by Katy Kappele
There’s something about Ben Kohn that reminds one of Beethoven, that mad, musical genius. Perhaps it is his love of music, or his mop of unruly, tight grey curls, or the fact that he speaks German. Perhaps it is nearly indefinable, but there is an allure of a better age, when people weren’t so self-conscious, when there was a great and wild freedom in the people.
Kohn is like a Picasso painting: separate, his elements are odd, wild, difficult to tie down, but together, they coalesce; they form the perfect impression.
“Durch, für, gegen, ohne, um,” he chants, and snaps his fingers. Soon, his entire German class is chanting prepositions and snapping their fingers, swept off on an impromptu voyage across languages on the wings of rhythm. Kohn’s students are smiling; his laughter is infectious. Five by five in their chant, the prepositions sweep through the room like the wave at a sporting event.
“Durch, für, gegen, ohne, um.” Through, for, against, without, around. Snap.
Kohn was born in 1958 in Munich, Germany, and moved to Missouri three years later, when his father received a job offer in the post-doctorate science program at the University of Missouri.
When Sputnik went into space, President Kennedy began to put a lot of money toward science, Kohn says, and there weren’t many academic positions in Germany at the time.
“I wouldn’t be here if not for Sputnik,” he says and laughs.
The family moved to Innsbruck, Austria, for two years, where Kohn’s father taught cryobiology in plants, before returning to Missouri.
Kohn’s father, who still teaches at Western Washington University, moved them to Washington, where Kohn fell in love with the landscape, which he says is much like southern Germany.
Kohn went to Denmark straight out of high school to be an assistant coach of chamber music. “It wasn’t directly teaching, but I really enjoyed that,” he says.
Kohn’s next experience with teaching came during his studies at the University of Washington, where he was a teaching assistant in comparative literature and German.
Kohn is noted by his students for the fun and relaxed atmosphere of his classes. “I can’t stand grading papers!” he says.
Kohn’s life has always had a connection to language, both his native German and English, and Russian, perhaps because of Sputnik. Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground,” inspired Kohn to take Russian at the University of Washington, but Kohn said the experience was unpleasant, with a teacher who was very strict and belittling. Before class, “I was so nervous I was ready to puke on my shoes,” Kohn says. He says he learned more Russian in the six weeks he spent in the Soviet Union (and it was the Soviet Union at the time — “The KGB was everywhere,” Kohn says) than he did in all of his Russian classes. Kohn says he thinks this experience is what makes his language classes fun.
“In terms of my teaching philosophy, I want people to feel completely comfortable,” Kohn says. “I always felt that if I presented something in a thoughtful way, something I was excited about, I could generate that excitement.”
Over the years, Kohn has taught general humanities, music and music appreciation, German, introduction to film, ESL, the medieval and renaissance world classes, a class on the Jazz Age, and English for a year in Hamburg, Germany.
On a more personal side, Kohn says that people should know him for his violin playing (he’s played since he was 8) and love of classical music and honey as well as for his teaching. He skis, and loves to spend time on Mount Baker in the winter.
“I love classical music,” Kohn says. “I have since I was a child. I spend way too much money taking my kids to concerts, but I love it and they love it. When it’s not work, it’s my family.” Kohn has one son, 15, and two daughters, both 12.
This quarter, Kohn is teaching classes on Italian music and film in Florence as part of Whatcom Community College’s study abroad program. The process involved extensive planning, including interviews, applications, and course proposals, but Kohn says he’s “always wanted to do this,” so he made it happen.
What is Kohn most excited about? The honey! An amateur bee-keeper, Kohn is excited about the 200 different types of honey produced in Tuscany, as well as the honey appreciation courses offered. “It’s a really big deal there,” he says.
Kohn has contributed greatly to Whatcom, even beyond his teaching, by bringing performing groups such as Red Priest (from London), the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble, and the Huun Huur Tu-Tuvan throat singers.
Kohn will return to Whatcom in the fall.
“The best part about this job is the students,” Kohn says. “What makes me love my job is what happens with the students. It’s about changing people. Piquing people’s curiosity is what I strive to do, and students are really open to that.”