Tuesday, April 29, 2008


President Raines, Provost Faudree, distinguished members of the Board of Visitors, and dear colleagues and friends. I can’t tell you how delighted and proud I am to receive this high honor today from the University of Memphis. At the outset, let me say that I’ve always believed that it is the faculty who constitute the basis of the University’s prestige and reputation. Since my arrival at Memphis in 1990, I have felt gratified to be part of an excellent corps of faculty, one that has, through its multiple achievements and professional dedication, continued to enhance both the national and international profile of this great university. Although I have served in an administrative capacity as Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures for eighteen years now, I’ve always envisioned my professional identity, first, as a Professor of French and, second, as a departmental Chair. I have strived to maintain a proper balance between these two sets of activities, but in my heart, my teaching and research have always given me a deeper sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. Of course, it goes without saying that by focusing on my own teaching and research, I have been successful in recruiting an excellent group of colleagues who have worked diligently to promote our departmental goals and transform the academic mission of foreign languages and literatures into a viable presence on this campus, one which is at the forefront of international education.

I am proud to be able to work with so many award-winning colleagues, and having a strong faculty goes a long way in helping to recruit the best available faculty for new positions. A sincere word of thanks, then, to all members of my department. I would also like to thank my wife, Barbara, for her love, patience, and support, as well as my mother-in-law, Violet Huff, who just turned eighty-four on Monday!

I would now like to share with you a few highlights from my personal background. As you can no doubt tell from my accent, I was born and grew up in New York, a first-generation Italian-American, and the first from my family to graduate from high school. Being raised in New York, the most ethnic city in the world, turned out to be an advantage for me, since I grew up with kids from all different national and racial backgrounds: Jews, Italians, Greeks, Irish, Germans, Hispanic (mainly Puerto Ricans), Asians, African Americans, you name it. My exposure to cultural diversity as a youth would serve as a valuable experience for me later in life as Chair of Foreign Languages, clearly the most international department on campus.

I was fortunate enough to get a good liberal arts education at Queens College, where I received both my B.A. and M.A. degrees. You might find this surprising, but the only two C’s that I received as an undergraduate were in advanced French courses, and I needed to retake these courses in order to be eligible to spend my senior year in France. This year of study abroad in the center of champagne country, Reims, had a transformative effect on my personal and intellectual development, since I was able to make great strides in my acquisition of the French language and cultivate my love for French culture and history, as well as acquiring a better understanding of the French people and their deep sense of identity.

Moreover, I had the good fortune of being able to pursue my doctoral studies at Yale, during the tumultuous late sixties and early seventies. I had a profound sense of reverence for the great faculty there, scholars such as Henri Peyre, Jean Boorsch, and Jacques Guicharnaud (my thesis advisor), these were pioneers of French studies in American universities from the 1940s to the 1980s. I wrote my dissertation on Molière and for the next ten years or so became a specialist of French classical theater before undertaking other research topics related to seventeenth-century French literature, as well as early modern French society, history, and culture.

One of my research interests deals with the history of French education, and particularly, rhetorical education of the nineteenth century. I would now like to share with you how one of my findings may shed light on some of the deficiencies in higher education in the early twenty-first century. When students of the French lycées, the German gymnasium, and the Spanish royal academies studied geography or history, the principal objective was not to focus on geographical or historical information per se, but rather to analyze these texts within a philological perspective, i.e., with an eye to developing discursive competencies. Candidates for all of the major liberal professions of the time -- doctors, lawyers, and University professors --, needed above all to be good public speakers, be well read in the classics, and possess solid writing skills. As a foreign language educator, I cannot help but note that the four main communicative competencies in all second-language acquisition – speaking, listening, reading, and writing – find their ultimate justification in these traditional skill areas. Also, I’ve always taken pleasure in pointing to the rich semantic value inherent in the French verb “apprendre,” which means both “to teach” and “to learn”. The conclusion I draw from this is that the best teacher is, and always will be, the best learner. Although we as faculty members all hold advanced degrees and have become specialists in a particular field, we will, nevertheless, continue to remain students of language, literature, and culture. After all, isn’t a “scholar” essentially an advanced student? Accordingly, I’ve always considered myself to be a student of literature, history, society, etc. Montaigne’s famous paradox of “l’ignorance savante” (i.e., “learned ignorance”) not only points to the inherent limits and relativity of knowledge, i.e, the more we know, the more we realize how much we still need to know, but also the rich underlying meaning of “continuing education.” There is no more effective way to engage our students than to involve them directly in this philosophical continuum between teaching and learning. We as scholars need to remain open to learning from our students’insights and continue to grow in the process.

For the past eighteen years, I have worked in Dunn Hall, or what should more appropriately be called “Math and other Foreign Languages.” In recent years, I’ve come to the realization that all academic disciplines, whether they are scientifically or humanistically-oriented, are predicated upon a linguistic or philological paradigm. The Math Department offers a course entitled “Foundations of Mathematics” (Math 1410), where students are taught to examine the relationship between the presentation of a hypothesis and the appropriate conclusions that can be drawn from the hypothesis. This corresponds precisely in Romance languages to what is called “sequence of tense” clauses: “If I have the time, I will go”; “If I had the time, I would go,”and so forth In other words, logic constitutes an integral part in the processing of language. All academic disciplines are, in fact, based on the coding and decoding of information. The more adept we become in using and internalizing language, the more we sharpen our reasoning skills, our ability to analyze and conceptualize, in a word, we more readily grasp the cognitive dimension of language learning.

