In reviewing the material evidence—department websites, conference programs, course listings, tables of contents of peer-reviewed journals—of what we’ve been doing lately in the United States in French and Francophone studies, one is left with an impression of dispersal, of uncertainty about our mutual aspirations. The only coherence I can locate in this diffuse field is a general sense of crisis and a seeping in of political debates that are omnipresent in contemporary American culture more generally (for example, various identity-based reclamations such as canon expansion) but that are not unique to our discipline. Some other field-specific set of guiding principles is not immediately visible. Without such principles, how should we think about the task before us? What should we be doing?

I decided to ask colleagues in the field, from a wide range of backgrounds, institutions, specializations, and career phases. Their answers make up this special issue. I reached out to some scholars I’ve known, studied with, or collaborated with for many years and some I’ve never met. (This was a great benefit to saying yes to guest editing this special issue; I discovered the work of great scholars I hadn’t yet come across.) I invited graduate students, lecturers, and professors of all ranks, asking everyone to write essays rather than scholarly interventions. Some took the opportunity to write personally or anecdotally about their own arrival and advancement in the field; others approached the special issue more scientifically, offering statistics and examples of new pedagogical and research methods. Some authors wrote polemically, others accommodatingly. In this special issue, you will find nostalgia, fragmentary reflections, hard evidence, and quite a bit of raging against the machine. I was delighted by the range of styles and subjects that materialized as the issue came together, each author displaying something of their personality and their scholarly philosophy.

In asking the question, I proposed a few ideas about which aspects of our field contributors might address in their answers:

State of the Field: Does French and Francophone studies make sense as a conceptual unit? What should the relationship between, say, someone working on medieval troubadour poetry and someone working on contemporary French-language Moroccan feminist literature be? How should French and Francophone studies relate to other disciplinary framings like Romance languages or world languages and literatures? Should our focus still be literature or something else? What are the advantages and disadvantages of an interdisciplinary understanding of the field of French and Francophone studies? What could be done to add more coherence to our community? How much should politics inflect our work, and in which ways? What are the biggest threats we face in the coming decade? What are the biggest sources of hope?

Research: Which methodologies are relevant now? What role should theory play in our work? What about philology? Are there fresh ways to look at things like close reading, far reading, archival research, genetic criticism, formalism, psychoanalysis, and so on? Are there particular topics that lend themselves best to the field of French and Francophone studies? How should we communicate our findings? How much should we be publishing and for which audiences? Should we write for mass audiences or strictly for a specialized scholarly audience? How can academic publishing be updated to suit the needs of scholars now? Is what we do a form of science?

Teaching: What should our students be able to do when they leave our programs? Is it ethical to take on more graduate students given the state of the humanities job market? Whence the canon? Should we teach strictly in French or try to reach a broader audience by teaching in English? Should fluency be the goal of higher education in French and Francophone studies? Or something else? How responsible is our field for training students in other basic skills like reading, writing, and speaking?

Other Matters: What should our relation be to institutions like the university, various professional organizations, cultural institutions, and so on? How should our field relate to technology? What role should digital humanities play in the future of French and Francophone studies? Are the conventions surrounding conferences serving us well? Which logics should be used in deciding things such as who should be invited to give a talk, who should be hired for a job, who should take leadership roles in a department, and who should receive prizes? By what criteria should we measure the success of our teaching, publishing, and presenting?

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that there is little consensus in the following pages. Assembled here are the opinions of free-minded individuals who entered and have experienced the field in greatly differing ways and whose research and teaching have been influenced by personal preferences, institutional constraints, and students’ needs and wishes. Still, a few faint throughlines are visible.

