“How do you work?”: An Interview with Tom Cohen

As part of our efforts to connect the graduate student experience to the professorial experience here at York, we are interviewing several professors about how they manage the work/life balance and how they do their work.

Thomas CohenToday’s interview is with Professor Tom Cohen (“Thomas” only when in print), who works on Renaissance Italy, Rome especially, and that city’s rural hinterland. His take is a mix of cultural and political anthropology. He studies gestures and symbols and decodes actions. His current main project is a book on a rebellious village high in mountains east of Rome.

1. Between research, teaching, conferences, and administration, what techniques do you use to manage your time ‘on the job’? (Do you use a set schedule; do you allot a number of hours for each task; do you work during your commute; etc?

Sadly, I have no wisdom for grad students here. On top of all the work, there is also all the voluntary citizenship, the dabbling in the local version of city politics, where I chair a residents’ association that is continually embroiled in planning issues. It is hard to tell professional work from citizenship work from housework and social life. They all require attention, and what tact I can muster. On top of that, as readers of History emails can tell, I love the medium of writing, and put far too much creativity into emails, both public and private. I also love conversation, so that on campus I am always engaged with somebody, whether familiar or a stranger. So I get little work done when on campus, unless you count the pleasure of communication as work — as, in one sense it is, as it pays to keep track of people and it is good practice to learn from the people one encounters.

So I have no system, and I have the vice of doing the emails first, before I settle down to work on heavier matters, and then the emails devour a lot of time.

I can afford a certain amount of chaos, as I am a very swift writer and I have the gift of lively, provocative prose. My imagination is usually in overdrive, and my work is richly playful. I bang scholarly things out in a fury and then edit them at length. I am also a swift editor of others. I am far better at good ideas than I am at mastering the literature; reading pedestrian prose I am supposed to know well is hard going and organizing notes on what others have said — well, it is something I should do in a more systematic way.

As an editor, I am a minimalist. I want to use few short words. So I have a game: I take a word-count and character-count of my draft, and then see how much I can shrink it without losing a shred of message. Every page or two, to test progress, I re-do my count.

2. When and where do you work best?

Not sure, really. I can work where a laptop goes. I like to use one end of the couch while the dog sits on my feet. Now, archives are a splendid place to work, but the work there is of a different nature.

3. Do you use any tools or software for your research that you find particularly helpful?

Much of my work is microhistorical. For that reason, I try to know everything there is to know about something very small: a day in the life of a village; a husband’s poison plot against his wife; the abduction of a dwarf; a village’s reactions to a father’s honour-killing of his daughter, for instance. When I do a job like that, I find it utterly crucial to build dossiers — on time, on persons, and on particular facts, be they incidents, objects, or places. I work a bit as those cops work on tv shows, with their charts on the wall — all their perps, and post-it notes. But instead of using the cop-house wall, I just work inside Word, as it is nicely searchable. When files grow long, and they can run to dozens and dozens of “pages”, it helps to build a fluid table of contents, where all key terms are marked with a symbol that eases searchabilty. So, for instance, in the daughter-murder case I have to do this winter, I might write *tumble down stairs in my outline, and then make sure that the stair-tumble-section of my time-line has a header with the same asterisk. The system is simple but very effective, as the time-line easily melds into the narrative itself when it comes time to write. And, atop that, a good time line is a fine way to figure out what I don’t not know, and to locate all the contradictions in the evidence. A time-line is also precious when one sifts multiple informants, each of whom tells a tale in a different way, adding some things and omitting others. So the time-line melds the versions and signals the contradictions.

I have also found it very precious to use maps, especially really detailed maps and, for the 1500’s, old city views, the best to understand the spatial frame in which a story happened.

Even better than maps is to use the place itself, as, in Rome, one can well, as the city-fabric, for all its changes, is in some ways very conservative. The richest experience is to walk a story through the very buildings where it happened. I have had the good luck, on one occasion, to have the very castle where a murder happened, and to crawl around inside it with an architect who was working on a restoration. Blueprints in hand, we looked for the room where the husband killed his wife and the window through which the wife’s lover had come dangling by a rope to his last hour of pleasure and sudden death in bed.

