For this blog post I wanted to share my own experiences working with Pat. I first met her in the fall of 2007, my first quarter in the history graduate program. In that very first quarter at UCSB, thrown head-first into a new environment with a heavy work load, I ended up working with her quite frequently, both as a teaching assistant for her US survey course and as a student in the US historiography reading seminar that she taught. I remember being impressed with the way that Cohen never read from notes, delivering all of her lectures from memory.
Technically I was not one of Pat’s students – my research interests and methodological approach differed from hers in key ways. I will let others who know her work more intimately speak to Pat’s impressive scholarly contributions. Nonetheless, I believe that Pat played a key role in my intellectual development, which is one reason I’ve written this blog. She served on my exam and dissertation committees, offered me sound advice and feedback when it came to writing proposals for conferences and fellowships, wrote me letters of recommendation for jobs, caught errors before I sent out article manuscripts for publication, etc.
That first quarter at UCSB was a bit of a rough one for me. I was living in an apartment complex straddling the campus and the party-loving, hedonistic community of Isla Vista. Actually, it was more like a dorm. Most of the occupants were undergraduates, interspersed with a few graduate students. I was only twenty-four years old at the time, not certain of the career decision I had made (heck, I’m still not), getting accustomed to a new environment, and irked by the maturity level of the undergraduates I encountered. At twenty-four I was not that much older than a typical college student at UCSB, but I sure felt a great deal of distance in terms of life goals, priorities, and just general patterns of behavior. Some of it struck me at the time as being regional. People just acted and looked and dressed differently in “So-Cal” compared to northern California, where I had spent my entire life up to that point. For all of these reasons, I have sometimes found it difficult to relate to many of the students at UCSB. And my God, the noise!! This entire town was partying non-stop, 24-7. As a graduate student, what the hell was I doing in Isla Vista??!! I felt like a fish out of water.
The constant noises and distractions of Isla Vista were interfering with my work. It wasn’t like I was partying; rather, even inside a closed building, the noise was just unbearable. About halfway through the quarter, I emailed Pat and shared all of my struggles with her. On first appearance, if you don’t get to know her, Pat may strike you as a bit intimidating. She has a stern, stolid countenance that rarely betrays emotion. Yet all of this turned out to be an illusion. Pat was very warm, encouraging, and supportive in response to my email. I was pleasantly surprised! This is why we never judge a book by its cover. Toward the end of the quarter, Pat even accompanied us to the Mercury Lounge, a bohemian, hipster joint in Goleta. It was genuinely nice of her to take time out of her busy day to socialize with us younglings in an informal setting. She also invited all of her TAs over to her house for an end-of-the-quarter social gathering.
Below: Pat Cohen, John Majewski (center) and me just moments after my dissertation defense, August 2013.
I mentioned before that I was not her student. Women's history has never been a strong point of mine and it has never piqued my interest in the same way that political economy has. Of course I recognized its importance as a field and the valuable contributions of women's historians to the larger canon, but I could never see myself making a career out of it. (These arbitrary boundaries need not be mutually exclusive - gender can inform and overlap with political economy and vice versa). It occurred to me later, however, that the same thing might have been said about my own work. I am quite convinced that others have erroneously dismissed my own work as "dead, white-male history," and therefore, not deserving of anyone's attention. We're talking about subtle cues and informed speculation here as no one has ever said this to my face. The key point is that I never got this impression from Pat. At the 2011 annual SHEAR conference, she provided moral support by attending one of my first presentations at an academic conference. The recognition that a healthy history department requires a true diversity of research topics and interests testifies to Pat's maturity as a scholar and professor.
Since her hire at UCSB in 1976, Pat has worked tirelessly to help build the history department from the ground up. Serving as president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) and as chair of both the history and women’s studies department at UCSB were just a few of her accomplishments. In an email to me, Pat mentioned how she felt that she was still mentally sharp and working at the top of her game. How unfortunate, I thought, that she was retiring considering that there are many professors who, cushioned by tenure, now overstay their welcome. Random people at conferences, she said, would come up to her in elevators and say how much they admired her work. I, too, am really happy to have met and worked with her. It takes a village to raise a graduate student into a professor, and I can certainly credit Pat a lot with my own intellectual development. Looking back on my graduate career at UCSB, with all of its ups and downs, its feelings of celebration and disappointment, its periods of enthusiastic output punctuated by long intervals of boredom and hassle, its moments of isolation, stress, and commiseration with friends, I am thankful that Pat was so compassionate to me that first quarter. We will all miss you!