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University of Iowa News Release

Feb. 24, 2006

UI French Professor Downing Thomas Knighted

Might be time for the University of Iowa to invest in a round table.

France has named UI professor Downing Thomas a knight in its Order of Academic Palms, or l'Ordre des Palmes académiques, for promoting the French language and francophone culture through his teaching, publishing and research.

Thomas, professor and chair of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of French and Italian, joins the ranks of at least three other UI professors and alumni knighted by France in recent years. Bryan Watkins, who studied French at the UI and received his teacher certification through the College of Education in 1992, was given the honor in 2004 and currently teaches French at a high school in Omaha. Jacques Bourgeacq, an emeritus professor of French and Italian, was knighted in 1999, and Rick Altman, a professor of cinema and comparative literature in the CLAS, received the honor in 1984.

The Academic Palms is the oldest civilian award given out and is second only in age to the Legion of Honor. Created in 1808 by Napoléon Bonaparte to honor university professors, the award was extended in 1866 to non-educators for their exceptional work in the area of education. In 1955, French President René Coty created the Order of Academic Palms with three ranks: knight, officer and commander. The Academic Palms, today, can be bestowed upon educators and non-educators alike who have devoted their lives to the expansion of the French language and francophone culture in the world.

A summary of the award says that l'Ordre des Palmes académiques - like other of France's arts and sciences awards -- have been cherished for almost 200 years.

"The form of the award has changed, as has the organization which administers it," the summary says. "Over time, however, the Palmes have survived the social and political storms which have shaken France, and has earned an esteem not readily measured."

The French minister of national education recommends nominees for the honor to the French prime minister, who, if she or he is in agreement, issues an official decree naming recipients.

Thomas learned that he was selected for the award earlier this year after receiving letters from the French Embassy in Washington and the French Consulate in Chicago. Although details are still being worked out, on May 5 France's cultural attaché in Chicago, Yannick Mercoyrol, is scheduled to visit Iowa City to officially decorate Thomas.

Most of Thomas' scholarship focuses on early-modern French studies (from around 1600 to around 1800), notably music and opera, theories of language and aesthetics.

Music and opera are central to his first two books, both of which were published in series devoted to issues in musicology: "Aesthetics of Opera in the Ancien Régime: 1647-1785" (Cambridge University Press, 2002), and "Music and the Origins of Language: Theories from the French Enlightenment" (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Additionally, Thomas has written a cross-disciplinary volume of essays in opera studies in collaboration with Roberta M. Marvin titled "Operatic Migrations: Transforming Works and Crossing Boundaries in Musical Drama," and has taken part in symposia held in conjunction with staged performances of operas in New York City, Berkeley, Calif. and Iowa City.

The courses he teaches range from advanced undergraduate language and literature classes to graduate seminars on issues in 18th-century studies, including a recent course on identity and otherness in Enlightenment fiction.

More recently, he designed a new CLAS general education course, "Cultural Misunderstandings: France and the U.S.," which he said will encourage students to consider how people from other countries view Americans and how cultural understandings (and misunderstandings) shape the ways in which they in turn view other cultures.

Thomas holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in French literature from New York University, and a B.A. with a major in French and minor in music from Washington University in St. Louis.

He is a past recipient of a McMaster University/American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend and an American Council of Learned Societies international travel grant. He serves on the executive committees of the Eighteenth-Century French Literature division and the section on Opera as a Literary and Dramatic Form (both within the Modern Language Association), and he was elected to the executive committee of the Association of Departments of Foreign Language.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Stephen Pradarelli, 319-384-0007, stephen-pradarelli@uiowa.edu.