Wilkinson In Paris
Photos courtesy Dr. Kent Wilkinson
The editorial staff at the Mass Communicator kindly granted me this opportunity to share some thoughts, observations and photos from my month-long stint as a visiting professor at the French Institute of the Press in Paris in November, 2011. I was invited to give six two-hour lectures to master’s classes. Twice a week I used distance-learning technology to connect back to my international communication graduate seminar at Lubbock and Arlington, where one student was also linked. My free time was dedicated to nourishing my senses and soul with art viewing, efforts to understand and speak a melodious language, French cuisine, city wandering and visiting friends. Thomas Jefferson’s words still pertain 226 years later: "A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.”
The generous invitation was from Dr. Rémy Rieffel who the Institute for Hispanic and International Communication brought to the College of Media & Communication in February 2011 to visit classes, give a talk on French media and journalists, and discuss options for student and faculty exchange between our universities. Thus I dedicated part of my summer to developing lecture topics, organizing my housing and visa, and attempts to revive my high school and college French (a work still in progress). Fortunately, a group of flexible and cooperative graduate students enrolled in my seminar at Tech—not a single one dropped after learning that I ‘go virtual’ for four weeks.
My first meeting was at an imposing neo-classical building across from the Pantheón, the original site for Foucault’s pendulum demonstration and the burial place for Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola and Madame Curie, among other luminaries. A humbling intellectual environment indeed. I snuck a quick look into a law class and sat in on Dr. Rieffel’s 100-student master’s-level course to get a feel for the French classroom environment. I noted greater physical and interpersonal distance between the professor and students than exists at Tech, or other classrooms where I had taught in the U.S., Mexico and Spain. A teaching challenge had presented itself on the first day.
There were cultural and linguistic challenges as well. It was disconcerting to restrain the Spanish I had worked so hard to acquire, then speak fluidly. Articles and prepositions were particularly pesky; “el” trumped “le” and “con” vanquished “avec.” It didn’t help that during my first few days I encountered an inordinate number of Spanish and Portuguese speakers in my neighborhood (the 5th arrondisement, or “Latin Quarter,” duh!). I would understand snippets of language on the street and briefly revel in victory until realizing it wasn’t French. A couple of times I loitered near a Mexican restaurant on the Rue Mouffetard just to take comfort in the familiarity of Latin American Spanish spoken by its patrons—I was careful not to wear red and black or any TTU insignia in case I was called out for creeping.
My workouts in the Jardin de Plantes (I hesitate to call it “running” for reasons divulged below), offered prime opportunities to overhear fragments of actual French and consider their meaning and grammatical structure as I plodded on. However, the further along in my workout, the lesser my ability to decode correctly as volumes of blood migrated from my brain to my cardiovascular system to keep me alive. I couldn’t process a two-year-old’s speech after 30 minutes of exercise. This cognitive challenge was compounded by wind burn. Inevitably there would be several authentic “runners” in the Jardin whose speed in passing me created micro-atmospheric conditions akin to West Texas in February. (If you need a mental image, conjure up Patrick Merle, the college’s svelte Frenchman who appeared on the Spring 2011 cover of the Mass Communicator, zooming past Charles Barkley before he began hawking Weight Watchers.) Whether due to my size, clothing, plodding, or, most likely, the combination, there was no mistaking me for a Parisian enjoying his public gardens. One afternoon, a kid not more than seven years old hit me across the forehead with a flung stick. He used a graceful yet powerful backhand motion akin to Rafael Nadal’s. His father didn’t even bother with “Pardon!” in French--he went right to “Sorry!” I could not respond as I had passed the 30 minute mark and there was insufficient brain function….
Perhaps the biggest lifestyle change was the dense urban living. My month in Paris was the longest I had gone without driving a car or motorcycle since my wife Carol and I lived in Cuzco, Peru in 1988. I didn’t even ride the Metro for the first week until Carol joined me. As anyone knows who has visited the city, or seen Midnight in Paris, the City of Lights is for walking. The architecture, cafes, window displays and people offer constant visual stimuli, not to mention those cherished snippets of “French” overheard on the street. Luckily, both of the classroom buildings where I taught were within a twenty-five-minute walk of my studio apartment. I was especially pleased with my apartment’s location, its high-speed internet and noise-dampening double-glazed windows once I learned that faculty at my host institution, the Université de Paris II Pantheón-Assas don’t have individual offices, but work from home. There’s a bit more pressure on living and work space in Paris than in Lubbock.
I became fond of Parisians’ habit of reading in public. Print books, newspapers and magazines are read on park benches, on the Metro, in cafes; I do not recall seeing an e-reader. The (more privileged) French convey confidence and pride in their intellectualism which, of course, is manifest across centuries of Western history. As a teacher and learner who values past and present accomplishments of American scholars and writers, I wish intellectual inquiry was more deeply appreciated, and practiced, in the U.S. Too often our most insightful critical thinkers are subject to suspicion, even scorn, in the public sphere. This discussion of national pride, critical engagement and learning relates to a teaching challenge I face in the U.S., and which surfaces abroad as well. My courses on international communication and diversity in media explore issues surrounding power, cultural identity, media industries and representation. Encouraging students to critically engage their society, its values and institutions can be uncomfortable, and seems unpatriotic to some. How then to effectively discuss such topics in U.S. media with international students in a country some consider the epicenter of anti-Americanism? (Need I remind the reader of 2003’s Freedom Fries?) The students in Paris, and at Goldsmith’s College in London where I also guest lectured (see box) were bright, engaged, charming, and appeared to grasp my exhortations to critically engage media and question stereotypes, including those of Texas and Texans. The fact that 25 students have expressed interest in short-term study at our college suggests that at least some were left with a favorable impression.
As anyone who has attended college knows—or should know—we spend much of our lives negotiating a dynamic tension between what we ought to be doing professionally to reach our goals and meet our obligations, and what we want to be doing with our personal time. That tension magnified during my stay in Paris as I wanted to be very well prepared for my lectures, spend quality time with Carol (a major Francophile), attend to my students in Texas, and take advantage of my presence in the art capital of Europe. Since my return I have been considering the opposition between professional and personal time, or, put differently, between production and consumption. Much inspiration drawn from visiting galleries, monuments and jazz clubs has manifested as renewed desire to complete some prolonged research projects and try my hand at non-research writing (such as this piece). With any luck, Ernest Hemingway was right about Paris being a moveable feast that stays with you wherever you go for the rest of your life. Time will tell. I’m just hoping my inspiration doesn’t go the way of so many past New Year’s resolutions.
Dr. Wilkinson would also like to acknowledge the valuable assistance of people who facilitated his graduate seminar during his absence. Mehrnaz Rahimi, first-year a Ph.D. student, diligently managed the classroom and paperwork. Professors Todd Chambers, Robert Peaslee and Bolanle Olaniran (Dept. of Communication Studies) guest-lectured in their areas of expertise. Josh Robinson, a College IT guru, prepared video for my lectures, managed videoconferencing equipment and recorded student presentations. John Chumley of TTU Telecommunication Services patiently worked us around some pesky European firewalls.