Welcome to the Department of French at the University of Virginia. On the pages of this website, we hope you will receive a vivid impression of who we are as scholars, what kinds of questions we ask, and what kind of academic and human community we comprise. During this “time like no other” of Covid 19, our physical presence in our meeting and learning spaces may be diminished, but our passion for our students, teaching and research has never been more vital. We renew with increased vigor our commitment to excellence as pedagogues and scholars believing that the cultivation of the life of the mind and the pursuit of our shared quest for human betterment is guided, even driven, in critical ways by the humanities.
This current moment in the life of our nation continues to pose many challenges for us as individuals, families, and communities, including our university community. In addition to the difficulties of the pandemic, this is a moment of civic reckoning as we confront and strive to better understand and put an end to the realities of racial injustice that continue to structure our world. It is my hope that we, in the Department of French, will use our work in the classroom and as scholars to interrogate the many ways that race and racism has been constructed and experienced here and in the francophone world. Training a global lens upon our own current situation in the United States can help us see how the different pieces of our shared histories and geographies are, in fact, connected.
What is the Department of French? A full-scale humanities department that explores the literature, language, ideas, history and cultural forms generated over the centuries by diverse peoples—from continental France, the Americas, Africa and Asia--who have expressed their thoughts, critiques, creations and passions in French.
Our faculty is an extraordinary group of creative, talented, and caring scholars and teachers known for their collegiality. We are fortunate to have one of the largest faculties, PhD and MA programs, and one of the highest number of BA majors in the United States. One of only a handful of independent departments of French, we are proud to cultivate a humanistic learning community that is united by our love of the French language as a vehicle of creation and communication.
Our “Connected Learning Community”: Students appreciate getting to know us in small-scale educational settings that are attentive to them as individuals and that foster critical thinking, speaking and writing skills in French. Particularly during the pandemic, we are working extremely hard to maintain this sense of a close-knit learning community. Whether taught in person or virtually, our undergraduate seminars, limited to 15-20 students, encourage dialogue, conversation and a lively exchange of ideas. Our language classes cultivate a love of learning and create a vibrant and nurturing pedagogical experience for students at all levels. Teaching our passionate students is the highlight of our day!
Each semester, students can choose from an array of courses spanning the Middle Ages to the 21st century, from medieval manuscripts to digital media. They can further their mastery of French or begin the study of Creole. We regularly offer courses that explore Francophone African film, history, linguistics, politics, current events, as well as professional uses of French in the world of business, international relations and global development. Our students are exposed to a full array of French literary and cultural expression from foundational essays and philosophical treatises, to saints’ lives, graphic novels, and rap songs. Students are also introduced to rare, early modern books from the library’s world-renowned Gordon Collection.
Many students speak French also outside of class, particularly in the context of the Maison française. During the pandemic, we continue to offer cultural activities virtually to residents and friends of the department at UVA or in the wider community who are invited to see weekly film screenings and log in for zoom discussions or to participate, weather permitting, in a socially distanced pause café on the front porch.
We enthusiastically embrace the vast expanse and diversity of the French-speaking world that spans five continents. Today, French is the second fastest growing language after English and, according to projections by Forbes, could be the most widely spoken language in the world by 2050. According to Bloomberg News, French is currently the third most useful language in the world for business (after English and Mandarin, but before Arabic and Spanish).
French is a European language, but it is also an important African language, not only of officialdom and business, but also of literary, musical and cultural creativity. In fact, the world’s largest francophone metropolitan area today is not Paris, but Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. French is spoken in North and West Africa and in places like Mauritius and the Île de la Réunion off the southeast African coast. A Caribbean language of Guadeloupe and Martinique and of islands from Haiti to Saint Barts, French is also an oceanic language in the archipelagos of French Polynesia. French, too, has long been a North American language, spoken notably in Québec, but also historically in Louisiana and in many pockets of the United States from New York and New England to Detroit, all places marked by the Francophone diaspora. Finally, French continues to be a language spoken and learned throughout Asia, where the vast network of the Alliance française boasts record enrollments among students wishing to learn and perfect their French in places like Hong-Kong and in the major cities of mainland China.
In short, French is a global language and Francophone culture is global, too. As Abdou Diof, former secretary general of the Francophonie, said: “French remains one of the most reliable seedbeds of cultural and linguistic diversity that must be recognized and promoted to ensure an inclusive dialogue between men and women, between traditions and cultures and different types of human societies.”
Indeed, UVA French alums can be found working all over the world and in just about every conceivable profession. Each semester, we invite one of them back to Charlottesville to share with us and current students their incredibly inspiring life and career stories.
I invite you to take time to browse our website, where you’ll find answers to many of the most commonly asked questions about our programs, and to visit our Facebook page, where we regularly post information about upcoming events. Never hesitate to reach out to us should you have a question or wish to start a conversation. We will always be delighted to hear about your own interests and ambitions and to talk about the many facets of French at UVA.
Janet Horne, Chair