News

The New Gen Ed Lottery System, Explained

News

Armed Individuals Sighted in Harvard Square Arraigned

News

Harvard Students Form Coalition Supporting Slave Photo Lawsuit's Demands

News

Police Apprehend Armed Man and Woman in Central Square

News

107 Faculty Called for Review of Tenure Procedures in Letter to Dean Gay

Profs. Fight Attacks on Harvard's French Program

By Douglas M. Pravda

A recent surge of debate about women's scholarship on college campuses has placed Harvard's French program in the middle of a growing conflict over feminism in academia.

In the last year, two major newspapers have published articles attacking the Harvard French department as a hotbed of feminism.

And at least a few professors at other universities seem to agree that the French section of Harvard's Romance Languages and Literatures Department emphasizes feminist theory to a greater degree than it does other literary approaches.

But professors and students at Harvard deny that the program's focus is in any way unbalanced towards feminism, saying that while the professors are interested in feminist theory, all fields are represented in the small section, which in the fall will comprise six tenured professors and two junior faculty members.

The opening attack on the French literature curriculum came last year in an article in France's Le Figaro magazine, a weekly supplement of the conservative Le Figaro newspaper.

In that article, journalist Victor Loupan characterizes the Harvard French program as a community of feminist scholars devoted to the study of homosexual women of color.

At Harvard, "a classic author is a suspect author--better still, a banned author," he wrote. "A contemporary work will be taught there if its author is a woman (at least), of color (if possible) and homosexual (perfect)."

Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Alice A. Jardine and Professor of Romance and Comparative Literatures Susan R. Suleiman, both internationally recognized scholars and authors, sued the magazine for libel and defamation, charging that the article blatantly misrepresented their academic qualifications.

Last month, a French court awarded Jardine 150,000 francs, approximately $30,000, which is the highest amount Le Figaro has ever paid in a lawsuit, and ruled that the paper had acted improperly in falsely reporting her academic credentials. A similar suit by Suleiman was dismissed because a court bailiff failed to deliver Suleiman's court papers before the filing deadline.

But the three judges upheld Loupan's right to criticize Harvard's French section, ruling, "If such a characterization is incontestably severe, it does not constitute, in itself, and attack on the honor or the consideration of the professors--and singularly of Ms. Jardine--as it is exclusively criticized as proceeding from debatable literary choices."

Although many of the details of Loupan's article were incorrect, such as the academic qualifications of the professors and the classes offered at the time the article was written, the question remains: Is the orientation of Harvard's French program overly feminist?

Alex Beam, a columnist for The Boston Globe, Writes in a February 10 op-ed piece that Loupan's main theme is accurate, even if a number of details are wrong.

"Harvard's French Department is not highly regarded, because it is viewed as a hotbed of modish feminist criticism," he writes.

Beam said again in an interview last week that the section is a "hotbed of neo-feminist criticism."

"That is not my personal judgment," he says. "That is the judgment I have heard rendered by scholars at other universities."

But Mary M. Gaylord, the chair of the Romance Languages and Literatures Department, responded in a letter to the Globe: "Harvard bashing has always been a popular pastime, locally and nationally."

In an interview, she described the article in Le Figaro as "the French bashing on the Harvard bandwagon," saying, "that is a common bandwagon to get on in the U.S."

In the January/February issue of Lingua Franca, a magazine that reviews academic life, Susannah Hunnewell notes at the end of a report on the Figaro case, "Whatever Loupin's [sic] errors, he may have been on to one thing: Harvard's French department is in some disarray."

"Since three professors left in quick succession in the late '80s, the department has had to supplement its faculty with visiting professors, among them the distinguished Tzvetan Todorov," Hunnewell writes.

"In one sense, Loupin [sic] can't be blamed for wondering if 'old authors are suspect' at Harvard: two of the French department's four tenured professors, namely Suleiman andJardine, specialize in twentieth-centuryliterature," Hunnewell adds.

But professors in Harvard's French sectionagree that the program is not overly feminist,though many of the professors are interested infeminist issues.

"Feminism, like beauty, is in the eye of thebeholder," Suleiman says.

She says she does not believe that the Frenchsection is feminist if that means "a bunch ofdogmatic militant feminists who teach nothing butworks we consider `politically correct."

But she says that "many of the professors inthe [section are] interested in work by women andquestions of gender,"

And Associate Professor of Romance Languagesand Literatures Nadine D. Berenguier says "thereis a strong interest in feminism represented byProfessor Jardine and Professor Suleiman and theother faculty members."

Jardine is one who admits she is interested inworks by women and considers herself a feminist.

"I have always though of myself as a feminist,if that means advocating social and economicjustice for women," she says.

But she adds that the entire section cannot belumped together and considered feminist.

"We don't work in the same century, we don'twrite the same books," she says. "You can't lumpus together."

"If you talk to each individual woman, you willfind that their relationship to feminism is verydifferent," she says.

