Professor Lynn Higgins on Film, Study Abroad, and Learning Across Boundaries


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Professor Lynn Higgins’s sense of adventure was evident during this 2008 encounter with a snake charmer in Morocco, where Higgins was the faculty guide for the Dartmouth Alumni Travel Program’s “Moroccan Discovery” tour. (photo by Norman Sissman ’47, DMS ’48)

As associate dean for interdisciplinary and international studies, Lynn Higgins oversees 11 academic areas, including Comparative Literature, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, the African and African-American studies program, the Native American studies program, the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, and Dartmouth’s 48 study abroad programs.

A specialist in literature and film, especially French film, Higgins holds the Israel Evans Professorship in Oratory and Belles Lettres and has taught at Dartmouth since 1976. She is currently teaching the class “From Page to Screen: Adaptation in French Cinema.”

Higgins is one of Dartmouth’s four associate deans in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—three other deans serve the Sciences; the Arts and Humanities; and the Social Sciences. Higgins recently talked with Dartmouth Now about her role and the upcoming publication of her book on French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier.

Your new book, Bertrand Tavernier, was just published. Tavernier recently said, “Films can be a great means to understand the various cultures of the world.” Do you agree?

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Lynn Higgins’ new book (Bertrand Tavernier) on French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier was published in February.

Absolutely. In my courses I encourage students to get away from the plot, which is kind of the armature on which all the rest of the text is built. Film and literature afford opportunities to see the world through other eyes. We can experience how members of a culture represent themselves, their individual and collective past, their assumptions and worldview.

The Tavernier book took me a long time because I gave myself courses on poetic realism, melodrama, acting, the Western, and other topics. It was a fun experience. I’m going to miss writing that book. I could happily have spent another ten years working on it.

Which one of Tavernier’s films would you recommend?

I recommend them all but I think Tavernier’s masterpiece—I’m actually teaching it this term—is Coup de Torchon (in English, Clean Slate). It’s adapted from an American pulp novel by Jim Thompson. It’s grim and gross and engrossing and spectacularly wonderful, and very funny too.

You’ve served as faculty director on about 15 French Language Study Abroad programs in Morocco and France. What should people know about Dartmouth’s study abroad programs?

Lots of colleges send students abroad. But what’s special about Dartmouth’s programs is their integration with on-campus activities. Dartmouth faculty directors lead individual programs [or offerings], and Dartmouth oversees all aspects of the programs: pre-departure health and safety orientations, on-site cultural orientations, homestay, and curriculum, including courses taught by faculty from local universities.

Compared to other schools where I’ve lectured or taught, our Off-Campus Programs raise the bar for everyone in terms of linguistic and cultural competencies because whether they have participated in a program or not, all students in upper-level classes benefit from the level of confidence and achievement that the programs provide.

Off-campus programs are important for faculty, too. They illustrate what we like to call Dartmouth’s “teacher-scholar” model. When students and faculty work together on site, students get to see their teachers engaged with their research at its source. Artificial barriers between research and teaching disappear.

What is distinctive about the work faculty do in the interdisciplinary and international division?

What we are doing is creating knowledge in the areas where different disciplines intersect.

For example, any time you’re interested in learning about a place, like France, you are drawn to study many topics, such as the language, geography, literature, history, religion, film, popular culture, media … you could go on. You don’t hit a wall and say, “Oh no you can’t study that.”

What brings the interdisciplinary and international parts of my job together is that they are both about conversations across boundaries—national, linguistic, and disciplinary boundaries. It’s energizing and invigorating and interesting.

Many of the fields you oversee are relatively new additions to the higher education curriculum, such as environmental studies or women’s and gender studies. Why are these programs important for students in the 21st century?

These fields offer new ways of configuring our understanding of the forces that shape the world in which we live. Gender, for example, has always been there. But the focus on gender as a force that shapes human history and culture—that has not been there as a concentrated area of study.

Interdisciplinarity adds variety and scope to the kinds of questions we ask—and these are the kind of questions students are going to need to ask when they go out in the world.

That’s the way knowledge is now. It’s emerged maybe over the last 50 years. I think it’s really an exciting development.

Steven Smith