Students of the World

Geographer's research prompts ethical questions—and trips to prison

Why would a geographer concern himself with topics such as ethics or incarceration?

Because Shaul Cohen has always allowed his research to take him wherever it needs to.

As a political and cultural geographer, Cohen has historically focused on territorial conflicts such as those in Northern Ireland. But studying violence forced Cohen to delve into questions about ethics, and that has led to a relationship with perhaps the world’s leading voice for ethical leadership in times of war and peace, the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Cohen is director of the UO’s Carnegie Global Oregon Ethics Community, a partnership with the council that engages a cohort of UO students, living together in a dorm, in a focused suite of classes, activities and events that grapple with the challenges of living and working in an ethically complex world. He also chairs the university’s steering committee for the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which brings students from campus into penitentiaries to conduct classes with prisoners.

“Geographers are avid students of how we live in the world,” Cohen said. “I couldn’t keep my studies at arm’s length from my teaching and from the way that I live my life, and it brought me along to ethics. How can you research an issue without it informing your actions?”

The university’s CGO community is unlike any other associated with the council because it’s not tied to a particular academic program—students don’t major or minor in it. Instead, students from any major can participate, for the entirety of their college experience. “We say we’re ‘convocation to commencement,’” Cohen said. “The council would like us to be a model that they can diffuse throughout their network.”

Located in the Living Learning Center dorm, the community is home to about 70 students at any given time, hailing from majors primarily in the social sciences but also journalism, business and arts and architecture. Students live and study together during their freshman year and while most move off campus after that, everyone reconvenes at a weekly meal.

As the sole faculty mentor, Cohen designs and teaches the program. The community meets for class once per week, and at other times to accommodate guests and special events. Students break into teams to complete reading assignments and lead probing discussions on topics ranging from genocide and war to local hunger and homelessness. Members also work with groups and organizations on campus and in the community.

Students who join the Carnegie Global Oregon community are self-starters who don’t need a cheerleader, Cohen said. They just need a bit of direction in deciding how they want to effect change.

Case in point: Carnegie undergrads Erin Willahan (humanities) and Christine Mathew (geography) last fall organized a workshop to explore how geospatial technologies can be used to stop genocide and other mass atrocities. After a “nudge” from Cohen, he said, the students applied for and received a $20,000 grant that enabled them to host experts in technology and international aid—including UO faculty, alumni and nonprofit leaders—for a three-day intensive workshop, during which the group discussed obstacles and committed to developing a tool that, for example, could raise public awareness of ongoing atrocities.

“You don’t have to be an expert in a field to start doing things,” Willahan said, afterward. “You really just have to be willing to put the time in.”

Visiting speakers have included author Chimamanda Adiche; Jim Shephard, CEO of Bank AIG in Europe; and Sister Helen Prejean, human rights crusader and author of Dead Man Walking.

One of Cohen’s favorite experiences with the community involved a judge who spoke to his students about his decision to reduce the sentence of an adult convict who had committed his crime as a youth. “He talked about that case and about some of the ethical challenges in the judiciary,” Cohen said. “The judge had never had a conversation like this before.

“The speakers are making their own contribution, but they are stimulated in return by their engagement with the students,” he added. “It’s a mutually beneficial learning experience—and I love that.”

Cohen has similarly found students more than willing to roll up their sleeves for the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, part of a national organization that brings college students together with incarcerated men and women to study as peers in a seminar setting behind prison walls. Working primarily with the Oregon state penitentiary in Salem, Cohen said the effect on both inmates and students is “profound.”

The UO’s Inside-Out chapter is the most active in the country, Cohen said, with the most classes, the most students trained as instructors and the most alumni of an Inside-Out class. At any given time, there are 13 to 15 students working with the same number of inmates.

As an example of a program activity, there are clubs in the prison that explore topics such as responsibility, reconciliation or race. Cohen’s students are invited in, and together the group dissects reading assignments and engages in spirited discussions.

“This is an opportunity to see where society has encountered some of its most trenchant problems,” Cohen said. “When (students) go into the prison they are approaching people who are unknown to them, who are stereotyped. When they leave the prison they have a better sense of what the issues are and they’re also better equipped to engage more broadly on the outside.

“If they’ve been able to have a productive conversation with someone who’s incarcerated for serious crimes,” he added, “then they come back here and they say, ‘well, it was easy to talk to that person, it should be easy to talk to people in my community, too.’”

—By Matt Cooper