French colloquium lets students see into world of academia

“Does it matter to you that the ‘philosophe’ is trying to get into the marquise’s pants?” interjected the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities’ Associate Professor Juliette Cherbuliez, at the close of Haverford College’s Associate Professor David Sedley’s lecture on Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s use of literary registers and outlooks in his discussion of science during the seventeenth century.

This past Monday, the French and Francophone Studies Section hosted a literary colloquium titled “Arts of the Narrative in Seventeenth-Century France.” Seven academics, hailing from a range of locations from Haverford to London, travelled to campus in order to participate in the day-long event. Professors gave lectures throughout the day to their peers on new research projects, so that they might collectively workshop these unpolished ideas. Students were encouraged to attend and learn from these professionals at work. This series was followed by a cluster of “mini-seminars,” wherein students from the section sat at the Scheuer Room’s round tables, regardless of language proficiency, for a guided discussion of passages from the French classic “La Princesse de Clèves.” The colloquium was concluded with a lavish reception, open to students and professors alike, for them to mingle and extend the conversations the day had fostered.

The purpose of the colloquium was threefold. Firstly, it was an opportunity for experts in the same field to share thoughts on each other’s projects in a more informal setting compared to the larger conferences in the field. Many of the academics present were quick to point out the rough nature of the work they presented.

“This is not work in progress, it’s whatever comes before work in progress,” said Professor Jeffrey Peters of the University of Kentucky. “It’s me figuring out what the work in progress will be.”

It was, secondly, an opportunity for students with an interest in academia to witness firsthand the work that goes into the production of the articles and books that make up our syllabi. Attendees got to watch a group of passionate thinkers echo each other’s thoughts, challenge each other’s assumptions, clarify their points on the spot. The resulting conversation resembled the seminar discussions on which Swarthmore College prides itself, a detail some students picked up on.

“It was great seeing my professors morph into students,” commented Maxine Annoh ’18. “They were grappling with fresh concepts, asking questions…”

Perhaps the subject matter was a touch more obscure than average.

“The count ‘de Tendre’ is often referred to as the count ‘du Tendre,’”  noted Peters, triggering a vigorous hum of approval from all participants.

With the inclusion of the mini-seminars, the event was also a chance for students to interact with professors from other institutions about a book within their field of expertise. Students appeared grateful for the occasion.

“It was wonderful breaking out into smaller groups and getting to pick the brains of these completely new faculty,” said Annoh. “That was refreshing.”

The novel in question, “La Princesse de Clèves” by the Marquis de Lafayette, is a French classic which follows the love shared by the protagonist, the Princess of Clèves, and the Duc of Nemours, a beautiful and illustrious courtly figure. Since the Princess is married and virtuous, this passion is doomed from the start, and for the duration of the masterpiece the reader follows characters who are driven by a violent, irreconcilable emotional turmoil, as in the following passage:

“[The Duke] surrendered himself to the transports of his love, which squeezed his heart to such a point that he had to let a few tears run; yet these tears were not those that pain alone can spread; they were cut with tenderness and with that charm that one only finds in love.”

All students had been assigned preparatory readings: excerpts of the novel, a full synopsis, and a critical text written by Professor Faith Beasley of Dartmouth College, who was present at the colloquium. The discussions covered a range of topics related to the canonical text such as its emotional charge, narratorial voice or descriptions of riches and jewels. The conversation at these tables was fresh, and academics and students alike participated on equal footing.

Overall, the colloquium was a display of the potential impact of the humanities on its practitioners. Everybody approached the discussed topics, whether in the lectures or the seminars, with their own background and opinions, and enriched each others’ perspectives through discussion of the work at hand. The passion the academics felt for their work was palpable, and the event could be seen as a microcosm of the world it stands for, where vibrant thinkers broaden each other’s minds and understandings of the world through the study of material they’ve grown to care about.

“I have this relationship [to the text] that is both personal and professional,” explained Beasley. “I love the ‘récit.’ I love the written word.”

And wouldn’t you as well, upon hearing her?

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