Women in French

From May 22 to May 24, 2014, I participated in the 7th International Women in French Conference, held in the charming city of Guelph in the Ontario province of Canada. As a newcomer to the conference, I was particularly pleased to discover a welcoming atmosphere among colleagues in French Studies from various parts of the world. My trip was primarily motivated by my interest in teaching, as I co-organized, together with UC Berkeley colleague Seda Chavdarian, the conference’s only panel on pedagogy. However, I discovered that the conference theme Women and Memory enabled long pedagogical reflections that permeated other sessions as well. I learned a great deal from the numerous panels dedicated to the conference theme and have found the overall conference experience both pedagogically beneficial and intellectually stimulating.

The pedagogy session over which I presided was titled Approaches to Teaching Women and Memory. It was dedicated to the practical and theoretical considerations of teaching gender and memory (personal, familial, and collective) in language and literature classes in ways that engage diverse groups of students and promote and retain their interest. UC Berkeley’s Seda Chavdarian shared hands-on activities related to teaching Nathalie Sarraute’s Enfance through the concepts of memory, point of view, and the recounting of past personal experiences. She pointed out the benefits of introducing literary texts in language classes from the beginning level and early on in the semester. Her paper brought out an important reminder of the relevant yet often overlooked place of literature in an L2 classroom. Aubrey Kubiak from SUNY Buffalo introduced approaches to teaching on the figure of the mother in Annie Ernaux’s prose by focusing on students’ ability to use their own emotional experiences and engage in empathy in order to uncover narratives of remembrance. In my presentation, I shared strategies for teaching gender at the intersection of distinct moments in Algeria’s collective memory in Assia Djebar’s prose. I proposed activities for an introductory literature class that target multiple literacies and use both visual and textual tools. Our session encouraged exchanges on such themes as the place of literature in language courses, the role of personal experiences in language learning and literary studies, and the increasing need for building multiple literacies in the 21st century. Indeed, conversations on these and related topics continued throughout the conference and across multiple sessions, including Women and War, Memories, Mementos and Women Travel Writers, and Memories by Connections, to name a few.

Language, identity and remembering were explored by several scholars, including Annick Doquire Kerszberg, who analyzed memory, disability and voice in Andrée Chedid’s L’étoffe de l’univers. This study underscored poetry’s reliance on the spoken voice as well as the importance of empathy in relating personal narratives of suffering to the reader, as is the case with Chedid’s autobiographical poems that describe her struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. This paper resonated particularly with the themes described in the pedagogy session, as well as those from sessions dedicated to the testimonies of Jewish children hidden among the Catholic families and institutions during the Occupation, or, on the other hand, those sessions pertaining to women writers who traveled abroad.

Two remarkable papers made a lasting impression. One was Andrea Jibb’s study of Amerindian poet Rita Mestokosho and her work on the movement between the individual and the collective, and, between the oral traditions of the Innu language and the French written expression. Innu-aimun (#1), one of North America’s indigenous languages spoken by nearly eight thousand people in the Labrador and Québec regions of Canada, has witnessed a revival in recent Canadian and French music and poetry. This paper highlighted oral history’s reliance on the acts of remembering, retelling, and reviving indigenous languages.

The other paper that stood out was that by Auburn University’s Samia I. Spencer, who presented her work on the development of laїcité in the twentieth century and its place in contemporary Québec. French version of secularism known as laїcité (#2), its history since the separation of church and state in 1905, and its complex status in contemporary French and Canadian societies continue to fascinate scholars and students alike. Indeed, secularism proves to be a rich discussion topic for second-year language courses that typically introduce students to themes related to contemporary culture and civilization. In the context of contemporary France, secularism involves questions of religion, immigration and education, as it invites discussion topics on the place of the veil and the cross in schools, violence and religious freedom, and multiculturalism—and a multitude of language and cultural literacy building exercises. Moreover, second-year French language students are often inspired to consider these themes comparatively, in relation to the American Cultures.

The Friday keynote address, delivered by the contemporary Haitian writer Marie-Célie Agnant, centered on the writer’s ability—if not responsibility—to account for collective experiences of violence in their writing. Reading excerpts from her recent fiction, Agnant spoke of her writing process in relation to Haiti’s violent past and its turbulent present. It was moving to hear the writer read excerpts from her fiction, as the experience further underscored the link between individual and collective voices, the importance of remembering, as well as literature’s dependence on voice and the spoken word. Like the keynote address itself, several papers engaged the question of reading, bringing out the broader issues of access and interpretation, all of which are of particular importance for language teachers and language learners, as well as all those engaged in cross-cultural communication.

The 7th Women in French International Conference was truly eye-opening for me! I plan on returning to it in two years and would like to thank the Berkeley Language Center for its generous support of lecturers, without which I would have missed out on an extremely beneficial professional development opportunity. Thank you, BLC!

#1 For more information, see Clarke, Sandra, and Marguerite MacKenzie. (2006). Labrador Innu-aimun: An introduction to the Sheshatshiu dialect. St. John’s, Newfoundland: Department of Linguistics, Memorial University of Newfoundland.
#2 See Ford, Caroline C. (2005). Divided Houses: Religion and Gender in Modern France. Cornell University Press.