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The Same Conviction at a Different Harvard

Romance Languages and Literatures Professor Jann Matlock

By Lan N. Nguyen

When Jann Matlock first visited Harvard more than a quarter century ago, at age 10, the College did not admit women. Little girls, it seemed, went to Radcliffe.

Matlock, now assistant professor of French literature, says she wasn't impressed by the promise of "separate but equal," and she eventually spent her undergraduate days at Brown University.

This fall, as she prepares to begin her second year of teaching in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Matlock has returned to a different Harvard. And she has returned, it seems, with much of the independence and personal conviction that she brought here years ago.

Matlock became a professor, she says, because she wanted to encourage people to think hard about themselves, about society and about their preconceived notions. The classroom, the literary scholar adds, is not simply a place to transfer knowledge or entertain young minds, but also should provide a "transformative" environment.

"At 21 years old, I wanted to find a way to help change the world in political ways...without becoming a foot soldier," she says.

"I found [teaching] to be a transformative way to get people to look at politics, gender and race," Matlock continues. "I wanted to give people the tools to make informed decisions."

Bridging Disciplines

After Brown, Matlock went to the University of California at Berkeley, where she received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Matlock received an appointment at Harvard two years ago.

Matlock's current work covers a broad spectrum of topics, and she considers herself a cultural historian as well as a literary theorist.

"In Greek, the word [theorist] means seer," says Matlock, who is the department's only scholar of 19th century French literature. "I mean seer not so much as a mystic but as a speculator, someone who redraws and remakes the world to find frames that help us refocus the way we see."

"I learned to read from psychoanalysis and deconstruction," Matlock continues. "I learned how to think about power from reading Foucault. I learned how to do the kind of research that I do by watching social historians in the archives."

By drawing upon history, art history and literature to study France in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, Matlock's works include the study of literary characters on the fringes of society and theories of marginality.

"Her scholarship poses the highest synthesis of theory and cultural practice of text," says her mentor, R. Howard Bloch, a professor at Berkeley who helped advise Matlock's doctoral thesis. Matlock addresses broad theoretical questions with careful attention to historical details and context, Bloch adds.

Matlock's dissertation, "Scenes of Seduction: Prostitution, Hysteria, and Reading Differences in 19th Century France," explored the issue of prostitution and its representation in literature. A book by the same title will be on shelves next year, she says. Other works have treated the issue of gender in the asylum system of 19th century France and the theory of perversion from 1885 to 1930.

Matlock is currently working on a book project that will examine how censorship in the 19th century affected aesthetic theory, and the way people looked at space and art. Matlock's textual sources include 19th century domestic handbooks which told girls how they should look at things and what they should do with their eyes.


Like her scholarship, Matlock's courses explore the intersection of several disciplines and theoretical models. "Her courses are provocative in their ways of looking at French culture," says colleague Susan R. Suleiman, professor of Romance and comparative literatures.

Matlock says her work is motivated in part by experiences she had in Paris, while she was studying at the L'Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in the mid-1970s. That stay exposed her to people who lived on the fringes of society and introduced her to the complexity of race, gender and politics, Matlock says.

Matlock is teaching a sophomore tutorial this year, and offering several eye-catching courses, including French 151: "Dangerous Bodies and Lady Killers: Criminality and Gender in 19th Century French Culture and History" and French 152: "19th Century: Museums and the Novel."

Slated for next year, among other courses, is French 260: "Madness, Perversion, and Pathology: Freud and the French." The class will explore Freud in relation to his French predecessors.

Now that she here at Harvard, Matlock is as determined as ever to make a difference, to make the University a more egalitarian institution. Matlock says she would like to see more support for young women scholars, and she would like to make cultural studies and the humanities a bigger priority at Harvard.

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