Invasion of Privacy: Lover of books, nature creates innovative English courses

Associate professor of English Ken Cooper spent childhood nights peering at the latest Scholastic Book Club releases—from classic literature, to chronicles of UFO sightings and Bigfoot—long past his bedtime. “In retrospect, it’s one of those things where you think you’re getting away with something, but your parents are letting you do it,” he said. “It was always okay to read at night no matter what. I’ve just always liked doing that. I feel incredibly lucky that I get to keep doing that.”

Years later, Cooper’s love for literature continued as his typewriter became a vehicle for writing marathon-length Ernest Hemingway parodies with literary friends at Whitman College in his home state of Washington. Cooper went on to receive masters and PhD degrees from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. A similar typewriter holds a coveted space in his yellow-walled office today. He has been a professor at Geneseo for over 20 years.

While Cooper has taught a number of courses in his specializations of Cold War-era literature and cultural studies, his offerings often reflect a wide array of interests that allow him to continue learning in the role of professor.

This is clear with one look at his fall 2014 courses. With ENGL 329: Filming the Seventies and ENGL 439: American Ways II: Bioregional Literature, Cooper delves into the intricacies of historic media studies and sustainable community engagement.

“Filming the Seventies” allows Cooper to revisit his cultural studies background, chronicling the transformation of society into a “digital economy.” The bioregional literature course, however, takes a more local approach, interpreting the work of Henry David Thoreau and other authors through a western New York lens.

The course also includes “mini internships” at local sustainable and historic sites, such as the Genesee County Village. Cooper is currently working with special collections/reference librarian Liz Argentieri on creating the Open Valley Digital Archive as a culmination of the course. It will serve as a resource for students doing local, primary source research.

Cooper has encouraged students to engage in nature-oriented projects in the past, managing a community garden on campus with associate professor of history Jordan Kleiman for five years. He attributed his interest in climate and literature to ample time spent hiking and rock climbing, as well as being “surrounded by trees” in Washington.

Cooper values providing students with engaging projects that incorporate learning outside the classroom—particularly following changes to the English major that provide professors with more class time for trips and additional projects.

“Every semester, I try to remind myself at the beginning of the semester that there’s a huge difference between this and high school where that’s kind of mandated learning,” he said. “Here, part of what they’re learning isn’t really the subject matter, but how to grow into themselves and to become self-sufficient.”

The father of college-aged twins, Cooper said he and his wife are “trying to turn into empty-nester clichés.” They’ve recently taken up swing dancing classes in Rochester. While his children are beginning to see their parents as “eccentric and entertaining,” Cooper continues to work purposefully in providing his students skills for life after college.

“[Teaching] is sometimes almost like parenting,” he said.