Discussing matters of legitimacy: When your dissertation paper hits too close to home

Written by Ilham Lamrani Alaoui

            Upon starting their master’s degree, students face a variety of issues, one of them being: what is their dissertation going to be about? Having to find something to write and read up on for months can be very daunting. Teachers usually advise students to work on something they are particularly interested in, since they will be spending hours and hours on this paper. But that means they are left with the endless possibilities that come with the sentence “you can work on anything.” The latter is true, indeed… in theory. But they will have to pick a subject which will allow them to find enough primary sources to fuel their reflections. Once their choice is made, they can spend hours online, in a library or in a research center, looking for the document, the holy grail that will unlock (or not) the mystery of all their hypotheses.

            If, similarly to myself, they picked a topic that they love studying (in my case, African-American history – more precisely, the representation of African Americans in the US judiciary system), they will soon be confronted with important issues. First: isn’t this topic too personal? As academics in training, students are expected to never lack objectivity in regard to their work. Therefore, they need to have (and maintain) a certain distance in what they write within their dissertations. Since I work on race-related issues, I have to read, watch and listen to very provocative materials – some documents deal with police brutality, slavery, rape… All of this made me question my work due to the latter’s emotional impact: would I truly be able to do this?

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Projet Anglistique: towards a genealogy and for an evolution of English Studies

On 11 March 2020, a workshop was held by the LERMA, gathering researchers and different actors from the scientific world around the issue of English Studies (Anglistique) [1]. In France, English Studies are conducted by a community of more than 2000 researchers, experts of anglophone cultures around the world. A significant part of the discussion revolved around the difficulty to link English Studies, as a research field rooted in interpretation, to current societal issues and to highlight the benefits of cultural studies.

The premise of the discussions that day was the necessity of establishing a bedrock to English Studies [2], as a consensual understanding of their emergence and development is prerequisite to decide their evolution as a discipline in touch with the present and turned towards the future. Moreover, a comprehensive knowledge of the epistemologies of English studies would promote interdisciplinary partnerships. With this aim in mind, the different parties proposed to apply a “cultural heritage program” (“programme de patrimonialisation”), conducted nationally and internationally, to the genealogy of English Studies.

This program would be conducted through the implementation of a national digital platform providing information on the structural, conceptual, and testimonial history of English Studies. The development of partnerships with various entities such as library and archives will be necessary to bring such a platform to fruition. The use and conservation of archives is incidentally a point on which special emphasis was made; this matter would go hand in hand with the development of digital media. Furthermore, the redaction of an encyclopedic dictionary of English Studies is also planned, as etymologies in the field need to be revised in order to better situate English Studies and their researchers in the scientific landscape.

Several milestones in the redefinition and consolidation of English Studies have been accomplished these last few years by researchers at AMU’s Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone. For instance, Prs. Anne Page and Grégoire Lacaze’s classification work on the archives of the Maison Française d’Oxford (MFO) is mentioned on a research blog on hypotheses.org, dedicated to the LERMA’s objectives and achievements within the field of English Studies. [3] The awareness of the existence of a scientific heritage, and the necessity to continue building it, are matters the LERMA researchers currently aim to impart to the students following the ECMA Master so that the next generations of academicians in English Studies can in turn consider themselves as the “latest link in a chain of scholars” [4].

 

[1] The recent development of the Wikipedia page “Anglistique” is one of the several steps made towards the definition of English Studies.

[2] The Livre Blanc de la recherche en études anglophones (2016), coordinated by Pr. Anne Page, offers an overview of the position and direction of English Studies in France these last few years.

[3] This research blog, entitled Anglistique, gives access, for instance, to interviews with researchers pondering on how their work has contributed to shape how English Studies were conducted in France. It also contains an inventory of the archives of Marc Chénetier, a specialist in American literature

[4] This turn of phrase is borrowed from Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey. 2017. William Collins, 2018, p. 277.

An immersion in AMU’s scientific life: organizing an international congress with the LERMA

During the second year of formation within the Master ECMA, [1] the Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone (LERMA) [2] offers a most interesting internship. Indeed, while it is not scientific by nature – in that it does not imply to contribute to the Research Unit’s academic life through scientific productions – it provides the interested student with a ringside seat to the inner workings of the LERMA. Thus, during this internship, I met with several scientific and administrative actors of the world of research; I had the privilege to help them organize and see through an international scientific event that took place at AMU on the 20th and 21st of February, 2020: Empires coloniaux et cultures matérielles : Showcasing Empire. [3]

To take part in such an enterprise is crucial, I believe, to come to a better understanding of the multiple realities of the world of research. Indeed, it reveals the significant organizational skills one needs to develop to be a researcher. I observed how the different cogs of the Maison de la Recherche – administrative, technical, manual, and scientific – came into action so that the heavy machinery under and around the event might run as smoothly and seamlessly as possible. As an intern, I had to contribute to the liaison between all those different actors, learning from each of them in the process.

Contributing to the communication around the event, welcoming the participants and helping them around the campus are concrete examples of the tasks I was assigned. Besides the relational experience I thus developed, I benefited from more informal and much appreciated discussions with some of the participants; these talks, added to the scientific interventions of the congress, increased my “sense of direction” within a national as well as international scientific landscape. Indeed, taking part, at any level, to such events allows the researcher in the making to build a network which may prove very useful to consider potential scientific collaborations.

