Kate Conley, Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, met with alumni at the French Embassy on September 22, 2016, and delivered these remarks:
Thank you so much for inviting me this evening to be with you at this beautiful embassy.
Given the wonderful coincidence that we are here at the French Embassy and that I, as Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, have an appointment as a professor of French and Francophone Studies, I’m going to speak about how my background in French helped me in my career and how it contributes to my work as an academic administrator.
Studying, writing about, and teaching French and Francophone literature and culture has been the big intellectual adventure of my life, starting with my childhood years in Belgium where my father worked as Press Attaché at the American Embassy in the 1960s. Equipped with one sentence on my first day of fourth grade—je ne parle pas le français (I don’t speak French)—I eventually memorized fables by La Fontaine along with verbs, spelling, and vocabulary, including the specific vocabulary used to describe medieval castles. I also memorized the complete geography of Belgium. In college, I discovered nineteenth-century French novels and Symbolist poetry in addition to Classical era tragedies and comedies. But it was in graduate school that I really made French and Francophone literature and culture my own, through teaching. There were few activities more exciting than making French, France, and Francophone culture come alive for students and enticing them to want to learn more. It was in graduate school that I came to appreciate fully the luxury of reading, participating in class, and writing about my readings. By the time I arrived at my first tenure-track job as an assistant professor of French in the 1990s, I discovered that my job fundamentally consisted of showing students how to discover the excitement I felt about French and Francophone literature, history, and culture, for themselves.
Studying literatures and cultures familiar to me, but not native to me, also extended the experience I had as a child living with American parents in other countries outside of the United States. My PhD allowed me to continue the bicultural life of my childhood, and to continue thinking in two languages at the same time. I was born into an international perspective, in other words, which made teaching students to think through an international perspective, very natural to me. My background also made me a natural advocate for the study abroad and study away experiences available for undergraduate students.
My studies encouraged my “narrative imagination” and trained me to encourage the ability in others to think creatively, find the big picture, and found arguments on solid critical analysis. Literary, historical, and artistic evidence lie at the root of all the arguments scholars make to advance knowledge in my field. As a professor, I taught students how to write analytical papers of their own, built on arguments based on their own critical insights into the texts, art, history, and culture we studied together. As a dean, I work with faculty on their insights into the best way to teach a liberal arts curriculum for the 21st-century. My greatest challenge and delight since coming to William & Mary has been working with the faculty on developing the most dynamic general education curriculum I have yet encountered—a curriculum that has rightfully garnered praise from the Association of American Colleges & Universities and has been awarded a major implementation grant from the Mellon Foundation.
Our new COLL (for “college”) general education curriculum features both breadth and depth in a way that is typical of the liberal arts. This approach reflects the curriculum I followed in graduate school, where I prepared for my PhD by studying the “monuments” of French literature from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries and later wrote a dissertation on women and the surrealist movement. This approach to learning involving breadth and depth carried over into the kind of teaching I did as a faculty member, which included introductions to French literature as well as advanced seminars on a variety of twentieth-century topics. My particular focus was on the surrealist movement—the most influential avant-garde movement of the twentieth-century that spanned the period between World War One and the May 1968 student protests and beyond. Surrealism was a literary and artistic movement that sought inspiration from dreams and the unconscious mind. The young surrealists—about the age of our undergraduate students at the time—sought to transpose what they knew about Freud onto poetry and art. I’ve published books on surrealism and women—how male surrealists portrayed the ideal woman and how women portrayed themselves; on the poet Robert Desnos—who helped to define the movement at the outset and later died in a concentration camp shortly after its liberation at the end of World War Two; and on the concept of ghostliness in surrealist art—how a haunting ghostliness left over from World War One had an impact on the founders of the movement that worked its way into ghostly double images in works of art throughout the twentieth-century.
