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>  News Releases >   2003 >   April

Dartmouth Professor brings cultural introspection to the classroom

Posted 04/07/03, by Tamara Steinert

Lynn Higgins has taught at Dartmouth since 1976
(photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Lynn Higgins, the Parents Distinguished Research Professor of French and Italian and Comparative Literature, is interested in investigating how cultures represent themselves and what those expressions can tell us about the interaction of different groups. She says much of what we think of as "natural" is actually a function of culture, though we might not be aware of it.

"A lot of things that we think of as being the essential nature of humanity are actually learned. I was blown away in about fourth grade when I learned that our base-10 system wasn't the only way of counting. It seems natural because that's what we've always done, but it's actually a very old and established cultural construct. We humans could just as easily have decided to use another base system."

Among her favorite tools for investigating representations is film. When she was younger, Higgins entertained the idea of working as a film reviewer but decided instead to study literature. The development of the field of cultural studies allowed her to combine both those interests and gave her an alternate point of entry to discuss literary works with her students in comparison with films.

The experience has been illuminating for Higgins as well as for her students. In a recent class, one student described the tone of a 1923 Lon Chaney adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame as more "somber" than Victor Hugo's novel. After discussion about where that interpretation came from, Higgins discovered only one student in the class had ever seen a black-and-white film.

"It was a new experience for the students. Of course how they interpreted the movie would be affected by that," she says.

"If you look at the world today, it's more important than ever to understand and question how different groups perceive the world."

-Lynn Higgins

While film and other forms of popular culture are often dismissed as "just entertainment," Higgins worries this devalues them and the disciplines of the humanities.

"If you look at the world today, it's more important than ever to understand and question how different groups perceive the world. Systematic study of literature, languages, and the arts gives us the analytical tools for studying these conflicting representations."

An example she cites is the phenomenon that Americans call globalization. "In France, it is often called Americanization," she says.

Dartmouth offers a lot of opportunities through its Foreign Study Program for students and faculty to experience these differences firsthand. "One thing I love about Dartmouth is the opportunity to direct these programs abroad. I see them as multi-disciplinary in the best sense. I get to work with local university faculty who teach art, politics, history, and language to give the students an in-depth inside view of a foreign way of thinking."

Higgins, who spent much of her young life in Thailand, says the experience of being a foreigner and a racial minority has shaped her world view ever since. "I don't see the American way of doing things as the default," she says.

"Culture is central to our national identity, whether it's high art or pop culture. Someone told me [filmmaker] Ken Burns once asked, Without the arts, what is there to defend? That's a sentiment I like."

- Tamara Steinert

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