Undergraduate research opportunities take students to new places
When students set off toward a major in French or Italian, they begin with intensive classroom time, learning the language and studying the rich complexity of culture and literature. Over the years they’ll learn to socialize, write, and think in another language, and likely they’ll spend a semester or two on a study abroad program. Most of their college years are spent taking all this in. But before they leave the University of Minnesota they are expected to contribute to their field by writing a major research paper. It’s a big step for undergrads to think in an utterly original way about a topic of their choosing. The following essays describe the moment when four of our students were asked to seize control of their own intellectual sails. Here’s where the wind blew them.
Lisa Lillie: Truth Telling
“Aujourd’hui, je ne suis pas sûre que ce que j’ai écrit soit vrai. Je suis sûre que c’est véridique."
(Today, I’m not sure that what I wrote is true. I am sure that it’s truthful.)
So reads the introduction to Charlotte Delbo’s Aucun de nous ne reviendra (None of Us Will Return), the first book in a three-part series titled Auschwitz et après (Auschwitz and After). Delbo, a WWII French Resistance fighter and survivor of Auschwitz, wrote the series—a compilation of prose and poetry brutal in its imagery and truthfulness—after the end of the war. Introduced to Delbo in a French class, I quickly became interested in the lives of women in the French Resistance movement and their experiences in Nazi concentration camps.
Delbo’s Auschwitz series was the topic of my senior paper—a subject that challenged both my research skills and my understanding of the French language. Daunted by the idea of writing so large a research paper in a foreign language, I grew accustomed to the work and thoroughly enjoyed the research. I was captivated by Freud’s notion of the uncanny, which I had studied with Professor Mária Brewer. Freud’s fascination with things that are strangely familiar and that return unexpectedly helped me think about Delbo’s own recounting of her experiences. I was also inspired to take several women’s history courses at the University, one of which, Women in European History, 1500 to the Present, was particularly illuminating. It was empowering to learn how women struggled throughout history to achieve equal rights. I now find myself far more confident in writing larger works and in taking on more advanced research projects, and look forward to similar challenges in the future.
Margot Wagner: French as a Second Language
Students of French colonial Africa know well that Senegal is renowned for its production of Francophone literature—Léopold Sedar Senghor, Birago Diop, Mariama Bâ, and Cheikh Hamidou Kane are but a few of the literary figures who have helped define Senegalese literature. But having done field work in the country with African studies Professor Victoria Coifman (through Student Project for Amity Among Nations, an independent research program), I became interested in the production and promotion of literature in African languages. French may have been the language of famous Francophone writers, but Senegal is richly endowed with national languages (over 20 distinct languages and dialects are recognized), and only an estimated 20 percent of the population has a substantial command of the French language.
I wanted to know more about the 80 percent of Senegalese who don’t have a strong connection to French. My project therefore studied literature written in Pulaar, a native language in Senegal, and how written Pulaar changed from being written in an Arabic script to a Latin-based alphabet. I examined the Haalpulaar’en movement, a sociocultural movement to promote Pulaar literacy and identity that emerged in the late 1980s and continues today. To assess the effectiveness and importance of that movement, my work also compares the formal (French) and informal education systems operating in Senegal, along with their goals and results. I found that the question of African languages contains many social and political issues, not the least of which is that a Senegalese native has no chance of working in administration if he or she doesn’t speak French. With French-published books costing the equivalent of an average worker’s salary for two months, French remains in Senegal the language of the elite.
This research experience taught me a great deal about myself. Learning to eat with only my right hand, being an independent white woman in a mostly Muslim culture, traveling on buses with goats and chickens, I quickly learned about boundaries and comfort levels, about how I deal with physical and mental stress.
Tim Cronin: Cross Pollination
With a senior research paper to write, I wondered how to start. Where would I begin to conduct research on the unsettling and perverse subjects of abjection and depravity with which I had become so enamored in the fiction of the French writer Jean Genet?
I turned first to Genet’s words themselves, hoping to find an explanation for their explicit monstrosity. But I found something more. There, under the harshest language, I found beauty in Genet’s incessant use of flowers as a perplexing décor for his dark and abject world. They surround his scenery, ornament his language, and embellish the very gestures of his characters. The more of Genet’s fiction I read, the more I became preoccupied with the breathtaking and unrelenting use of floral imagery that filled otherwise gloomy pages.
I combined what I could understand of botany with literary theories of such philosophers as Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous. This, together with my own observations of Genet’s personal and capricious style, helped me reflect on Genet’s world. I found that through Genet’s prose, beauty and abjection are crafted into a unified whole, an element linked inextricably to the description of his dark world and the unexpected characters that inhabit it. The combination of such oppositional elements affords Genet’s texts the very tension and uniqueness that I have come to hold so dearly.
I was certainly not the first to be enchanted by the paradox of beauty and abjection in Genet’s fiction. But the work I completed last year helps me still, as I continue to absorb Genet’s work. I recently saw his highly controversial short film, Un chant d’amour, made in 1950. Watching Genet’s lost film, with its floral imagery juxtaposed with images of prison life and forbidden desire, I knew that my work had captured something fundamental about Genet.
Nina Petersen-Perlman: Getting to the Source of the Matter
When the time came to choose the topic for my French studies major research thesis, I knew I wanted somehow to incorporate my other lifelong passion: journalism. Inspired by my media law courses, I chose do a comparative analysis on French and American press law.
It is an interesting time for the latter, as members of the U.S. press fight for a federal shield law to protect journalists from having to name their sources in open court. Not all journalists are in favor of such a law, however, because it would require defining who a journalist is, introducing an additional and potentially undemocratic degree of government control over the journalism profession.
My initial research surprised me. I discovered that France already affords its journalists a degree of immunity from revealing their sources. But as I dug deeper and learned more about the nature of French journalism, I found a real lack of investigative reporting in the French press, especially when compared to what is found in American newspapers. It seemed paradoxical that French journalists were allowed more protection than their American counterparts. If French journalists didn’t do the kind of reporting that requires the use of anonymous sources, why would they go to great lengths to have secured their right to use them without government interference?
This question drove me to explore the historical, economic, political, literary, and linguistic reasons why investigative reporting never gained footing in France, and I attempted to explain why the French have nonetheless given their reporters more protection. I discovered that French journalists have an extremely close relationship with their sources—so much so that they are more likely to get information off the record than on, even on run-of-the-mill budget stories. Therefore, it’s really in those officials’ best interest that reporters be allowed to keep their sources secret.