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Cohen Award Winner Jane Alden Stevens Falls Into Teaching

Date: May 14, 2002
By: Nancy Brinker
Photos by Colleen Kelley
Archive: Profiles

Those who've had the privilege to enter the space of Professor Jane Alden Stevens leave it transformed.

Over and over in letters of support for Stevens' nomination for the Cohen Award for Teaching Excellence, her peers and students tell the story of "Janie's" quiet power to change lives. She inspires, leads and demands excellence. Stevens considers it her responsibility. Her colleagues, students and friends consider it her gift.
Professor Jane Alden Stevens, far right, with students

The words of Jonathan B. Riess, director of UC's School of Art, illustrate this. "I have made a point of observing Janie in class in the hope, frankly, that I myself might become a better teacher, and - one more confession - because I take such pride in being director of the School of Art during those stolen moments in her studio."

Stevens didn't plan to be a teacher. She was discovered. Following her graduation from St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., with a degree in 19th-century European Studies, she traveled to Germany. There, in the city of Wurzburg, Janie conducted specialized tours in art history. During one such tour, an educator fell under her spell. On the spot, he offered her a job teaching English as a Second Language at Volkschochschule e. V., a German evening college.

In Europe, Stevens became obsessed with taking pictures. Although she never had enrolled in a photography course as an undergraduate, Janie was determined to become a world-class photographer. She returned to New York and earned a master of fine arts degree in photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Twenty years ago, she joined the faculty at UC as a visiting artist in photography. She has been here ever since.

The one word that most perfectly seems to define Stevens as a teacher is "respectful." She honors students in such a way that they begin to honor themselves more. Her great concern for the individual is apparent to her students. Dennie Eagleson, a former student who now teaches at Antioch University, has this to say: "I came to the University of Cincinnati because of Janie. Janie responds to students very individually, and knows when to support and encourage, when to challenge and question, when to leave alone to their process."

Stevens underlines this in her own statement of teaching philosophy, "Teaching is about helping students create their lives. Ideally, a teacher is aware of individual students' development and provides them with the tools and information that allows them to grow and improve at any point in time. Sometimes that means passing along factual information. Sometimes it means pointing students in a different direction. Other times it means saying nothing and letting them find their own way."
Professor Jane Alden Stevens

Reflecting on his own time in Stevens' studio course, Peter Obermark, a professor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, comments, "Her classroom was a place where students knew they could express themselves freely, without fear of ridicule; and where their opinions and perspectives would be accorded respect. From both an artistic and intellectual point of view, those 10 weeks with Janie Stevens were among the most rewarding of my adult life, and I know that my classmates felt the same way."

In Stevens' studio, respect does not preclude exceptionally demanding standards that push students to the limits of their personal and artistic ability. UC photographer Colleen Kelley says, "As I think of the achievements that I've made in my life, at the top of the list is the 'A' I earned in Professor Stevens photography course. For this was my Dolly Cohen Award."

Although Stevens is tough, she is unafraid to show students her own vulnerability. In her words, "I believe that effective teachers share their own creative failures as well as successes with their students. In that way, those just beginning their own artistic journey can see that the issues an artist is challenged with do not necessarily fade over the course of time. This introduces students to the concept that creativity is a lifelong process which requires courage, perseverance and hard work."

This creative process has paid off for Stevens. A summary of her students' evaluations over the last 20 years reveals extraordinarily high scores. Her list of exhibitions, publications and awards stands as testimony of her personal quest for excellence. Her most recent body of works, "Tears of Stone: World War I Remembered," is currently exhibited at the Cleveland State University. Her photography hangs in galleries around the world, including the International Museum of Photography & Film at the George Eastman House, Rochester, N.Y.; the Museu de Arte Contemporane, Sao Paulo, Brazil; The Museum of Photography, Kharkiv, Ukraine; and our own Cincinnati Art Museum. Her most recent achievements include an Honorable Mention, "Heart to Heart: Women in Conversations About War," Dahl Arts Center, Rapid City, S.D. and a Second Place Award, Pan Horama '95, Tampere, Finland. Stevens received the College of DAAP's Award for Outstanding Teaching, from the University of Cincinnati in 1991.

And yet, Stevens remains reflective and humbled by her accolades. When asked her feelings upon receiving the Dolly B. Cohen Award for Teaching Excellence, she replied, "disbelieving."

She credits Jerry Stratton, who was the Head of the Photography Program when Janie arrived at the University, with teaching her more than anyone else about how to be an effective teacher. And to her students, Janie sends her gratitude...for their curiosity, for their hard work, for their dedication, and for pushing her as well and as hard as she pushed them. Ron E. Herman, a photography/digital imaging instructor at Foothill College, says it all, "I was recently asked if I had any amazing teachers during my education. I spoke to this individual at length about Jane Alden Stevens."

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