Cultural exchange allows for study of migration issues in France, United States

Audrey Celestine, a graduate student at the University of Paris, had a virtual presence in Hyde Park recently thanks to a bilingual videoconference that brought together students in Paris and students in Chicago.

The students were participating in a monthly videoconference workshop as part of a three-year project that the Partner University Fund and the French American Cultural Exchange are funding. Speaking from the University of Chicago’s Center in Paris via videoconference, Celestine quizzed Christopher Dingwall, a UChicago graduate student in history, about a paper he presented on W.E.B. Du Bois’ book, The Souls of Black Folk.

Had he considered the migration of African Americans from the South to Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, she asked? Yes, he had thought about that, replied Dingwall, who was seated at a table in Harper 284.

The Paris-Chicago project brings graduate students and faculty from UChicago together with faculty and students from Maison René Ginouvès, Université Paris X, Nanterre, to discuss the experiences of migration in the two nations and the role of material culture and memory.  In addition to this virtual exchange format, the project also includes two face-to-face encounters each year that alternate between Paris and Chicago, with a joint seminar and an end-of-year conference.

Although the University’s Center in Paris provides plentiful opportunities for education exchange, the seminar is the only joint class offered between French and Chicago graduate students.

During the videoconference, Celestine and Dingwall engaged in a Chicago-style workshop conversation, as Celestine and others asked probing questions about Dingwall’s paper on Du Bois that will become the subject of his dissertation.

“Did you consider racial prejudice and its impact?  How about the work of Thorstein Veblen (famed UChicago economist) and his theory of the leisure class? Was Du Bois’ book a commercial success?” she asked. Celestine, who studies migration from the Caribbean to France as well as the black experience in America, then questioned him about the role of black-and-white confrontation in Chicago at the time.

Dingwall responded that he had looked at some of the issues, but others deserved closer attention.

The two students had met a few weeks earlier in Paris, where the Chicago students along with Michael Dietler, Professor in Anthropology and director of the project, had spent two weeks with French colleagues in an intensive 30-hour seminar. The trip also included visiting sites related to memory and migration in Paris. Migration has become an important topic for French and American students to jointly study.

“The complex relationship between migration, material culture, and memory constitutes a research frontier with important implications for both past and contemporary society,” Dietler said.

The seminar, which also was taught by Leora Auslander, Professor in History, and French anthropologists Michèle Baussant and Fabienne Wateau, is intended to draw on the experiences and intellectual traditions of France and the United States, both of which have experienced immigration as a result of globalization.

In the French case, many of the immigrants are from former colonies. The process of assimilation can be quite different in France because minorities are not officially recognized as being separate groups.

Paris is a city full of reminders of the contributions of people from its far-flung former empire nonetheless.  Among those reminders is a museum of immigration, which the students visited as well as the Museum Quai Branly, the subject of a paper presented by Nicolleta Beltrame, an Italian student studying at the Maison Rene Ginouves.

Beltrame presented in French, and the students in Chicago listened intently. Her research looked at a problem that grew out of a museum project in which one institution was attempting to combine objects from two other museums and create a database that both scholars and the public could use.

There was wide disagreement about categorization and what the terms should be for the database. Even the curators and the keepers of photos of the artifacts could not agree on what expressions to use for the various objects, she explained. At one point, the Chicago audience was having a vocabulary problem that could not be solved by the standard dictionaries.

“I’m not sure what ‘muséalization’” said Joe Bonni, a graduate student in Anthropology. After some attempts in English, Beltrame explained that what she was talking about was the process of how museums are created.

The workshop ended with chit-chat in French as the students and Dietler prepared for the next session. The two student groups get together via videoconference once a month.

In the fall, the French students will visit Chicago for the next joint seminar, when they and their American counterparts will have a chance to continue their individual research projects and visit sites important to the immigrant experience in the United States.

Over the next two years, the project also will expand its disciplinary base, and interested graduate students from fields beyond anthropology and history are encouraged to contact project director Dietler.