Interview with an academic: Dr. Julie Huntington
I’m working on a series of interviews with creative, interesting and amazing people I’ve known over the course of my life who, through whatever series of events, have found themselves in academia. This time, I’m interviewing Dr. Julie Huntington, who I know mostly as the oboe player in the seminal Michigan skronk outfit, Galen but now works on Francophone African literature in NYC.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Julie Ann Huntington. By profession, I am a professor of French language and comparative literature at Marymount Manhattan College. I also identify as a bicyclist, runner, advocate, writer, noise-maker, thrill-seeker, daydreamer, gourmande, and vagabond.
You’re from Southeastern Michigan, but now live in New York. I don’t know what I missed, how did that happen?
It’s a rather long story… that’s where the vagabond part kicks in. I’ve actually spent more consecutive years in New York City now (going on six) than any place in my life since graduating from high school. My first stay outside of Michigan in the summer of 1996 led me to a picaresque nanny job in a tiny town called Hem working for a psychiatric professional with some anger management issues and a college professor who tried in vain to seduce me with lines like “I see what kind of books you read… I know what kind of girl you are…” At the end of three weeks, we all agreed it was best for me to head to Paris to pursue other paths. With little money, I spent most of my days daydreaming and walking around the city. One day, I ended up wandering into an English language bookshop near the Notre Dame cathedral. After chatting with the owner, I secured lodging with some other ex-pats in a bed-bug infested library in exchange for a few hours of work each day. With little money, I spent much of my time reading books and helping out around the shop. George [Whitman] took notice of this and promoted me, calling me his Cordelia. In exchange for more responsibilities, consisting mainly of book-keeping and listening to George tell stories about lost generation Paris, I got my own room full of first editions and a sublime view of Notre Dame…
Filling in the gaps, I returned to Michigan to finish my BA at Eastern Michigan University in Anthropology and French. At the start of my studies, I had wanted to be a journalist, decided that I was ill-equipped to take on the burdens of truth and objectivity. Degree in hand, I headed back to Paris to consider my options…
I worked as a waitress in Paris in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Paris in 1998 for the World Cup matches and beyond. The restaurant isn’t there anymore, but I still have a scar on my knee from the celebrations. During that time, I decided to go to graduate school and prepped for my GRE exam…
And then you went down South?
In 1999, I moved to Nashville to start an MA-Ph.D program at Vanderbilt. My preliminary intention was to study XX century feminist narratives. As luck would have it, the woman with whom I had planned to work left the university and I had to shift gears. I became interested in issues of language and identity in areas where French was spoken as an official but not maternal or vehicular language. I was particularly intrigued by “noisy” writers who presented multilingual, musical, and otherwise resonant texts to readers. It all started with Ousmane Sembene… In my first year of graduate study, I read Guelwaar and God’s Bits of Wood… It was love at first read…
My interest in Sembene led me to Keur Momar Sarr Senegal in the summer of 2001 where I spent a summer working on a rural development project in coordination with community members and a group of Belgian and American volunteers…
I went back to Nashville and finished my Ph.D. at Vanderbilt in 2005. My work focused on exploring how instrumental literature, non-vocal music, and otherwise noisy phenomena are translated and transcribed into the frames of literary texts as a means of creating spaces for identity negotiation that lie beyond the limits of Western/Northern identificatory paradigms…
I worked as an Assistant Professor of French at Clemson from 2005-2008. While I was there, I spent summers taking students to Ghana on a summer program I created. I also traveled to Martinique and Guyane for research and conferences. I feel lucky to have visited Saint Pierre, Alawla-Yalimapo, Nzulezo by chance as sidetrips on these journeys as they are beautiful and unique places that have informed my work in important ways…
I loved the job at Clemson but was miserable living in small-town and even smaller-city South Carolina. I struggled to be happy there. It just wasn’t a good fit for me culturally…
When I was offered a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college in NYC in 2008, I embraced the opportunity. Regardless of the professional pros and cons of my decision, I am happy with the choice I made. I love working at a teaching-focused job in a city where I feel joyful and inspired…
Since my arrival in NYC, I have spent time away in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and France for research, but have always felt compelled to “come home” to NYC. I’m not sure if this is my forever city, but my vagabond heart is happy here doing what I do for the time being.
I really don’t think I’ve seen you in person in nearly 20 years, at which time you were active in music. Are you still doing music?
Music is a part of my life everywhere I go and I sense that it always will be. Although I don’t have any regular projects at the present time, I find myself collaborating on a few projects every year. Most of these are spontaneous and performance-based. I feel like the energy and logistics of living in New York City foster these kinds of dynamic but ephemeral musical encounters. Some of my favorite NYC collaborations have been with Samuel Consiglio (of Tami on 12 inch and Perfect Weiners and Butts), who I met while dancing at Zoot’s in Detroit in the 1990s. Another performance moment I enjoyed was when I was invited to perform as an oboe-playing cannibal in a play—It Didn’t Have to Come to This by Normandy Sherwood.
I seem to know a lot of people who did odd music things, and then moved on to the wacky world of academia. How did you go from music to academia? Do you feel like your particular musical experience serves you well in your academic career?
