by Kevin Walsh
June 20, 2007
Steve Cohen is Tufts University’s “Professor of the Year.” But what does that really mean?
“It’s very humbling, to say the least. I actually got an email about it on April 1st, and thought it was some sort of April Fools Day joke,” Cohen says with a laugh. “But I was very grateful. I don’t think it means that any one teacher is better than the other, but I think what the students were trying to say was that I worked hard at what I was trying to accomplish.”
The award, given annually to one faculty member, is essentially student-given, honoring a professor’s “spirit, dedication and commitment to service,” according to Amanda Richardson, chair of the TCU Senate’s Education Committee. All undergraduate students were asked to fill out a survey, one of the questions being, “Who is your favorite Tufts professor and why?”
This year, the Education Committee received more than 800 responses from students, and began tallying how many recommendations each professor received. But rather than simply judge on the amount of recommendations, they also look at the quality of each student’s response, Richardson says.
“It was clear that this year’s winner was Professor Steven Cohen,” she says. “He received the greatest number of recommendations, but also had the highest quality of recommendations.”
Cohen, a faculty member in the Education department on the Medford campus who is currently finishing his 11th year at Tufts, appears to have made a clear connection with and a lasting impression on his students. He isn’t interested in lecturing while students sit silently and take notes. Instead, he says, he acts more as a facilitator of good, interesting dialogue and critical thinking.
“Most of the time, in the classroom I figure that the reason they’re there is to have an interchange of ideas and really think things through together,” Cohen says. “So I try not to script the class.”
But in order for a course to go well, Cohen knows that a great deal of outside preparation can go a very long way in helping shape the interactions students can have inside the classroom. So he breaks it down into three questions he asks himself that, at first glance, seem simplistic but actually go much deeper: questions of, ‘Why?’ ‘What?’ and ‘How?’
“Why am I teaching?” Cohen asks. “There are a lot of ways to approach a particular subject, so once you’ve figured out why you’re teaching then you can sort of think, “Well, what?” What is it about this that you think is really interesting?”
But it’s the “how” that Cohen believes some teachers can tend to focus on too strongly.
“Often we jump to that, particularly high school teachers,” Cohen says. “Because it’s easier. The other ones are harder. Once you’ve figured out the ‘Why?’ and the ‘What?’ then you can think about the ‘How?’”
But Cohen also acknowledges that there really is no one ‘right’ way to teach and, in the end, what matters to him is making sure that his students are active in class and thinking about critical issues.
“One of the things that’s most interesting to me is how teachers approach the same subject matter very differently,” Cohen says. “There’s definitely not one way to do it. And how you approach it depends a lot on what questions you’ve asked yourself beforehand – like the ‘Why?’ and the ‘What?’ – which people will answer differently.”
Cohen’s approach is to get students active early in class, with either an introductory discussion or some sort of hands-on activity.
“I try to spend a lot of time thinking about what’s the first thing we’re doing,” Cohen says. “And I tried to be careful when I just phrased that. I didn’t say ‘what am I doing?’”
For instance, Cohen was planning to begin a class on the desegregation of Boston Public Schools by having students draw a map of Boston. His idea is for his students to have a picture in their heads of the city, and he suspects they don’t necessarily have a good picture of all the surrounding areas already. With this exercise, he then expects students to start asking questions, which will help fuel a discussion about what was happening in Boston during the 1970s in areas such as West Roxbury, Roslindale, Hyde Park, Charlestown, Dorchester, the North End and South Boston.
“The point is I think students will look at a map of Boston differently after doing this drawing.”
It is this notion of “what are the students doing” that Cohen is trying to pass on to his graduate students, many of whom are teaching high school right now and reaping the rewards of having Cohen, who started teaching high school in 1976, as a mentor.
“If the kids are just taking notes the whole time, that may be good,” he says, “but it may not.”
Cohen also likes to get his students writing – usually in the form of a journal – either about a certain quotation, a question that he asks or an image he shows them. And he does this inside the class as well as outside, asking students to hand in weekly journals so that he can respond individually and personally rather than publicly.
Another important facet to Cohen’s teaching is his use of primary source documents in class, but not just any document. It has to be something that is useful in a few different ways.
“It’s not that you have to find the ‘perfect’ document,” he says, “but one that is useful in helping emphasize a point that you want to make, while also being readable in class. If it’s a 20-page speech, that’s really hard to do in a limited amount of class time and is probably something you should have assigned for homework.”
Cohen notes that one of the hardest things his graduate students face is how to lead a discussion. So, in helping them, he asks, “what did you have the students do for homework?” And often times, the answer is, “I had them read the textbook.”
“If you had just read the textbook for the first time, what would you come into class wanting to discuss?” Cohen asks sort of rhetorically. “The answer generally is, ‘not much,’ and not because textbooks are bad, but because they’re written to sort of solidify information, or to give you the ‘right answer.’ Whereas a discussion, if it’s legitimate, doesn’t really have any set answer.”
That is essentially Cohen’s point, that the more he teaches, the less he becomes sure of what ‘smart’ really means, and what the ‘right’ answers are, if anything. But if he can spark spirited, intellectual discussions and critical thinking while opening his students’ eyes to the world around them, then he has done his job.
And it is clear that he has done just that, and the students have shown their gratitude by bestowing upon him the honor of Tufts Professor of the Year.
So what does it mean to be Professor of the Year? A discussion with Steve Cohen might be a good place to start.