Professors Who Went Here: Nancy Powers ’83

The Thrill is pleased to introduce a new occasional feature: “Professors Who Went Here,” which features current Kenyon professors who also completed their undergraduate education on the Hill. This week we talked to Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Nancy Powers ’83. 

Professor Nancy Powers ’83

How has Kenyon changed since your undergraduate years?

Kenyon’s student body is more diverse in many ways. When I was here in the early 1980s, most students were from the Midwest, New York and New Jersey, or New England–you could count on one hand the number of students from California at that time. Nearly everyone was white (my class had two African American students). Only a handful of students were from other countries, almost no one was open about coming from modest socioeconomic backgrounds, and no one was openly gay or transsexual.

Kenyon’s faculty is more diverse as well, particularly in gender. When I was a student, some departments were hiring women faculty members for the first time. Kenyon’s student body is larger. There are about 200 more students overall than when I was here and that seems to make a real difference. I’m surprised by how many of my students don’t already know each other at the start of a course, if they aren’t in the same major, and I’m also surprised by how often students walk past each other on Middle Path without saying hello–because apparently they don’t know each other. At my graduation, I counted only about ten classmates whom I didn’t know well enough to say hello.

Norton was an all-women’s dorm, Lewis was all-male. Gund Commons was a second eating hall, where most first years and seniors tended to get breakfast and dinner. The Olin part of the library didn’t exist yet and the Ernst athletic center (that was torn down in order to build the KAC) was at that time brand new and considered up-to-date.

How does the knowledge you gained about Kenyon during your undergraduate years influence your teaching? 

I think it allows me to relate to my students’ experience here–to understand this small-campus, residential, academically intense environment (where too many people know your business). I appreciate the intellectual ethos of this wonderful place. I arrived to the job understanding the expectations for faculty accessibility and campus engagement and high student performance–and already knowing my way around and loving my surroundings. It helps too to know the college’s history, traditions, athletic history, and musical and social organizations. While I recognize that those have all evolved in various ways over time, it helps to be familiar with the groups and activities in which my students engage outside of class. I like to use illustrative examples and anecdotes in class using the actual organizations or a story from my own Kenyon experience.

I’ve taken some of the very courses that our majors take — Quest for Justice; Liberal Democracy in America; Classical Quest; Modern Quest. So it helps a lot to know the content and focus of the courses my students have taken.

What is your fondest memory of Kenyon as an undergrad and as a professor? 

Well, I should say that probably my fondest Kenyon memory is walking up the aisle of the Church of the Holy Spirit, arm linked with my beaming late father, with Kenyon friends in the pews, to marry my husband John–on the hottest day in Ohio history.

My fondest college memories involve dear friends — nothing in particular–just lots of great conversations, dancing at parties, and hanging out on Pierce Lawn on a sunny day.

As a professor, my fondest days are when a seminar or one-on-one conversation gels and light bulbs go off and students get a smile on their faces that suggests, “this is cool stuff, I never thought about it that way before!” (I’m also fond of having coffee with colleagues or discussing Argentina with students just back from study abroad.)

Anything else you would like to tell us?

One huge change at Kenyon (and in our world) is the omnipresence of technology. The Internet clearly makes research and teaching quicker and easier, but cell phones seem to have changed Kenyon for the worse, albeit unavoidably. When I was a student, you couldn’t text or email a friend, so you’d walk by a friend’s dorm, look to see if the light was on, and then go up and knock to see what they might want to do–or just hang out for awhile. We didn’t ever call each other (the phones in the hall were only used for weekly calls from mom and dad–who, by the way, didn’t know what we were doing on an hourly basis, because we couldn’t text them either).  We went, in person, to interact with friends. If you wanted to find your friends, you took a walk over to the library reading room (second floor of Chalmers, at that time) or to Pierce, to see who was around. We weren’t engaged with technology as we walked down Middle Path or worked in the library or ate in Pierce. So I think people were more present to each other in a very personal and direct way.

Also, when I studied off-campus in Spain, I was completely cut off from everything happening in Gambier–as well as from my family.  Kenyon students would keep in touch with handwritten letters that might arrive every few weeks, or might meet up to travel around Europe during Spring Break, but overall, studying abroad (except for the Kenyon Exeter program) meant being on your own for a semester or a year. It was lonely, but also empowering.

* What hasn’t changed? — The New Apartments weren’t new, even way back when I lived in F8!

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