“There is a renaissance of sorts going on there, especially in sub-Saharan countries like Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso,” says Professor of French Jonathan Walsh, who teaches a popular course on contemporary francophone women’s fiction. “The relationship these authors have to the French language is complex and not always easy. Some choose to write in their native language, but French, like English, has become a lingua franca, and that means access to a wide readership.”
Now, with the support of a fellowship from the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation, Walsh will travel to Senegal to experience the rich cultural milieu of West Africa firsthand. The Whiting Foundation, based in Boston, aims to support scholarship and travel that improve and enhance the quality of classroom instruction.
“I’ve been teaching African literature as an ‘armchair traveler,’” Walsh remarks. “I really need a better sense of the culture and context.”
Walsh hopes his three-week visit to Senegal in early 2012 will not only enhance his own teaching, but also allow him to explore potential connections between Wheaton’s courses and the cultures of that part of the world.
Since 1997 Walsh has taught “Other Voices, Other Stories: Great Works by Women from France and the Francophone World,” a course of particular interest to students in French studies, women’s studies and a relatively new major, African, African-American, diaspora studies.
“The course focuses on questions of gender, race and narrative form in the fiction and poems of female authors from France and its former colonies,” says Walsh, and “it has helped me to discover a wealth of new literature…that I want very much to explore and follow more closely.”
Walsh has read and researched francophone African women writers on his own, but apart from attending a conference in Tunisia, he has not visited their native lands.
“To teach such a course with the requisite knowledge and authority, to take it to the next level, I feel strongly the need to experience African cultures firsthand,” he wrote in his fellowship application.
During his Senegalese sojourn, Walsh plans to conduct library research, interview authors and filmmakers, and meet with professors of African literature at the country’s two principal universities, Cheikh Anta Diop and Gaston Berger (originally the University of Saint-Louis).
In addition to helping him further develop his course, Walsh says the trip could reap other benefits for Wheaton students. First, he hopes to make contacts with potential guest authors and scholars who might visit Wheaton through the Haas Visiting Artists Program or the Fulbright exchange. Secondly, he will begin to explore the possibilities for a Wheaton study abroad program in Senegal that emphasizes the humanities and francophone culture.
“I’d like to see more students going there from English, French, art history, and our new media studies major,” he says.
Photo by Nicki Pardo