French Culture Unexpectedly Captivates Katie Chenoweth

August 17, 2018

By Ruby Shao ’17

Before coming to Princeton University as an Assistant Professor of French in 2013, Katie Chenoweth (French and Italian) wanted to major in physics.

The inclination began at age 16, when her favorite high school teacher, Glenn Squiers, inspired in her a love of history and the philosophy of science. In his elective, “Science and Human Values,” The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn transformed her perspective.

She embraced the book as a claim about the historical production of truth and knowledge. Only later would she recognize her passion for tracing the relevant intellectual movements. Instead, she focused on the appeal of the science.

Her exploration grew even as did her disillusionment with high school. Tired of the structure, Chenoweth left after eleventh grade, to begin early college through Bard’s College at Simon’s Rock.

“At the time, I was obsessed with history and philosophy of science, which I then confused with actually doing physics, and then I got into a lab and was like, ‘Oh no. This is not what I want to do.’ It just wasn’t the right environment for me,” she explained.

Meanwhile, Chenoweth’s most intellectually stimulating work arose within a Francophone literature class taught by her adviser at Simon’s Rock, Pim Higginson. He and her other professors introduced her to the French theorists, on topics like deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and Michel Foucault, whom she continues to research today.

Her interest in French had started by chance. When Chenoweth was six, a Frenchwoman from Lyon moved nearby for her husband’s job. Though not trained as a teacher, Madame Caillat decided to teach French at Chenoweth’s school in Dayton, Ohio. Engaging and dynamic, Chenoweth’s newfound mentor made the language fun, instructing Chenoweth until high school, hosting plays along with afterschool clubs together, and taking Chenoweth to France three times starting when she was 12.

Early on, Chenoweth loved that French brought her into another universe. Otherworldliness marked even the most basic activities, like singing songs or learning the names of objects.

“I loved making the sounds. It’s still what grabs me. The book I’m writing is still about the materiality of language, about a certain experience of voice and text, so that was really formative,” Chenoweth said.

Despite enjoying French, she found it strange and scary. The pronunciation, grammar, and her teacher intimidated her. Yet the difficulty contributed to the attraction.

“I couldn’t ever quite do it right, but it always left me wanting to get better at it,” she noted, adding that she then fell in love with all of French culture, from the food, to the music, to the movies.

Nevertheless, when Chenoweth transferred from Simon’s Rock to Wesleyan University, she never considered majoring in French. Ambivalence toward the subject was plaguing her, due to a semester beforehand in Aix-en-Provence, France. There, the language, which remained close and intimate in some ways, turned distant and ungraspable in others.

“I had always thought that French was mine. It almost felt like my secret language that I would speak with my French mother figure teacher, with my friends — it always felt like this special thing that we had. And then I get to France and I’m so American,” she said. “I felt a little bit betrayed in some way, or like I had been foolish to think that French was mine, when really it belonged to this other place, and these other people, and this other culture.”

Instead, she majored in the College of Letters, taking French literature classes to fulfill the program’s foreign language and study abroad requirement. Reconciling her private experience of the language with the language that existed in the world took six years, until she returned to France to work on the dissertation of her PhD in French Studies at Brown University.

Certainty always colored Chenoweth’s decision to become an academic. She loved reading, thinking, writing, and conversing about ideas. Teaching, an activity she had never thought about, also excited her once she entered academia. French emerged as her department of choice, where she could study all the texts and thinkers intriguing her, since they were French, in an endlessly fascinating language.

“A seminar classroom or talking about books is always where I’ve felt like myself, or the best version of myself,” Chenoweth said.

Former students praised Chenoweth as enthusiastic, energetic, and relatable. Elisabeth Bloom, a rising third-year doctoral candidate in French, described Chenoweth as one of her favorite professors, who created a warm environment by seeking the good in every remark.

Elise Freeman ’19 highlighted Chenoweth’s rare combination of intelligence and approachability.

“I’ve never had someone be so accessible and so willing to simplify things, and then allow and encourage complication. I felt like even though she was and is an expert, I could talk to her about my original ideas and interpretations of what she had taught, and feel validated by our interactions,” Freeman explained.

The students benefited from the multifaceted character of Chenoweth’s courses. “New Media 1400–1900” inspired Freeman’s independent work in the field of media studies, which she otherwise would not have encountered. She learned to examine not only a given object, but also how it came to be. Similarly, “The Matter of the Book: Montaigne’s Essais” taught Bloom to examine a single word, matière, physically, psychologically, and artistically, through a lens of materiality coupled with interdisciplinary, tactile explorations of rare books.

Today, Chenoweth specializes in Renaissance French studies, including print and media culture, the history of French, deconstruction, early cinema, and translation, in addition to teaching “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture.” Her path to the present unfolded as a joyful surprise.

 “What Princeton has given me has totally surpassed what I could have thought, and I’m just really happy to be doing what I’m doing,” she said.

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