Talk Me Out of Here: Career Consultants, Rubber Duckies, and Résumés

Back when I decided to go alt-ac (for want of a better term), I was shamefully ignorant of how the “real world” works. Between the MFA (Literary Translation), the MA (French Literature), and the PhD (also French Literature), I had spent eleven straight years in academia (and had a baby along the way). I had collected lots of teaching experience, garnered both as an instructor in my own university and as an adjunct trying to piece together a living across three universities and two states; lots of freelance experience (as a journalist, a translator, and an editor); oodles of time and project management experience (as a dissertator and researcher). But my experience of the world of offices and fixed schedules and bosses and reviews was so limited as to almost be non-existent.

It makes sense, then, that I received nary a response to the ten or so job applications I sent out at the time: my resumé was a mess. It was a decent CV—for an academic—but a horrible resumé for a thirty-something trying to hack her way out of the ivory tower. Relevant work experience showed up briefly under “professional service” (somewhere on page three), the conferences were there in full, and languages and computer skills were all the way at the end.

A couple of weeks went by, and I found myself reading an Inside Higher Ed article by Brenda Bethman and C. Shaun Longstreet, the founders of the Alt Academix consultancy (they have since moved on to other things). They were talking about how to describe primarily academic successes in the alt-ac market, and one paragraph spoke particularly loudly to me:

Do not be the person who can only be read as a French literature instructor. Be someone who is adept at developing broad intercultural engagement initiatives; someone who can quickly assess student needs, provide space for transformative learning communities, and create programming that prepares students to participate in new avenues of inquiry and able to work with people of different world views.

That is what I do?” I asked myself. And then, “That is what I do.” And so I went against my own DIY ethos (I move house by myself; I do my own taxes; I did my own make-up on my wedding day) and I contacted Brenda and Shaun and paid them $85 to “future-proof my CV” and provide a job landscape consultation. Painful though spending the money was (I was a graduate student, married to a recent graduate, and we had a three-year-old kid in New York City), there I was, deep in an ten-year bout of impostor syndrome with no self-esteem and no idea what I wanted to do.

Oh, the benefits of the editor. Of the therapist. Of what developers call the “rubber duckie” (the term comes from a book called The Pragmatic Programmer, in which a software developer solves his coding problem by explaining his process to a rubber duck). Professionally, psychologically, and personally we benefit both from distance from ourselves, from our work, and proximity to a reliably impartial other. Without the duckie, we’re overwhelmed by our own involvement, by the time and the effort we’ve put into something; we’re so blinded by our immersion in this thing that we can’t see the wood for the trees.

A good career consultant, like a good editor, or therapist, or friend, or rubber duckie, is comfortable with silence. Happy to let you splash around clumsily, willing to impassively bear witness as you talk in circles. And in their non-intervention, they will allow you to realize what you want.

As I sat on my (actual, metaphorical) couch and talked at Brenda and Shaun, I realized (quack!) that I had been ignoring entire swaths of career options because I’d been fixating on the need to work at a university (there is a certain snobbish strain within alt-ac that still posits the .edu as superior to the .com or .org, and I’d thoroughly internalized it). Once I was able to fathom that a job without ties to a given academic institution might actually fulfill me more than a university position (and that I wouldn’t go to sell-out purgatory if it did), I began to understand how my newly discovered (but not new) skills could be not only marketable but desirable outside the academy.

Alt-Academix is no longer around, but the last few years have seen a rise in the number of career consultants for PhDs. Some of the most respected offer a wealth of free materials on their websites, in addition to personal and institutional consultations. See, for example, Anne Krook, Jennifer Polk (From PhD to Life), Karen Kelsky (The Professor is In), and Maren Wood (Lilli Research Group).

Taking Back Alt-Ac

The Job Market. There’s only ever one when you’re talking to an academic, right? Or at least when you’re talking to a tenured academic.

To such professors, working outside of academia is akin to failure. Choose to seek employment outside the kingdom of tenure and your job won’t be featured in the department’s promotional literature about placement or discussed with prospective students. Your cohort will look at you with a mixture of disdain and relief (“One fewer competitor on the Market…”). Your parents will ask what you spent all those years studying for anyway.

