Thursday, September 20, 2012

French Academia, Gender, and Religion

   I'm a cultural historian of France.  The questions that interest me have traditionally been ones about gender and family life, which is reflected in my training and in my research.  I had somehow internalized the idea that "gender as a useful category of analysis" (a phrase popularized by historian Joan Scott before I even thought of graduate study) was common in France as well as the United States.  Certainly, at conferences, I encounter French colleagues who study women's history and questions of gender.  It's rarely been suggested to me -- and never, in my memory, by a colleague in French history -- that studying gender is illegitimate or worthless, though I do sometimes see it as less mainstream than other types of history.
   Imagine my surprise, then, when a colleague in France told me that she believed that gender was generally not a well-accepted field of study here; that it was marginal and a field in which it would be difficult to find a job.  She said there was less research support, fewer institutes, and that it was more politically-charged than in the U.S. (She paired this with an observation that the history of religion is a "dusty" field, one that is seen as old-fashioned or boring.  Apparently, a history of religious women is both old-fashioned *and* marginal!)
   My first reaction was that this is, quite frankly, not the case in the United States.  I'm sure most women's historians have stories about the colleagues who don't take them seriously or who denigrate their research concerns, but the fact is, a research emphasis on women, gender, or sexuality is not going to be a death knell for a job application.  I've had supportive colleagues who are interested in my work, and there are plenty of institutes devoted to research on related issues.
   And then my second reaction was to remember that the Woodrow Wilson Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship in Women's Studies has been suspended for this year.  I hope that isn't indicative of a trend in the wrong direction!

Friday, September 14, 2012

What the Fulbright is actually for

     Even though my youngest is having "adjustment issues," I've finally got all the kids in school and I'm back to real history work.  This week, I've gotten some great work done on my literature chapter and had a wonderful and productive coffee with a colleague who works on young girls and religious life in nineteenth-century France.  She's offered to facilitate some introductions for me, as well, should I need them.  It feels good to be moving forward in more than a linguistic way! 
     Of course, linguistic progress continues, too.  In addition to conversations with the electrician and the plumber, I had a nice chat with the telephone shop girl, who discussed linguistic pedagogy with me.  (She confirmed that I have an accent but complimented my command of French.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The machines are conspiring against us

   I thought I might learn a new set of vocabulary on this trip.  Having my kids with me, I figured I might need to learn phrases like "cough syrup" or "gummy bears" or even "I'm so sorry for the loud noises; my kids are used to living in a house.  I will try to teach them better.  They aren't actually animals."
  I didn't foresee sentences like "The dishwasher won't drain," and "The electricity seems to be out in the entire apartment; I think a fuse blew, but I'm not sure where."
  So today, I'm waiting for the electrician.  (The dishwasher was last week and is now fixed.)  The washing-machine is tripping a breaker, so it's off...but that means that the refrigerator and the dishwasher are off, too.  (Dishwasher being of substantially less importance than the refrigerator and the washing machine!)
   But I learned that you might say that someone who gets really angry "blows a fuse" in French, too.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Americans in a French school

My oldest three kids have found the transition to French school to be far easier and way less terrifying than they had expected.  There are people around who are willing to help them, and it doesn't hurt that a good amount of their homework is comprised of things that they are unable to complete, because they don't know enough French yet.  Perhaps most of all, it's been a lot of fun for all of them.  In France, they are cool and interesting, just because they are American. Or maybe not just because, but it certainly gives them some extra caché. James is already able to parse a great deal of written French and Kate and Molly feel like they're picking up enough to get by (for example, learning how to say whatever word is not "poisson" on the lunch menu!).   Unfortunately, the youngest isn't finding her transition to be nearly as easy.  But I've promised her a puppy when we get home, if she can manage to stay in school full days and learn French.  (Let's hope shameless bribery succeeds, because I have a lot of work to do!)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

French school supplies (or Vive la rentrée!)

    We caught the bus to Auchan (kind of like Wal-Mart for Europe) yesterday in order to buy school supplies for the kids.  Lucy doesn't need much (slippers, a blanket, and a pillow for naptime, for example), but the other kids had very long lists.  Apparently, this is something new.  Public school used to be entirely free, with almost everything but the bookbag provided by the school.  Thie lists, however, included everything from a fountain pen (with refill cartridges) to special drawing paper, and many interesting office supplies in between.
     Anyone who knows me knows that I am a sucker for office supplies, so I was pretty intrigued by the lists and thought I would know many of the things.  Some were obvious (compas/compass, for example!) and others familiar (a box of tissues for the classroom to share).  However, despite lots of previous purchases at papeteries in France, as well as a fair amount of time spent on Google Translate and with my dictionary, a number of items left me completely stumped.
   Polly Platt, in French or Foe, offers a useful phrase, which basically translates as "Excuse me for bothering you, sir (or madam), but I have a problem...."  She then suggests making a colorful story out of one's particular need, hoping to engage the interest and sympathy of the person to whom you are making an appeal.  So far, it's worked every time I've needed to use it, and ultimately, I decided that the simplest way of figuring out what everything was would be to take Polly's idea to Auchan with me and, once there, to stop a friendly-looking mom in the aisle and ask her to take pity on me.
    I debated between a few women, but one looked too harassed by her own list and another looked irritated by my children.  I eventually decided on a mom who was speaking kindly to her son and grabbing workbooks to add to a pile, figuring she had her own list and her own children and didn't seem too irritated already.  She smiled at my pleas of total American incomptence in the face of French school supplies, and did indeed take pity on me. As it turned out, she spoke a decent amount of English -- but had no idea what the English words for most of the items were, though she could point me to what they looked like -- and tell me that the list was excessive for public school, but that there was nothing to do about it except suffer through it.  It turns out that many items are things that I've never seen in an American classroom, which might help explain why I didn't have any idea.  (For example, a plastic notebook cover and a fountain pen eraser/rewriter.)  She also had a boy Kate's age, and we sent Kate and the boy off together to look for the supplies that they both needed, and we did our best to get the other things on our lists.  We debated the best compass to buy (cheap? mid-range? expensive?) and discussed whether or not her daughter (almost 3) was too young to be away from mom for preschool two mornings a week (her mom's verdict:  probably).   
    When I got to the checkout and the checker told me the total (nearly 200 euros), I made a long face and she laughed and said, "Vive la rentrée!"  Yes, indeed.
    But I do now know a lot of words for school supplies and have a pink fountain pen.