French Graduate Program
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Visit the Graduate School for admission information and the online application to the Ph.D. program. Please note that only online applications are accepted. Any difficulties or special requests for paper applications should be addressed directly to the Graduate School. Questions of a general nature relating to the Department of Romance Studies may be directed to Katy Kempf, Graduate Field Assistant.
While graduate studies in French at Cornell are attuned to all the trends and schools of thought that constitute the study of the humanities today (from psychoanalysis and new historicism to cultural studies, gender studies, postcolonial studies and visual and media studies), the graduate program in French is linked to a certain intellectual history. At its origins, it was bound up with the development of textual criticism and literary theory in this country. This historical link is still represented by the publication of diacritics, a journal of theory and criticism founded more than thirty years ago by members of the graduate field.
Diacritics, currently housed in the Department of Romance Studies and overseen by its three sections, became one of the first American academic journals to draw serious attention to the intellectual ferment occurring in France in the wake of the structuralist movement, and to translate its works into English. In particular, it was among the very first to translate and explicate the works of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, with whom it has long been identified; it was also one of the earliest journals to devote special issues to the influential field of French feminism. Over the years, diacritics has become one of the principle academic resources, here and abroad, for the study of—predominantly—French theoretical writing.
Graduate Field, Interdisciplinarity and Research:
The Graduate Field of Romance Studies extends beyond the confines of the department and its composition reflects the commitment to interdisciplinarity that characterizes the humanities at Cornell. It includes faculty specializing in European intellectual and cultural history, visual studies, linguistics, comparative literature, English, and Africana Studies.
The opportunity to do interdisciplinary research is enhanced by the structure of the program, which allows students to focus on an area of specialization while completing a concentration in a minor field. Typical concentrations have included linguistics, feminist, gender and sexuality studies, art history, visual studies, and comparative literature.
To further their intellectual experience at Cornell, graduate students are encouraged to take advantage of other interdisciplinary and specialized programs across the university, including but not limited to:
- Society for the Humanities
- School of Criticism and Theory
- Cornell Cinema
- Medieval Studies
- Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies
- Institute for European Studies
- Institute for Comparative Modernities
- Africana Research Center
The Society for the Humanities, the Institute for European Studies, the interdisciplinary program in French Studies, the Cornell Council for the Arts, and the Professors-at-Large program cooperate with the field’s participating faculty in bringing distinguished writers and scholars to Cornell for extended visits. Our students and faculty have been able to cultivate valuable contacts with such creative artists and critics as Mieke Bal, Judith Butler, Tom Conley, Helene Cixous, Joan Dejean, Jacques Derrida, Assia Djebar, Jean-Luc Nancy and Jacques Ranciere.
Students have many opportunities to research and study abroad and are encouraged to spend one of their fellowship years in France or in a Francophone area. While graduate students on fellowship can, with the consent of their special committee, attend a university of their choice abroad, the French program currently has one exchange agreement with Universitè Paris VIII.
Structure of the Ph.D. Program
The graduate program is structured to avoid the dangers of premature specialization, by encouraging both broad and precise knowledge of the field of French literature and of the critical and theoretical discourses that have helped to define the discipline. The student of recent literature should be aware of the long, continually evolving traditions of France and the Francophone world, just as the student of earlier periods should be acquainted with the literary, critical, and theoretical trends of our day. Courses and seminars seek to provide broad and detailed familiarity with major periods and authors.
The student’s field of study need not be bounded by the history of one national literature, however. Indeed, students are encouraged to define their field of specialization flexibly and broadly, in relation to such disciplines as philosophy, anthropology, visual studies, history of art or music, medieval studies, psychology or psychoanalysis, with the study of classical literatures or with other modern national literatures. The student’s course of study is defined in consultation with the special committee rather than by a set of general requirements.
