May 27, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 17

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    [bertram cohler] by jason smith
    Bertram Cohler

    Bertram Cohler, William Rainey Harper Professor in the Social Sciences Collegiate Division

    By William Harms
    News Office

    For Bertram Cohler, who has won his second Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the essence of good teaching begins with respect for students.

    “I learn a tremendous amount from what the students say in class, and I want them to know I consider that important,” said Cohler, the William Rainey Harper Professor in the Social Sciences Collegiate Division.

    Cohler teaches six to eight courses each year in the College, including the Social Sciences Core sequence Self, Culture and Society.

    In teaching the class, Cohler avoids lecturing and instead tries to engage his students in a discussion of the big ideas put forth by the authors of the texts being studied.

    “The big question I always have for them is ‘Where do you see that in the text?’ The question challenges students to read the texts carefully and understand what the arguments are that the writers are making.”

    The four thinkers most often studied in the sequence are Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud.

    “I’ve been teaching this course for 27 years. I love it as much today as I did when I started; however, I think some things have changed over the years in the way we teach the texts,” said Cohler, who also received the Quantrell in 1975.

    When he started teaching the Social Sciences Core sequence, professors sought to help students understand the authors behind the texts, so they could realize the writers’ intentions. “Now we also want to know what the author is saying to the students, what this means to them,” he continued.

    This additional exploration of the material is part of what Cohler and others describe as the “subjective curriculum,” the meanings that students draw from the texts based on their individual responses.

    Cohler, a graduate of the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago, noted, “I have a double life as a psychoanalyst, and I think it helps me better appreciate that aspect of learning.”

    The texts, particularly those of Weber and Freud, often touch students’ own identities by dealing with topics such as religion. Additionally, the class reads books that challenge some of their own views, such as texts on the colonial conquest of the Americas.

    “I had a student once whose parents had been missionaries,” Cohler explained. “Her view of the role of religion in the colonial conquest was quite different from that of the author we were studying. By respecting her as a student, I tried not to pass judgment on her particular point of view, but I also tried to get her to respect and understand the perspective of the author,” he said.

    The process of respect also extends to the relationships between students in the class, who are together for the entire year and accordingly learn how to appreciate and value the opinions of others.

    “I have never had any thought of feeling burned out in the classroom,” he said. “The students here are so smart, so interesting, that every class is a new experience,” he said.

    Cohler’s interests presently include life-story and response to adversity and stigma. This year, he is teaching a course on Sexual Identity and the Life Course of Gay and Lesbian Lives, which looks at the social contexts of gays and lesbians at various points in their lives, from childhood to old age. The course was inspired by a book Cohler co-authored with Robert Galatzer-Levy, Lecturer in Psychiatry, which will be published by the University Press next spring.

    That work is part of a continuing interest Cohler has had in life-course development throughout his career. “I have published in my field every year that I have been on the faculty, and I believe that my experience as a researcher makes me a better teacher.”

    Cohler has been part of the University community much of his life. He attended the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School and University High School and continued his work at the College, where he received an A.B. in Human Development in 1961. He received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1967 from the department of social relations and returned to Chicago in 1969 to become Director of the Orthogenic School at the request of Bruno Bettelheim, who was retiring.

    “Bruno was very caring, and I owe a lot to him in my own teaching,” Cohler said. “Bruno had a tremendous capacity for empathy and that is something I try to emulate. It is an ability that helps me respect the students.”