“Parlez-Vous Français?”: French and Francophone Cultural Discussions at Tufts

The French and Francophone Cultural Studies (FFCS) major went live on SIS on September 1, providing students with a culture-based alternative to the French Literary Studies major. 

Studying francophone (French-speaking) communities has long been of interest to French students. The new major makes this a more accessible opportunity—a change that reflects a broader goal of increasing cultural content in French courses at Tufts and beyond.

In the FFCS major, students can satisfy requirements with non-literary courses; these include classes in film, acting, and postcolonial studies, as well as career-driven classes like “Business French” and “French for International Relations.” 

However, few new French courses accompany the addition of the new major, leaving a slim offering of culture-based classes that can fulfill its requirements. Students also report that they have a limited foundation in French cultural studies, as their elementary and intermediate classes have included little historical and cultural content in their curriculums. Although the French department has been steadily incorporating more French and francophone cultural studies in their curricula, they currently lack professors who can teach these highly specialized courses. 

Students take French courses with the hope that they can enrich their understanding of French and francophone culture. In a survey of intermediate to advanced French students at Tufts, Anne-Christine Rice, a distinguished senior lecturer and the French Language Coordinator, found that students were passionate about a variety of cultural studies. “They’re interested in the arts or they’re interested in literature, or in traveling or in film,” she explained.

This sentiment is echoed by current French students. “I like the more interdisciplinary approach,” said Caroline Rothmann, a sophomore and French Literary Studies major living in French House who plans on switching to FFCS. 

Students not planning on majoring in French are also invested in learning more about French and francophone culture. “Hearing the professors talking about their culture is more encouraging to me to go to France than any of the content,” said Francesca Gasasira, a junior in her third year of French courses at Tufts. 

While Gasaria expected her French courses to focus on France, she maintained that global francophone content should be a greater focus in the department’s courses. She noted that the cultural aspects of the curriculum were “not [as] francophone” as she had hoped they would be. She explained that she chose French as the language to accompany her International Relations major because she wanted to connect with her Rwandan heritage. But so far, her studies have not served that purpose, leaving her wondering, “Is it weird that I’m not learning about Africa in the class that I took for my African heritage? A bit.” 

Laura Garavito, a junior pursuing a physics major, is at an intermediate French level and was excited to find that the cultural content of her French classes increased as she progressed. She selected the “Migrations and Cultures” concentration of the French 22 “Composition and Conversation II” course offerings because she was interested in French and francophone history. Garavito explained that, in the class, “We read a story about a certain culture pretty much once a week, so I’m learning a lot about different cultures.” 

However, when reading literature from francophone countries, her class did not examine how French colonialism played a role in their struggles. “We haven’t talked about France in a negative light ever,” Garavito said. “And obviously, it was France who catalyzed and led to all the issues that we’re reading about right now.”  

The lack of discussion about French colonialism is also alarming to students like Zachary Taouli. A French-Algerian international student in his sophomore year, Taouli emphasized that French classes at Tufts “absolutely have to talk about the history of colonialism [and] the history of Arab culture” when talking about France. Referencing the works of Albert Camus and Victor Hugo, Taouli explained that studying cultural issues like colonialism and immigration are often intrinsic to understanding classic French literature. 

Yet, despite what the addition of the FFCS major would seem to make possible in this domain, French students are concerned that the cultural class options are currently too limited. Although Rothmann is hopeful that the FFCS major will live up to its potential, she said that her “impression is that they have just enough [classes]” to satisfy the major requirements. And even though the department intends to expand course offerings, Rothmann is aware that most French professors at Tufts are trained in literature, not cultural studies. “Who’s going to teach the classes?” asked Rothmann. 

Rice spoke to this issue, explaining that there is “a ton of room for improvement” in implementing discussions about francophone countries across French levels. Still, she acknowledged that making these teaching adjustments can be difficult for a department that is saturated with French-educated professors. She clarified that this “doesn’t mean we’re not interested in the rest of the world, but our knowledge and our experience is more focused on France.”

To address the need for French professors who are specialized in cultural studies, the department is planning on hiring a new tenure-track professor to start in the fall semester of 2024. According to Rice, “We will have a new person… bringing new ideas and new courses, so that will be exciting.” She explained that the French department is “definitely interested in hiring people and bringing in new specialists in a variety of cultural fields.” 

Rice also explained that French professors currently teaching more fundamental French courses, like the upper-intermediate French 21 and 22, are now being given the opportunity to teach more specialized cultural classes. According to Rice, “We have people… who had the skills, the experience, and the interest in teaching higher level classes and who have been able to offer courses that we were not offering before.” 

In line with these developments, the department will offer three new advanced-level classes with a cultural focus in the spring 2023 semester: “French Women Filmmakers: Subverting the Male Gaze,” “Colonization and Decolonization in the French-Speaking Caribbean,” and “French for International Relations.” While these classes will only be offered in the French department this semester, they may be cross-listed with other departments in the future.  

That being said, these French courses will be offered exclusively at the advanced level, presenting a barrier of entry for elementary and intermediate-level students interested in cultural classes. Garavito was disappointed to find that her elementary-level classes glossed over meaningful cultural discussions, pointing out that there are “some people who will never take [French] past the intro classes” and it is important that “these topics aren’t only getting discussed where students want to take [a] high level.”  

However, students across course levels have shown interest in content that includes francophone studies. When the department organized an event in March 2023 on contemporary crises in Haiti, students showed up. “It was completely full, the room was packed,” Rice said, “so there was clearly an interest.”

Rice also explained that it is difficult to introduce cultural topics in elementary classes, as students have limited command of the language and do not yet have the skills to discuss complex topics. Although challenging, she explained that “It’s important to feed them both the language and also the culture.” In her French 1 classes, she introduces discussion conducted in English about colonialism.

Students see these discussions as critical, too. While Taouli believes the focus of French classes should be on France, he said, “it would be good to devote a significant portion of the curriculum to colonialism, not only [in] my country, Algeria, but also Vietnam [in] Indochine and the Caribbean.”

In fact, francophone countries comprise the majority of French speakers: a 2022 survey found that 47.4% of daily French speakers reside in Sub-Saharan Africa, 14.6% in the Maghreb, and 6.6% in the Caribbean.  When asked in an interview with TV5 Monde how the French language will continue to grow in the future, the Director of L’Observatoire de la Langue Française à L’OIF, the organization that conducted the survey, replied that “60% of daily French speakers are African… it’s them who make the language and give it life.” 

French speakers in Africa are also fast growing, and according to a projection reported in the BBC, French-speaking Africans will make up 85% of French speakers worldwide. 

As of yet, French courses at Tufts have not sufficiently captured the diversity of the francophone world for students. Gasaria emphasized, “francophone culture in Africa is just so starkly different [from] France… Francophone is a very large, encompassing concept.”

But even without diving deep, she finds some students are blind to the very existence of francophone countries other than France—greater inclusion of the francophone world may be able to change that. “I know a lot of people, if you ask them to point to Senegal on the map, they can’t tell you,” she said. “It would just be nice to have some acknowledgement.”