Field: Literature and French
SR-EIP: New York University, 1997 and 1999
Undergrad: Yale University
Graduate School: Stanford University
Current Position: Assistant Professor of French, Stanford University
What are you currently doing in your professional life?
I am an assistant professor of French at Stanford and I specialize in the literature of the Middle Ages in France and Western Europe. I teach medieval Old French and Old Occitan, the latter a romance language used in Southern France, Northern Spain, and Northern Italy. It was the language of the troubadours who were known for inventing a certain way of talking about love and unrequited desire in the 12th and 13th centuries. Currently I am working on a project about crusade literature, lyric and romance, and its relationship to confession and works that concern confession during the 13th century in medieval Europe. I incorporate a lot of my research into my teaching. To get my students to engage with medieval lyric, I first remind them that lyric wasn’t read in a book—it was always performed live for an audience. I have musicians come and tell the students how they are interpreting lyric for contemporary audiences. Then my students do creative projects about what lyric and performance means to them using multimedia, videos, making sense of these songs about love. That’s one of the ways I try to make medieval literature accessible to undergraduates who are uninitiated in this culture. If you give students the tools to understand these lyrics from the 12th and13th centuries, then they can also approach political and social problems that are also treated in these lyrics, such as crusades.
What have you most enjoyed in your career path so far?
I really enjoy finding my own way to develop research questions. I love going back to previous scholarship and wondering, “How come this question hasn’t been asked before?” and pursuing that. Also, I enjoy developing relationships with scholars from various professional levels and disciplines, as well as artists and practitioners interested in medieval culture. I try to incorporate my research into my teaching in innovative ways, such as my curriculum development initiative Performing Trobar, that involves cultivating a conversation about medieval lyric between scholars, performers, and students, and doing a multimedia website that documents that conversation and the multi-modal projects of students.
What are your current career goals?
In addition to working on my research project and developing it into a second book, I would like to cultivate a community of medievalists at Stanford, medievalists of different disciplines and language groups. I started a workshop at Stanford called Theoretical Perspectives of the Middle Ages where we are bringing in various scholars from a range of disciplines. I also advise pre-major undergraduates and graduate students.
What tools or strategies have you found useful for pursuing your goals?
A good work ethic: setting goals for yourself and being committed to making those goals happen, especially in the long term. In academia you have to find the right balance of teaching and research that works for you. I have tried to be proactive about cultivating good mentor relationships and community. I have also tried to find different mentors; some mentors are good for practical questions: “What did you do when you applied for this? What are the next steps?” And some are good for discussing the concept of your next book. Finally, I keep up relationships with scholars outside of my institution. A couple of times of year I go to Europe for archival study and I make sure to connect with people that I know there.
How did your Leadership Alliance summer experience prepare you for graduate school?
It gave you a chance to find out what it would be like to be a graduate student, how to develop research, and how to make the most of your relationship with your mentor. It was really great to meet all the other students too, to interact with people from different institutions with all their different experiences. Everyone has their own story in the Leadership Alliance. I came from a family where pursuing a career in academia, especially literature, was difficult to comprehend and not viewed as a suitable option from a practical standpoint. So the financial support that the Leadership Alliance gave me was crucial, but the experience also came with this wonderful moral support. You can try things out and have autonomy. It was incredible and what I needed most at that time in my life. It helps you believe in yourself and say, “I can do this, and I love this and I enjoy it and that’s OK.”
What is the one thing about graduate school you wish you had known from the beginning?
I always tell graduate students to develop a good work ethic for writing and research, whatever works for you. It really comes to a head in the dissertation writing phase. You are isolated and all you have is writing and there are so many other things you could possibly do. So, develop a good work ethic and have a good support community of friends and mentors to get you through all those difficult times. It was crucial for me to have a serious hobby or pleasurable activity apart from academia that helped me recharge as a scholar. The sooner you confront professional realities and your deep insecurities, the better you will do.
Can you talk about your role as a mentor for the next generation of scholars?
I had a series of mentors that have helped me in crucial moments in my career path. These mentor relationships didn’t just happen. I had to really cultivate them. What I try to do as a mentor, is to think about all those things I wish I could have known. But I also emphasize that everyone has their own path. Sometimes it’s hard to know when something is a problem and you have to change it, or if it is a problem you just have to get through. Usually you have your one advisor, but it’s also important to have other people that you can get feedback from. So sometimes when I’m a mentor, I say “Did you talk to this person, did you talk to this other person? Are you having fun in your life?” Just to check in, because sometimes we forget to check in with ourselves in that way.
Any final thoughts about mentorship, your work, or the role of humanities in academia?
We constantly have to explain the value of humanities. Getting a Ph.D. in a humanities field does not necessarily mean you have to teach at a research institution. There are lots of different options, so it’s important to educate yourself and find out what’s best for you. I feel fortunate that I can say, “I love what I do” every day, that I can pursue big questions about what it means to be human, about history, and engage with curious students about those questions.