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O'Neil to expand classroom

Mary Anne O

For this, her last semester at Whitman, Mary Anne O’Neil, professor of foreign languages and literatures, French, added an extra class to her regular course load — a special topics course on Italian — and volunteered to serve as chair of her department.

It isn’t surprising that she is pushing hard to the finish line, this professor who began her career at Whitman as a sabbatical relief instructor in the spring of 1977 and since has taught everything from languages — French, Italian and Spanish — to world and western literature, to the Great Works in first-year Core.

Simultaneously, she has held administrative posts from associate dean of the faculty — she spearheaded the first Undergraduate Conference and accreditation process — to chair of the faculty. While she enjoyed these administrative roles, she always has found teaching and research much more personally satisfying.

“I have helped to develop good students, several who have gone on to get Ph.D.s in French,” and ones who found success in other endeavors, she said. “It’s fun to keep in touch with them.”

Perhaps her favorite aspect of teaching, in addition to the “quite funny” students, is creating new and more effective ways to teach languages. Midway through a recent French course, when the students weren’t progressing to her satisfaction, she switched gears and assigned a movie project. For the students, it meant the difference between understanding the language and not. For her it meant extra work lining up props and costumes and arranging for video equipment, but ultimately immense satisfaction in their accomplishment.

“When I first came to Whitman, the way we taught languages, the kids didn’t write well. They couldn’t speak well,” she said. Today, that’s not the case. “Students see me in the hall and speak to me in French because they want to,” she said. “It gives me a charge.”

Professor O’Neil was instrumental in bringing Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence Mona Hashish to Whitman to teach this year. See Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence makes Arabic sing.

She enjoys working with students so much that much of her research and published work has been a result of collaborations with her students. A classic example: The germ of an idea for her article “Pascalian Reflections in Les Miserables,” in its third reprint soon, came from a paper by Karen Boschker ’94, now a French teacher in the Seattle area. O’Neil and Dana Miller ’97 researched the subject, comparing French author Victor Hugo to 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, with an Abshire grant through the college.

O’Neil’s future “classroom” will expand as she works through the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF) and similar organizations to create partnerships between teachers in Canada and the United States, and to offer practical advice on effective methods of teaching languages and the importance of teaching French literature.

O’Neil’s post-Whitman projects center around AATF’s motto — and her personal mantra — “French Opens the World.”

“French is not a dead language,” O’Neil said. “It is still the universal language in Africa, the European Union and Canada. It really is an intellectual tradition only rivaled, perhaps, by that of the English-speaking world.”

Learning French opens doors to explore historical texts in a much deeper way, said O’Neil, who points to her study of the Bible — while teaching Core and Great Works — and her research on the 19th century French novel “Atala” by Chateaubriand. “I became aware of a pattern of references in the novel to the book of Genesis and to the ‘The Odyssey,’” said O’Neil, who published three articles on “Atala” that garnered her international attention in France and Italy in the late 1990s. She was the only American scholar invited to an international symposium of Chateaubriand’s “Mémoires d’outre-tombe” in Pisa, Italy, in 1997.

“There are a lot of connections to be made,” O’Neil said. “It’s why I believe in students taking Core and reading Great Works.”

To help teachers better use her book, “La France et al Francophonie: Conversations with Native Speakers,” O’Neil will devote some of her energy to writing lesson plans at the request of Yale University Press.

O’Neil also plans to work with a publisher on her just-completed study of the poetry of 20th century French writer Pierre Emmanuel, spend more time at home in her garden and travel with her husband, Patrick Henry, Cushing Eells Professor of Philosophy and Literature and Foreign Languages and Literatures, Emeritus. She hopes to meet up with their daughter Anne O’Neil-Henry, a Duke University graduate student in romance studies, at a conference on 19th century French studies later this year.

When this semester draws to a close, it is the “camaraderie among teachers, especially great in our building (Olin Hall),” that O’Neil will miss most, along with her students and the French native speakers.

“I am very appreciative I had the chance to work at Whitman: The varied professional life, a lot of freedom in the classroom and to do research, and the opportunity to have administrative experience,” she said.

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