The secret lives of our profs

Rachel Young

(Oren Jakobson)

Young: Tell me about how you got interested in language and gender studies.
Hoft-March: We had a neighbor who took care of a very old lady who happened to teach French and German at the local community college. She was always this mysterious figure to me – I know this sounds corny – but she was mysterious and interesting, and she tried to teach me my first French. She gave me books and things on France, and she showed me pictures of France and I hadn’t had a clue probably before that, as this was when I was very young, probably 7 or 8 years old. I don’t know whether it was her mystique or her, well, I can’t say charisma, because she was very old at the time, but I was very interested in it, and that sort of got me on the track of “well, nobody else is interested in this” because no one else I knew was interested in French, so that’s where it started. I took French later on; [I] started in high school and in college at Carroll I was an English and French major, and wound up deciding that I needed to know more, I needed to go to France itself. I was abroad several times in graduate school at Berkeley. I didn’t stop. I guess I felt as though I didn’t know enough French, and I just kept on going. It just took on a life of its own. There are some people who don’t know what they’re going to do next in life, and there are some people who just decide, “yeah, I like this,” and so I decided I wanted to do French. I have lived in France, mostly in Paris, and then I’ve taken trips with students. I have wonderful friends there, and so of course when I don’t go there, they come and stay, and being Europeans, they come and stay for five and six weeks, so that’s a bit like France coming to us. And gender studies – well, I suppose I had my feminist awakening in college. I had the opportunity at Berkeley to be a part of different groups, and you radicalized yourself, at least you thought you were radicalized, and we had a Women’s Coalition that often brought in speakers. Once in a while, we got the opportunity to propose someone to teach a course, so I got to teach a women’s studies course way back when, while I was still a teaching assistant. When I got to Lawrence, interestingly enough, it was the beginning of the whole gender studies project. It was something that sort of grew up from grassroots and people saying, “You know, we really should have gender studies in the curriculum.” It [was] a complicated process from there, but that’s how it started. I was with a group of people who wanted to do that, so we started that in the very early ’90s. I haven’t taught a core gender studies course in a while, but I am teaching a course now in French women’s writing.
Young: Do you see an intersection between gender studies and language?
Hoft-March: Well, I think in French it’s really clear that all nouns have to be [gendered], and on some deeper level it makes people divide the world up into two camps, which is unfortunate. I have sometimes heard [it said in French], “well, a woman doesn’t say that,” but I think we have those biases in English too, though I don’t pay much attention to them. I think we have bigger fish to fry in terms of [whether or not we’re] making sure that all of our citizens have the same kinds of support mechanisms and opportunities. There are [some ways] in the popular vernacular that gender comes through, but you’d like to think that we can get away from that.
Young: What do you do outside of teaching?
Hoft-March: Well, I think that jobs at Lawrence tend to balloon into most of our time. However, when we get breaks: I’m a very fervent hiker, I bike a lot and our family is pretty physically active. We take martial arts together. It’s Hwa Rang Do; it’s not like any other martial arts. That’s one of our activities. Reading: I’d be nowhere without books. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Reading in French and English [are two] very different things. I have very different tastes in the two languages. I’d say that the French are much less interested in something that reads like the Great American novel. I think that a lot of American literature is written with a great deal of attention to plot, and French doesn’t necessarily marry itself in the same way. Lots of good literature in America, even literature that wins the national book award, is the type of literature about which people are very concerned about the plot. The French are very happy to be lost in their language and not necessarily steered by plot. It’s a very deep style difference, and I appreciate them in both languages. I usually have stacks of books next to my bed, and I decide to work on one or the other depending on how I’m feeling. I also love traveling. I’ve spent a lot of time in central Europe, and I have gone on a couple of faculty trips to Asia. On one of the faculty trips we went to Vietnam, and there were moments on that trip that were just magical, and some painful, because we can remember the Vietnam War. There seemed to be an attitude of sympathy towards American soldiers, but interestingly enough, there were very few remnants of the French Vietnamese culture that existed during their colonization. Even as I returned to bookstores to look for any history or poetry that might have been left behind, it was very thin. Those are the only times I’ve been to Asia. I do, however, like to learn when I travel. I’m always interested in learning the history of a place and discovering something new while I’m there.

(Oren Jakobson)

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