So, I would say to graduate students that iconography is wonderful: maps, photos, paintings, other images. And material remains are potent tools and powerful sources for good writing. I really like to know the place where my history happened: the shape of the hills, the vegetation with its colours and perfumes, the quality of light, the birdsong and cicada calls, and the streets, squares and palaces in town. My PhD mentor, J.H. Parry, did a conquistadores book, on Mexico, and wherever his men rode or strode, Parry walked behind them, learning their landscapes.

Another tool, obviously, is archival photography. If you go up to 5-megs per shot you can pretty well climb inside the letter ‘a’ (or any other letter). That makes for speed. One harvests heaps of data in hours flat.

On the other hand, I would rather transcribe from paper than from a screen. So I love to work slowly, with the old papers, my trials, just letting the contours of a story emerge slowly, and gossiping about what I am finding with the other scholars at the archive. There is a magic in that that no speedy photo session can come close to. And paper has its advantages: you can look at it from different angles and see what you can make out in shifting light. You have the watermark, a clue to dating. The great disadvantage of paper is the illegible stuff — one can approximate the image on the page but never copy it so precisely as a camera can. Often it is only weeks or months later that eureka strikes.

One problem with archival trips that are all photography and no reading is that the researcher does not really come to understand the structure and the contents of the source.

So it is best to do some of both.

4. How do you juggle between your family life and your career? Do you face or have you faced particular challenges in this regard? How do you overcome them?

Well, there is a great fat hole in my c.v. which I call “kids.” When the children were small, both Libby and I parented a great deal and we two wrote very little. She was part-time, what we would now call CUPE II, and barely even that. I had the good luck to have the steady job. But we agreed that her work mattered too and did our best to allow time for both of us. Libby was not a prof until the age of 49; she was at York in marginal ways for some 24 years, off and on, but she managed to be converted because she had a strong record of writing and scholarly activity, something she could manage because she kept her teaching load light and I covered for her. Now, we had the good luck to have a steady income thanks to my job. The precarious labour that PhDs now face, with short gigs and multiple jobs on several campuses had not yet taken root. I suspect that the whole business of launching a careers has become ten times more stressful and uncertain.

5. Are there any aspects of your work that you were surprised to encounter when you embarked upon your career?

Training was very different back in the sixties. I was at Harvard, where they just assumed that a Harvard PhD would go out into the world and succeed, with no preparation to speak of. The world would want us, employ us, and give us time to flourish, went the assumption. So nobody pushed us to publish, to go to conferences, to hold conferences on campus. That would all come later, once one arrived at a job. In fact, these assumptions were ill-founded. Around 1972, around the time of the Oil Boycott and the rise of OPEC, the long post-war boom came to an end; it has never returned. The luxuriant job market for PhDs suddenly shriveled and never really recovered. I was lucky; after I left Harvard the lights went out on history jobs. In the lean years, grad training became much more professional, much more out-put driven. So I had to learn all the tricks of the trade the hard way, by trial and lots of error.

The other shock was teaching at York. I learned to teach at Harvard, in 1965 or so. “Read it!” I would say, and of course they read it. All the students were eager, smart, well-read, ambitious, and glib, and most of them were eager talkers. And then I came to York. “Read it!” I said. And guess what! Lots of them did not read it, did not want to read it, did not care if I knew they had not read it, had nothing to say or no nerve to say what they might want to say, and little desire, it seemed, to learn. Well, then, I had to reinvent my whole method of teaching, to fit real students in the real world, York, and most other schools. So, gradually, I learned a teaching style that works for ordinary folk, some talented, some eager, some not, in that great mix we know here. I no longer just say “Read it!” Now, I say “Oh but is this an exciting thing to read and are we not going to have good fun with it!” After 44 years at York, I have begun to get the hang of it.

6. Is there any piece of advice that you wish your professors had told you when you were a grad student?

Harvard ain’t the world, kid!

Thank you again to Dr. Cohen for finding the time to answer our questions! If you have a professor you would like to recommend for an interview, or if you are a professor and would like to be interviewed, please let us know!

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