Graduate Students Collaborate with International and African Scholars
Last May, University of Minnesota graduate students Chris Ice, Deborah Lee-Ferrand, and Agnès Schaffauser, all currently pursuing PhDs in postcolonial Francophone literature, attended Le Conseil International d’Études Francophones (CIEF), a week-long interdisciplinary conference that meets annually in different Francophone regions of the world. The 2016 conference took place in Saly-Portudal, a city just outside of Senegal’s capital, Dakar. The conference is conducted completely in French and welcomes 200 scholars each year, including professors, authors, artists, journalists, graduate students, and more.
In order to participate in the week-long convention, applicant groups like the one from the University of Minnesota must write a 200-word proposal on a specific theme that gathers all of their interests, and submit it to CIEF, which announces the upcoming year’s participants in mid-December. The theme that Ice, Lee-Ferrand, and Schaffauser chose for their panel proposal can be translated to “Consuming the Other: When Languages and Cultures Sit Down at the Table.” Each of them wrote an individual abstract that connected well with the others’ and together formed a nuanced examination of their topic.
Once in Senegal, they presented their ideas to other Francophone scholars. Ice recalls an initial feeling of trepidation at the prospect of presenting at his first conference. Not only that, but “it was an international conference where I had to speak in French—which is not my native language—so, naturally, I was nervous. However, everything went really well, and it was nice to be able to do it alongside colleagues and friends.” Once there, it was apparent “that everyone was really very welcoming and extremely supportive.” In fact, he says, “it makes me really want to present more and more.”
The presentation was such a success that Ice, Lee-Ferrand, and Schaffauser were asked to publish their papers in a in a special issue of the CIEF’s journal Nouvelles Études Francophones (NEF)—a rare honor for graduate students. “It was very surprising and exciting to have the director of the conference come to us and say that we did a very good job and that they want to publish our work,” Schaffauser said.
Conference participants enjoyed a holistic scholarly and cultural experience, including many opportunities to learn about the host country from its own people. This year’s notable guests included Cheikh Hamidou Kane, an award-winning Senegalese author who wrote the classic novel L'Aventure ambiguë, Senegalese-born authors Aminata Sow Fall and Ken Bugul, and Senegalese screenwriter and director Angéle Diabang Brener. In addition to its variety of roundtables, readings, and presenters discussing their work, the conference included networking events and planned excursions. Attendees were able to visit the beautiful Saloum Islands, an African safari reserve, and the childhood home of Senegal’s first president and famous poet Léopold Sédar Senghor. In the capital city of Dakar, the graduate students befriended a local woman who exposed them to Senegalese cuisine, often consisting of fish, lobster, and rice dishes. They enjoyed exploring the area and appreciated the multicultural experience. Lee-Ferrand noted that “it was interesting to see the difference between the lifestyles; between the US and Senegal, but also between the capital city, Dakar, and the countryside.”
Ice, Lee-Ferrand, and Schaffauser were not the only ones representing UMN’s French and Italian department in Senegal; several former graduate students also presented at the conference, including Sylvie Ngilla, Benjamin Ngong, Isaac Joslin, and Sarah Buchanan, now a professor at UMN Morris.
Ice, Lee-Ferrand, and Schaffauser are extremely grateful for the experiences they had at the conference. Many of the scholars were particularly welcoming of graduate students. It was all of their first time to Senegal and seeing the Afro-French country first-hand was beneficial. “I was able to bring a lot to the classroom that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t gone to Senegal. There is a lot of context that I could grasp, that might not be explained as well otherwise. It gives it a different dimension,” Lee-Ferrand stated. Looking to the future, Chris, Deborah, and Agnès, along with a fourth UMN graduate student, will attend the 2017 conference, which will be held in Martinique, a French island in the Caribbean.