Class Profile: Cook, Herzman create unique dynamic in Age of Dante

Over the past 40 years, Distinguished Teaching Professor of History Bill Cook and Distinguished Teaching Professor of English Ron Herzman have collaborated to create and hone one of the finest courses available at Geneseo – ENGL 390: The Age of Dante.

Herzman arrived at Geneseo in 1969 and Cook in 1970, but the first class they taught together was The Age of Chaucer in 1973.

“We discovered while taking a trip together that we had some research interests that overlapped,” Cook said. “We took [Age of Chaucer] on the road to England in 1974, sort of one of the first real Geneseo-sponsored study abroad courses.”

The next fall, they cotaught the Dante course.

“We thought, ‘What the hell, we seem to be good at this,’” Cook said.

They’ve taught the course nearly every other year at Geneseo, sometimes teaching solo while one of them was teaching elsewhere, doing administrative work or researching on sabbatical.

In class, Cook and Herzman share an unmistakable dynamic formed through the many years they’ve spent teaching together. A normal day in class involves thorough analysis of Dante Alighieri and his Commedia but also includes many jokes directed toward each other, shared telling of stories and – at the risk of sounding cliché – finishing each other’s sentences.

“We have, on many occasions, been accused of scripting everything we do,” Cook said. He denied that the two ever prepare anything beyond the important material for the day. Herzman agreed; he said, “Like any good jazz musician, you have to know when to improvise. There’s no such thing as ‘the stuff that Cook will say’ or ‘the stuff that Herzman will say,’” he said.

“In general, [Cook] tends to do the historical, and in general I tend to look at strange metaphors,” Herzman said. He added that when they teach the course alone, each of them has a good grasp on both areas of the material.

The pair, after finding themselves in charge of a humanities grant for Genesee Community College, taught the course twice at Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in western New York.

“We really had some extraordinary experiences there,” Cook said.

Cook related a story from their time at the prison about an inmate who made a personal connection to a passage in Inferno.

“The way the inmates took it so personally was really quite striking … I think that made it a more personal thing in the way we taught the course from then on.” Offering the course at Attica, Herzman said, seemed to shed light on the reasons why the pair teaches the course in the first place.

“The felons wanted to know, ‘Why is this important to me?’ It showed us that that’s a question we should be asking ourselves all the time,” he said.

Herzman said he was very appreciative of the experience and that it was “tremendously rewarding – hard to over-exaggerate.”

The course has gained some fame in academia and is widely popular here on campus.

“The last few years it’s always been full with around 50 people … a lot for an upper-level history and literature course,” Cook said.

“What’s interesting is that over the years we’ve had kind of an all-star cast of people who’ve sat in on the course, not for credit, but from the faculty,” Herzman said. He mentioned that both a physics professor and professional from the advancement office are currently sitting in.

Though Cook is retiring, he said that he intends to keep in contact with some of his students and will likely be engaged in at least one more go at The Age of Dante.

“I have a feeling that Herzman will lure me into a class or two,” Cook said. “I won’t charge him too much.”