By Sophia Hengelbrok
–Dr. Emma Cohen de Lara was there when it all began.Teaching political science at AUC since 2009, she is now a core faculty member and tutor. Get to know more about Dr. Cohen de Lara, her thoughts on AUC, and her recently published book, “Back to the Core: Rethinking Core Texts in Liberal Arts and Sciences Education in Europe”.
I was hoping you’d start by introducing yourself, your background and how you came to AUC.
I’m Dutch, but after my bachelor/master in Leiden where I studied political science. I was adventurous and went to the London School of Economics to do my Masters in Political Theory. It was a specialized Masters and I really liked it, LSE is one of the best schools I’ve ever been to. [After LSE] I wanted more, and I applied to PHD programs in the United States. I got accepted to two; philosophy at Boston University and to the program of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. And because I felt that I wanted to stay in the field of political science I chose Notre Dame.
Which classes do you teach here at AUC?
Classical and Modern Political Thought and Ancient Philosophical Texts
What is it about political science that made you want to study it for so long, and then teach it? Where does the passion come from?
I’ve always had a strong affinity with the theory part of [political science]. You can say that these great thinkers have developed ideas that formed the basis for our modern society, so in a way we’re going back to our roots. But what I also like is this romantic idea that you dive into a philosopher’s world, where not everything is immediately clear, but if you puzzle and study long and hard enough you start to see patterns in their thinking and you start to see their arguments. They define the root but sometimes for me it’s also a bit of an escape from contemporary reality.
Why did you choose AUC?
Well, I had been in the States for a long time. After my degree, I also worked there for a year on the east coast at the University of Vermont. But I got a little homesick, I have to admit, and then I got a job at the VU. My second year at the VU was AUC’s first year, 2009, so AUC asked for teachers. I remember that first year really well. We had a very special cohort, and it was just fireworks. Really good memories, [with] very outspoken students. I loved it.
So you’ve been here since the beginning?
Has it changed?
Well, not fundamentally, luckily. I really think those people who founded AUC did a fantastic job in setting up the curriculum. And the students also, just because we’re in Amsterdam and we have a particular profile, we tend to attract certain kind of students. And I think that that is still very similar. And some things have changed, we’ve moved buildings five years ago, teachers have come and gone, deans have come and gone, but I think AUC is AUC how it started out.
Is there a “type” of AUC student you could describe?
I think so. Having come from the VU, which has a bit of a different culture, students tend to be less outspoken. I think the AUC student is actually quite aware of what’s going on in the world and at AUC, and is opinionated. That brings a particular kind of energy to this place.
For students who don’t know about your book already, could you summarize what it’s about?
We organized the conference in September 2015, and from there we selected 25 papers that were developed into papers that became the book. The conference was very well attended, [and] was about the use of core texts in liberal arts and sciences education. Well, what are core texts? Texts that we read typically in courses such as political thought, or economic thought or sociological thought or big books. So texts that some way or another have defined themselves as core texts in the sense that people, both the general populace but also specialists, keep referring back to. So they always play a role in scholarly or popular debate. We’ve defined core texts very inclusively, so they can be western, non-western, from any kind of discipline. And what we noticed is that it’s often quite easy to have an interdisciplinary conversation on that common basis. So that’s how it came about, and we wanted to use the conference to further reflect on what role can they play in higher education, specifically the kind of education that we offer here.
Why is it called “Back to the Core”?
It is a joint project, a lot of people cooperated. My former neighbor, Joanna, she’s an industrial designer, and she also pushed us to think of a more catchy title. So we started to brainstorm and thought, “it is about core texts” and we do think it provides a common core foundation for people, so we thought “back to the core”.
What do you love about your job?
I love ideas. And what I love about working here is that AUC is quite free, so if I say I want to teach Spinoza instead of Rousseau, then no one is telling me that I shouldn’t do that. So that allows me in my research to discover new things. And it’s really fascinating because the more you read these philosophers, the better you get at understanding what kind of questions they are dealing with, and how they deal with that in relation to each other.
What is the hardest thing about being a professor?
I’m going to display some solidarity: I think students in general feel that there is quite a bit of pressure here to perform, many demands on your time having to take all these different courses, community project, study abroad, and so on. And I think many of the teachers also experience quite a few pressures. It’s a lot of hard work a lot of the time and many of us have a partner or children at home, and you want to see your friends. So this work-life balance can sometimes be hard.
What is your favorite place in Amsterdam?
I live near the Amstel in the Rivierenbuurt. And when I bought the house I didn’t realize how close I was to the Amstel and how nice it is to cycle or walk along the Amstel, away from the city, and how quickly you are in nature. There is the Amstelpark that isn’t that well known, so it can be pretty quiet and I love going there when I can.
That’s all I have to ask unless you have anything else you’d like to add about AUC or the book?
I’m hoping this article makes people as excited about these core texts and reading them and seeing how it can change your view on things after reading them
On behalf of the Editorial Board, we would like to thank Professor Cohen de Lara for taking the time out of her schedule for this interview; the first installment of The Herring’s “Professor Profile” series.