This much we know. But what is most curious to me here is that the discourse that associates the “life of the mind” with the institution has been assimilated to such a degree that even those who reject academia proper end up seeking self-affirmation through a perpetuation of its inequalities. In other words, some  in the “alt-ac” ranks seem to be replicating the behavior of their professors and advisors, valuing certain alt-ac positions (usually those with some connection to academia and/or universities) over others, as if the .edu connection somehow made those more worthwhile. Not working in academia, or in a cultural institution of kind? Hmmm. You’re not really alt-ac. You’re just a quitter.

Let’s face it: people choose the “alt-ac” course for a host of different reasons. Some as a last resort, after years of not getting anywhere on the Job Market. Others because they realize that teaching introductory courses (as the sole professor of their discipline, for sub-standard pay, in the middle of nowhere) is not the “life of the mind” they had envisaged. Others because scraping together enough money to live on adjunct or lecturer pay is demoralizing, dehumanizing and often impossible to sustain. Others because despite having landed the covetable tenure-track position at the R1 institution, they find themselves hemmed in by bureaucracy, trammelled by a lack of supportfrustrated and uninspired. Still others, turned off by the lack of community and care in academia, opt for non-academic paths without ever looking at the Job Market (yes, I’m linking to myself right there).

As the wealth of “quit lit” stories I linked to above can attest, there is no one-career-path-fits-all for people with PhDs. In fact, with that in mind, I  would like to propose eschewing the terms “alt-ac” and (especially) “post-ac” altogether. Our career choices are neither “alternative” (a term that accepts a center, a norm) nor “post” (one that suggests that there is a temporality, a process of trying to be an academic and failing at it, inherent in the decision to seek non-academic work). They are choices (some made more willingly than others, it’s true) made by smart individuals who believe their professional value to exist not outside but alongside the academy.

Going Rogue : Choosing the Alt-Ac Track

I think it’s useful to consider not so much a specific job or career, but rather an approach: a way of seeing one’s work through the lens of academic training, and of incorporating scholarly methods into the way that work is done. It means engaging in work with the same intellectual curiosity that fueled the desire to go to graduate school in the first place, and applying the same kinds of skills—be they close reading, historical inquiry, written argumentation, or whatever else—to the tasks at hand.

Katina Rogers, Humanities Unbound: Careers & Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track 

When I have heard other PhD candidates say they are considering a non-academic career, others have often responded with a multisyllabic “Ohhh-h-h,” the wavering intonation of which betrays (a) puzzlement and (b) mild disdain. It also reveals the extent to which we are all trained to believe that anything that is not a tenure-track professorship is in some way second best. That I am choosing this path when I haven’t even gone on “the job market” yet (as if there were only one) must, then, be foolish, premature—as if what has come to be known as an “alt-ac” career were only ever valid as a back-up plan.

Instead of imagining graduate school as a pipeline, keeping everyone contained and moving in one direction to a pre-determined endpoint, what if we thought more about a sprinkler, with water exploding out in all directions? (Ibid.)

And so while I have known for several years now that I want to take my own particular skill set elsewhere, to switch “tracks” as it were, I have not until recently readily admitted that fact—even to myself. Consider this, then, my public admission (if my tiny readership a public makes.)

One recent afternoon, instead of editing a paragraph of the dissertation I will complete this summer, I found myself applying for a job. Not an academic job, not even a job at a university, but a compelling job whose description called for every skill and tidbit of experience I’ve picked up along my uncommon path—and still promised to be interesting. (And no, I don’t yet know if it’s mine.)

If I were more entitled to make this analogy, I’d say that last week’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute was like a coming-out party. Some participants came from the academy, sure, but others were artists, writers, market researchers, librarians, archivists, game designers — and most of them held PhDs. In such an atmosphere, where people from all these different disciplines and professions collaborated and investigated and problem-solved, learned while they taught each other, and presented their findings to what one participant described as the biggest audience he’d ever have, how could I not come to embrace what I had already known inside?

Of course, I’m aware that my decision has been easier to make because I now know that I will be staying in New York, where there are many more “alt-ac” opportunities than, well, other places. My husband, a political geographer, has accepted a tenure-track position nearby. (Just fancy! There are areas of employment where one can not only admit one has a husband, but talk about him too! As for the child question…) Anyway, my husband, a brilliant and passionate teacher who is doing really important work, is exactly the sort of person most academic departments need.

