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Interdisciplinary Opportunities

06/29/2011

MCLA is a dream place to explore interdisciplinary learning, according to Dr. Mary Ellen Cohane, an English/communications professor at the College.

Her research ties together her studies in cultural expression, storytelling, environmental systems and economic systems. She's a busy collaborator with economists at colleges where she's served residencies, including Williams and the Five College Women's Studies Association at Holyoke.

Cohane discovered her love of storytelling in high school. She went on to earn her degree in literature and education at Fairfield University, in her home state of Connecticut, before completing her doctorate in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania.

"It turned out to be the right place for me. It was intellectually challenging, but there was a lot of opportunity in music and the arts," she said.

In l982, Penn sent Cohane out on a grant to do fieldwork in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia,  to find and present hip-hop artists. 

"I also discovered some steppers who ended up bringing attention to their art on a national scale when they were chosen to perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival," she explained.   

It was during this time that Dr. Cornel West - known for his political and moral insight and criticism, as well as his contribution to the post-1960s civil rights movement - hired Cohane. He asked her to help the residents of Tasker Homes - a public housing project known for violence - to create a festival to celebrate their music, stories, art and food. 

"On some days, my way was blocked by Milton Street and a group of followers who were demonstrating outside about the bad conditions in the project," said Cohane. "They got to know my little white car and would wave me past.

"My own neighborhood in West Philly was also a violent place at that time, so I wrote a National Endowment for the Arts grant to do fieldwork and present the music of the people who lived in the neighborhood - Irish, Turkish, Bangalorian, Vietnamese, Laotian, Balkan and African-American - to each other at  a local community center."  

Her graduate studies also took her to Ireland to study its culture.

When teaching at New Jersey's Rutgers University, Cohane met an MCLA professor. "She sang the praises of this great little public college nestled in the heart of my favorite skiing territory. Six months later, I started at MCLA." 

Since arriving on campus, "I've had a chance to use my background in world cultures to teach the deep cultural contexts of these texts.  That year in Ireland came in handy for teaching Irish Poetry and James Joyce," she continued.  "And at MCLA, I also met up with feminists Sumi Culligan and Michele Ethier, and we soon began work on the women's studies minor. It was a great day when I got to teach the first 'Introduction to Women's Studies' course in 1987."

Cohane also has a keen interest in environmental studies. She continues her fieldwork in Ireland, as well as with the Yupiks in Alaska and the Utes in Colorado - cultures being threatened by environmental degradation. 

As MCLA's environmental studies major took off, she collaborated with professors from the biology and business departments, co-teaching a course on wild foods and the environment, and the economic forces that affect them.

"All this impacts my interactions with students at MCLA, in every class. I particularly enjoy teaching composition classes for first-year students and working one-on-one with them as they take off on their own research on some of the most intriguing ideas I've come across in my studies.

"Recently, an environmental studies major from Chile linked up with a journalism major to write a research paper on garden-to-table projects in colleges and universities across the United States," she explained. "These are the sorts of interdisciplinary opportunities that make me happy to be at MCLA. Teaching through an interdisciplinary lens fits, I think, what education needs to be these days."