Campus & Community

‘How do people write themselves?’

6 min read

Kimberlee Campbell looks at language and identity

As professor of the practice of Romance languages and literatures and director of the languages programs, Kimberlee Campbell’s unusual titles bespeak her unusual place in the halls of academia. Campbell, who joined Harvard’s Romance Languages and Literatures Department this fall after a long career at New York University, describes her work as a sort of “clinical professor.”

Kimberlee Campbell: ‘I’m not sure that the goal of foreign languages is to have people remember 27 irregular verbs. I think the goal of foreign language learning has a much higher calling.’ (Staff photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

“Our expertise is in an area considered a practice as opposed to a theory,” she says of herself and others at the University who hold the senior-level title. Campbell is the recipient of the 2004 Mensa Education and Research Foundation’s Distinguished Teacher Award.

Yet Campbell, who keeps one foot in the practical thinking about second-language acquisition and one in the more theoretical world of medieval epic poetry, fractures further the mold she’s already broken. Her two academic interests, she says, are not as distinct as they might appear.

Both arenas concern “questions of how people write themselves,” she says. “How do human beings state their identity and that of others?” And, with most medieval texts written in a language that bears only a passing similarity to its modern counterpart, her language teaching work transfers to her theoretical work also.

The higher calling of language learning

The author of the textbook “Échoes: Cultural Perspectives for Students of Beginning French” (Yale University Press, 2003), Campbell advocates an approach to teaching beginning language students that she says is somewhat controversial. She believes that students should engage with the cultural issues of the language they’re studying from the very beginning, even if it means some early discussions in English.

This idea runs counter to a long-held notion that students should learn the mechanics of a language first – with classes conducted almost exclusively in that language – then move on to substantive cultural issues. Campbell takes issue with the chronology of that learning method, particularly at the university level.

“I’m not sure that the goal of foreign languages is to have people remember 27 irregular verbs. I think the goal of foreign language learning has a much higher calling,” she says. While competence is important, “foreign language learning is, for American students, a way to see through the eyes of somebody else. … You need to see how the world looks standing at another vantage point,” she says.

Campbell adds that learning a foreign language and glimpsing its cultural implications simultaneously can encourage skills like creative thinking.

“The world is not constructed the same way in two different languages,” she says. In French, for instance, every object has a gender, just as in English every object has a singular or a plural. Campbell argues that considering every object as gendered – a table is always feminine, a hat always masculine – shapes the cultural worldview of francophones.

Although her opinion may be iconoclastic, Campbell says that Harvard’s Romance Languages and Literatures Department has been moving in a similar direction with respect to language teaching. “That’s probably why Harvard and I are a good fit,” she says.

Legends and cultures

Appearances to the contrary, it’s not a far leap from Campbell’s theories of language as culture to her more traditional academic work in medieval epic poetry. Such legends – she offers Joan of Arc as a well-known example – vary in the retelling depending on the cultural perspective of the author. Thus, George Bernard Shaw’s play “Saint Joan” bears the stamp of his early 20th century England, while the many film versions of the tale each bring their own cultural interpretation.

Campbell’s book “The Protean Text: A Study of Versions of the Medieval French Legend of Doon and Olive” (Garland, 1988) explores a 13th century French epic legend through the range of cultural lenses by which it’s been told.

“I was trying to look at the ways in which different cultures take the same story and redraw it to fit their own needs and their own cultural backgrounds,” she says. The basic legend concerns a man, Doon, who is tricked into believing his wife, Olive, has betrayed him. She is punished, and the story goes on to chronicle how she is avenged and ultimately reunited with her husband.

In the 13th century version, Campbell found, crusading by the husband puts this transgression right; a 15th century Spanish version, however, is concerned far more with the trial and inquisition. Another version, from the Nordic countries or Scotland, is rich with seafaring imagery that is absent in the original.

“Each of the cultures has inscribed what it needed on this base story,” she says.

Moose as pedagogical strategy

Campbell admits that she’s not terribly successful at balancing the two strands of her academic work. Rather, she seesaws back and forth between them: This semester, her first at Harvard, she’s steeped in language acquisition work and is teaching a graduate-level course called “Theory and Practice of Language Teaching,” but she hopes to steal time to pursue her next research project next semester.

Her ambition toward research in medieval epic poetry was sparked after reading “El Cid” as a freshman in college. Her work in language acquisition emerged from a rockier start.

“It was my own baptism by fire,” she says, recalling her first job teaching French, when she was given nothing but a textbook and a room number. “I got interested in this work just from a sense of outrage about the absolute lack of training.”

Given the incredible vulnerability students face when you remove their means of communication, she says, language teachers must be equipped with as much understanding and strategic methodology as possible.

And when all else fails, use a moose. A chest-high wooden statue of a moose, to be precise, the product of a relative’s fascination with a new band saw. The moose stands in a nook in Campbell’s office as part offbeat décor, part pedagogical tool that assists with the vulnerability of students and new teachers who visit her office.

“The moose is a comforting, friendly presence,” she says. “Everybody has something to say about him. It’s an immediate icebreaker. People will relax with me in a way that they didn’t before I had the moose, because they can talk about normal things.”