However, despite what those same departments, along with dissertation directors, graduate advisors, and other students might tell us, the life of the mind can and should be relevant outside the narrow pipeline known as the tenure track. We are already researchers and analysts, oral and written communicators, time and project managers, collaborators. As Katina Rogers suggests in the perspicacious essay that inspired this post, we do this all the time already, and to such a degree that we no longer even realize it — although apparently Google does!

What’s more, intellectual curiosity is not institutionally bound. If the kind of community-building that occurs in the Digital Humanities tells us anything, it is that teaching does not only take place in the classroom, research continues beyond the stacks, collaboration infuses life into learning, and ideas are better disseminated by any means other than the limited-access, subscriber-only academic journal.

Humanistic scholarship prepares us to ask questions differently, to read closely and critically, to consider the “other point of view.” These life skills don’t disappear when we venture outside the academy; if anything, they expand, take root in new soil, continue to grow.

DHSI — and back again

I’m sitting in the airport about to return from the Digital Humanities Summer Institute: the friendliest, most energizing, most enthusiastic (un)conference/summer school/nerdfest ever. I was nervous about taking the time to go — what with the dissertation looming over my head — but I am so very glad I did.

We talked about phylogenetic trees, alternative evolution, artificial intelligence, designing DH courses, and creating visualizations with Gephi. Students made and designed their own 3D printer (and then printed a shark); created mobile apps; mapped the geographies of medieval texts; learned TEI, XSLT, 3D modeling and SEASR; created digital editions — and even made “pre-digital” books. We ate and drank and knitted and walked and did yoga on the lawn.

I wanted to take All The Courses, but as they run simultaneously, I had to choose just one. I went with David Hoover’s “Out-of-the-Box Textual Analysis.” As someone who has never taken a statistics class, the endless Excel was initially a little challenging, but David has designed a series of amazingly complex macros that perform magical spells on vast quantities of text and reveal some pretty interesting results.

After cleaning up many, many .txt files, I took 24 Zola novels — the entire Rougon Maquart cycle plus Thérèse Raquin and the Trois villes series — and ran them through some of David’s spreadsheets to see which grouped together thematically. It turns out Zola was remarkably consistent in terms of chronology (with the exception of Le Rêve), and I suspected that this consistency was related to increased conservatism. I then tested the frequency of certain terms that reflected conservative fin-de-siècle values and fear — famille, Dieu, population… choosing them mainly because I suspected they reflected Zola’s concerns towards the end of the century. The word that increased most in use from 1867 and 1898? Dieu — followed closely by words relating to population and the family.

The work, of course, has only just begun. Now I have to return to the texts and try and work out when those words are used and why, to formulate a thesis. And that, I’m afraid, will have to wait until after the dissertation is done.

DHSI, you’ve been a wonderful experience and a wonderful break. But my flight is being called, and once I board that plane, it’s back to the grindstone.

Literary Geography? Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça?

“The geographical imagination is far too pervasive and important a fact of intellectual life to be left alone to geographers.”

– David Harvey, 1995: 161.

When people not in the academy ask me what my dissertation is about, I usually hum and haw and then mumble something about a literarygeographyofnaturalism. They often nod and walk away. Geographers look at me askance; literature folks presume I’m talking about how places are described in novels. I’m not, and I am. Kind of.

In The Fate of Place, his comprehensive study of the concept’s history, philosopher Edward S. Casey claims that “place brings with it the very elements sheared off in the planiformity of site: identity, character, nuance, history” (xiii). Literature, then. Literary Geography asks how these “platial” elements are “écrits, décrits, générés, inventés, déformés ou reproduits” (Brousseau 10) but also what the very fact of their being narrated reveals. Why this place and not another? Why this landscape, this country, this city, this street? “L’espace romanesque,” writes Henri Mitterand, “n’est pas un donné immédiat, un référent géographique auto-suffisant, mais une forme-sens construite, semiotisée pour les besoins de la fiction, modelée par la vision, les objectifs narratifs, l’héritage intertextuel du romancier” (18).

