Kitty Fair

"Around the Harkness table, it’s cool the ways in which [students] help each other be their best selves.”

French instructor Katherine (Kitty) Fair understands what it’s like to go the distance. An endurance athlete who’s completed 24 marathons, an Ironman Triathlon, and served as Exeter’s assistant women’s cross-country coach, Fair also is the longest-serving instructor in the Department of Modern Languages.

Similarly, she knows from personal experience that mastering a foreign language can be a marathon, not a sprint. Fair’s early educational experiences helped her understand that the journey to fluency and cultural discovery can be circuitous, so she empathizes with students with similar trajectories. “It’s not necessarily students who show capacity right off the bat who become most fluent in a language,” she says.

Originally from upstate New York, Fair spent two years in France after graduating from high school. “I went to France because it was different,” she says. “I liked French but didn’t think I had much potential in it.” She attended an American college in Paris for one year before becoming dissatisfied with her progress. Determined to immerse herself fully in the experience, she became an au pair and repeated her senior year in a Normandy high school (“I studied math in French — what a nightmare!” she jokes). She finished her last three years of college stateside at Brown University, majoring in French and, later, while a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, returned to France as a lecturer at the Université Paul Valéry.

It’s not necessarily students who show capacity right off the bat who become most fluent in a language.”

Fair, who came to Exeter in 1984, is passionate about French language and culture and eagerly shares that passion with students. Currently acting chair of the department of Modern Languages, a position she’s held once before, she co-led the fall semester abroad in Grenoble, a 2,000-year-old city at the foot of the French Alps, for 10 years (the program was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic).

“The Grenoble program is really rewarding, between keeping up my French skills and watching my students prosper in a foreign environment,” she says. “I hope we’ll be able to get back there again.”

She put her language skills to use outside Exeter as an Advanced Placement (AP) exam reviewer for more than 25 years and wrote test questions for AP and SAT II French exams.

As a Steyer Distinguished Professor, Fair has taken advantage of professional development opportunities that enable her to bring key learnings back to students. Especially impactful were visits to the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, where she immersed herself in their culture and history. She was struck by the effect of France’s slave trade on the islands during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Inspired by her visits, Fair worked with French instructor Evelyn Christoph and Exeter’s Global Initiatives program to organize a spring break trip for students to Martinique in 2019. Living with host families gave students a taste of Creole language and culture as did walking in a Mardi Gras parade, taking dance classes and participating in workshops on Martinique music.

Fair uses current French literature to introduce students to diverse authors. “A lot of us (in Modern Languages) are sharing and exploring topics in equity, diversity and inclusion that are worth reading in any language,” she says. One of her favorite teaching moments occurred recently while teaching Ru, a novel by Vietnamese-born Canadian novelist Kim Thúy, based on experiences of the “boat people” who escaped from Vietnam to Malaysia in the late 1970s.

“She met with my class on Zoom at the end of fall term and it was an exciting experience,” says Fair. “She’s an uplifting, engaging speaker and a fantastic role model for our students, since she learned English and French after immigrating, despite coming from a country colonized by France.”

Other readings in French by BIPOC authors — including Petit Pays (Small Country) by biracial African author Gaël Faye and Le Racisme Expliqué à Ma Fille (Racism Explained to My Daughter) by Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun — give students an international perspective on racism. Fair hopes that reading these stories helps students who may travel abroad understand racial tensions around the world. “When students read about racism in a different culture it enhances what they already see in their own country and makes them think about it more deeply,” she says. “It gives them a new take on racism.”

Although she’s no longer running marathons, Fair isn’t slowing down. She’s still thinking about how to nurture her students’ love of French and looking forward to travelling abroad with them again. One of her greatest takeaways from teaching is her students’ capacity for kindness and compassion. “We have students who collectively meet the mark when it comes to understanding and tolerance in the classroom and in different contexts on campus,” she says. “Around the Harkness table, it’s cool the ways in which they help each other be their best selves.”

— Debbie Kane

Kitty Fair was appointed a Steyer Distinguished Professor in May 2011. Endowed by Kat and Tom Steyer ’75 in 2006, the Steyer Distinguished Professorships honor Exeter’s most accomplished senior teachers who set the standards for scholarship and teaching at Exeter.