Gaylord agrees that the professors cannot belumped together and labeled according to onecriterion.

"The French section has a number of professorswho have a feminist perspective," she says. "But Idon't think feminism is just one thing or oneperspective or one way of looking at the world."

"I think that the women who teach French atHarvard have many different ways of looking atliterature and culture and the history of ideasand I am disturbed at comments and questions thatlump people together in one category," she says.

Other professors say that the people teachingFrench cannot be classified feminist because it isjust one of many ways that the professors in thesection approach literature.

"I would say to a certain extent it's true, butI want to qualify that to say someone is feministis not saying a whole lot because every singlemember of the department is also practicing adistinct methodology, according to Naomi Schor, arecently tenured professor in the program.

Abby E. Zanger, assistant professor of romancelanguage and literatures, also believes it isinaccurate to label the French professorsfeminists.

"I think the [section] has lot of differentkinds of wide variety of approaches andpreparations," Zanger says. "I think feminist isone of many."

She cites the history of reading, study ofsurrealism, cultural studies, sociologicalapproaches and philosophical approaches as otherways to consider literature.

"We do a good job exposing our students to somany methods," she adds.

Narrow Focus?

But some French professors at otheruniversities say that Harvard's section seems tofocus too narrowly on feminist theory.

"It's good department, if somewhat uneven andunbalanced," says Edwin M. Duval, the director ofgraduate studies in French at Yale University.

"Generally, there is an emphasis on modernliterature and feminism, which is good, but thisin itself is not sufficient to make a truly solidand distinguished department," he adds.

"There is little emphasis on other things[besides feminism] so it's a question more ofbalance than of real strength," he says.

But professors in Harvard's program argue thattheir interest in feminism does not mean that theyneglect other areas in the field.

"I want to emphasize that this [interest] doesnot mean an exclusive attention to thesequestions." Suleiman says.

Christie McDonald, professor of romancelanguages and literatures and the chair of theFrench section, agrees that other areas are notneglected.

"Many of us are interested in feministcriticism and writing on and by women but I don'tfeel that the program [is] in any way unbalanced,"she says. "This is, in fact, an enrichment to theprogram that many other French departments do nothave."

And some of the 13 undergraduates concentratingin French--11 of whom are women--say they believethat feminist theory is not overemphasized at theexpense of others.

"I think that feminist theory is a literarytheory that's been prevalent in the 20th-centuryand that to present it within the course offeredis nothing out of the ordinary," says Elizabeth M.Remy '95, who pursued a joint concentration inmusic and French.

Remy, who took her sophomore tutorial withJardine, says it was a chronological discussion ofFrench Literature and theory, so the class diddeal with feminism at the end of the course.

"It is a major theory that has been presentedin this century and whether everybody agrees withit or not, it's worthy of being discussed andplaced [with] the other trends of the century,"Remy says.

Sarah J. Lacasse '97 agrees with Remy. "In mycourses, I've been satisfied with the variety ofliterature to which we've been exposed,"

Other professors also responded to the chargesof a narrow focus.

"I think the [critics] are absolutely in errorto say that the French faculty at Harvard[teaches] exclusively feminist study," Gaylordsays.

"I would invite such critics to look at thecurriculum and see for themselves that there is avery wide variety of subject and approaches andfocuses represented by the curriculum," saysGaylord, who says she just reviewed next year'scatalog. "I think it's very clear from the catalogthat this kind of criticism is not based onknowledge of the facts."

Berenguier agrees that the curriculum issufficiently broad.

"Even if our research is fairly oriented in thefeminist direction, our teaching is not solelyfocused on feminism and does a not only representfeminist points of view," she says. "We open thecurriculum to all different aspects of criticaland literary studies."

"We don't limit our teaching or our studentsand don't force the students to work in thatdirection [of feminism]," she says. "They shouldbe free to work with all kinds of questions andtopics. problems, areas of studies, they do nothave to do feminism,"

And Suleiman says all areas have been coveredeven though there were some vacancies.

"We teach major authors in every century," shesays. "It is also true that in the last few yearswe have had some vacancies in our [section] on thesenior level so that not all periods were coveredconstantly to the same degree."

McDonald says the section has filled vacancieswith visiting professors.

"We try very hard to balance our program interms of teaching all the centuries from medievalto the 20th century," she says.

"When we're lacking for a course or teaching ina period, we inviteB-13FEMINIS

But professors in Harvard's French sectionagree that the program is not overly feminist,though many of the professors are interested infeminist issues.

"Feminism, like beauty, is in the eye of thebeholder," Suleiman says.

She says she does not believe that the Frenchsection is feminist if that means "a bunch ofdogmatic militant feminists who teach nothing butworks we consider `politically correct."

But she says that "many of the professors inthe [section are] interested in work by women andquestions of gender,"

And Associate Professor of Romance Languagesand Literatures Nadine D. Berenguier says "thereis a strong interest in feminism represented byProfessor Jardine and Professor Suleiman and theother faculty members."