Special Committees, Major & Minor Fields
Each graduate student chooses, by the end of the third semester, a three-member special committee consisting of a chair and two (or more) additional faculty members. The chair must be a member of the Romance Studies Graduate Field, but need not be a member of the department. Students should feel free to reconstitute their committee as their interests evolve and as their contact with faculty members increases and develops. A student can change the chair and/or the other members of his or her special committee at any time up until the “A” exam. After that time, committees can be changed through special petition to the graduate school. It is the student’s responsibility to convene the members of the special committee at least once a year to discuss courses, preparation of exams, and the general direction of his or her academic program.
Students are encouraged to take seminars in other fields to complement their coursework and training in the department. Indeed, the Cornell Graduate School requires that all graduate students declare a minor field outside their major field of specialization. Students are welcome to declare minors in closely related fields, but in theory a student can minor in any field of study that complements his or her research program. Student are not required to complete a specific number of courses in their declared minor field, but it must be represented by at least one member of their special committee. Most students choose only one minor subject, though graduate school regulations allow election of two.
Members of the Graduate Field from the Department of Romance Studies:
Members of the Graduate Field from Other Departments:
- Abigail Cohn, Department of Linguistics
- Jonathan Culler, Departments of English and Comparative Literature
- Natalie Melas, Department of Comparative Literature
- Jonathan Monroe, Department of Comparative Literature
- Timothy Murray, Departments of English and Comparative Literature
- Diane Rubenstein, Department of Government
Graduate School Professors:
Curriculum & Courses
Coursework & Second Foreign Language Requirement:
Students fulfill their graduate requirements by taking course work in the Department of Romance Studies and in other departments at Cornell. During the first two years, students plan a full load of courses in their major and minor fields and are expected to take a minimum of 14 courses over a three-year period. The normal load is four courses per semester while on first-year fellowship, and three courses per semester for those holding teaching assistantships, in the second year. In the French program, students are required to take a total of three courses in each of three historical areas: Medieval/Renaissance, 17th/18th centuries, and 19th/20th centuries. The remaining courses are electives to be chosen at the student’s discretion, in consultation with his or her advisor.
All incoming students are required to take the Romance Studies Colloquium (ROMS 6100) during their first semester in the program. In the second semester, students must take Language Methodology (ROMS 5070) in preparation for their teaching assignments as TAs.
Every student is expected to speak and write French fluently and accurately. Prior to taking the “A” exams, students choose an additional language of study according to their major area of research and in consultation with their special committee. In the summer following their first year, students are encouraged to pursue related language study either at Cornell or abroad, along with independent readings in preparation for the Q exams and independent research to complement their intellectual interests. Students may demonstrate proficiency in a second foreign language through coursework or by written examination.
Please refer to the French section of the Romance Studies course offerings for detailed descriptions about the language and literature courses we offer. Note that bracketed courses are not being taught this academic year. The following list of recent graduate seminars offered by members of the French faculty gives a good idea of faculty interests and of the kinds of subjects prospective students can expect to study in the program.
- Exquisite Corpses of the Middle Ages
- Jacques Derrida
- Francophone Postcolonial Discourse
- Baroque Bodies
- Exoticism and Eroticism: Figures of the Other in the French Enlightenment
- Literature after the Death of God: In and Around the Collège de Sociologie
- From Object to Event: Postcolonial Francophone Cinema
- Psychoanalytic Theory
- Edouard Glissant
- Literary Histories of the Saints
- Racine: Myth and Melancholia
- 19th Century French Women Writers
- Love and Hate in the Middle Ages
- Baudelaire and Modern Criticism
- Marguerite Duras
The purpose of the “Q” (“Qualifying”) exam is to evaluate the quality of the student’s written work and skill at detailed textual analysis. After completing the first year of the program (or the first semester, for students entering with an M.A.), the student selects—from among the seminar papers he or she has written—the essay that best reflects his or her scholarly interests and abilities. The student will then discuss the paper with the chair of the committee (as well as the faculty member for whom it was written) in order to determine how the paper might best be revised and reworked to develop its argument and scholarly apparatus. These revisions will normally be undertaken during the summer after the first year of graduate study, during which time the student is encouraged to solicit feedback on the essay from members of the faculty. No later than the third semester in the program (or second semester, for students entering with an M.A.), the student submits the final version of the essay to the members of the committee and schedules a one-hour exam. During the exam, the committee members will ask questions about the paper, identify its strengths and weaknesses, and discuss possible directions the student’s work might take in the future. If the committee is satisfied with the quality of the student’s work, he or she can begin preparing for the “A” exam. But if the committee finds that the paper does not meet the standard for graduate work, the student may be asked to further revise the paper or, if the work is especially poor, advised to seek a terminal M.A. degree rather than continue in the doctoral program.