Consequently, in addition to a comprehensive formation in anglophone cultural studies within ECMA, the LERMA, helps Master students to discover firsthand the plural stakes of the world of research, which is much more complex than its mere scientific dimension, and to facilitate their insertion in the scientific career path. Indeed, this specific internship enables students to situate themselves within their own Research Unit and to understand the importance of collaboration with institutions as well as individuals, all actors of today’s research.

[1] Études Culturelles du Monde Anglophone.

[2] The LERMA (EA 853) is the Research Unit with which the Master ECMA is associated.

[3] This congress was organized by the LERMA along with the Société Française d’Études Victoriennes et Édouardiennes (SFEVE).

Toni Morrison and the place of Afro-American literature in the American canon

The recent death of the Afro-American novelist and essayist Toni Morrison has had a wide media coverage, in the United States as well as in France. It was the occasion for readers all around the world to discover or rediscover the literary masterpieces of a woman hailed by the New York Times as a “towering novelist of the Black experience”. [1] However, this title, flattering as it may sound, entails a question which Morrison herself tackled during her lifetime: what is the place of Afro-American literature in the American canon? Why did authors such as Morrison need to step up as literary spokespersons of the black experience in the first place?

The fact is the black literary voice was ignored by critics, long after historic battles for equal social rights were fought and won. On an artistic level, this obliteration is harmful not only to the black writers relegated to the “margins of the literary imagination” [2] (Morrison 1992 5), but also to the study of American literature as a whole: “[c]ontemporary critics fail to recognize the ways in that white authors construct themselves and their texts against blackness, thereby reinforcing a canonical construction built on, certain of, the exclusion it perpetuates.” [3] (Durkin 178). Thus, the American literary canon is not merely incomplete; it was stumped by the severage of an important constituent.

To Morrison, black presence in American literature was tamed as an object of study by American Africanism” [4] and sacrificed on the altar of white American identity: in order for the very notion of “American” to fully exist as a presence, its positive aspect had to stand out against a negative backdrop, namely the absence of the black experience and its voice. That is why Morrison strove through her novels to give back its shape and color to the erased Afro-American presence in American literature, to find and express “the something that defines what makes a book ‘black’” (McKay 152-153). [5]

By striving to instate Afro-American writings as an integral part of the national canon, Morrison has established at the scale of a whole culture an ontological independence, an empowerment of a people’s artistic presence and voice. As she concluded in her 1998 essay “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature”: “We are the subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience, and, in no way coincidentally, in the experience of those with whom we have come in contact. We are not, in fact, ‘other.’ We are choices.” (133) [6]

 

[1] Fox, Margalit. “Toni Morrison, Towering of the Black Experience, dies at 88”, The New York Times, August 6, 2019. Accessed on 19/11/19.

[2] Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Picador, 1992.

[3] Durkin, Anita. “Object Written, Written Object: Slavery, Scarring, and Complication of Authorship in Beloved”, 2007 in Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (New Edition). Infobase Publishing, 2009. pp. 173-194.

[4] Steiner, Wendy. “The Clearest Eye”, The New York Times, April 5, 1992. Acessed on 26/11/19.

[5] McKay, Nellie. An Interview with Toni Morrison, 1983 in Taylor-Guthrie, Danille, ed. Conversations with Toni Morrison. University Press of Mississippi, 1994. pp. 138-155.

[6] Morrison, Toni. “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature” in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, 1988. pp. 123-163.

Working as an intern in a research centre: A peek behind the curtain

Contrary to what the timetable available on the digital work environment of our university may lead us to think, teaching hours are only the tip of the iceberg where the work of a researcher is concerned. This is what I was able to witness when my dissertation director, Dr. Marc Calvini-Lefebvre and his research group “Women and the F-Word” recruited me for a two-month paid internship. The group studies the various spectres of feminism and is part of the research centre of our English Department, the LERMA (Laboratoire d’Etude et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone) which hosted my internship.

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Entretien avec Madame Monique De Mattia-Viviès

Madame Monique De Mattia-Viviès est professeure à l’Université d’Aix-Marseille. Elle a obtenu son doctorat en grammaire anglaise en 1997, qui a été publié en 2000 sous le titre suivant : Le discours direct en anglais contemporain : approche énonciative (Aix-en-Provence, Publication de l’Université de Provence). Madame De Mattia-Viviès est professeure des universités depuis 2007. Avant cela, elle a été Maître de Conférences à l’Université de Provence entre 1998 et 2007. Son dernier ouvrage de grammaire vient d’être publié sous le titre de Leçons de grammaire anglaise. De la recherche à l’enseignement : syntaxe (Volume 1). Il sera suivi par deux autres ouvrages à paraître en 2019. C’est à l’occasion de ces publications qu’En-Globe a souhaité aller à sa rencontre afin d’obtenir son point de vue sur le domaine de la recherche.

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Research Blog of the Masters Students in Anglophone Studies (Aix-Marseille University)

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