We often hear about the importance in today’s world of “globalization.” While most people interpret this catch-all phrase in economic or technological terms, the principal meaning I attach to it is “cultural diversity.” The more our students can travel and learn to live in a different culture, the more educated they will become to the ways of the world. In this regard, one of my favorite jokes has been: “some people seem to think that going to West Memphis is international.” Indeed, when members of the administration travel abroad, they usually return with a better appreciation of what we as foreign language educators have to offer our students. Another favorite slogan is also pertinent: “Monolingualism can be cured.” Language instructors are particularly sensitive to the pitfalls of monolingualism and monoculturalism, but rather than explaining the various reasons underlying this peculiarly American deficiency in foreign language education, I would just like to highlight the key role that second-language acquisition plays in liberal education.

First and foremost, the study of a second or third language is an eminently liberalizing experience in that it allows the student to transcend the limitations inherent in the monolingual and monocultural experience. It offers an anthropological “adventure of the mind” (Solomon, 1968), a heightened awareness of the organization of other cultural systems or, in short, a profound sense of cultural pluralism. As a deterrent to cultural provincialism and ethnocentrism, then, language learning is a fundamental humanistic pursuit which expands the student’s personal experience in the world. In fostering a more sympathetic understanding of other ways of thinking and behaving, second-language study constitutes an essential form of cultural immersion and, in the process, contributes to interpersonal skill development. In developing communicative skills, the study of second languages leads to a deeper verbal sensitivity indicative of a liberally educated person.

One can hardly overstate the importance of language as a force which permeates nearly every phase of human existence. Indeed, one’s relationship with the world is largely a verbal, or discursive one, and language represents a formal system according to which we organize reality, a filtering mechanism enabling us to impose order on an essentially disjointed universe. Language clearly allows for the symbolic organization of reality. As both a perceptual and conceptual learning strategy, it serves to process human experience, to give us the means with which to project our feelings onto outer objects, thus making possible our knowledge of the world as well as our self-knowledge. To the extent, then, that language is the instrument by which we communicate thought and knowledge to others, it allows for the very existence of thought and knowledge. Since thought is expressed by the mental representation of words, it follows that the interaction between language and thought is fundamental. If reality is principally that which we believe it to be, then an understanding of the cognitive processes underlying linguistic organization is most desirable.

I would like to say a final word on the relationship between technology and the acquisition of literacy skills. It goes without saying that the tremendous technological changes in the last twenty years or so have profoundly altered the academic landscape. The extraordinary popularity of the videosphere and virtual reality (for example, internet and text messaging) is increasingly evident in today’s University students. Faculty have clearly done a good job in integrating smart classroom technology in their teaching, thereby enhancing the pedagogical objectives of the curriculum. However, it is equally important to continue to focus on the development of our students’ literacy skills, particularly since, according to a 2007 report by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), reading levels have declined not only among the poorly educated but also among college graduates. In 1982, 82% of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; twenty years later, only 67% did. In addition, more than 40% of Americans under the age of forty-four did not read a single book – fiction or non-fiction – over the course of a year. The proportion of seventeen-year olds who read nothing (unless required to do so for school) more than doubled between 1984 and 2004. This time period obviously encompasses the rise of personal computers, Web surfing, and video games. Moreover, the A.C. Nielson Co. reports that, in 2006, the average American spent four and a half hours a day watching television. The NEA reports that the same average American now only spends twenty-six minutes a day reading.

At a time when we are faced with an unprecedented decline in literacy rates and a general “dumbing down” of America, where many students have an inadequate grasp not only of mathematical literacy, but also basic knowledge of geography and world history, to say nothing of grammar, parts of speech, and writing skills, it is imperative that we return to the foundational disciplines that constitute the humanities. What kind of contribution will these students be making to the corporate world that clearly needs a literate work force capable of processing and analyzing data in addition to writing effective reports?

In my view, the fundamental question remains: shouldn’t technology be viewed as a means to develop critical thinking skills (i.e., cognitive aptitudes) rather than constituting an end in and of itself? Has technology produced a generation of students who have an increasingly low attention span since a good part of their learning is based on the passive internalization of knowledge via the computer? The inability to concentrate for long periods of time – as opposed to brief reading hits for information on the Web – strikes me as being an integral part of the inability of the public to remember recent news events. No wonder then, that in 2000, the average political sound-bite was down to 7.8 seconds. What about the inherent value of the pleasure to be gained from the materiality of a book, or the beauty of a rare edition, to say nothing of the benefits to be derived from note-taking in the organization of one’s own thoughts? Will books on paper soon become a rare or even obsolete experience? Has our teaching become that student-centered that we need to look kindly on those tech-savvy students who prefer that professors forego their formal lecture and send them instead the Powerpoint version?

I would like to conclude by quoting Jorge Luis Borges: “Each in his own way imagines Paradise; since childhood I have envisioned it as a library.” I have always felt a great attachment to libraries, and here at the University of Memphis, we should never lose sight of the fact that the McWherter library truly represents its intellectual center. This library has been a second home for me, and I go there regularly not only to make use of its state of the art technology, but also to consult journals, newspapers, and books which, believe it or not, are not all in electronic format. After all, the ultimate goal of liberal, i.e., humanities-based education, should be the development of intellectual curiosity, and this is the supreme quality I think that we as faculty should seek to cultivate in our students.