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Farewell to Madeleine Kahn

Mills College Weekly

The English Dept. will feel the loss of an influential professor
next fall. Madeleine Kahn, an English professor at Mills since
1989, has resigned.

Kahn said she came to Mills 15 years ago because she “wanted to
teach at an institution that still valued teaching as well as
publishing and the national reputation that is now required of all

Being a women’s college was an added bonus for Kahn. “I truly
believe that if women can learn to think analytically and to write
and speak persuasively, then they have the most important skills
they need to go forward in life.”

“She has an intense passion for literature and scholarship that
is infectious,” said Erin Blomstrand, an MA candidate in creative
writing. “She has pushed me to be a better thinker and a better
writer, while at the same time, reminded me to have fun with the
process of analyzing literature.”

Kahn has been a photographer, a technical writer of computer
manuals, and a high school teacher of English and French. She grew
up in San Francisco, and did her graduate studies at Stanford where
she was finishing her dissertation on narrative transvestism in the
18th century novel and saw an opening at Mills for an 18th century
specialist. “I lived in the same apartment in San Francisco the
whole time I was in graduate school and for about the first ten
years I taught at Mills.”

She said she treasures the memories of being surprised by her
students, “by their honesty, by their passion, by the way they
caught fire about issues in supposedly dry and boring
eighteenth-century literature.”

Known for more than sharing her name with a famous actress, Kahn
has received numerous fellowships and awards for her work in 18th
century literature. She completed groundbreaking studies on which
she wrote a book, Narrative Transvestism: Rhetoric and Gender in
the Eighteenth-Century Novel, which Kirsten Saxton, assistant
professor of English and women’s studies, said she regularly
assigns in some of her classes.

Saxton, a Mills alumna, first met Kahn when she was a new
professor and Saxton was a student in her 18th century novel

“Her insistence on our active articulation of the implications
of our ideas, both in class and in our papers, at first had me
quaking,” Saxton said. “Her pointed ‘so what?’ series of questions
turned out to be invaluable for me and others. We learned to
unravel the assumptions and often unformed claims so that we could
craft clear and cohesive arguments and become better critical

Repeatedly challenged in her “assumptions about literature and
criticism; about classrooms; about the ways women learn and work
together,” led Kahn to write a book about her experiences at Mills
titled Why Are We Reading a Handbook on Rape?: Teaching and
Learning at a Women’s College.

Delighted to be heading into the unknown, Kahn said that
spending more time with her young son and waiting to see what
develops next in her life feels like a great luxury.

“Madeleine’s generosity – as a teacher, a scholar and a
colleague – her commitment to excellence in herself and others, and
her dry wit and grounded presence,” Saxton said. “She will be
sorely missed.”

Kahn will be honored by the English Department with a reception
May 13, 4-5:30 pm at the PEP lounge. Light refreshments will be