Cooper brings an ecological viewpoint to his study of literature; over the years, he’s taught courses such as Environmental Justice and Eco Media. His broad definition of ecology encourages students to think of it as something “beyond national parks and recycling.”
For example, Cooper’s Open Valley course, developed in collaboration with Geneseo’s Special Collections librarians, is a digital humanities project where students examine local history and culture through a bioregional lens. “There’s an unfortunate tradition of local history as being kind of cheesy,” Cooper says. “People think that interesting things are only happening somewhere else. The course addresses that bias, and we discuss what kinds of regional history, writing, or culture we don’t know about.”
Open Valley often partners with community organizations—such as the Genesee Valley Council on the Arts, the Geneseo Migrant Center, or the Perry Public Library—to explore and interpret underappreciated parts of their collections. Cooper says the students aren’t just consuming digital media—they’re creating it as well, and in ways that also help organizations with large archives and little curatorial assistance.
“There’s always a basement, and there’s always a bunch of cardboard boxes,” he says with a smile. “I think it’s good for the students if the collection hasn’t had much done with it.” Cooper sees the advantages of students working with source material that’s yet to be teased out and wrung of its stories.
These collaborative undertakings or problem-solving projects create graduate-level experiences and develop valuable skills for the job market, says Cooper. He sees it as part of his job to help English majors assess traditional skills in a new way, broadening their career plans beyond education, law, or publishing.
“English majors spend a lot of time thinking about language and representation and narration, and all of those are useful and powerful skills to have after graduation,” he says. Resumes should do more than list previous jobs, he believes—they should reflect the critical thinking skills employers identify as important qualifications.
Cooper’s expansive, interdisciplinary view of studying contemporary literature has kept the field fresh for him—and after 30 years at Geneseo, he still loves to teach.
“Students are a huge X factor, bringing in information and language and mores and attitudes that keep me from becoming grumpy,” he says. “I get to always be learning myself. That’s a huge perk. It’s very fun to not be the person with all the answers.”