Velez: How were your experiences beginning your career in the teaching profession?
Cohen: My first day of class— Well, go back a second. About two days before classes began in New Mexico— And understand I was, even though I was from the Maryland suburb, I was pretty much a city slicker. I had gone to Iowa and saw the cornfields, and the University of Iowa was a wonderful, wonderful place. But it was fairly narrow; Iowa City’s a small town. When I went out to Albuquerque, New Mexico, I saw what the West was really like. I had seen lots of Westerns, movies, when I was a kid, growing up, and now I got to see all those landscapes face to face.
But I was scared to death. I had no training as a teacher and I was thrown into to three sections, two or three sections, of English 101. And I remember that we had an orientation session. And I went with two or three legal pads ready to fill up with all kinds of wisdom, so that I would know what to teach the following week. We went in, we had tea, we had cookies maybe lemonade, something like that. And the woman who was conducting the workshop, a terrific scholar and teacher of Seventeenth Century Lit[erature], said, “Now the first rule to remember is never embarrass a student in class.” So I wrote that down. And then she said, “So the rest you’re pretty much on your own, go for it.” And so here I was sitting with three legal pads and only one commit: Never embarrass a student in class.
So I went into class the first day; I was scared to death. I wasn’t used to the sunlight in New Mexico, and so I was still wearing sunglasses. And I walked in and kicked over a trashcan (laughter). And it was so loud and so raucous and, of course, the students looked up. Now I realize the students they were just as scared as I was. But I thought, Well that’s an inauspicious beginning. The other thing that happened was that when I called the roll, I did not know Spanish, and I didn’t know the pronunciation of names. And so I hate to think of how I butchered the language when I was calling the names. I mean I had students— Griago I had no trouble with, but I know I had two or three students named Jaramillo and I’m sure I called them Jare-a-millo or something like that. But what was wonderful about teaching at a state university was the diversity of the student population, because I had Spanish American students, I had Native American students, I had African American students. I had students from New Mexico, and had students from all over the country. Lots of student athletes from Chicago, for some reason, came out to New Mexico.
it was wonderful teaching there, in that environment.
Also as a graduate student, but in a doctoral program and
teaching, that was the first time I developed a sense of
with other teachers, grad students, and faculty members in the
department. And I learned a
lot from my experiences there. They
were very supportive of me when I was at New Mexico.
Velez: What other accomplishments, aside from working on the bibliography, are you most proud of?
Cohen: Well I’ve published three books, all with university presses. And one was on a colonial Maryland poet, and the other two were— One was my dissertation on Gerard Manly Hopkins. The other was a study of a infamous quarrel between two writers: Robert Louis Stevenson, and a poet named William Ernest Henley, he was the author of Invictus. I spent most of my career working on Henley. He was a patient in the Royal Infirmary at Edinburgh for twenty months. He had TB [Tuberculosis] of the Bones in his hands and feet, and he was lucky to have survived. He wrote a series of poems about his hospital experience, and they’re absolutely terrific. They would blow you away. They don’t read like Victorian poems. But I’ve done— I’ve probably published, fifteen or twenty articles on Henley.
But I wrote a book called the Henley Stevenson Quarrel. And it was odd. I was in Edinburgh and I was doing research on Henley and working at the National Library of Scotland. And as I was going through their catalog, in those days they had old card catalogs like that one over there (points). I noticed most of the cards were old and kind of crumbly, but there were a whole bunch of fairly new ones, actually very new ones. The just had a kind of a new catalog card smell to them, and they were freshly typed. And they all had the same call number, but there were probably about eighty different cards, and they had different dates. They were related to Henley, they were related to Stevenson. But they were dated from 1888, which was not at a time of great interest to me. But I thought, Well, I oughta take a look at these. And so I filled out a call slip and asked for this collection. And I saw a young keeper whispering to an aged individual, and they were pointing at me and gesturing and what not. And then the old guy disappeared.
And in the National Library of Scotland in the rare books room, there was an elevator, but it was one of those elevators that was open, and you just walk into it and descended (laughter). And after about half an hour, I happened to look up, a light came on, and here came the old man, almost like Proteus rising from the sea. And he was carrying this huge mahogany box. And he took it over to the desk, and then there was more whispering and more pointing at me. And I thought, What have I done? And the keeper, then a young guy, came over with the box and he whispered apologetically to me, “The old gentleman asks that you take care not to scratch the box.” I said, “Okay.” And then he said, “Oh, and by the way, you realize that all of these materials have been withheld from scholars for seventy-five years, and that permission has only been granted to open them within the last week or so.” And I said, “Well, of course.” (Laughter) I lied (laughter). And I opened the box and it was letter after letter after letter between Henley and Stevenson and a mutual friend who was also a lawyer, and it was all the correspondence related to the quarrel that they had had. And as soon as I saw it—
biographies written of Stephenson had alluded to the quarrel and
It was Henley’s fault. Some
biographies of Henley had alluded to the quarrel and said, It
Stevenson’s fault. But
nobody had said what was the essence of the quarrel.
