“The only career I ever wanted”: An interview with French alumna Dr. Cynthia Lees ’74
by Elizabeth Blood
The department of World Languages and Cultures launched the French concentration of the BA in World Languages and Cultures in 2013, but this was not the first French major in the history of the University. Our department offered a popular and robust French major in the mid-20th century, and graduated many French students in the 1960’s and 1970’s who went on to become French teachers and, in the case of alum Cynthia Lees ‘74, French professors. Dr. Lees is Professor of French at the University of Delaware and one of the leading national scholars in the field of Franco-American Studies.
EB: Tell me about your experience at Salem State.
CL: I graduated from SSC in 1974 with a BA in French and a minor in Secondary Education. Twelve students graduated in French that year. The French professors were very supportive—I especially remember Henri Urbain, William Clark, Paul Madore, and Evelyn Simha; the latter two professors graciously invited the French majors to their homes.
EB: Why did you choose the major in French?
CL: I decided to become a French major because of my high school French teacher, Mlle. Ellen Cowing, at Wakefield High School (MA). She was a Franco-American from Maine, and she dedicated herself to inculcating in her students a love of all things French. She spoke only French in class, and we read the classics—by Molière, Racine, Corneille, and many others—as juniors and seniors. To say that she was demanding is quite an understatement.
EB: And later, you decided to become a French teacher and you went on to become a college French professor. Tell me about your current position.
CL: I teach at the University of Delaware where I offer courses in French cinema, prose fiction, poetry, theater, women writers of Montreal, and French for the professions. I also teach pedagogy courses in our Foreign Language Education major and serve as its Academic Advisor. I serve as the French Sequence Supervisor (for multi-section courses at the beginning and intermediate levels), French minor advisor (we have close to 70 minors), and Coordinator of Foreign Language Education.
EB: Are there any highlights from your career in teaching that you can share?
CL: There have been many ”best” moments in my career. In the early days, I taught K-12 French and Spanish in northern Maine, and the enthusiasm of those young learners filled my life with joy. Later, in Miami, Florida, at a private school, my middle school students (all 67 of them) performed scenes from the opera Carmen as a spoken play with costumes borrowed from a Miami flamenco dance company.
EB: That’s awesome. Do you have any advice for today’s Salem State students who might want to become teachers?
CL: My advice for new French teachers? Teach hard and teach well. Keep our expectations high. Bring the world into your classroom. If you have a talent—mine was dance and theater—get involved in extra-curricular activities. Being Drama Coach or choreographer of student performances enabled me to roll up my sleeves and to be involved with students in a different way. I’ve taught for 40 years, and seeing my UD students become teachers themselves reminds me that this is the only career I ever wanted!