What Literary Geography is not is a mapping of places in literature. As least, it’s not just that. There is something to be said, however, for what we could dub “Literary GIS.” The “Literary Atlas of Europe” project currently underway at ETH Zurich’s Institute of Cartography and Geoinformation is a fascinating one, which aims to rewrite the history of literature from the point of view of its settings. The results are intriguing; the visualizations dazzle; but the interpretative work remains to be done. Mapping, like other forms of data visualization, like the Digital Humanities in general, opens up new pathways of thinking, raises different questions, allows us to look at literature from a newly discovered angle. It’s a field of potentiality, but the map is not the end result. I want to look at whys and hows. If we simply view maps as representations of space, we’ll get nowhere. But if use the data to ask new questions, if we analyze the results –– and even the mapping process itself (a map, writes JB Hartley, “can be a form of knowledge and a form of power” (278)) –– then we might get somewhere new.

In January of 2011, a literary geography program entitled “vers une géographie littéraire” and coordinated by Michel Collot and Julien Knebusch was formed as part of the “Écritures de la modernité” research cluster at Paris 3. Its aim is to think through the theoretical stakes and methodological implications of an approach to literary geography that combines geopoetics (including geophilology), geocriticism, and a “géographie de la littérature.” Unlike other geographers of literature, who have “applied” geographical methods as others would another theory in order to prove a point, Collot argues for a more phenomenological approach. In La pensée paysage he suggests that: “au lieu de projeter ses propres catégories sur un objet, une telle pensée procède de sa considération attentive” (500). It is in close reading (of texts, paratexts, maps, characters, buildings) that the potential of literary geography comes alive.

Last year, Collot published a manifesto of sorts, entitled “Pour une géographie littéraire,” in the eighth edition Fabula’s online LHT. It is this essay that has most helped me think through the implications of literary geography, and it is Collot’s tripartite structure that serves as my “methodology”:

1. “Géographie de la littérature,” focusing on the geographical, historical, social, and cultural factors that create the space in which a work of literature is produced.

2. “Géocritique,” looking at the representation of space – imaginary or real – in the text, rather than the contextual space of production. Here, he cites the work of J.-P. Richard, saying “une géocritique sensible à la dimension proprement littéraire des représentations de l’espace doit chercher comme lui à établir une correspondance entre ‘page’ et ‘paysage’.”

3. “Géopoétique,” examining the relationship between space and literary form, and considers what links literary creation to space. This is arguably the most difficult (and the most rewarding).

Novelistic space, or perhaps “narrated place,” is, then, a carefully constructed text; what it is not, however, is an unassailable monument; its borders are as porous, as open to penetration and contestation, as those of any map.

Man Eaters and Bad Mothers

I’m ashamed that it has been two months since I’ve posted here, but it’s been two months spent in the bowels of Bobst Library at NYU, where I’m writing writing writing so that I can finish my dissertation this summer. I have a defense date; suddenly everything seems very official. Within reach and so very far away.

The chapter on which I’ve been working studies the anxieties that crystallize around representation and regulation of women in the 1880s (or, conversely, the “crisis of masculinity” Annelise Maugue has identified to be integral to the culture of fin-de-siècle France). This crisis, I’m arguing, stems from the coexistence of an increasingly disempowered male body (physical and political, personal and national) and an increasingly — if still negligibly — empowered female one.

Femmes fatales, mauvaises mères, insensées, hystériques, kleptomanes, mangeuses d’hommes: however they were categorized, the woman of fin-de-siècle France were blamed for the falling birthrate, their influence blamed for male weakness, their expensive habits for male ruin. Women were at once associated with nature and with a decadent culture. The female body brought new life (to the family, to the nation) and death (via sexual disease and degeneracy). In its pregnant glory, it was the antidote to modernity, representing tradition, hearth and home; in its decorated splendor, it was the epitome of the modern, the symbol of the rampant capitalism and material abundance that indicated moral decline.

The male body, meanwhile, was increasingly viewed as weak, even effeminate, the embodiment of the metaphorical national body, which itself was seen as indulgent, immoral, lazy. If, as Christopher Forth suggests, France was identified as “the embodiment of the feminizing ills of civilization,” its effeminate male citizens were, in turn, the embodiment of France. And while in the 18th century the genteel manners of the French meant that upper-class foreigners would be sent to Paris to learn how to behave, by the end of the 19th century, the excesses and indulgences of the Second Empire had, in the eyes of other European, created a country that knew how to talk but not how to act; a country doomed to defeat. Hello, Franco-Prussian War.

