Jane Cowles is Kenyon's French Connection
Associate Professor of French Jane Cowles is in love with France. She says it isn't the art, countryside, fashion, food, literature, or music that entices her, but rather all of these things combined, which have contributed to her thirty-something-year love affair with the country of liberty, equality, and brotherhood.
Cowles, who began teaching at Kenyon in 1989, was first exposed to French culture when she attended a kindergarten run by French Canadian nuns. But it was a French summer camp she attended at the age of fourteen in Bar Harbor, Maine, that most intrigued her. It was there that she was exposed to the works of twentieth-century French writer Albert Camus. "It was my first time away from home," she recalls. "And I didn't want to go back."
Thus, the stage was set for Cowles, a dedicated professor and intellectual who steeps herself in all things French. She speaks to her two sons only in French, she has visited and lived in France almost more times than she can recall, she has an extensive selection of French books, and films, and in her home she sometimes serves French cuisine, complete with salad and cheese courses after the main entree.
Why France? "I don't know why it's France," says the 1975 graduate of Mount Holyoke College who has a Ph.D. from Princeton University. "I really don't know. There were many early influences in my life that pointed toward France; there isn't just one defining moment. I grew up in a small town with a small-town mentality. I really hungered to get away from that. To me, France represented the growth of the mind and everything my hometown wasn't. The French also have a remarkable appreciation for beauty. It's not just the place or the food. It's the entire culture."
Cowles, who is married to Dan Laskin, Kenyon's publications director, describes Paris as her second home. Her international pining is not without irony, given that she's from Ipswich, Massachusetts, a town that prides itself as the "birthplace of American independence." Raised in a home built in the 1700s, Cowles comes from a long line of educators, which includes her mother, a retired first-grade teacher, an ancestor who taught classics at Oberlin College, and a grandfather who taught at the University of Puerto Rico.
With a primary academic interest in nineteenth-century French literature, Cowles has a penchant for the dramatic in life. In July 1999, she attended workshops, entitled "L' Acteur en scène," at the Ecole Florent in Paris, a prestigious school of drama. The nine-day workshops were in preparation for the French drama and writing course she teaches at Kenyon. "As a teacher, I've spent a lot of time in front of a group and that's similar to being on stage," Cowles says. "I have a fairly rich imaginative life, which doesn't apply to my day-to-day life much. The classes really legitimized working with the imagination." Cowles says it's often essential for students to tap their imaginations and emotions in order to truly inhabit the language.
Cowles recently concluded her three-year stint as a member of the Curricular Review Committee. The committee's recommended two new graduation requirements, one of which is proficiency in a foreign language. Surprisingly, Cowles wasn't sure she was in favor of a foreign language requirement at first.
"I value students' opportunity to have a choice in regard to their courses. I didn't go into the meetings with an agenda, but the process convinced me that a requirement will strengthen the curriculum" she says. Describing the requirement as "modest," Cowles doesn't think the requirement will dramatically increase the number of students enrolled in foreign language courses.
But that doesn't mean there aren't special challenges. "When you learn a foreign language, you have to let go. Beginners are put in a situation where they have no authority because they have no means to express themselves," says Cowles. "In a foreign-language class, you have to relinquish your security."
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