push back on assumptions, the need to provide a comprehensive sense of how things happen—these are all central to how I think about my research. So to be judged an effective teacher fits very nicely with my efforts to be a rigorous and insightful researcher.

What is your approach to teaching?

I try to respect the students in the classroom, always recognizing that what professors are there for is not just a right answer, but an exchange and engagement that helps to evolve everyone’s dialogue and thinking. I try to make the classroom an open, shared space where people of diverse opinions and perspectives can struggle with ideas, concepts, and theories. I also try to facilitate a student’s understanding of the relationship between theory and practice.

What is special about teaching at the University of Chicago?

Teaching is joyous for me. Here I have the opportunity to work with really bright, energetic, optimistic young people. To hear the ways in which they think about American politics, equality, citizenship, or power and to watch the process of learning is really an amazing thing. When I assign readings, I don’t even think twice about whether students will read the material and think about the arguments. Most of the students I work with take intellectual thought and the production of knowledge quite seriously. Also, many of the students I work with are very serious about using the theories learned in the classroom to help empower more marginal members of our society. I respect the translation work that these students, many student activists, are doing.

Do you have any sources of inspiration when it comes to teaching?

Many. I’ll highlight three:

Firstly, when I was a junior faculty member at Yale, a senior scholar, James Scott, said, “Let’s teach a course together.” I noted the way in which he always worked to ensure there was a vibrant conversation happening in the classroom, that no one perspective dominated, and that there was an open space for critical engagement while at the same time never losing the a sense of where he wanted students to go by the end of that class.

Secondly, while on sabbatical, I’m teaching a course at the UChicago Charter High School. Those students challenge me in different ways than undergraduates here. It makes me work hard to ensure I am a good communicator, that the readings I have are appropriate for high school students, and that I am really engaged in teaching and not just presenting material. That has been incredibly beneficial.

Thirdly, watching my 6-year-old daughter Ella in kindergarten. Watching her excitement about learning reminds me of the incredible work good teachers can do if they do their job well and take it seriously. I want to generate that same time of excitement even in the 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds in my classroom.

Do you have any pointers to inspire future professors?

I guess I would tell them that they are at their best when they follow their passion. Allow students to see your connection to a subject and your willingness to learn new things about it. Always try to be respectful of the students and the knowledge they bring into the classroom. Think about the process as not just teaching material but evolving a dialogue around a subject. And be ready to evolve over time and open yourself to new pedagogical approaches. Also, be prepared to make mistakes in the classroom. If you don’t try new things, you never grow as a teacher.

Originally published on June 4, 2012.