Masculinized females meant feminized males, and so for every action that could be seen as progress in the move towards female emancipation, scientists, doctors, writers proposed ‘evidence’ for the reassertion of male authority. In the face of quasi-inevitable change, these men battened down the hatches, and, fingers in their ears, produced a torrent of anti-feminist literature.

I’m suggesting the female Other in Les Types de Paris is indicative of a crisis of distinction, a questioning of what it means to be a man in an era when the veracity of the “evidence” on which male dominance and authority, formerly accepted as a given and entrenched legally in the Napoleonic code, starts to unravel.

I do so through close textual analysis of three texts in Les Types de Paris — Zola’s Bohèmes en Villégiature, Maupassant’s Servantes, Rubans et Tabliers, and Fourcaud’s Belles Filles — each of which typecasts the female in a way that echoes an approach to defining her in the culture at large. In fact, despite the variety of female “types” portrayed here —— the working classes are the subject of Maupassant’s piece (peasants, wet nurses, and scullery maids); Zola takes on the bourgeois bohémienne and Fourcaud conflates the demi-mondaine with the duchess —— there is a remarkable attempt to homogenize women into Woman. When read together, these articles create a picture of “womankind” that is at once contradictory and absolutely emblematic of their time.

If panoramic literature is indeed an exercise in the production of knowledge of (and power over) an increasingly hostile urban space, then the representation of these women in Les Types de Paris —  at a time when they were slowly making legal incursions into the public sphere — is an effort, on the part of “my” authors, to fix (or re-place) the elusive “éternel féminin.”

Of Bummers and Bums

Last night, it was with disappointment (but not with surprise) that I learned that I will not be a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at Stanford next year. I did, however, receive a lovely email from the head of the committee informing me that while I had been unsuccessful, I did make it to “a finalist pool of only 16 top candidates.” It means nothing in a practical sense of course, but considering there were over 460 applications, it gives me a little bit of hope in these dark, lonely days of dissertation writing.

Talking of the dissertation, I’ve been spending a lot of time with, well, bums of late. Not the down-and-out kind (that will come in the next chapter), but the protruding sort of bum that was so often maniacally and libidinally associated with “Hottentot” women in the nineteenth century. They appear somewhat randomly in Les Types de Paris, and that inclusion has set me off down a rabbit hole of anthropological studies and “scientific” articles that use quantitative “analysis” to justify their lechery (you’ll have to look the images up yourself…)

The whole process has left me feeling rather seedy. I was relieved and inspired, then, when I came across Elizabeth Alexander‘s powerful poem on the subject of Saartjie Baartman, the original “Vénus hottentote”:

The Venus Hottentot (1825)
Elizabeth Alexander

1. Cuvier

Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful

blown up beneath my glass.
Colors dazzle insect wings.

A drop of water swirls
like marble. Ordinary

crumbs become stalactites
set in perfect angles

of geometry I’d though
impossible. Few will

ever see what I see
through this microscope.

Cranial measurements
crowd my notebook pages,

and I am moving closer,
close to how these numbers

signify aspects of
national character.

Her genitalia
will float inside a labeled

picking jar in the Musee
de l’Homme on a shelf

above Broca’s brain:
“The Venus Hottentot.”

Elegant facts await me.
Small things in this world are mine.

There is unexpected sun today
in London, and the clouds that
most days sift into this cage
where I am working have dispersed.
I am a black cutout against
a captive blue sky, pivoting
nude so the paying audience
can view my naked buttocks.

I am called “Venus Hottentot.”
I left Capetown with a promise
of revenue: half the profits
and my passage home: A boon!
Master’s brother proposed the trip;
the magistrate granted me leave.
I would return to my family
a duchess, with watered-silk

dresses and money to grow food,
rouge and powders in glass pots,
silver scissors, a lorgnette,
voile and tulle instead of flax,
cerulean blue instead
of indigo. My brother would
devour sugar studded non-
pareils, pale taffy, damask plums.