First, everyone seems to agree that our field is in crisis. The language of apocalypse one finds in current assessments of the state of the humanities—in publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education, for example—is deployed here in the same abundance. Second, many authors in this volume have a problem with the name of our field. What should be done with the word “Francophone,” which brings with it so much baggage, especially when paired with “French”? And the term “French studies” brings its own troubles—namely: Should a more interdisciplinary model (implied by “studies”) be adopted to replace the old language-and-literature model of earlier decades? What to do with film, philosophy, music, creative writing, social sciences, and the visual arts in what used to be (implicitly) departments of French literature? Another common theme: the role the French language should have in our field. What is the goal for graduates of our programs: accentless fluency, reading proficiency, or simply cultural literacy? How should we think about cases such as, say, Algeria, where fluency or at least proficiency in languages other than French would be necessary to understand the fuller context of certain cultural artifacts and histories there? From a realist perspective, how much fluency can we actually expect from our undergrad and grad students in four to six years, especially those starting from scratch or those who have only limited opportunities to spend significant time abroad? This, too, is a common theme in the following contributions.

A few other common themes emerge: the professional vulnerability of graduate students, lecturers, adjuncts, and assistant professors; digital literacy and the risks and promise of new technologies; the systemic nature of our current woes; and the delicate handling of texts and authors now deemed problematic. Few contributors addressed research, conferencing, and publication, focusing instead on the classroom and the various meeting points between students and instructors, who act in rotation as mentors, advisers, career counselors, and teachers. This special issue is undoubtedly student centered, showing that those we teach are still the main priority, despite the many responsibilities, obstacles, and distractions we confront outside the classroom.

________

If I am asking my colleagues to tell what they think we should be doing, I should also offer up an answer. I wrote a draft of this introduction and asked a trustworthy reader to have a look and offer an opinion. It was entirely too cynical, he thought. And he was right. Through mostly luck, I have landed in a position with more stability and resources that anyone could hope for, and yet I was offering up only doom and gloom to readers who might not have these luxuries. Although there are, I think, justifiable reasons why I might be cynical about the state of the field, why should I snuff out the hope of others with my own (impressionistic) foreboding? Hope is the engine of the good, and I have no business throwing a wrench in it.

I have revisited the pessimistic parts of the essay, suppressing them (with the classic black bars, whose connotations of hiddenness add a nice layer of mystery here), and replacing them (in italics) with more generous and generative thinking. In doing so, I even cheered myself up a bit. What was the main motivation for making these changes? First, a sense of responsibility toward those in my same boat; we are all we’ve got. Second, because any act of creation, scholarship, mentorship, focus, and enlightenment is an act of refusal of their opposites: destruction, ignorance, abandonment, distraction, and endarkenment. Here, I’ve stifled the negative thoughts to give more breathing room to what is good in our field.

It may be that the humanities (and our field) are not actually dying but morphing into something unfamiliar to us. At times, it feels as though the changes are happening in spite of us or as though the thing we built over generations has gotten out of hand, taking on new features that make us obsolete. But through interactions with students, new scholars, and, in some cases, the public, we are still the representatives and stewards of the kind of attention and careful vigilance that the world’s destructive forces don’t like. Such stewardship may be the best (and only?) hindrance to these forces. It would behoove us to rethink what stewardship means in a field like ours and how not to be recruited inadvertently into the cultural wrecking-crew mindset that characterizes today’s politics of destruction.

A first step in this process might be to imagine, if our field were to end suddenly, how we would spend our last moments in it. Personally, I would seek out and offer comfort to like-minded souls. I would steep myself in those original books, films, images, songs, and objects that have been the most meaningful to me, all the while trying to match each student with their own world-shaking objects that will stay with them through life. I would write my heart out, not to satisfy some professional metric of success but because extinct things should always leave behind a record that they existed.

One wonders if the language of apocalypse is not overblown, a way to keep everyone fearful and docile. During the grimmest parts of the pandemic and the political turmoil of recent years, I could not write. I could not think. The gloom and fear deadened my creative energies, paradoxically the one thing that had made me feel strong and capable in our uncertain field. Only recently have the writer’s block and the mental stoppages ended, and not because the future suddenly began to look rosy. It is because I realized that the only beneficiaries of my writerly and intellectual torpor were my enemies. The enemies of thought and making, of knowledge and patience. Suddenly, it was clear that my writing, research, teaching, and speaking were not just professional obligations but were acts of negation of world-worsening forces.

