students at Versailles

Americans in Paris

At the University’s Center in Paris, undergrads learn to see the world with different eyes.

Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

“Each nation has many customs and usages that are not only unknown, but savage and miraculous, to some other nation.”—Michel de Montaigne, “Of Experience”

Of sleep

“Is it important to have a good lodge site?” Russell Tuttle wants to know.

“Of course,” he says, answering his own question: it’s dangerous at night. “And what was the previous thinking about apes’ lodge sites?” When the students in his Apes and Human Evolution course remain silent, Tuttle, an anthropology professor, offers a hint: “It’s probably where you wish you could lodge when you’re out around Paris.”

“Close to their last feeding spot,” says a woman in a gray University of Chicago hoodie.

Tuttle nods. But lodging in a fruit tree, for example—attractive to other animals as well as insects—would be a poor idea. “Apes are very selective in where they lodge.”

It’s mid-October, the second week of Tuttle’s three-week intensive course; like the other courses at the University’s Center in Paris, it meets for two and a half hours, four mornings a week. The students (who lodge at the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, an international dorm complex a 25-minute tram ride away) sit around a long table in a small, spare seminar room. Among the room’s few accoutrements is a human skeleton.

For today’s class, “Hungry and Sleepy Apes,” each student has prepared a report on a different primate, based on Tuttle’s 1,000-page Apes and Human Evolution (Harvard University Press, 2014). The soft-spoken Tuttle constantly interrupts to pose questions or make comparisons to human behavior: orangutans in their nests, for example, sleep on their backs or their sides, he says, “just like we do in our nests.”

After the students’ reports, Tuttle shows a short documentary film, Feeding and Food Sharing (1976), featuring Jane Goodall’s research on chimpanzees in Tanzania. In her plummy British accent, Goodall explains how researchers set out bananas to lure the chimps. “This is a big no-no for proper ethnological procedure,” Tuttle points out. Eventually the chimps became so aggressive, he adds, “she had to put her child in a cage.”

This weekend Tuttle’s students will have their own chance to observe chimps and other primates at close range. On Saturday Tuttle has scheduled a day trip to the Vallée des Singes (Valley of the Monkeys), a primate preserve in Romagne, 240 miles southwest of Paris. Despite the park’s name, its inhabitants include not just monkeys but gorillas, chimps, gibbons, bonobos, and lemurs. There are no cages.

On a previous visit, Tuttle says, he had to defend a small female student, who crouched down to take a photo, from a male capuchin monkey. “People have been bloodied,” Tuttle says nonchalantly, clearly poking at his students. “But you guys are agile.”

Of experience

In Philippe Desan’s European Civ course, three students have been assigned to give a presentation on the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, worth 20 percent of their grade. But like Tuttle, Desan—with transparent enthusiasm for his subject—keeps breaking in. “As you pointed out,” he says to the student presenters, Montaigne is the first to use the word essai (to try) for a piece of writing: “It’s an attempt that is never complete, and that therefore requires new editions all the time.”

On the whiteboard Desan, the Howard L. Willett Professor in Romance Languages and Literature, has sketched out the timeline of the different versions, known as “layers,” of the Essays: the A layer (an edition of 1,000 copies, published in Bordeaux in 1580), the B layer (6,000 copies, published in Paris in 1588), and the C layer, essays published by Montaigne’s adopted daughter in 1595, three years after his death. Each layer included more essays and more additions to previous essays. “Montaigne says, I add, I do not correct,” says Desan. “It’s not quite true.” If you compare earlier and later versions of the same essay, “he suppresses some words from time to time. But overall, it’s almost true.”

The theme of today’s class is “self-fashioning,” meaning the process of constructing your own identity and public persona. Of the 19 students in the room, at least half could be mistaken for students from the Université Paris Diderot, across the street from the Paris Center. The women wear minidresses or slim jeans with flats; one man keeps his scarf on throughout class. And while Desan has brought along a small china cup of espresso (the center has an espresso machine, bien sûr), several of the students have their own diminutive paper cups too.