That was years ago. London’s
circuses are florid and filthy,
swarming with cabbage-smelling
citizens who stare and query,
“Is it muscle? bone? or fat?”
My neighbor to the left is
The Sapient Pig, “The Only
Scholar of His Race.” He plays

at cards, tells time and fortunes
by scraping his hooves. Behind
me is prince Kar-mi, who arches
like a rubber tree and stares back
at the crowd from under the crook
of his knee. A professional
animal trainer shouts my cues.
There are singing mice here.

“The Ball of Duchess DuBarry”:
In the engraving I lurch
toward the belles dames, mad-eyed, and
they swoon. Men in capes and pince-nez
shield them. Tassels dance at my hips.
In this newspaper lithograph
my buttocks are shown swollen
and luminous as a planet.

Monsieur Cuvier investigates
between my legs, poking, prodding,
sure of his hypothesis.
I half expect him to pull silk
scarves from inside me, paper poppies,
then a rabbit! He complains
at my scent and does not think
I comprehend, but I speak

English. I speak Dutch. I speak
a little French as well, and
languages Monsieur Cuvier
will never know have names.
Now I am bitter and now
I am sick. I eat brown bread,
drink rancid broth. I miss good sun,
miss Mother’s sadza. My stomach

is frequently queasy from mutton
chops, pale potatoes, blood sausage.
I was certain that this would be
better than farm life. I am
the family entrepreneur!
But there are hours in every day
to conjure my imaginary
daughters, in banana skirts

and ostrich-feather fans.
Since my own genitals are public
I have made other parts private.
In my silence I possess
mouth, larynx, brain, in a single
gesture. I rub my hair
with lanolin, and pose in profile
like a painted Nubian

archer, imagining gold leaf
woven through my hair, and diamonds.
Observe the wordless Odalisque.
I have no forgotten my Xhosa
clicks. My flexible tongue
and healthy mouth bewilder
this man with his rotting teeth.
If he were to let me rise up

from his table, I’d spirit
his knives and cut out his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man’s museum
so the whole world could see
it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural.


After a hellish 24-hour journey home, I finally have the mental capacity to begin digesting this weekend’s Nineteenth Century Studies Association conference. Entitled “Loco/Motion” papers ranged from discussions of steam tricycles and railroads to traveling masculinities and pneumatic transit. My own panel was Movement and Stasis, Part II:

Forward, March!: Allegories of Travel Technology in the Long Nineteenth Century
Caterina Y. Pierre, CUNY Kingsborough
Delivery from Quiescence: Nineteenth-Century Reinterpretations of the Rococo
Olaf Recktenwald, McGill University
Make it Stop! The Freezing of Space/Time in Les Types de Paris
Nicky Agate, New York University
A Sculpture on the Move: Gaston Guitton’s Eve
Maria P. Gindhart, Georgia State University

The conference was fascinating, thoroughly interdisciplinary, and the variations on the theme were compelling and creative. Two moments in particular, however, will stick with me for a long time. The first was Vanessa Schwartz’ riveting keynote, “Getting the Picture of a Century in Motion,” in which she argued for photography as an inherently mobile medium as opposed to a static one. I’d read Dr. Schwartz’ book Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris over the summer and had loved every word, and so was really grateful to have the opportunity to see her speak. The second was a visit to the Donald G. Larsen Collection of International Exhibitions and Fairs, 1851–1940, which forms part of the Madden Library’s Special Collections at UC-Fresno. The memorabilia itself was interesting enough, but the stacks! Shelf upon shelf of volumes dedicated to World’s Fairs. Four shelves on 1889 — including many of the texts I had traveled to Paris to see in January! Donald Larsen was, I think, tickled to have so many interested visitors (he may or may not have had to physically remove me from the room).

Update as of April, 2014: the entire archive is to be digitized by Adam Matthew!

Google Ngrams and the Rastaquouère

One of the pieces on which I focus in my dissertation is Antonin Proust’s (no relation) “Paris et les Étrangers.” Proust was Minister of Fine Arts under Gambetta (1881–1882) and Commissioner-General of Fine Arts for the 1889 World’s Fair. (He also, not to be too TMZ about the whole thing, had been a boyhood friend of Manet, was mixed up in the Panama scandals of the 1890s, and shot himself in the head after an argument with a dancer.)