And here was all of the correspondence; here was a book
here was a book that was simply put in front of me.
And in fact, I had all the letters photocopied, I got
to publish them, I came home that summer, I wrote the book
Henley Stevenson Quarrel, which was published by the
Florida Press. But I’ll
never forget the gentleman saying, “The old guy says take care
scratch the box.”
Velez: Do you see a growth or a change in the student body and the community or overall atmosphere of Rollins?
Cohen: Well, of course, there’s been a growth. I think that the biggest change in Orlando came with Disney. And at first I thought that it was negative. Negative in a sense that all of a sudden people asked you for I.D. All of a sudden people in stores, you had to have I.D. We’re up to that point where they just took your credit card or took your check without any difficulty. There were times when I probably locked my doors, having grown up in Washington. But there were people who—crime began to increase significantly. But of course, as Orlando has grown, so have all of the opportunities around here for culture, for art galleries, and for restaurants and things like that.
who notice or realize that I’ve been here for forty years say,
you must have seen a lot of changes at Rollins.
And that’s true. But what I
think is important are the constants.
The emphasis on students. The
concern for students, the care for students, the fact that—we
lot right now about Rollins being a student centered college.
It’s always been a student center college, so far as I
Getting to know my students, partly because of my
Maryland when only two professors knew my name, I made it a
point, and I
discovered that I had some facility for doing this, I made it a
in my first classes, of calling the roll, paying attention to
students’ names and faces, and pretty much knowing them all by
first names by the end of the class.
And that hasn’t changed for me, and I think that
take for granted at Rollins is that we know our students as
and that our students know us. You
don’t have that at most big universities. So
that’s, I think that’s the constant that has been most
important to me.
Velez: What other experiences throughout your career do you feel have had a big impact on either you or the college or the student body?
see. Well, I think
that—this will sound funny. During
one presidency, I can’t recall which one it was.
I think it might have been Jack Critchfield’s presidency.
He decided that Fox Day— Here I’m going, shifting from
State to Fox Day. But I
think it’s important. He
decided that Fox Day was outmoded.
And it may be that there were a lot of faculty members
annoyed with Fox Day for one reason or another.
Maybe not a lot, but a vocal group.
I love fox day. I think most
faculty members love Fox Day, but of course we
wouldn’t be caught dead saying that.
But he simply suspended Fox Day and I don’t know how long
stayed in suspension. Actually
it was Fred Hicks who had been one of Jack Critchfield’s
assistants. When Jack stepped down and Fred
was interim president, he, I
guess because he was part of the Rollins tradition, had been at
during Hugh McKean’s time, he was the one who brought Fox Day
a year. And then when Thad
Seymour came in, he continued the tradition of Fox Day.
I think that the— You know, in English History, there’s
Interregnum, the period between when the monarchy was suspended,
think that that time, when we didn’t have Fox Day for— You’re
historians, I don’t know how many years it was (laughter).
But when we didn’t have Fox Day, we lost something.
It was almost as if we couldn’t have a day that wasn’t
business as usual. Suspending
Fox Day. So bringing back
Fox Day was great, and I think that students still look forward
faculty still look forward to it. Again,
it’s one of those traditions that is unique to Rollins, and
nothing wrong with just sleeping in, or going to the beach, or
deep breath and relaxing for a day.
So that was, I think that that’s a significant— It taught
something, taught me something, about Rollins and tradition.
Velez: Okay, moving into the classroom.
Velez: You’ve taught a variety of courses.
Velez: Have there been any that you’ve felt were most enjoyable for you and also those you’ve felt were most challenging for you?
Cohen: Probably the one that was most challenging, and in some ways most enjoyable, was a course that I actually taught first in the Holt School, and then imported into Arts and Sciences. It was a course that was an interdisciplinary humanities course, and there were four faculty members involved in it. The others who taught with me were Carol Lauer who was in anthropology, Arnold Wettstein who was in religion, and Bob Thompson who was in psychology. This was a course that was supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. And so we had a stipend to develop the course and so we spent a good part of one of a summer planning the course, wrangling over what should be in the syllabus.
Our topic, we agreed on our topic, was human emotions. I can’t remember the first two, but they were human something. And ours was human emotions, and one reason why we selected it was that there was a provost at Rollins who had been in the philosophy department, his name was Dan DeNicola, and he taught a course in the philosophy of the emotions. And I knew that we could count on him for a keynote lecture, which was absolutely brilliant. But the reason that the course was fun was interacting with my fellow faculty members. We would, each week, one of us would lecture or conduct a course. It was a large class, it was usually two hundred? At least a hundred students, and then we would divide into small sessions. And whenever we gave exams, for example, we would meet them on a Friday morning and we would grade sample exams and exchange them to make sure that we were all on the same page. We had lots of fun, it was hard work, but it was lots of fun and we had lots of laughs in that class.
so I think that working with colleagues on a course, doing an
interdisciplinary approach and doing the collaborative course,