Coming from a working class family in Michigan, many of my life decisions as a young adult were guided by financial imperatives. From a young age, I understood that work defines so many aspects of an average person’s day-to-day existence, especially in American culture. With that understanding, I followed the path that I thought would lead me to my greatest contentment. In spite of the present states of fiscal and identity crisis in academia, I feel like I made the right choice. Working as a professor is fulfilling in many ways. I learn so much each and every day in my interactions with colleagues and students, but also in my own investigations and explorations.
In terms of music, being a musician definitely helps me to be in tune with the people and texts with which I work. It is particularly useful in the space of the classroom. Playing in collaborative projects throughout the years has helped me become better in listening to and responding to others. I am very student-centered in my approaches to teaching and I often position myself as a collaborator-facilitator-coach when working with students on discussions and projects. One could liken the structure of a lesson to that of a jazz standard. In this respect, there are definite objectives and protocols in place to guide our interactions during class time, but there are also spaces for every participant to voice, interpret, and respond in a multiplicity of harmonious or cacophonous ways.
I just picked up your book at the UMich library. Wow! A BOOK. Did it feel amazing to put it out? What’s the story here? How did you choose this particular topic?
I became really interested in questions of linguistic, cultural, and regional identities in post-colonial frameworks, particularly as mediated in literary texts. Since there was already a fair amount of work being done on linguistic approaches to identity negotiation and appropriation in literature, I turned my focus to music. Although much work had also been done on the aesthetics and implications of oral genres in written literature, instrumental genres were not being considered to the same extent. I wanted to create a rationale and a vocabulary for considering sounding elements in literature, particularly non-vocal ones.
The book project came about after the series editor, Gregory Barz, approached me about revising my manuscript to give it a more interdisciplinary focus. We agreed that I would take out much of the literary jargon and construct narrative frames around the chapters.
A book in itself is strange because it fixes ideas on the written page, even if those ideas are still being revised, reconsidered, and reconfigured. It is like a time capsule of thoughts. All things considered, I am proud of this work with all of its shortcomings and strengths. In my view it is just the beginning, a point of departure, the start of a dialogue.
What took you to Senegal? In the book it sounds like you just kind of showed up there. While the experiences are obviously amazing (outside of drinking the borehole water: been there, done that), I’m kind of thinking the whole time “How did she get there?”
The decision to spend time in Senegal was motivated by a desire to get a feel for the geographic and cultural spaces and the aesthetic and linguistic protocols I was reading about in the works of writers like Ousmane Sembene and Aminata Sow Fall. I signed on to volunteer with ASREAD, L’Association Sénégalaise de Recherches, d’Études et d’Appui au Développement, an NGO in Keur Momar Sarr, where I lived and worked with members of the local community.
In a sense, I did just show up without any sort of formal agenda. I just wanted to learn as much as I possibly could during my time there about music, language, and culture. For the most part, I let the villagers guide my experience of that learning. This created openings and opportunities I would not have been able to witness or experience if I had come in with a clear itinerary and agenda.
I really enjoyed the cross-cultural, cross-linguistic and cross-disciplinary nature of the work, (and in the Julie-in-Africa vignettes).
Whereas personally, I find it very fulfilling to work across languages, continents, cultures, and disciplines, the work is challenging and not always well-received.
In a sense, interdisciplinary work is destabilizing. It requires critics—both readers and writers—to suspend self-ascribed notions of mastery of their respective methodological approaches and areas of expertise while exposing themselves to alternative modes of analysis and subject areas. Metaphorically speaking, interdisciplinary work is the mixed martial arts of academic work. In this respect, interdisciplinary practitioners develop proficiency in a multiple areas of expertise which they incorporate interchangeably depending on conditions and contexts. Multifaceted, versatile, and dynamic, interdisciplinary work creates opportunities for dialogue and exchange across categories, perspectives, and methodologies. The limits of this type of work is that is simply not possible to be a specialist in all styles. By consequence, interdisciplinary scholars often exchange the jargon and depth of analysis displayed in single-discipline scholarship for the accessibility and interwoven or textured quality of interdisciplinary work with varying degrees of success.
In terms of working across languages, cultures, and genres, there are multiple challenges at work here. The main challenge is that what we conceive of as the academy is still grounded in the geographic, linguistic, and cultural zones of Northern/Western nations. Even when working in scholarship grounded in African locations, critics find themselves faced with the imperative of constructing argumentation in dialogue with critical frameworks created within and endorsed by scholars working predominantly in Northern/Western academic and cultural systems. There is a type of academic hegemony at work here and it is difficult to overcome.
Are you ever going to come back to Michigan? It’s still cold here.
My parents and much of my extended family still live in Michigan, so I come back to visit a few times a year. I would also come back for an epic jam session.
What’s next? Anything new coming down the pipe?
I am working on a second book project examining culinary narratives, folklore, and recipes in contemporary West African fiction. I am also training for the 2014 Boston Marathon.
Julie’s book, “Sounding Off: Rhythm, Music, and Identity in West African and Caribbean Francophone Novels (African Soundscapes) is available for purchase HERE.