Professor Cathy Yandell knighted into French Ordre des Palmes Académiques

A national order of France, the honor is bestowed upon distinguished academics who “contribute actively to the expansion of French culture in the world.”

26 September 2019 Posted In:
Professor Cathy Yandell
Professor Cathy YandellPhoto:

Professor Cathy YandellCathy Yandell, the W.I. and Hulda F. Daniell Professor of French Literature, Language, & Culture was knighted in the French Ordre des Palmes Académiques on Tuesday, Sept. 24. A national order of France, the honor is bestowed upon distinguished academics who “contribute actively to the expansion of French culture in the world.” The ceremony was officiated by the Consul General of France in Chicago following a faculty-led round table discussion on the Notre-Dame cathedral. Here’s what Professor Yandell shared with us about her thoughts on being knighted and her lifelong love of French:

How did you learn you were going to be knighted? Did it come as a surprise?

I received an email out of the blue from the French Consul General in Chicago saying (in French), “Congratulations on becoming a Knight in the Order of Academic Palms! If you would like me to come to Carleton to present the insignia, I would be happy to do so.” I reread the email several times and double-checked the addressee line—surely it had been sent to the wrong person! But it turns out that for many months, a process had been taking place without my knowledge—letters had been requested, including one from the president of Carleton (thank you, Steve Poskanzer!), my c.v. had been lifted from our website, and all the information had been sent to Paris for the approval by the French Ministry of Education, which (as you know if you’re familiar with governmental institutions) took a very long time. So yes, the news came as a complete surprise to me.

What drew you to French originally? How did you decide to become a professor of French/Francophone Studies?

I grew up near the Navajo reservation in New Mexico where my parents were teachers, and I heard different languages around me every day: Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Spanish, and English. But no French! But I loved the idea that my classmates spoke different languages at home, and I was drawn to the different cultures they represented. (What did the Hopi Sun Face mean … and why were Michael Tellez’s mother’s tamales the best in the universe?) When I was about seven, I checked out a record from the library (yes, there was vinyl back then) with a Mexican song called “Cinco Centavos” (Five Cents) that I loved to sing. Soon thereafter, an international choral group came to town, and my family housed one of the singers who was from Belgium. “Do you know the song ‘Frère Jacques’?”, she asked me. “Of course,” I replied, “my mother taught it to me.” Well, it turns out that the words of the song when the Belgian woman sang them sounded about 180 degrees different from what I had learned. It was captivating, though not so easy to get my mouth around those sounds! That was my first encounter with French. Years later I took French in high school, and the first six weeks were really difficult—what you hear definitely doesn’t sound like what you see on the page. But again, I was captivated. In college, I studied both Spanish (Latin American Literature) and French, but I was ultimately drawn to French literature, cultural history, and theory (even though I also still love Spanish). 

As for becoming a professor, that, too, was rather serendipitous. I spent my junior year studying at the Sorbonne and living in a French family. Paris became then and remains now my favorite city. The summer before my senior year, I went on a three-day fast (the first and last one of my life so far) because I had a decision to make, and the wisdom of the era held that if you fasted, you could make clearer-headed choices. (Right!) Anyway, the choice was between graduate school and the Peace Corps. Of course one can do both, but somehow it seemed as though a decision had to be made. I had set up a false dichotomy, imagining that if I went into the Peace Corps I would be contributing more fully to the world, whereas if I went to graduate school, I would be closed off from that world—which, happily, turned out not to be the case at all! I signed up for only the masters in French when I first went to Berkeley, but there I had fantastic professors, fellow grad students, and students. I was hooked, so the logical thing to do was to continue through the PhD. I loved teaching (as a T.A. and then an instructor) throughout my graduate studies. And the rest, as they say, is history.

What courses do you teach at Carleton? What is your research on?

In my department, we teach a variety of courses—language, literature, and culture. This year I’m teaching courses in French on “Banned Books” and “Gender and Sexuality in the Francophone World” before directing the Paris program in the spring where I’ll be teaching “Hybrid Paris.” In addition to French 204 (our advanced-intermediate language course), some of my favorite recent offerings include “French Cinema and Culture,” “French and Francophone Autofiction,” and “Love, War, and Monsters in Early Modern France.” My research centers on Early Modern/Renaissance France, a period of great literary, scientific, and artistic creativity, but also of political and cultural turmoil during the French Wars of Religion. I am fascinated by the period itself, but also by what it may teach us that is relevant to today’s world.  I have written or co-edited volumes called Carpe Corpus: Time and Gender in Early Modern France, Vieillir à la Renaissance (Growing Old in the Renaissance), and Memory and Community in Early Modern France. My current book project, titled something like Minding the Renaissance Body from Rabelais to Descartes, addresses the question of “learning through the body” or Renaissance ways of understanding the world through bodily images, references, and paradigms.

What impact do you expect this honor to have on French and Francophone Studies at Carleton or Languages at Carleton in general?

My first thought on receiving the news of the “knighthood” was that everyone in French and Francophone Studies should have this same recognition, because my colleagues are absolutely stellar. I will also say that the “knighthood” is simply a drop in the bucket among the honors and accomplishments of the humanities faculty at Carleton, not all of which are heralded in public forums such as this one. I am humbled by this honor, but especially grateful to my friends and fellow-learners at Carleton (including students, staff, and administrators) for helping make this the best possible place to teach.