Although I am suspicious of many activities of the new humanities—certain kinds of data collection, clever socially conscious marketing, output that a computer could probably just as easily write, the development of rubrics for quantifying student performance in even the most subjective of subjects—there is still room for and interest in puzzling through the intractable problems of being a person or learning how a piece of literature does what it does. I wonder at times whether, in an attempt to draw students in, we haven’t made our enterprise too easy, smoothing all the rough edges and making it seem as though by memorizing some things, you’ve assimilated it all. I would prefer that we complexify, not simplify; that we get across that the best of what we have to teach is not Googleable information but an ever-renewable, self-feeding philosophy of understanding. I would hope my students will never quite be satisfied with what they know and will not mistake knowing how to conjugate verbs or speaking with only a whisper of an accent for perennial wisdom.

I lamented some of these problems back in 2015 in my “Conference Manifesto,” in which I asked for an overhaul of the academic conference and its many bad habits. The format of the professional conference felt fruitless to me, costing graduate students and faculty a lot of time, money, and nervousness without much individual or collective benefit. People often presented their work to near-empty rooms, speaking of writers or books that no one else in attendance had heard of. Papers were read quickly and monotonously, and no one asked questions at the end. Or when they did, it was clear that the question was mainly a performance, a case of asking a question in order to be seen asking one. I felt validated by the enthusiastic response to the piece, relieved that many others had noticed the same problems not just in our field but across the humanities, and I was happy to see the manifesto’s truths confirmed in a recent reportage on the annual Modern Language Association Conference (Brogan) and a think piece on the death of English departments (Heller).

These problems, I think, are more a function of inertia than of a staunch attachment to these rituals and gestures of yore. The will to change them is there; it only takes a few conscientious conference planners to invite some radicality and warmth into their future conferences. What about a conference made up only of discussion panels? Or with more experimental formats and venues? What if “talking with” rather than “talking at” were the main activity? How might one prevent the silo effect, with scholars organizing themselves into highly specialized, self-isolating coteries? There is so much opportunity to rethink the formats of every single thing we do: conferencing, the mechanics of peer-reviewed publication, mentorship, public writing, experiments in teaching, our relation to cultural fields like the arts, literature, and music. As I think about how it might feel to commit to trying out these things and being part of a collective effort to do so, there is a tug in my consciousness that feels something like promise.

From inside the field, I see mostly people of good will doing the best they can to satisfy the wants and needs of several competing constituencies: the undergraduates, their parents, the grad students, the department or program, the administration, the field, the very-online public critics, the post-university world of businesses and institutions that will potentially hire our students, not to mention these scholars’ own personal goals. These constituencies each have different motivations and exert unique pressures on the daily life of the humanities scholar. Being pulled in so many different directions can have a paralyzing effect; one simply tries to get through the day. One freeing thought, I’ve found, is to disregard (if only for a moment and in one’s head) these obligations and imagine an alternative situation in which it is YOU AND YOU ALONE who takes the power to set the priorities, to triage the relevant from the irrelevant, and to see your vocation with fresh eyes. You may have more power than you believe yourself to have. You may just have to exert it creatively.

________

Poetic musings aside, there are a few concrete things we should be doing in our next phase.

First, let’s pick a name—I vote for global French studies—so that our next moments can be spent on something other than debating what we should be called.

Second, we should retrain ourselves and our students in the art of persuasion. This key element is missing in so much contemporary academic writing, speaking, and teaching and could go quite far in extending the life of a tired field or at least in setting up students and young colleagues to thrive outside it. Imagine if people in our programs consistently emerged as eloquent and persuasive speakers and writers, conveying to those in and beyond their field why their work is urgent. If we decided that speaking and writing well (in French and English) should be the main objective of our endeavors, the benefits to everyone would be significant. Having been trained in oratory, effective rhetorical maneuvers, and persuasive writing, our students—eager to address the many social and political problems of the moment—would be far better equipped to do so. The spirit of our writing and speaking should be invitational, not evasive; bold, not sheepish; reasonable, not reactive.

