|Sylvie Davidson, in her kitchen, brings Roman times to life through the sense of taste.
“The best way to learn how to teach is under the gun,” says Sylvie Davidson. The John J. Curley ’60 and Ann Conser Curley ’63 Faculty Chair in Global Education and professor of romance languages and literatures knows of what she speaks. For Davidson, that big gun was Yale.
That’s where she found herself as the 20-year-old bride of a Yale Ph.D. candidate. She’d met Steve Davidson in her native southern France when he was doing research through a Fulbright scholarship, and she was completing her master’s degree.
From that first frightful moment in 1967 when she—a young, unsure foreigner—stood before a classroom of American students older than herself, Davidson has gone on to a 27-year teaching career at Dickinson. She is one of the few faculty members who have been awarded both the Distinguished Teaching Award (voted by her peers in 2005) and the Ganoe Award for Inspirational Teaching (selected by the seniors in 1996).
Perhaps it is the deliciously tangible way that she teaches French and Italian courses that earns her teaching accolades. Davidson, who can wield a Le Creuset pot with the best international cooks, often offers her students a turn in her kitchen and a taste at her table. Drawing students into cookbooks rather than just literature books, from the classroom to the kitchen, links the cultural to the academic. “To engage students, I feel, is a part of the teaching/learning process,” she says in her lilting, elegant
French-accented voice. “I hate students being passive. If they react to something, it stays in their minds, and they become inquisitive.”
Some ways in which she has linked food to literature and social history in her Food and Cultural Identity course: “I had them compose menus for a moment in time—for a Medieval prince, a Renaissance artist, an 18th-century bourgeoisie and,” she pauses, “the ideal menu for Mussolini’s soldiers. Everything was based on texts that they studied in Italian.”
She teaches the course in Italian in Carlisle, in English for the Bologna, Italy, summer immersion program, and in French at Dickinson’s Toulouse, France site. Over the last two decades, Davidson has led the Toulouse program for a total of 10 years and feels like the 250 alumni she has guided there are family members.
No matter in what language she teaches, Davidson delves into the history of etiquette and utensils, food and diet, and political systems.
“This is why I love to teach. I can make relationships to what we learn in class and outside. Food provides that bridge from the academic field to the outside world.”
During a one-semester sabbatical next year, Davidson plans to expand her food and culture course “and create a [first-year] seminar that would focus on this issue. I’d also like to offer the course for the MEMS [Medieval & Early Modern Studies major] in English to attract a larger audience. Specific language classes attract a limited number of students.”
Last spring, Davidson linked art and cuisine, taking her senior seminar students to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., to see paintings that represent food, cooking and consumption. “We looked at how visual representations of food correspond to the evolution of food.”
As a benefit of holding an endowed chair, Davidson receives extra programming funds to supply food for the student dinners she holds at her passive-solar country home three miles south of Carlisle. Designed by her late husband and built in 1981, the house is nestled back a long lane on a property that sports a tree farm and 12 acres of natural habitat running alongside a golf course.
The endowed chair, which also allows for a one-course reduction per year, inspires her to do anything but rest on her laurels. “It’s a very valorizing thing to be recognized—a wonderful incentive to do what I’ve been doing, and to do it better.”
Though she’s been working hard in the classroom for nearly 40 years, and would like to spend more time with her grandson in Philadelphia, Davidson doesn’t see retirement in the near future. There is too much still left to do in a place where, she says, “there is a trustful relationship between the administration and faculty that is quite unique. If you make a good proposal, you are taken as a professional. This is one of the richest aspects of Dickinson and one of the most exciting things about being here. It is really possible to make serious changes.”
One new idea she plans to bring to the table concerns the Bologna program, which currently is geared toward political-science majors. Davidson would like to make it more cohesive for Italian-studies majors and strengthen the cultural link through food. With that success behind her, she says with a laugh, “then, like Candide, I will go out and cultivate my garden.”