By Sheila M. Eldred
The emergence of Francophone studies
North African film. Senegalese music. Quebecois novels. Vietnamese poetry. Political comics.
Such eclectic collections are becoming commonplace in the lesson plans of French departments across the country, thanks to the emergence of Francophone studies.
Although Francophone means simply “French-speaking," Francophone studies encompasses the literature, film, and culture of French-speaking regions around the world, including West and North Africa, parts of Central Africa, Madagascar, Reunion, French Polynesia, the French Caribbean, Vietnam, Canada, France, Belgium, and Switzerland.
“When I was a student in the ’70s, the primary objects of study in a French department were language and literature," says Daniel Brewer, chair of the U’s Department of French and Italian. “Most of the texts that were taught were written in France. But there’s been a gradual shift to recognizing that the French-speaking world is much larger, richer, and diverse."
The switch to studying French in a more inclusive, global context is reflected on reading lists, in graduate student projects, study abroad programs, and even in the faculty at the University of Minnesota: one of the department’s most recent hires, assistant professor Hakim Abderrezak, specializes in Beur (France-born descendants of North African immigrants) and Francophone literature and cinema, especially from North Africa.
“Students are growing up pretty savvy; they’re aware of how small the world is," says associate professor Eileen Sivert, who has specialized in Quebecois literature and culture since the early 1990s. “They don’t feel studies in French should be limited to Europe."
Francophone studies started gaining popularity in the 1990s when student interest in global studies was increasing. The availability of faculty to teach it has grown in response, and the number of Francophone students in graduate programs has also influenced its rise, says associate professor Judith Preckshot.
An all-encompassing approachUniversities across the country are responding to this new approach by offering minors in Francophone studies and changing department names to French and Francophone studies. Most are striving to hire professors with research strengths and personal interest—or experience—in the field to give their students a radical new point of view.
Abderrezak, for example, uses the cinema from North Africa “to give undergraduates a broad idea of the sociological and political implications of the Maghreb, its citizens and community."
“We talk about the way [the films] portray the environment," he says. “We talk about the hamam [bath] or harem, for instance, as cultural and religious institutions to be ‘read’ in a different way, with awareness of what the director does to introduce the culture, not just tell the story. The students learn about a specific cultural aspect before viewing a film so that they can react to the movie with insight."
Such an approach is a far cry from the standardized textbooks of yore—and Abderrezak is far from the only one embracing and advancing this change at the U:
• Assistant professor Christophe Wall-Romana teaches a class on New Orleans, studying historical documents like the Code Noir (King Louis XIV’s 1689 decree that established the system of slavery in the French colonial empire), fiction of Victor Hugo set in the New World, and the novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin.
• Sivert is teaching an introductory literature course that draws equally from Gustave Flaubert and a short novel by Ying Chen, who emigrated from China to Quebec.
• Preckshot’s recent classes have centered on the oral tradition of storytelling in Francophone literature; gender, nationality, and individual identity in Francophone writing; and the literature of war and civil conflict in Algeria, among others.
• Inspired by trips to Haiti, senior lecturer April Knutson now teaches advanced courses on that country.
As the professors of tomorrow, Ph.D. students are researching a diverse range of Francophone topics. Hoa Nguyen, for example, is studying Vietnamese literature and exploring immigrant issues.
“[Francophone studies] brings a lot of new perspectives that traditional French textbooks wouldn’t offer," she says.
In Francophone literature, that perspective often includes a sobering lesson for students: that some of the wealth of France resulted from slavery, Knutson says.
“I haven’t read a Francophone novel that doesn’t make reference to colonization or slavery," she says.
Rabelais still relevantGiven the new focus on Francophone studies, do students still revel in the work of Rabelais and spend hours deciphering Roland Barthes? “We still teach what we always taught," Sivert says. “But we approach it from a global point of view. And it’s become more common to teach culture and literature together, instead of focusing solely on literature."
In other words, Francophone studies provides a larger, cultural context even for the traditional study of literature and language. For example, what else was happening during the Middle Ages when Rabelais was writing and how does that relate to his work? And how does Barthes’ Mythologies reflect the broader French-speaking world and continue to influence it?
Francophone studies honors diversity within language groups, Knutson says. And with graduate students coming from West Africa, Vietnam, and the Caribbean, there’s immediate recognition and appreciation of the global nature of the language. These days, University of Minnesota French students studying abroad no longer head straight to Europe. This year, they can be found in Quebec (Montreal, Quebec City, and Chicoutimi) and Senegal, participating in the Minnesota Studies in International Development (MSID) program.
Nguyen’s graduate study of Vietnamese writers may have once seemed far-flung, but she says incoming students are more likely to have similar interests.
“There’s a richness of work that’s fascinating in today’s world of globalization," Nguyen says. “It’s so pertinent to read works by writers who have the experience of living in more than one culture."