Third, we should cultivate something I’ll call contextual worldliness—that is, the ability to think panoramically and situate cultural artifacts in their proper place, time, and sociopolitical context. Once this fundamental skill is grasped, a scholar will be able to take virtually any object and instantly glean many of its meanings, knowing something significant about it before wading into its weeds. This will require a particularly capacious historical and geographical attention, an attunement to certain cultural patterns, and a willingness to think far beyond one’s subspecialization. The advantage here is the opening up of a space of conversation to which everyone is invited. No matter the object, no matter the moment in which it was made or who made it, a medievalist or a specialist of seventeenth-century theater or of contemporary ecological humanities can engage with it by virtue of this contextual worldliness. This would shift our minds away from the current canon-centric focus—the idea that reading a specific list of texts constitutes “knowing” a field—and toward a more integrative approach that would make a student capable of knowing a lot about a text before even reading the first word.

This leads toward another wish I have, a somewhat old-school one: a renewed attention to detail in the act of reading or looking. To use a pair of photographic metaphors, the aforementioned panoramic view finds its natural antipode in the macro view—that is, the delight of letting small things loom large in the eye and brain. Of the many meanings close reading has had along the way, I mean it here in a less theoretically codified way. I try to train students to notice, for example, that a poem might be built around a hidden etymology, or that a subtle constellation of metaphors has been doing its work on our subconscious for a few pages, or that a sudden shift in verb tense is weird and thus perhaps significant. Keeping one’s nose to the ground, there is so much satisfaction to be had in picking up on a faint trail. Students feel a certain amount of relief, I find, in being distracted from life’s distracting forces by this call to attention. Where else these days does one have the space and time to train oneself in the art of focus?

A final general recommendation: Because our students have widely varying backgrounds and levels of preparedness when they arrive—maybe now more than ever—we are called upon to be curators of their experience. I don’t mean in the retail sense of customizing the college experience so they get their money’s worth. I mean that the best way to enchant them—tucking into the pockets of their minds the wonder and curiosity that will sustain them in an often dull, soul-crushing world—may require a greater regard toward the particular interests and talents of each student. The professors who meant the most to me in my undergrad and grad years were those who treated me as an adult, who put some book or film in my hand after class, or who picked up on something I’d said in a seminar and wrote to me about it later. These acts of singling out are the very thing that made me want to keep going in the field. It wasn’t the classes or the exams or the official parts of the program that were most decisive in my education. Being singled out and truly seen was the main motivator for everything I’ve done. At some point after becoming a professor, I realized that a flat, undifferentiated presenting of materials in class was not enough to get certain students hooked on humanistic thinking. Though it requires more energy, taking the time to identify those who are capable of and hungry for more is one of the few measures that draws students in and sets their intellects off on an auspicious, self-sustaining path, which, I think, should be our main goal.

You’ll have noticed that these recommendations are by no means specific to our field but apply to every humanities discipline. As for French and Francophone studies—or whatever we call it—I feel that, sadly, we have moved away from asking big questions to asking small ones, reflecting the general trend in humanities toward specialization. (We may be specializing and particularizing ourselves into ineffectualness.) But I’ve found that the classes I’ve taught and the books and articles I’ve written were received most enthusiastically when they focused on broader, more ambitious questions. For instance, my first book, Rootedness: The Ramifications of a Metaphor (2016), tried to puzzle through the problem of human attachment to a place or to a genealogy, an increasingly relevant topic in our globalized, identity-attuned world. Why do we so often describe ourselves as rooted to a set of coordinates or to a bloodline? While I based the book on French (and German) “case studies,” I found that almost anyone I told about it had something to say on the subject: anthropologists, immigrants, environmentalists, religious people of different faiths, political scientists, linguists, postcolonial literary scholars. I wrote it in an invitational spirit, a phrase I use again and again to describe the attitude I try to infuse in all of my teaching, writing, and speaking. If I present something and it is met with blank stares, I can only suspect that my interlocutors have been left feeling uninvited to our encounter.