Despite having being one of the spokesmen for the international event that was the Exposition Universelle, Proust’s article (for Les Types de Paris) oozes xenophobia. He berates the French for their uncritical obsession with all things foreign, suggesting that such “rastaquoùerisme” is at the heart of the decline in national industry and national pride.

I’d never heard the word before. It’s from “rastaquouère,” which is itself from the Spanish “rastracueros” — both a despicable person and a fur/hide wholesaler. In French, the Trésor de la langue française says it first designated a person of South American or Mediterranean origin, poor taste, and ostentatious wealth of dubious origins “prob. dû au fait que beaucoup de Sud-américains à l’élégance tapageuse qui séjournaient à Paris à la fin du XIXe s. devaient leur fortune récente au commerce des cuirs et peaux.” Quickly, however,it came to mean any kind of despicable or suspicious-looking foreigner, and “rastaquoùerisme” a kind of misguided, vulgar exoticism. Where the dictionary was less helpful, however, was in the timing or frequency of its usage, so I decided to plus it into the fascinating Google Ngram viewer to see what that might reveal.

Screenshot 2014-10-09 15.58.21

Instances of the word “rastaquouère” in French Literature 1850—1950

What this tells us, then, is that 1889 really marks the first peak in the word’s use (and, presumably, in the sentiments it expresses). While the French people were going dolally over foreign things, their politicians were increasingly concerned about foreign people and foreign affairs, never mind patriotism and national pride. Rumbling threats were coming from the East. European monarchies trembled in their thrones at the thought of a centennial of the revolution. Boulanger had opened the path for national socialism, and just over the horizon lay the Dreyfus Affair. The sudden rise of the “rastaquouère” illustrates just how rapidly distrust of the foreigner grew in the years leading up to the First World War.

But there are so many questions! Why that sudden dip around 1905, and then the dramatic rise between 1906 and 1909? What relationship does the 1898 peak have with the acquittal of Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, if any? Researching the answers is, unfortunately, beyond the parameters of the “micro-history of a chronotope” that is my dissertation—and therefore not going to happen any time soon. Perhaps this summer.

Disembodied Pedagogy

I’ve always been a very physical presence in the classroom. I’m always moving, miming, dancing out vocabulary or être verbs (anything to avoid the use of English!), imitating characters from Balzac… Teaching is a performance, but it is also best when it is organic—when the performance doesn’t feel like one, not even to the teacher herself. It’s not just my body that performs in the classroom though; I have found that the more students use their bodies in tandem with their minds—acting out role play situations, changing partners, learning by moving as well as by doing—the more they relax and participate.

It was with some trepidation, then, that I agreed to take on the development and teaching of two online French language courses for a local university. How would I replicate the informal, collaborative learning environment I like to create in my classroom when I’d be behind a firewall? How could I convey my enthusiasm for the ego-eccentricities of the French language, utilize my anecdotal conveyance of grammar?

Today I attended an online teaching workshop, and over the course of it I realized what an incredible opportunity this is. I’m far from finding the answer, but perhaps I’m not asking the right questions. If I truly believe in the pedagogical potential of the Digital Humanities, then it’s not necessarily about replicating what I do in the classroom, but is a matter of taking myself out of my comfort zone and out of my body, and working out what it means to teach and learn at a distance. Not being present in the classroom doesn’t mean being absent for my class.

I had already been experimenting with the likes of tumblr, twitter, and online peer review in my class; now I can see how all those other nifty apps and software I’ve had bookmarked for the past month or so, thinking I might use them in a literature class one day, might help language students learn. I have an opportunity to create a visually appealing, multimodal, authentically sourced French class. I can do away with the final exams and focus on continual feedback, on peer education, on discussion. End of semester projects could be timelines, prezis, video blogs… We could Google hangout with students in Francophone countries. I might actually have the time to review oral exams, because I’ll be able to record them. I could send students on scavenger hunts in their communities (they’ll still use their bodies!) and have them post their findings to a class website. The potential for collaboration, for creating multiple exercises based on student-produced content (videos, presentations, etc.) is huge.

And you know what? They’ll get to know one another, and they’ll get to know me. My teaching might become a little less physical, but it will be no less enthusiastic.

And I’ll be able to hold office hours in my pajamas.