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Headshot of Rachel Cohen

In Brief

  • Cohen’s writing traces connections between artistic life and politics.
  • She started working with the Pozen Center in 2016, helping UChicago community members share “migration stories.” Today she shares tips on the writing process with Pozen students preparing for fieldwork.
  • Her first book, published in 1994, was just reissued by the venerable New York Review Books press, and is the subject of an Author’s Guild online seminar series running through December.

Pozen Faculty Board member Rachel Cohen has long been interested in the interplay between artistic life and politics. Her first book, A Chance Meeting, first published in 1994 and reissued this year by the venerable New York Review Books press, examines American thought from the Civil War to Vietnam through the lens of transformative encounters between writers, artists, and thinkers grappling with the central questions and struggles of their eras, from race to war. As the book’s narrative unspools, it shows how the unpredictable collisions of daily life – professional interactions, artistic striving, political arguments – affect the development of ideas and become the stuff of history. 

Cover of Rachel Cohen's book A Chance Meeting



It is fitting, then, that Cohen’s involvement with the Pozen Center came about when her own practice as a writer intersected with developments in American political life. “After the presidential election of 2016, it seemed that contemporary migrants were in a particularly vulnerable situation,” she recalls. “I wanted to do something that helped remind people that we all have our migration stories, whether in our immediate histories or in our family histories. Migration is an almost universal part of the human experience, but we easily forget that.” 

Along with colleagues in the creative writing department, where she is Professor of Practice, Cohen created “Migration Stories,” a project designed to help people in the UChicago and South Side communities tell and circulate stories of how their families had come to the city from somewhere else, whether recently or in the distant past. Soon there were Migration Story readings happening around Hyde Park; eventually, multiple chapbooks and an anthology were published. Cohen and her colleagues also designed new courses around the writing of migration and developed an undergraduate research cluster on the topic.

Helping to organize these projects brought Cohen into contact with members of the Pozen Center community who apply the human rights lens to immigration issues. In 2019 she read excerpts from the Migration Stories anthology at a Pozen Center event celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2021 she joined the Faculty Board, hoping to strengthen connections between UChicago’s creative writing and human rights communities. 


Cohen’s essays and books – including a biography of the art connoisseur Bernard Berenson, and a memoir of her experiences reading Jane Austen – have been published by the most prestigious magazines, journals, and publishing houses around. But she sees these publications as just one part of her work as a writer. 

Recent selection from Rachel Cohen's Instagram
Cohen's Instagram (@rachelcohennotebook) functions as a visual record of her preoccupations; posts are often accompanied by short, casual written reflections.

“I’m just as interested in the process as the formal final product,” Cohen says. The proof is available to anyone with an Internet connection. In “notebooks” that Cohen posts on Instagram and other online channels, she documents her writerly engagement with her preoccupations, working through thoughts in a space that’s different – ”a little less hard-edged, a little more homemade,” she says – than, say, the pages of The New Yorker.

This year Cohen will visit the Pozen Center’s new Human Rights Fieldwork course and share with students how keeping a journal during fieldwork can help organize and clarify their thinking; a well-kept journal, she explains, creates an invaluable resource for students when they return from the field and sit down to write more formally about what they learned.


During the early months of the Covid pandemic, with many museums closed, Cohen started focusing her critical eye on public art in Chicago, eventually writing a piece for Travel and Leisure about murals and other public artworks on the South Side. Doing this research brought her into contact with the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project (PNAP), a program that connects artists and scholars with incarcerated students at Stateville Maximum Security Prison; in recent years, incarcerated PNAP students designed murals that outside collaborators – including Cohen – helped paint on walls across the South Side.

Cohen hopes experiences like these will inform her next steps as a Pozen Faculty Board member looking to help students make connections, like those she herself makes in A Chance Meeting, between questions of politics and history and the creative arts. “Creative works are part of how ideas, including ideas about human rights, make their way in the world,” she says. “They also help us look back and make sense of those journeys over time. That’s why I’m so excited to be working with the Pozen Center. It’s a place on campus where those journeys get taken seriously.” 

From May to December of 2024 The Author’s Guild is hosting a monthly series of online talks inspired by the reissue of A Chance Meeting. The first and the last will be by Cohen, speaking on the general themes in her book book; the six in between will be by prominent writers and critics, each focusing on one of its featured literary figures, and accompanied by a written reflection by Cohen, delivered to attendees by email.

Promotional Image for "A Chance Meeting"