Elisabeth Cohen’s dissertation is on ninth-century Arabic poet Abdullah Ibn Al-Mu’tazz, but her life is more Renaissance woman than medieval man, with active pursuits including playing violin, weaving, studying Talmud and writing (and reading) science fiction.
While plugging away at a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton, she has also co-founded College Students for Enrichment in Secondary Schools (CSESS), a program that places undergrads from Harvard (her alma mater) in five New York school classrooms as teachers; they teach elective courses the schools don’t traditionally offer.
CSESS (pronounced C-sess), which launched this January with support from Repair the World and the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel Alumni Venture Fund, exposes high school kids to new subjects like music theory, game theory and linguistics.
“The idea is for kids to come out realizing that there’s an interesting world out there, and that when they get to college, there is a wide variety of things they want to look into,” Cohen explains.
At the same time, the program offers its volunteers teaching experience and a constructive, meaningful way to spend a vacation that many Harvard students complain is too long.
Although Cohen lives in Washington, D.C. (her husband is doing a government fellowship there) and Harvard is in Cambridge, Mass., CSESS is situated in New York because Cohen had the most education contacts here.
While she plans to finish her studies, Cohen is more interested in teaching than a career in academia and dreams eventually of starting a school that would expose students to a wide range of topics.
Her interest in Arabic literature grew out of an “interest in the grammar of Semitic languages” sparked by studying Hebrew at Los Angeles’ Milken Community Jewish High School.
In college she studied Arabic, and was struck by how little exposure Westerners have to Middle Eastern arts and literature. Ibn Al-Mu’tazz, the poet of her dissertation “is one of the 12 most famous Classical Arab poets, and any Arab on the street would recognize him, but there are few books in English about him,” she notes.
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Despite her academic studies, Cohen has been to the Middle East only once, on a high school summer program in Israel. The poet she studies lived near Baghdad “and that hasn’t been a particularly safe place to travel since 2002, when I started studying Arabic.”
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