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Northwestern University

Northwestern Honors Historian

In a spirited effort to bring history to life, Professor Deborah Cohen has challenged students to craft dialogues inspired by the historical scenes found in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Thorne Miniature Rooms; to pen diaries of historical figures and their next of kin; and to traverse Victorian memoirs and newspapers in a scavenger-hunt-like quest for a research topic.

Those imaginative and creative assignments combined with energetic lectures have now earned Cohen the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence award, an annual university-wide honor recognizing outstanding dedication to undergraduate education at Northwestern.

“I’m tremendously honored and delighted to win this award,” says Cohen, the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of the Humanities at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences since 2010.

The award concludes an action-packed 18 months for Cohen. She recently served as a general nonfiction jury member for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, while also garnering acclaim for a trio of stories in The Atlantic, including a piece on the insights the Disraelis, a political power couple in 19th-century England, might offer into Bill and Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, her third book, Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain, won both of her field’s book prizes.

In what ways has your teaching evolved since your arrival at Northwestern five years ago?

Deborah Cohen: I had been in the classroom for nearly 15 years by the time I arrived at Northwestern, but the university and its students have provided so much freedom and room for experimentation. It’s been a real opportunity to think creatively about assignments that help to cultivate a sense of understanding, even empathy, for people in the past. 

How would you characterize your overarching goal in the classroom?

DC: Above all else, I emphasize the importance of thinking responsibly, by which I mean examining phenomena in all of their complexity. This is a crucial skill for citizenship in a world in which the problems are frequently knotty, and the ready explanations too often simple.

What drives your scholarly pursuits regarding 19th- and 20th-century European history?

DC: Three of my four grandparents were immigrants, so that Old World was always very vivid to me. What I really enjoy about the discipline of history is its diversity. The work my colleagues are doing here at Northwestern — from the urban history of early modern Japan to medical cultures in African states to the United States’ relationship to its overseas territory — demonstrates the riches of the field. 

Your recent bylines in The Atlantic bring compelling historical arguments from academic journals into the mainstream. Why is this an important mission for you?

DC: Frankly, I enjoy the challenge of saying something thought-provoking and useful in maybe 1,200-4,000 words that might otherwise deserve a whole book. It’s an opportunity to showcase history’s many angles in a concise, engaging way.

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