Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Major majors

Is French useful for anything more than not coming across as an imbecile American while ordering croissants on vacation? Apparently! The first and second defenses of French Conor quotes may recall my own defense of studying abroad in Paris.

One more teensy comment for the French-Major-Anti-Defamantion-League files: Discussions of the worthiness of French inevitably compare the usefulness of French to that of other languages. When I would think the more useful comparison would be between French and other college majors. Is French really less useful than... I don't want to offend anyone by singling out their major as useless, but I can think of plenty that provide about as much marketable-skill-wise as French, minus the addition of any foreign-language training.

With that, back to my highly marketable dissertation.


Withywindle said...

So: I have this sense that French particularly gets snooted because of a reputation as the major of choice for young ladies who will never need to work. Question 1: Is this still a living stereotype among the Young? Question 2: Does the reputation have any justification nowadays? (Apologies if you dealt with this recently and/or extensively.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Every major that's a) female-dominated and b) not pre-professional has, or at least had, that reputation. So, not nursing, but art history, English, comp lit, etc. (Elementary education's a toss-up - sometimes a teacher is just a teacher, but if there's a banker husband involved, a cliché gets confirmation.)

But I think the days of "young ladies" not working are past - I was reading a Vogue profile of socialites recently (don't ask) and was reminded of how it's no longer socially acceptable to refer to "socialites" or "ladies who lunch" or even "philanthropists"- the women have to be model/DJ/actress/artist/designers. And these are women at their richest and most idle - your run-of-the-mill upper-middle-class coed expects to work. Majoring in French doesn't change that - there's always law school, for example, or med school if you get in the requirements for that as well, but the other female French majors I can think of, both work, and one was on work-study in college - not a typical sign of a trust fund. As for those who stick with French for a PhD, many choose it in part because it's a kind of school that does pay.

That said, I guess majoring in French attracts those with a certain amount of cultural capital - if only because of the brie and wine or whatever, and the fact that previous exposure to France, French, etc., are not uncommon (but not universal). More to the point, what matters isn't whether today's French majors shift effortlessly from trust-fund-kid to trophy-wife, but that the generation writing op-eds about the need for French, deciding whether departments need French departments, has this cliché in mind.

Flavia said...

Maybe/maybe not to answer Withy: my gearhead, tech-y brother--so techy that he took several years off before college because he was making such good money without a college degree--minored in French. And as I recall, at least half of the students in his advanced French literature classes were male.

(He graduated in 2006, and from a very good but not super-elite college on the west coast.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


In my many years of French classes, I can't think of a single one, that I've taught or been a student in, that wasn't nearly all female. OK, one - I took a class on literature and the Dreyfus Affair, taught by a male grad student, and in which the only other student was a male undergrad. My college was about 50-50 gender-wise, so I'm not sure why this would have been, except for the perceived femininity of French.