Jardine is one who admits she is interested inworks by women and considers herself a feminist.

"I have always though of myself as a feminist,if that means advocating social and economicjustice for women," she says.

But she adds that the entire section cannot belumped together and considered feminist.

"We don't work in the same century, we don'twrite the same books," she says. "You can't lumpus together."

"If you talk to each individual woman, you willfind that their relationship to feminism is verydifferent," she says.

Gaylord agrees that the professors cannot belumped together and labeled according to onecriterion.

"The French section has a number of professorswho have a feminist perspective," she says. "But Idon't think feminism is just one thing or oneperspective or one way of looking at the world."

"I think that the women who teach French atHarvard have many different ways of looking atliterature and culture and the history of ideasand I am disturbed at comments and questions thatlump people together in one category," she says.

Other professors say that the people teachingFrench cannot be classified feminist because it isjust one of many ways that the professors in thesection approach literature.

"I would say to a certain extent it's true, butI want to qualify that to say someone is feministis not saying a whole lot because every singlemember of the department is also practicing adistinct methodology, according to Naomi Schor, arecently tenured professor in the program.

Abby E. Zanger, assistant professor of romancelanguage and literatures, also believes it isinaccurate to label the French professorsfeminists.

"I think the [section] has lot of differentkinds of wide variety of approaches andpreparations," Zanger says. "I think feminist isone of many."

She cites the history of reading, study ofsurrealism, cultural studies, sociologicalapproaches and philosophical approaches as otherways to consider literature.

"We do a good job exposing our students to somany methods," she adds.

Narrow Focus?

But some French professors at otheruniversities say that Harvard's section seems tofocus too narrowly on feminist theory.

"It's good department, if somewhat uneven andunbalanced," says Edwin M. Duval, the director ofgraduate studies in French at Yale University.

"Generally, there is an emphasis on modernliterature and feminism, which is good, but thisin itself is not sufficient to make a truly solidand distinguished department," he adds.

"There is little emphasis on other things[besides feminism] so it's a question more ofbalance than of real strength," he says.

But professors in Harvard's program argue thattheir interest in feminism does not mean that theyneglect other areas in the field.

"I want to emphasize that this [interest] doesnot mean an exclusive attention to thesequestions." Suleiman says.

Christie McDonald, professor of romancelanguages and literatures and the chair of theFrench section, agrees that other areas are notneglected.

"Many of us are interested in feministcriticism and writing on and by women but I don'tfeel that the program [is] in any way unbalanced,"she says. "This is, in fact, an enrichment to theprogram that many other French departments do nothave."

And some of the 13 undergraduates concentratingin French--11 of whom are women--say they believethat feminist theory is not overemphasized at theexpense of others.

"I think that feminist theory is a literarytheory that's been prevalent in the 20th-centuryand that to present it within the course offeredis nothing out of the ordinary," says Elizabeth M.Remy '95, who pursued a joint concentration inmusic and French.

Remy, who took her sophomore tutorial withJardine, says it was a chronological discussion ofFrench Literature and theory, so the class diddeal with feminism at the end of the course.

"It is a major theory that has been presentedin this century and whether everybody agrees withit or not, it's worthy of being discussed andplaced [with] the other trends of the century,"Remy says.

Sarah J. Lacasse '97 agrees with Remy. "In mycourses, I've been satisfied with the variety ofliterature to which we've been exposed,"

Other professors also responded to the chargesof a narrow focus.

"I think the [critics] are absolutely in errorto say that the French faculty at Harvard[teaches] exclusively feminist study," Gaylordsays.

"I would invite such critics to look at thecurriculum and see for themselves that there is avery wide variety of subject and approaches andfocuses represented by the curriculum," saysGaylord, who says she just reviewed next year'scatalog. "I think it's very clear from the catalogthat this kind of criticism is not based onknowledge of the facts."

Berenguier agrees that the curriculum issufficiently broad.

"Even if our research is fairly oriented in thefeminist direction, our teaching is not solelyfocused on feminism and does a not only representfeminist points of view," she says. "We open thecurriculum to all different aspects of criticaland literary studies."

"We don't limit our teaching or our studentsand don't force the students to work in thatdirection [of feminism]," she says. "They shouldbe free to work with all kinds of questions andtopics. problems, areas of studies, they do nothave to do feminism,"

And Suleiman says all areas have been coveredeven though there were some vacancies.

"We teach major authors in every century," shesays. "It is also true that in the last few yearswe have had some vacancies in our [section] on thesenior level so that not all periods were coveredconstantly to the same degree."

McDonald says the section has filled vacancieswith visiting professors.

"We try very hard to balance our program interms of teaching all the centuries from medievalto the 20th century," she says.

"When we're lacking for a course or teaching ina period, we inviteB-13FEMINIS

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags