“For me the best thing about UCL has been the conversations”I am a specialist in the literature and culture of sixteenth and seventeenth century France, and I’ve taught at UCL since 2009. For me the best thing about UCL has been the conversations I’ve had in undergraduate seminars. As an undergraduate I was mostly taught one-on-one; then I went to the US for postgraduate work and was bowled over by the intellectual tussle of the seminar format, with a whole range of views and voices trying to make themselves heard. It took me a long time to work out how to speak like that, but I could see straight away that it pushed me to think in a different way – to listen to a wider range of opinions, to learn from the things others said and the ways they interacted, and to work out (eventually) how to intervene and push an idea further. I love the seminar format as a way of thinking together, and as a teacher the thing I most like is seeing people get better at doing that.
”A lot of our research at UCL is first explored and then refined in conversation with our students” Last year I launched a new module – a seminar (of course) that introduces final-year students in SELCS to the ways that seventeenth-century women intellectuals across Europe thought about the category of gender. We explored how these women intervened in philosophical debates and how they addressed one another in letters or dedications, and we thought about how and when men listened to what these women had to say. One of the striking things about this material is the importance of conversation as an ideal form of intellectual work: many seventeenth-century writers, like others before them, often set out their ideas in dialogue form, or wrote about groups of people debating ideas – like a seminar.
Women writers in this period showed a special interest for this question of conversation – my favourite, a seventeenth-century Frenchwoman named Madeleine de Scudéry, wrote a great deal about what an ideal conversation would be: how one should respond to others, how to make sure no single voice dominates and how to keep things lively and intelligent. Scudéry cared a lot about this because she ran a famous salon, a social space that brought together women and men across social ranks to discuss new books and ideas; a lot of her most famous books came out of conversations at the salon, the same way a lot of our research at UCL is first explored and then refined in conversation with our students.
“How do our conversations model the sort of world we want to see?” Scudéry understood that social and intellectual innovation went together, and that the way in which we interact socially changes how we shape our ideas.
Scudéry’s ideas have a lot to offer us today. How do women at UCL network with each other and with others, and how do they make sure they’re at the centre of conversations in and about the university? And how do we make sure that our conversations – in seminars and in the wider world – work better to include people who’ve historically been excluded? How do our conversations model the sort of world we want to see?