The 10th Cogan
See a story about the spring visit and poetry reading by Cogan Fellow Susan Stewart ’73.
by Miriam Weiner
July 1, 2009
Susan Stewart '73
Ten years ago, Associate Professor of English Wendy Moffat grew tired of hearing the same question from students—“What do you do with an English major?”
“We thought it would be cool if we could really get some answers for that,” Moffat says. But she knew she needed more than words; she needed examples. “It’s much better to answer what English majors tend to do by showing what some have gone on to do. It’s more concrete.”
To provide those concrete answers, she launched the Cogan Alumni Fellowship in 2000. Named in honor of Eleanor Cogan, who earned an honorary doctor of letters in 2003 after taking more than 50 courses at Dickinson, the fellowship recognizes one or two Dickinson graduates each year who have taken their English degrees to new heights. More important, it provides living proof that a lot can be accomplished with an English degree.
During the last decade, the fellowship has brought back to campus such influential alumni as Susan Maas ’72, director of the Boston Globe Charitable Foundation; John Balitis ’84, attorney with Fennemore Craig; Laura Seeff ’87, epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control; and Ron Simon ’73, curator of television at The Museum of Television & Radio.
“Fortunately, we have a lot of really interesting and engaged alumni,” Moffat says. “Everybody I’ve invited has been touched to have been chosen. They’re typically very busy and professional people, and they’ve all been willing to take the time.”
Named for Cogan on her 90th birthday, the fellowship also recognizes this distinctive Dickinsonian’s dedication to lifelong learning. Cogan began taking classes at Dickinson in 1979 following successful careers as a scientist and homemaker. Having earned a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1932, Cogan shifted her focus to literature in retirement, taking 32 English courses at Dickinson before relocating to California to be closer to her daughter. Preparing to celebrate her 100th birthday this September, Cogan is now working through the complete works of William Shakespeare.
“Eleanor is a great example of someone who continued to learn after college,” says Moffat.
Originally, Cogan Alumni Fellows met with students to discuss their careers during a casual lunch and delivered a career-oriented talk. This year, however, the English department established a more formal lecture. In February, award-winning poet and 2009 fellow Susan Stewart ’73 delivered the first Cogan Alumni Lecture, during which she read from her recent book of poetry, Red Rover, discussed her writing process and urged students to find time for daydreaming.
After reading poems whose subjects ranged from nature to punctuation and Greek mythology, Stewart, Annan Professor of English at Princeton University, explained her method of “discovering” her poems. “I begin with a phrase or a piece of language, and the images associate themselves later,” she explained. “Poetry draws on every type of knowledge in our bodies. It’s always a process of discovery.”
Stewart, who was named one of Dickinson Magazine’s most influential Dickinsonians in the fall 2007 issue, also reminisced about her undergraduate years and noted that, though the college’s values remain unchanged, the dynamics of student life differ from what she remembers. “No one spends hours daydreaming anymore,” she remarked.
Having written five books of poetry, co-translated works by Euripides and Scipione, and collaborated on a song cycle for the Chicago Symphony, Stewart offered students plenty of answers to the question of “What can you do with an English major?” But she also reminded them that one of the “Cogan-y values” is finding time for the imagination.
“Boredom is necessary for creativity,” she said. “We live in our fantasies whether we want to or not.”