Because of Montaigne’s organic, uncensored writing process, the words accruing in layers built up over decades, “it’s full of contradictions,” Desan says. “The notion of wisdom is absurd to Montaigne. You have as much wisdom when you are 18 years old as when you are 70 years old.” Desan, who has silver hair and wears a gray turtleneck, looks around the room at his students. “You see the world in a different way, but you are not more wise.”

What Montaigne was trying to get at—and he’s the first to invent this term—is the condition humaine, the human condition. “He takes himself as a model,” says Desan. “His own self.” Montaigne rejects authority in favor of his own experience—and that, Desan says, is why he is still widely read, and translated and retranslated.

One student presenter admits he found “Of Experience” difficult to get through: “Thirty pages of just Montaigne’s life and habits,” he says. He wondered as he struggled, “Why are we reading this?”

Desan nods. Montaigne tries to understand the world through “what we call in French la vie quotidienne. Daily life,” he says. “Each experience is extremely important. You don’t know if it will mark your life, so you have to take it seriously. That’s a new way of approaching the daily life. Every event is worth telling.”

After the break (Desan returns with a fresh espresso), he asks each student how they would describe the Essays. “It’s like reading somebody’s diary,” says one.

“And what does that mean?” Desan teases. “Do you read a lot of people’s diaries?”

“I write creative nonfiction,” says another. “I’ve been through this same process—seeing yourself constructed over a period of time through your experiences, but also in analyzing your experiences.”

“Buy yourself a good edition of the Essays, and start practicing it every night,” Desan advises. “You’ll become a better writer.”

All things have their season

Desan came to the University of Chicago in 1984, having studied sociology and political economy in France, taught in Japan (where he met his wife), then earned a doctorate in French literature at the University of California, Davis. In the 1980s, about 12 UChicago students studied abroad each year: “It all fit on one sheet of paper,” Desan says. “One year it was blue. One year it was yellow. One year it was pink.” There was no study abroad office; College adviser Lewis Fortner (now associate dean of students in the College) simply helped students who were very motivated figure out their own programs.

As one of the few foreign-born professors in the humanities division, Desan spoke to a dean (whose name he prefers to omit) about increasing support for study abroad. The response, as Desan recalls: “Young man, you should know that we don’t go to the world. The world comes to us.”

“For me,” Desan says, “it was kind of a shock.”

John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, had a similar experience in the late 1970s, when, as a junior faculty member, he served on a study abroad committee. “They had one meeting and voted not to do it on the grounds that it was an un-University of Chicago thing to do,” he says. “I remember thinking that was a very wrong decision, but I didn’t have tenure. I spoke up, but they ignored me.”

By the mid-1990s, Desan had become master of the Humanities Collegiate Division, Boyer was dean of the College, and Desan had an idea for a civ program in situ. With support from Boyer and then-provost Geoffrey Stone, JD’71, the first faculty-taught civ course was held in 1996 in Tours, France. The first program to meet the Core civ reqirement was launched in Barcelona in 1997. By 2000 the College also offered civ programs in Athens, Rome, and Vienna.

Not all faculty members welcomed the study abroad programs, doubting their intellectual seriousness: “I was accused of starting Club Med abroad,” says Boyer. But slowly the programs, which were all taught by UChicago faculty, gained acceptance, and “some of the biggest skeptics became the biggest supporters.”

Around the same time, a group of faculty—including French literature professor Robert Morrissey, PhD’82, and Janel Mueller, then dean of the humanities—proposed establishing a permanent center in Paris. The University eventually chose a site in the formerly industrial 13th arrondissement, across the street from an abandoned grain mill.

By fall 2003, the center, based on the ground floors of two neighboring apartment buildings, welcomed its first undergrads to do coursework in European civilization and French. (The students had to go in through a special entrance because the buildings weren’t finished.) The complex made its official debut the following spring.

Now the 7,200-square-foot center—which expanded to the ground floor of a third neighboring building in 2005—hosts 250 undergrads each year, nearly half the total number who study abroad. More than 10 programs are offered, including African civilizations; astronomy; European civilization; Europe: east and west; mathematics; neurobiology; and primates and human evolution—all taught by UChicago faculty.

Meanwhile, the mill across the street has been transformed into the Université Paris Diderot (Paris 7). Along with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, completed in 1996, the institutions form an academic corridor in the 13th arrondissement. Boyer compares the newly developed area, the site of a former railway, to Chicago’s South Loop.