On the question of language acquisition, it is hard here to make a general recommendation since programs vary so greatly from school to school. One thing is certain: when a course is taught in French to a group of students whose native language is not French, the intellectual level of the conversation will necessarily diminish. This is true even at the graduate level. On the one hand, the purpose of courses taught in the language is for students to increase the sophistication of what they are able to express. (And what more secure a practice site is there than the classroom?) On the other hand, one goes to college not just to pick up a skill but to get deep in the material, to figure out how it works and absorb the lessons it imparts. How to engage in a debate about a hard text with a tied tongue? In recent years, I’ve taught undergrad courses all in French—except for the high-enrollment recruiting courses meant to draw in students from other departments; in that case, the lecture is in English and the discussion sections are in French or English, depending on each student’s abilities—and grad seminars in English, to draw in students from other fields and to keep the level of discourse high. I suppose that another reason to support this choice is that if you are doing a PhD in a French department, you presumably already speak fluent French. This isn’t always the case—many students still need linguistic practice at the grad level—but this system has worked well for me in recent years, and I’m happy that this approach has allowed students from comparative literature, architecture, history, art history, and English to join the grad seminars, bringing the lexicons and tools of those fields to class where our students get exposure to them. Personally, as an undergrad, my main goal was fluency (and to have read as much and as deeply as possible), but as a grad student, my priorities shifted: then, I wanted to understand how all the pieces of what I’d been learning fit together, how I might convey what I knew and thought to others, and how my generation of scholars would relate to those who had come before us. My opinions now about language acquisition (and about what we should be doing more generally) are still shaped by those earlier impulses.

I’ve found that what graduate students mainly need (and want) is guidance into the field, especially when it comes to writing and conferencing. There are so many questions hanging in the air. For example, how does one go from being a student to a colleague? What constitutes a good project? What kinds of things are people working on in the field these days? Which methodologies are ascendant and which are declining? What are the differences between a seminar paper, a dissertation chapter, and a peer-reviewed article? What can one effectively get across to an audience in a twenty-minute paper? How can one keep the dissertation from growing too many tentacles? I’ve put together workshops for our students on these topics and have met with them one on one as they get ready to present at their first conference, go over revisions suggested by an editor, get ready for an MLA interview or campus visit, or prepare to teach their first language class. After being in the field for a long time, it is easy for professors to forget how intimidating each of these phases was and to realize that the job market probably barely resembles the one they entered. We should be honest—with the students and ourselves—about that.

At every phase, scholars should keep talking to those who’ve just accomplished what they hope to accomplish next, be it passing the qualifying exam, publishing a translation, working on a textbook, getting a tenure-track job, or going up for promotion. These channels might bring conflicting advice—the pointers I got were right only about half the time—but the important act of trading experiences is the precondition for any field to even begin to exist. (I suspect this is the real reason conferences still exist—not for the panels, which are a mere pretext, but for the in-between moments of venting, gossip, and camaraderie between like-minded souls.) These are all your people, in one way or another, and you’ll keep seeing those you met on your campus visits as a prospective grad student or at a random conference from here on out. Of everyone in the field, junior faculty are perhaps the best positioned to be its surveyors. Having just finished grad school—and perhaps a postdoc fellowship or visiting or adjunct position—the experience is fresh in their minds, and they’ve just been introduced to the realities of faculty life, which are mostly invisible to grad students. The vulnerability of their positions may make them reticent to comment on what they see, but more advanced faculty would do well to solicit their opinions and hear them out. They may see clearly what has become hazy to us.

The black bars in this essay are not markers of some form of timorous self-censorship; instead, they represent the effort to give a more constructive appraisal of our current situation. Cause for dread is there, but so is cause for optimism. My first draft of this essay told only half of that story. That half will remain hidden because its shadow is too long, its lens too distorting, its gravity too heavy, which is the case for most negative thinking. This new version offers instead a glint of futurity, the flicker of an inspiration that gives us reasons now for staying determined and that might lead a thinking person in some still far-off decade to pick up where we left off.

Works Cited

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. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/03/06/the-end-of-the-english-major.
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