Prior to taking the “A” (“Admission to Candidacy”) exam, the student must complete all required coursework (and any outstanding incompletes) as well as fulfill the second foreign language requirement.
In consultation with the members of the special committee, each student devises three different exam topics, each with its own problematic and reading list. Students are free to compose lists based on their interests; however, the reading list as a whole must demonstrate both historical breadth and attention to different genres. Although the exact number of texts on each list may vary widely, according to the nature of the problematic and the difficulty or complexity of the works read, each topic will include a substantial list of primary works (which may include literary or historical texts, works of criticism, theory, or philosophy, or films and other media) in addition to relevant secondary criticism. The objective of the “A” exam is to test the student’s knowledge of the scope and genealogy of each problem, and his or her conceptual understanding of—and skill at reading—the selected texts. It is expected that at least one of these topics will represent a preliminary exploration of the student’s dissertation topic.
About a month prior to the beginning of the examination period, the student will distribute to the committee a final reading list for each of the topics, preceded by a brief (1/2-1 page) description of the problematic for that topic and some of the questions or problems the student proposes to explore. In general, one committee member is responsible for each topic; however, the student and the committee may decide to apportion this responsibility differently depending on the circumstances.
The exam has two components: three timed essay examinations (one on each topic) and an oral examination (lasting no more than two hours) to discuss the results of the written exams. Although the schedule for the written exams may be determined by the student in consultation with the committee, all three exams must be completed within a two-week period. Each exam period lasts 24 hours, beginning at the time the student picks up the question.
The exam can have one of three outcomes: pass, fail, or conditional pass. In the case of a conditional pass, the student may be asked to do some additional work to satisfy the committee’s concerns. In the case of failure, the student may be asked to re-take the exam at a later time or, if the quality of the work is especially poor, advised to seek a terminal M.A.
Within three months of completing the “A” exam, the student will submit to the committee a brief (7-15 page) prospectus of the dissertation, outlining the problems or questions he or she proposes to explore in the dissertation, how they will be approached, and a preliminary outline of the contents of individual chapters. If approved, a copy of the prospectus will be filed with the department.
The “B” exam is the oral defense of the dissertation, and allows for a serious discussion of the student’s work with the members of the special committee, each of whom normally prepares a brief written judgment and critique of the dissertation in addition to asking oral questions and engaging the candidate in discussion of his or her work.
Applying to the Ph.D Program & Support
Admission to the program is competitive and based on an evaluation of the entire dossier of material submitted by the student, including a personal statement, three letters of recommendation, writing sample, transcripts, GRE and, if pertinent, TOEFL scores. Particular attention is paid to the student’s self-presentation, so care should be taken in writing the personal statement and in choosing the essay sent as a writing sample.
Cornell’s aid package is highly competitive nationally. All admitted students are guaranteed a five-year package that includes two years of full fellowship, the opportunity for building a strong teaching portfolio based on a range of courses through teaching assistantships, and four summers of research support.
Fellowships & Assistantships
Students receive five years of full support. The first year of course work is covered by a Sage Fellowship from the Graduate School, and students are expected to take a full load of four courses per semester while on fellowship. The second year of Sage Fellowship is taken while a student is writing the dissertation, normally during the fourth or fifth year. During the second, third, and fourth years in the program, students receive support from teaching assistantships, which typically entail teaching responsibilities of 15 - 20 hours per week, teaching different levels of language and, for advanced students in the program, introductory literature courses and Freshman Writing Seminars.