Environmental humanities according to ASU’s Dean of
Humanities, Jeffery Cohen.
By: Laura Madden
Earlier this year, Dean Jeffrey Cohen joined Arizona State
University (ASU) as Dean of Humanities in the College of
Liberal Arts and Sciences. I sat down with Dean Cohen
to learn more about his devotion to ASU, his contribution to
environmental humanities, and his belief in using collaboration and
conversation across disciplines to solve real world problems.
My interview revealed his palpable passion for both higher
education at ASU as well as the message of Tikkun Olam: Do not
stand idly by (TO3). Dean Cohen is an example of a man who walks
his talk. Our September issue cover, which featured the TO3 Art
exhibit, was partially sponsored by ASU School of Humanities.
Having attended the opening reception of TO3 myself, and feeling
deeply moved by the themes of the exhibit, I was eager to learn of his
I found our conversation to be insightful and inspiring, and even
walked away feeling better equipped to address the worldly issues
that I find most troubling, such as climate change, environmental and
social injustices. Dean Cohen’s responses invite you to think about
the world in a larger way.
LAURA MADDEN: What drew you to your position at ASU?
DEAN JEFFREY COHEN: I truly believe in the charter of this
university. It’s a charter that is built on giving our students access
to the best education they could possibly have. We are very public
facing. We do everything not for our own enrichment, but to make
this world better. This university takes this very seriously. ‘To mend
the world’ is what the mission of ASU is all about.
I am dedicated to making this a place where we train students who
are then empowered and enabled to make this a better world. I have a
lot of faith in the ASU students. To be part of equipping them to make
this future more just and sustainable – that just makes me very happy
to be in this position.
LM: How do the themes of Tikkun Olam apply to your life?
DJC: Tikkun Olam sometimes gets translated as heal or mend the world, but I really like Curator Joan Baron’s emphasis on ‘do not stand
DO NOT STAND IDLY BY. It’s an imperative. You have to leave the
world better than you found it. That is what we are called to do.
LM: What part of the exhibit had the most impact on you?
DJC: The one that really got to me was a piece by artist and ASU
faculty member Christine Lee: a woven workers hat that was made to
look like a hat often worn by Latino workers in this area who take on
climate-extreme jobs that most other people don’t want.
She’d woven this hat together from other hats, using the wood but
also leaving it open at the ends to show the convergence between
natural materials and the labor that is often invisible to many people;
they’ll see the worker, but not see the worker, as if they blend in with
But to make that labor visible and invite anyone that looks on it to
think about ‘Who is actually sustaining our environment? To whom
have we outsourced that work? Why are we satisfied to allow those
people to be invisible to us even though we see them? How did we
learn not to see the actual labor that makes our environments here in
the Phoenix area actually keep going?’
I loved that piece.
LM: How do you see TO3 as being a learning opportunity for ASU
DJC: I thought this would be perfect for students to be brought into
a single piece and to use it to open up the world and to see differently.
I would have students go to the exhibit and spend a lot of time just
attending to the works of art. A lot is gained by just spending some
time with one of the art works and getting to know it better.
LM: We discussed the topic of climate change, desert humanities
DJC: We who live in the desert have to think about ways of living
more sustainably than it’s been done. I’ve worked with the faculty
here on this idea called desert humanities, which is to think in a
climate of extremes- what we could do to have a lighter footprint on
the Earth, to live more sustainably, more justly?
In some ways Phoenix is a test lab for what the future is going to
look like across the world. We are looking at a future of temperature
extremes. It’s only going to get warmer.
One thing we don’t talk about enough is desertification. More cities
are going to be facing extremes of high temperature and severe water
shortages that goes with the climate change we are experiencing. If
we [Phoenix] can articulate a way to live better in those conditions, I
think we’ll really be contributing something.
For more information on Dean Jeffrey Cohen, please see www.
jeffreyjeromecohen.com. To learn about the Arizona State University
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, see www.clas.asu.edu/degrees.
The Tikkun Olam Art exhibit runs through January 23, 2019 at the
Cutler Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center Gallery located at 122 E Culver
St. in Phoenix. It’s open Monday through Friday from 11 AM to 3 PM
and First and Third Fridays from 6 to 9 PM.
Laura Madden is a fashion advocate, model, and creator of Laura Madden
Lifestyle, a lifestyle brand and blog that inspires a life of style, sustainability and
self-esteem. Visit laura-madden.com and follow her on Instagram @lmlifestylist
for sustainable shopping tips and her sustainable fashion finds.