French Studies for This Century

Editor discusses new volume on state of a discipline.
August 30, 2011

Many humanities programs -- and in particular many language programs -- have faced challenges in recent years of budget cuts and questions about their relevance. A new collection -- French Studies in and for the Twenty-First Century (Liverpool University Press) -- asserts that the field of French studies most certainly matters -- and should continue to be nurtured at top universities.

The book's editors are Philippe Lane, attaché for higher education at the French Embassy in London, and Michael Worton, vice provost and the Fielden Professor of French Language and Literature at University College London. Worton responded via e-mail to questions about the book and the state of French studies.

Q: What are some of the key trends you see in French studies today?

A: In the U.K., U.S.A. and continental Europe, there is a pervasive pessimism in French studies regarding issues of status, of funding, and of institutional position. However, there are also some important positive movements:

  • A move towards ever-greater interdisciplinarity.
  • A recognition of the value and importance of collaborative research as well as of the loan scholar.
  • A recognition of the increasing importance of journals as well as of monographs in research culture.
  • A move toward more team teaching in languages and culture.
  • The gradual (but nonetheless real) move towards greater use of new technologies and of online learning.
  • A growing recognition of the importance of language and intercultural learning in the implementation of institutional learning and teaching strategies and of institutional international strategies. Here, French studies has a particular role to play as the "senior" language in Western universities.

Q: In the United States, Britain and elsewhere, many universities are cutting support for language study. How much of a threat does this pose to French studies? How much does French studies depend on people speaking French?

A: One of the major problems in both the U.S.A. and the U.K. is a lack of powerful and persuasive advocacy on the part of French studies departments and other language departments. We need to make arguments both about the importance of language learning and about the importance of our research. In terms of language learning, we need to make arguments that are about competency and not about the (often unattainable) goal of bilingualism on the part of all of our students. However, it is vital that all students studying French culture have some serious knowledge of the French language, of how it works, of the nature of its lexicon, etc., in order to understand it better and, crucially, to understand the importance of cultural and of linguistic difference. Until people understand that meaning and linguistic expression are not the same thing, they will never come to understand that individuals and different cultures speak and mean differently.

Q: Do you view the status of French studies as being similar or different in Britain and the United States?

A: In both the U.S. and the U.K., there is, as I have said, a certain pessimism, almost a state of pre-emptive supine response to the challenges of new funding regimes and of the preference given to biomedicine and the sciences and technologies. However, we need to learn much better how to articulate the specificities and the values of language and cultural learning.

Q: How have trends toward transnational and diaspora studies changed French studies? Is there a major impact today (compared to years past) of studies of Francophone Africa, Vietnam, Quebec and elsewhere?

A: The rise of postcolonial studies has plateaued out. There has, however, been an important recognition that the study of metropolitan France is not the only way of studying France and its culture. Nonetheless, metropolitan French studies remains enormously important, and is becoming increasingly so as France, of all the European countries, has recently been insisting on the importance of cultural diplomacy and of "soft power" in its external/foreign relations. This gives particular impetus to the possibility (and the need) of putting French studies within a geo-political context as well as in a purely cultural or historical one. However, I have one slight anxiety about some of the studies of Francophone Africa, Vietnam, Quebec and elsewhere -- and that is that often the focus is very much on the "Frenchness" of the Francophone work and insufficiently deep and detailed knowledge of the local context; this is particularly true in the case of studies of Vietnamese Francophone work, for example, and I would argue also for much African Francophone studies.

Q: How can French studies scholars bolster the state of the field? Are there challenges you would like to see professors address?

A: There are many things that French Studies scholars need to do:

They need to lobby government, funding councils, research councils, etc., in their counties, agreeing on collectively shared and clear messages about the importance of French studies. There is much that we can do ourselves, but we need to have the confidence to do that and the courage to work collaboratively and across sectors, i.e., the higher education sector working with the secondary sector and the primary schools sector and the vocational sector....

At the institutional level, we should:

  • Include language learning in teaching and learning strategies.
  • Include a language requirement in our higher education admissions policies.
  • Align international strategies explicitly with language learning.
  • Develop research strategies with specific references to the importance of intercultural competencies.
  • Encourage study abroad -- and provide funding to support it.
  • Encourage students to engage in language-based volunteering and outreach activities.

At the departmental/faculty/school level, we should:

  • Develop innovative interdisciplinary degree programs with partners (e.g., with computer science, engineering, etc.).
  • Seize opportunities offered by public engagement.
  • Pro-actively propose collaborative research projects, e.g., Estonian and epidemiology [scholars] together working on issues of H.I.V.-positive immigrants in the U.K.
  • Develop dual and/or joint degrees with universities in France and Francophone countries.
  • Review all our degree programs with a particular focus on their "fitness for purpose" in the complex globalized 21st century.
  • Establish hub and spoke partnerships in research, teaching, enterprise and knowledge transfer, in order to avoid the very best universities crushing out all others.

I believe passionately that French studies scholars can give leadership in many of the key areas of change:

  • Global citizenship.
  • The development of global graduates.
  • Soft power issues (c.f. the case of France).
  • Relationship management and the role of languages.
  • Internationalization at all levels (teaching, research, knowledge transfer, public engagement).
  • The value of study abroad and work placements (bringing together different realms of expertise, skills development, personal development, etc.).


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