Surrealism influenced the way I teach and the way I work as a Dean. (I definitely believe that sleeping on an idea makes it better and clearer in the morning.) One reason I was drawn to surrealism was that it was the only major avant-garde movement to include women. As one surrealist woman wrote in her autobiography: “You needn’t make excuses for putting on a banquet and inviting one and all” (Birthday, 11). By banquet Dorothea Tanning was referring to the sort of “convivial” philosophical discussion after a banquet that Plato made famous in his Symposium. She felt she was welcome at the table, welcome to participate, and it was this collaborative approach that also drew me to the surrealist movement.
When I teach, I prefer to sit with students in a circle, even for language classes, so that they can see and talk to one another, as though we also were at a “banquet.” As Dean, I work closely in a team with other deans and key administrators. Even though I ultimately take full responsibility for decisions made in the Dean’s Office, most of the decisions have been vetted and debated by what I call the Dean Team because I believe in the power of collaborative thinking and the strength that teamwork can bring to any discussion. This approach is very much in line with William & Mary’s strong culture of shared governance. In my work as Dean, I prioritize bringing colleagues together, getting as much input as possible, communicating with as much transparency as I can, and making sure all lines of communication remain open.
As Dean I have been thrilled to work with the William & Mary faculty, most notably on the new COLL curriculum, which passed from the Curriculum Review Steering Committee to the faculty in December 2012, was debated by the faculty throughout 2013, and then was passed by a majority faculty vote in December 2013. COLL was launched with our incoming class last year. This year is our second full year. What I love most about it is the way it constitutes a recommitment to the liberal arts. Throughout 2013, I listened to the faculty make passionate statements about teaching and the liberal arts. I watched how faculty signed up in gratifying numbers to participate in the COLL implementation working groups and, during that first summer of 2014, for in-depth seminars about teaching in the COLL curriculum.
The COLL curriculum runs all four years and is taught by full-time William & Mary faculty. It simultaneously tips towards breadth and depth, starting in the first year, with two first-year seminars: one introduces students to critical research writing at the college-level; the other is a “big ideas” course that emphasizes other forms of communication, including oral, visual and digital communication. The second year introduces the academic disciplines and requires at least three courses that cross disciplines. For example, a course on French surrealism could spend two weeks thinking about dreams and dream interpretation from the perspective of a neuroscientist. The third year looks out to the world—we call it “William & Mary and the World.” Students get COLL credit for study abroad, through the Reves Center, for “study away”—cross-cultural experiences in the United States—through the Charles Center, or through on-campus courses that “bring the world to William & Mary” by hosting visitors whose talks connect to a variety of academic courses rooted in a global perspective. For our pilot version of this course last year, we hosted Haida artist Robert Davidson, who gave a moving lecture about reintroducing the culture of making totem poles to his native village north of Vancouver Island. Finally, in their senior year students have a culminating or capstone experience, which should involve both original research and an element of self-reflection about everything the student has learned so far.
This new curriculum has been the single most exciting aspect of my life at William & Mary, linking research to teaching to an understanding of history and culture familiar to me from my training in graduate school. I have loved the chance to establish the Center for the Liberal Arts: a rotating, appointed faculty group, whose task it is to keep watch over the curriculum by teaching in it, working with faculty who want to teach in it, and keeping it vital and current, as a result. Connected to COLL has been the introduction of a Common Book for freshmen to read over the summer before they arrive. Our first book has been The Island of the Colorblind, by Oliver Sacks. Since I’ve arrived at William & Mary we have introduced a small group of fully online summer courses for students who might otherwise have to transfer summer courses from other institutions. And we are setting up our first Digital Humanities Laboratory in Morton Hall, called the Digital Equality lab—run by two scholars interested in using digital tools to think about social justice, gender, and race in United States and abroad. This past year we also passed two new minors—in Native Studies and in Asian Pacific Islander American Studies. The Native Studies minor starts this fall in conjunction with a new exhibit at the Muscarelle Museum, on the history of the Brafferton Indian School on campus (founded 1723).
All of these activities, all of the ferment of faculty creativity, connect me to the spark that sent me to graduate school in the first place—to link literature and culture to people through reading, writing, and teaching, and to consider those links throughout time. Thank you.