Joan Cocks

Citation for 2000 Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

Teachers imagine an academic Utopia in which students eagerly press beyond their present envelope of understanding and willingly take risks with the unknown; intellectual engagement between students and professors is founded in mutual respect; ideas are expressed freely and openly, and each idea is judged on its own merits without judgment of the person expressing the idea. Students are liberated to think and ask about questions they had never considered, and achieve deeper levels of analysis and understanding. Difficult and impenetrable literature by obscure writers is read by all students, not because they want good grades, but because they are inspired by the teacher to do so, and because they want to be prepared so that the class will go well. Such a learning environment may actually exist, for these are phrases used by students to describe classes with Joan Cocks.

Joan is an artist at facilitating classroom discussion. Hers is an art founded on hard work, a lively and creative intelligence, and a passion for the subject. Students tell us she is a listener who finds value in what they have to say and integrates their contributions into discussions; enriching and expanding the discussion without intruding on the overall plan for the course. As one said, "She can take my tangled masses of questions, untangle them, wrap them up neatly, and present my ideas back to me in an organized fashion that makes it seem as though I was thinking that all along."

Complex ideas are translated by Joan into simple language, but the ideas themselves are not simplified, and "challenging" is the watchword for her courses. She challenges students to question and analyze positions, philosophies, and theories which they at first do not understand, and with which they may disagree. Her detailed, thought provoking criticism demands clarity, focus, and critical analysis in their writing, yet she always finds some redeeming feature even in the worst of papers. Students are also challenged to translate political theory into social action by confronting current campus and local political and social issues.

Joan's own work provides a standard against which students might measure the extent to which they have met these challenges. Marx, Hegel, Luxemburg, Arendt, Nietzsche, Nairn, and others, have been subjected to her critical eye, and her analysis of embedded contradictions in their language has provided new insights into the thinking underlying their philosophies and political theories. Colleagues praise the elegance and clarity of her explications--her ability to turn a phrase, to choose the right word, to be a writer. Critical Social Thought may be an abstract concept to most of us but we see it in action in Joan's writings where contemporary political theory is placed into the context of moral and philosophical principles, enlightened by considerations of cultural and ethnic struggles, and becomes a call to political and social action.

To her students Joan is a memorable teacher. One student sums it up with passion: "I only wish I had been able to take more classes with her. It frightens me to think that I might have missed out on such an experience." To her colleagues, Joan's rare blend of scholar, teacher, mentor, friend, exemplifies teaching at its best.