In September the center celebrated its 10th anniversary. As a little French history in-joke, the code to open the courtyard gate starts with “1789.”

Of prompt or slow speech

In the afternoon the students take French. No language background is required to apply for the program; half the students arrive in Paris with no knowledge of French at all.

Alors.” Xin Miao, AM’07, French instructor and student coordinator at the Paris Center, explains the function of this “stall word”—to give yourself time to think.

By this point in the quarter, Miao gives instructions to her beginning students in French only. “They tend to panic,” she says, “almost like they’re thinking, ‘I should not understand.’ I want them to get used to this feeling.”

Born in China, Miao enrolled at UChicago for graduate study in French literature in 2002. She began teaching at the center in 2006, when she came to Paris to do research; she’s now married to a Frenchman and has “two French daughters,” she says, laughing. Miao also reads Spanish and German, and learned ancient Greek in college, which she’s since forgotten: “I loved it,” she says. “The grammar and metaphors were so beautiful.”

Today the students are practicing introductions. As they pretend to meet each other for the first time, Miao circulates, murmuring, “En français, en français.”

One man has achieved a masterful command of alors, and therefore begins every conversation with it. “Une amie?” another objects when he’s introduced as a woman friend.

Because ami begins with an “a,” Miao explains, it’s an exception to the gender rules when paired with my (usually ma and mon). Therefore mon amie and mon ami are pronounced identically—with resulting ambiguity about the gender of such a friend.

“That could be dangerous,” a woman suggests.

“Sometimes you want it to be,” Miao says, smiling. “Voila. C’est tout. Bon weekend!”

Of cannibals

“Everybody with their water bottles,” Emily Lynn Osborn, associate professor of history, observes as she walks into her African civilization course on a Thursday morning. “We talked about this. French people do not walk around with containers of water or coffee.”

There are 16 students in Osborn’s class today as well as a visiting alumna, Roxane Picard, AB’13, who took African civ in 2012 and speaks beautiful French. In contrast, one man who comes in a few minutes late greets the class with a cheery, if chronologically incorrect, “Bonsoir!

This week, which has the theme “France, slavery, and Africa,” readings include Robert Harms’s The Diligent (2002). Based on the recently discovered diary of a young lieutenant, Robert Durand, the book is a historical account of the first voyage of the eponymous French slave ship in 1731–32.

The class begins with Picard’s presentation on the Middle Passage section of the book. She explains how Chevalier Des Marchais, another French slave ship captain, argued it was important to prevent rebellions by treating the captives well. This included not only reassuring them that white people weren’t cannibals (some of the captives believed they were eventually going to be eaten) but also employing an accordion player to perform on board.

According to the historian Harms, “It’s difficult to know whether the screeching noises of the accordion were appealing to them, but they couldn’t have been worse than the bagpipes, which is what the English did,” Picard says. “Des Marchais says it would be better to use instruments from where they were from, because they probably would have liked it more.” The captives were also forced to attend dances on deck; meanwhile their quarters were checked for weapons.

“So there was a whole routine aboard the ship,” says Osborn, making notes on the whiteboard. “Is there any change to that routine? What about when the ship gets closer to land?”

“They feed them more,” says Picard, which had nothing to do with treating the captives more humanely; they were valuable cargo. “You have to be sure as few as possible died.”

“What surprised you?” Osborn asks the class about The Diligent.

“The finesse that went into it,” says a blond man: slave traders had to know everything from the political landscape of Africa to what kind of food the captives would eat.

“It humanizes the slave merchants,” says an African American woman with pale blue lipstick. “When one of them died, I felt, ‘oh no.’ They were not good people, but they’re just people.”

Of ancient customs

“I didn’t come to the study of France as a Francophile,” says history professor Paul Cheney, academic director of the Center in Paris for 2014–15. An economics and philosophy major in college, Cheney was interested in the transition between traditional economies and capitalism: “France is a fascinating case for historians.” He didn’t begin studying French until age 25.

Cheney’s entire family is spending the year in Paris. His sons Nicholas, 11, and Louis, 8, who spoke only English as of last summer, are enrolled in a French public school (“They are really, really tired at night,” he says). His wife, Jessie, a high school teacher on leave from her job, is studying French at the Sorbonne.

