When they met at a dinner party in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jan Starczewski and Whitney Swance had no idea that that evening would lead to the beginning of the rest of their lives — not only as husband and wife, but also as future colleagues. They now work together in the Hillsdale College French department.
On July 1, Starczewski and Swance arrived in Hillsdale, with their 3‑year-old son Noah. They enjoy buying fresh vegetables from the Hillsdale Farmers Market and grabbing drinks at Rough Draft, but their most exciting adventure began this fall as they ushered in a new era in the Hillsdale College French department. They replaced two recently retired French professors in the three-person department.
Starczewski was born in the United Kingdom to a British father and French mother, but moved to France at an early age. He grew up by the Mediterranean Sea in the southeast of France — near Nice.
“What’s funny is you only realize how much a place is amazing once you’ve left it,” Starczewski said. “I grew up there and took it for granted. It’s by the sea, near the mountains, 300 days of sunshine a year, and usually moderate temperatures.”
His initial reason for coming to the United States, Starczewski said, was to go to a “Bible school” in pursuit of someday becoming a pastor. But after returning to France, Starczewski completed his undergraduate studies with an emphasis on the English language.
“My goal at that point was to teach English in France,” he said. “I’ve been bilingual since I was 12, and thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’”
After completing his studies, Starczewski came to the United States to pursue an opportunity to teach English in upstate New York.
“From that point on, I thought I wanted to teach French in the United States,” he said.
Attending the University of Memphis for his master’s degree in the French language, Starczewski came to appreciate the American way of teaching about French culture.
“Growing up in France [and] attending high school in France, there were many texts and authors that were a part of the curriculum — canonical works. As a teenager, I didn’t realize the wealth of all of this,” Starczewski said. “One thing that struck me was how my American professors taught me about French literature and history with such passion and enthusiasm that they enabled me to see angles and perspectives of something that was very familiar to me, but from a completely different angle.”
It wasn’t until Starczewski attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison to continue his graduate studies that he came to meet his future wife, Whitney Swance.
Swance, originally from southern Wisconsin, came to love the French language through first studying Spanish.
“I loved Spanish and found I have a love for foreign languages in general,” Swance said. “I decided in college to study French because I love the language, but I also love French literature.
With a love for French literature and art in particular, Swance chose to pursue her master’s degree in French literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Studying the plays of Molière, reading Gustave Flaubert, and the plays of [Jean] Racine, a 17th century playwright, in college, really made me want to continue studying it in grad school,” Swance said. “I fell in love with these texts because of the professors I had, who were very much engaged with how these authors used language to communicate meaning.”
Starczewski and Swance wish to bring this same passion and cultural background to their classrooms as they teach French at Hillsdale College for the first time this fall.
“Although we may have taught French 101, or French 201, or a Culture and Civilizations class at another school, every school’s French program is set up differently so that students progress through the courses sometimes sooner, sometimes slower,” Swance said. “It takes some adjustment.”
Both Starczewski and Swance said they want their students to know basic French after taking their third general language course, but beyond that, they want to help their students pick up real-life skills.
“Our goal is to make our students critical thinkers, problem solvers, look at a different culture, and make some comparisons with their own culture,” Starczewski said. “From a purely linguistic aspect, we want our students after their third semester to be able to go to any French-speaking country and get around, book a room, order a taxi, [and] know how to order food at a restaurant.”
In Swance’s courses, she said she likes her students to interact with original French texts, including business cards, songs, blog posts, newspapers, and other authentic documents.
Junior Ashley Warden is in Starczewski’s Speaking and Writing French course this semester. She says she appreciates her professor’s well-rounded knowledge of French culture and how he draws connections between the past and present.
“It’s really good to have a professor who is so familiar with the language and modern French culture,” Warden said. “Often I feel like I’m just learning about what France was like during the Revolution, which is great, but Dr. Starczewski knows all of the idioms and cultural nuances of modern France, which will be helpful whenever I study abroad or interact with other Francophiles.”