April 23, 2020
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The faculty’s standout teachers are rewarded each year with the Trustee Teaching Excellence Award. The honors this year were earned by Kate Elkins, associate professor of comparative literature and humanities, as a senior faculty member, and Zoë Kontes, associate professor of classics, as a junior professor.
Elkins joined the faculty in 2002. She teaches courses that examine modernism and postmodernism from an interdisciplinary perspective. Her research focuses on the intersections of science, literature, and philosophy. In 2004-05, she earned Kenyon’s Whiting Foundation Teaching Fellowship.
Kontes arrived at Kenyon in 2007. Her primary field of study is Old World archaeology, and she has participated in excavations in Sicily, Greece, and Cyprus. Her courses include surveys of both Greek and Roman art and archaeology, as well as courses in Sicilian archaeology, Athenian topography, and the illegal antiquities trade.
On these pages, Alumni Bulletin interns enjoy conversations with Kenyon’s finest.
Gendreau: You received the Whiting Foundation Teaching Fellowship as well as awards at the University of California at Berkeley. What’s your secret?
Elkins: One secret is flexibility. Every student, every class, has different needs, questions, issues, and part of being a good teacher is a certain kind of chameleon-like ability to adapt to whatever that student or class needs.
Gendreau: How would you describe a typical Elkins seminar?
Elkins: I do think of it as a kind of organized chaos. If I run the seminar too tightly, it’s just a list of questions. Students quickly figure that out and grow bored because ‘guess what that professor is thinking’ is not a very interesting thing. But if, instead, they can bring their questions and their comments and together all of us produce something out of it, then that can be very exciting.
Gendreau: Would you say your teaching style more resembles architecture or ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging?
Elkins: I would choose flower arranging, because what you’re always hoping to achieve is to take a group of students who are very different—very different kinds of flowers, for example—and make something feel like a whole, right? The art of flower arranging often incorporates something unexpected, something a little odd-ball, something not considered aesthetically beautiful by traditional standards, and I think in that sense really great flower arranging requires that every flower not be a perfect flower. In fact, you could never create a great flower arrangement with identical, beautiful flowers.
Elkins: My husband and I ballroom dance. My husband and I met each other doing salsa, which I had never done, but he was a salsa dancer and had competed doing salsa dancing, and, so, we were at a party and he told me that he was a salsa dancer and I didn’t believe him. They cleared the floor and had us dance together. And that was our first date.
Thompson: What’s your favorite class to teach?
Kontes: I love teaching archaeology classes. My most favorite recently was a course on the illegal antiquities trade. It was really fun because it’s a class that involves, obviously, archaeology but also art history and ethics and international espionage. It has everything.
Thompson: Why archaeology?
Kontes: I studied abroad in Greece when I was a junior in college, and I was smitten immediately with the ruins and the archaeology of Athens and Greece. That was my goal ever since.
Thompson: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve unearthed?
Kontes: Coins are fun to figure out because you can figure out the date, and often there’s some kind of image on it, which is fun, too, and they’re hard to find because they’re so small.
Thompson: Why do you like teaching classics and archaeology?
Kontes: It gives you such an understanding of the history of the world and culture. It’s really exciting to see students getting into the material. It’s cool to see things that were made by people 4,000 years ago.
Thompson: Why do you think studying them is important for students today?
Kontes: You can learn so much about the history of humankind, but just the exercise of studying, thinking about something, like, say, where does this pot come from? Who made it? How do we know? What is the style? Archaeology is a puzzle. You’re trying to figure out where this thing fits in its context and can you figure it out. It’s a really good exercise for your brain.
Thompson: Favorite book?
Kontes: I have a favorite archaeology book, The Motel of the Mysteries. Sometime in the future, archaeologists dig up the U.S., which has been buried by some disaster, and they find a hotel. They start claiming that the different things in the hotel are religious icons or that kind of thing. It’s really funny.
Thompson: What kind of music do you listen to?
Kontes: Indie rock. The Wedding Present is my favorite band.