Faculty Focus: Seiziémistes of the MidAtlantic
Professor of French Kitty Maynard organized a professional conference on sixteenth-century France that also showcased undergraduate work in French studies.
Scholars from across the Mid-Atlantic region gathered on the Washington College campus in early December to present on various aspects of literary and cultural production in sixteenth-century France—including four undergraduates from Washington presenting conference papers in French and a theater workshop with keynote speaker Jeff Persels, from the University of South Carolina.
“We wanted to involve our students more in our scholarship,” says conference organizer Kitty Maynard, a French professor who enlisted her colleague, Pamela Pears, to help prepare students in Pears’ 400-level French studies course to deliver conference papers and participate in an undergraduate forum with cadets from Virginia Military Institute as a final class project.
“They’ve worked all semester on it,” notes Maynard. “Pam has worked diligently with her students: going to the library, arranging for a special session at the Writing Center and their presentation tutors, and practicing, practicing, practicing their oral presentations.”
Gathered in the Cromwell Hall conference room on Friday afternoon, Cody Bistline ’19 discussed how Proust and Cocteau used their characters to reflect attitudes toward homosexuality in early 20th century France. Abbey Connole ’19 talked about the work of the writer Colette as a precursor to feminism. Patricia Lamark ’18 discussed haute couture as an act of rebellion during the Nazi occupation. And Sara Slimani ’20 discussed social class and the development of the bourgeoisie at the beginning of the 20th century.
“I was so proud of them; I actually got teary-eyed reading their papers,” says Pears. “They’ve done such a great job. It’s not easy to do that kind of work in general, but especially when you’re doing it in French. They’ve really come a long way.”
Slimani, a business management major from Morocco who took the class for its intensive writing component, enjoyed the camaraderie that developed as she and her fellow students prepared their papers for the conference.
“The entire semester was shaped for this moment,” she says. “We didn’t take exams and we didn’t have a final. As a native French speaker, the challenge for me was not communicating in French, but finding the relevant sources and learning to speak more slowly. This was a great opportunity to write about something I’ve always been interested in. I’m really proud of my paper, and I could tell that our professors were proud of us, too.”
Bistline, a biology major in the College’s pre-nursing program, is minoring in French. “I have a great love of French language and culture,” he says. “This conference was a great opportunity for me to see what other French students are doing and to get a fresh perspective on French studies. I can see the utility of being bilingual in science, and I definitely want to go to a French-speaking place one day.”
The professional conference on Saturday featured a series of panels led by specialists in sixteenth-century French literature, art history, and cultural studies, as well as a keynote address on the French wars of religion and the environment.
In his keynote, Persels took a look at the sixteenth-century French Wars of Religion through the lens of eco-criticism. In his exploration of writers of the late sixteenth century, he noted recurring concerns about the degradation and scarcity of natural resources due to the wars. He placed these concerns into a larger context about humankind’s role within God’s creation, and he cautioned scholars to be wary about applying modern notions of the environment to their interpretation of the early modern world.
During the conference, visiting scholars explored topics focused on French authors and historians of the time period, touching on themes about morality, memory, and political dissent.
Maynard organized the biennial conference in collaboration with Major Jeff Kendrick of the Virginia Military Institute. Washington College alumna Catharine Clarke Ingersoll ’03 teaches art history at VMI, and she presented a paper titled “Illusion and Disillusion: Acknowledging the Medium in the Grotesque Months Tapestry Cycle.”
Washington College faculty members representing the departments of English, history, and modern languages were also involved in conference events.
“Because of so much faculty talent in this area, Patrice [DiQuinzio, provost and dean of the College) is encouraging us to consider putting together a minor or certificate program in medieval and early modern studies, so I see this conference as a way to gather some energy and momentum for that,” notes Maynard. “Several of my colleagues—Janet Sorrentino, Courtney Rydel, and Martin Ponti—participated.”
“I’m really excited about hosting the conference here because it’s a chance to show off Washington College,” says Maynard. “Some people in the region may not have heard of us, so to get them on campus and see how beautiful and inviting it is, and to see how engaged our students are, is really wonderful.”
She and Pears also appreciate how the conference benefits their students—including the ten majors and eleven minors in the program. “An important component of the senior capstone project is the students’ ability to present their work and respond to questions,” Maynard says. “This was a great dry run for the SCE.”
Pears agrees. “One of the great things about majoring in French here is that it’s just the two of us, and they all get super individualized attention and they get to have experiences they just could not have at a big school.”
It reminds Maynard a bit of how she fell in love with French studies, and her own ambition to be “that French teacher” who helps students discover their passion for language, literature, and art.
When Maynard took high school French, she admits she “wasn’t that into it.” That changed when she enrolled in the Residential College program at the University of Michigan, which mimicked the liberal arts college environment. “We all lived in the same dorm and took a certain curriculum, which included a very stringent language requirement,” she says. “I had taken French in high school and I tested into second-semester, or intermediate, French—which was an eight-hour-a-week commitment. We had four hours of morning instruction and four hours of lab. We were expected to go the French table and the French coffee hour, and all of that counted toward your grade. Being a very ambitious student, I dove in completely and by the end of my first semester at Michigan I had met an amazing French teacher who really converted me into a lover of French. She was the person who encouraged me to study abroad. Once I did that, I was committed.”
In graduate school, Maynard narrowed her focus to the early modern period, particularly the sixteenth-century French Wars of Religion. “It’s a fascinating time period in part because it was so chaotic,” she says. “And thanks to a relatively new technology—the printing press—people’s ideas about religion were being challenged and argued through texts. The democratization of ideas was beneficial,” she notes, “but it also had the power to spit people apart.”
Maynard’s new book, Reveries of Community: French Epic in the Age of Henri IV (1572-1616), published by Northwestern University Press, explores some of these aspects of the Wars of Religion, and a volume on the power of print during the wars, Polemic and Literature Surrounding the French Wars of Religion —edited by Maynard and Jeff Kendrick—is in preparation.