Nathalie Rachlin: Professor of French
by Morgan Albrecht '18
When Nathalie Rachlin began her career in academia, teaching her first few French courses at the University of South Carolina, she admits that having access to the school library was a key motivator in her earning her professorship.
“But of course, I really enjoyed teaching anyway,” she clarifies. Rachlin, who earned her MA in English and American literature from the University of Montpellier, France, and her MA and PhD in Romance languages from Princeton University, has continued to inhabit the intellectually curious mindset of a student in all of her years teaching. In her 28 years with Scripps, her love of learning has driven her to create myriad new French and interdisciplinary humanities courses for the College. Currently, she is designing two new classes for the 2017– 18 academic year; Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité? will explore contemporary French culture and politics through issues of immigration and race, and another, untitled for the moment, will focus on the history of French cinema.
In laying out a roadmap for new courses, Rachlin always starts with the question, “So what?” “Why teach a course on current events in France to students in Southern California?” she elaborates. In part, this line of questioning reminds her to focus on subjects that are not only current and topical, but also interesting to Scripps students—meaningful, rich, and complex. While she hopes her students will come away with new perspectives on the world by the end of the semester, she also finds that creating and teaching new course material is a way for her to strengthen her own knowledge of a given area.
“It is like a puzzle,” she says. “You construct a course piece by piece, but not necessarily in a linear fashion. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a way of learning about something.”
Some of Rachlin’s most successful and pleasurable courses have been those she has taught with professors from other disciplines, especially for the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities. Having to learn the vocabulary and operative concepts in other areas of study has challenged her to see issues from different perspectives. “I love that challenge—it keeps you intellectually honest,” she admits. “When you teach with someone from another discipline, you have to be explicit about where you come from—you can’t rely on disciplinary assumptions. That’s fun—it puts you in the position of being a student again.” She believes the new theme for Core I, “community,” highlights issues that are of concern to students—notions of belonging, different kinds of identity, and the idea that we are social beings. Thinking about the theme in relation to her years teaching at Scripps, Rachlin reflects, “We have great, motivated students from different backgrounds with different interests—all women. Talk about community!”
Outside of the classroom, Rachlin’s research interests span modern and contemporary French literature, culture, and intellectual history. She is currently working on a project that examines some of the ethics issues that pertain to French documentary filmmaking. As she explains, typical documentary ethics focus on what the filmmaker “owes” the viewer (generally, truth and honesty) as well as what the film “owes” its subjects (dignity and respect). Looking at contemporary French documentary films, she is asking the question, “Is there a place for dignity in what the film ‘owes’ the viewer? In other words, is it a question of ethics when we are concerned about whether our film is going to degrade the viewer’s dignity?”
A native of the south of France, Rachlin is still struck by where life has brought her. “When I was an undergraduate, if you had told me that someday I would be teaching in the United States, I would not have believed you.” After a moment of contemplation, she concludes, “It doesn’t get much better than this.”
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