As well as teaching in the European Civ in English program, Cheney plans to complete his book “Cul de Sac: Economy and Society in Eighteenth-Century Saint Domingue” (present-day Haiti), a microhistory of one slave plantation in France’s richest colony. While Cheney has traveled to Haiti to do research, the bulk of his archival work was done “in deep provincial France, because that’s where the owners lived.”

At the beginning of the quarter, Cheney gave a welcoming speech to the students. He used it as a chance to exhort them to stay in Paris, rather than trying to cram in as many European cities as possible on weekends. “I tried to impress on them how difficult it is to acquire cultural knowledge. It’s not something that can be done quickly,” he says. “Many European capitals look and feel similar on the surface. I think there’s a good argument to be made for depth.”

His colleague Emily Lynn Osborn is a case in point, Cheney says: “She has a whole social network” in one small city in Africa: Kankan, Guinea. When Osborn’s first son was born in 2009, a lamb was slaughtered in his honor. “She’s as cosmopolitan as you like, and that comes from knowing one very small place very, very well. She’s almost a citizen.”

“I’ve done lots of research on other places, but my heart is there,” says Osborn, who demurs on the citizenship claim. Kankan, which has lacked electricity for more than ten years, is “a tough place.” Nonetheless, it has “a very rich and thick and important history. I guess I feel at home there. It’s very nourishing.”

At the end of the fall quarter, Osborn and anthropology professor François Richard are scheduled to lead one final excursion for their African civ students: a weeklong trip to Dakar, Senegal. The optional capstone experience, free for the students, was funded by a grant from the Women’s Board.

The itinerary includes downtown Dakar, the IFAN Museum of African Arts, the African Renaissance Monument, the Maison des esclaves (House of Slaves), and the beach resort town of Toubab Dialaw on the Petite Côte. Students will be hosted by Senegalese families, just as Osborn herself was hosted when she studied for a year in Senegal as an undergrad. (There were so many strikes at the university, Osborn notes, it was nearly considered an année blanche, a year off. Nonetheless she became highly proficient in the local language, Wolof.)

Whether UChicago students study abroad for a quarter or a year, they often return with “this really deep guilt that they didn’t do more,” says Martha Merritt, deputy dean in the College. Merritt, the former director of study abroad, coteaches a popular course, The Ugly American Comes Home, that parses the study abroad experience.

Merritt’s students also return with the usual list of petty humiliations and embarrassments that come from encountering another country’s culture (waiters in Paris continue to deserve their crotchety reputation). “You should be quieter when you’re abroad, to leave room for the culture to seep in,” she says. “That’s not always Americans’ first response to the new.”

In spite of (or perhaps because of) such awkward moments, it’s a “trope of study abroad,” says Merritt, “and it’s a trope because it’s true, that students return with fresh eyes.” Students who have been to Paris or Beijing or Pune see the world in a different way, whether or not—as Montaigne would argue—they are more wise.

Russell Tuttle, professor of anthropology, evolutionary biology, and the history of science and medicine, won a Quantrell Award for teaching in 2006. His most recent book, Apes and Human Evoution, was praised by one reviewer as “a magisterial synthesis.” Read more about Tuttle’s book in the University of Chicago Magazine.

Philippe Desan, Howard L. Willett Professor in Romance Languages and Literature and the History of Culture, serves as the general editor of the journal Montaigne Studies. His honors include Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres (2011) and Prix de l’Académie Française (for the Dictionnaire de Montaigne, 2005). Read more about Desan’s Montaigne class in the University of Chicago Magazine.

Emily Lynn Osborn, associate professor of history, is the author of Our New Husbands Are Here: Households, Gender, and Politics in a West African State from the Slave Trade to Colonial Rule (2011), which focuses on Kankan, Guinea-Conakry, West Africa. Her current book project, Recycling Traditions: Aluminum Casting and the Making of a Modern African Diaspora, is a social and cultural history of technology transfer. Read more about Osborn’s research in Dialogo.


Students in the European Civilization program take a guided tour of Versailles on a gray October day. (Photography by Tom Tian, AB’10)