Geography professor Shaul Cohen tirelessly explores the relationship between space and power in a dutiful effort to improve the world
By UO student Lili Wagner
Shaul Cohen, a professor in the University of Oregon’s Department of Geography, is, in a word, intense. “What keeps me going,” he said, “is not optimism but the need to try to find ways to deal with the pain and suffering in the world and make things better for people.”
A resident of Eugene since 1995, Cohen was originally raised in Chicago but has spent periods of his life in Jerusalem. Around the world he has dedicated his time and energy to combatting social and political inequality, what some would call an uphill battle. Cohen’s involvement in this fight was informed in part by his experience in the Israeli army in the late 1980s.
“In between my undergraduate degree and my graduate work I was in the Israeli army for a while and that experience gave me the sense that I want my career to be one that contributed to addressing real world problems.”
Cohen lived in Jerusalem from the First Palestinian Intifada in 1987 through the early Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, including the Oslo Accords.
Along with giving him an appreciation of field work and a sense of the importance of dialogue, Cohen said, “My time in the army—and after—has also taught me that conflicting narratives can often be generated in the same place at the same time, and to understand the way people operate in the world you really have to explore the context in which they live and the choices/constraints they face. Often times the ‘realities’ we expect to find don't correspond to what's going on with people, so I'm eager to gather documentation, what I learn from the literature and theory, and what people will teach me first hand.”
He said this period shaped his later academic career. “Given the nature of the conflicts and what I participated in, what I observed and learned as a soldier, geography seemed like a very useful perspective and toolkit to address some very important and complex, challenging issues.”
In 1993, Cohen returned to the States, living in Washington D.C. where he taught at George Washington University until 1996.
In the summer of 1995, Cohen taught summer courses at the University of Oregon to avoid the muggy D.C. heat. He loved the beautiful state, and when a position opened in the Department of Geography the following year he quickly applied and was hired. Now here at the University of Oregon he researches, writes, and teaches.
“At the broadest level I’m interested in power and how power is used by and affects people in different situations and places,” Cohen said. “So one area that that concentrates in is the ethno-territorial conflict where people are fighting about aspects of their identity with some other community, often for control of space, but not only that.”
Shaul Cohen, professor of geography,
concentrates his research on ethno-territorial
Cohen’s work is multi-faceted and ever-changing. It centers on ethno-territorial conflict but often takes on an environmental lens. Over the years he has shifted from studying conflict prevention to conflict recovery, and while his work has generally concentrated in the Middle East, in recent years he has begun to focus his research in Northern Ireland. Cohen’s work in Northern Ireland surrounds the relationship between identity and territory in Derry/Londonderry and Belfast.
“Over the years of my career I’ve been pulled increasingly in the direction of thinking how to lessen the damage of conflict and recover from it if possible. As I’ve seen through the years of my career, years of my life, the trajectory of the conflicts that I’m involved with I am learning some lessons that I think can be valuable for people so I’m eager to share those.”
In addition to his exploration of ethno-territorial conflicts Cohen has begun to also consider smaller spaces.
“What I’m looking at is very small spaces but I’m trying to learn lessons that can be adapted to much bigger spaces,” he said.
He referred to a structure in the West Bank that is a synagogue on Saturday and a mosque on Friday, a particular intersection in Northern Ireland where people often fight, and his own classrooms, all where he explores the effect of space on power dynamics.
“I’m talking about what happens when some of my students go into a prison and engage with people who are incarcerated there,” Cohen said referring to the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which he facilitates. “I’m interested in the ways that which human engagement at small scales can shift the power dynamics in particular spaces.”
In addition to his exhaustive research projects, Cohen teaches on campus and actively participates in the UO community through a variety of clubs and programs. He has taught lower and upper division courses in the Department of Geography, as well as courses in the Alternative Dispute Resolution Program and Robert D. Clark Honors College. In the past, Cohen has served on the University Senate, University Executive Committee, and Faculty Advisory Council. Currently, he is the Academic Director of the Carnegie-Global Oregon Ethics Initiative, a cohort of undergraduates that welcomes speakers to explore ethics in a variety of professional manifestations; and the Steering Chair of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which brings students into penitentiaries for blended classes with campus-based and incarcerated participants.
While he insists that he loves all of his classes, Cohen mentioned Population and Environment as a particular favorite.
“The reason that I really love that course is that everything is relevant and so there’s no limit to the exploration that we can do about the world that we live in. Everything. Many of the topics are grim, but we find ways to be productive to have a constructive outlook and it’s important to me.”
Outside of his work, Cohen dedicates most of his time to his family.
“I enjoy being with my friends. I love the outdoors. I have a great dog,” he said. “These things create little spaces where I can redirect my focus. But really, apart from my family I’m about the work.”
Cohen’s admirable commitment to improving the world is intense, passionate, and moving. His work is not inspired by antics of heroism but by a genuine sense of duty and responsibility.
He concluded, “There is so much good that people can do even in bad circumstances that that inspires me. There are people who tirelessly fight for justice and that inspires me and I feel like so many of the opportunities that I have are rare, sometimes unique, that there’s no questions about my doing the work. I can and so I do.”