In Defense of the Humanities

Ethel Spowers, Val de Grace, Paris, 1923

Ethel Spowers, Val de Grace, Paris, 1923

Heidi E. Kraus ~ Assistant Professor of Art History and Director of the De Pree Gallery

As an art historian at Hope, a small, private liberal arts college, I am required to teach more than just studio art and art history students. The majority of my students come from a variety of disciplines, backgrounds and abilities. My First-Year Seminar on Global Paris this semester, which just ended, focused on examining national identity using the city of Paris—its history, people, art and culture—as a case study. Over the course of the semester, students have grappled with challenging questions, such as: “What does it mean to be French today?” and “How is contemporary France reflective of its past?” In seeking answers to these sometimes-uncomfortable questions, which often center on religion, racism and colonialism, I hoped that students would look to their own experiences, recognizing that they, too, are part of a global society.  To that end, their classroom presentations required that they investigate some aspect of their identity.



“T-Rex,” University of Utah

Two intended science majors took to the front of our classroom to give their presentation entitled, “In Defense of the Humanities.”   I squirmed a bit in my chair, unsure how this was going to play out.  Was this actually going to be a defense of the humanities or a mockery of them? What could first-semester freshman really bring to this discussion and, moreover, what did this have to do with their identity? They flashed an image on the screen. At the top of the image is a man in a white coat and dark tie, wearing glasses and holding a clip board in his left hand. With arms stretched upward in a gesture of achievement, the man looks at a large egg that has started to crack. Below this scene, a large tyrannosaurus rex is seen moving towards the now diminutive man, running for his life with papers and clipboard trailing behind him. The text makes the image unmistakably clear: “Science can tell you how to clone a tyrannosaurus rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.”

The students proceeded to tell the class that, while they both identify as science majors, exposure to the humanities during their first college semester has greatly enriched their major course of study. Admittedly, prior to college they did not understand why a class such as ours was necessary when studying to be a neuroscientist or biologist. Yet, after the student-presenters took their seats, I felt more hopeful about my own identity as a college professor who teaches in the humanities. Courses in the humanities are teaching these students about the world and places other than their own, reminding them to slow down and be more aware, and, perhaps most importantly, modeling for them how to communicate.

Computers can do many things, I often tell my students. But computers cannot yet think critically. That is up to us.

~ Happy Holidays from the Paris Grand Challenges Team!



Paris Stories ~ Spring Courses 2018


Édouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, 1865

Here are fascinating options for exploring PARIS STORIES next spring!

The officially-linked Paris Stories course for Spring 2018 is the newly reworked Art 241. ** Note all 200-level Art History courses now fulfill the FA1 requirement.

ART 241 (FA1)–Modern Art & Architecture (T/Th 12-1:20):  This course, taught by Heidi Kraus with contributions by Lauren Janes, is a chronological survey of Modern art, architecture, and urban design in Europe and America from approximately 1750 to 1900. While many survey courses on Modern art start in the second half of the nineteenth-century, this course consciously chooses to begin our investigation in the eighteenth-century with the Enlightenment—a period that, in many ways, laid the foundation for modernism.  Modern art in particular can be understood as a reaction to the aesthetic, cultural, social, and political contexts in which they were made. As such, competing art theories and aesthetic debates will be critically examined within a historical methodological approach. Emphasis will also be placed on the impact of the Middle East, China, and Japan on art of the period—specifically how the East and Orientalism has been visually represented in Western art, architecture, literature, and media since the nineteenth-century. Writing, research and engagement with primary sources, active class discussion, museum visits, and the use of digital media will be integral elements of the course.  


History and Memory in Algeria and France: Algerian stamp commemorating the 50 year anniversary of the 1961 massacre of Algerian protesters in Paris.

History 321–The Making of Modern Africa (T/Th 3-4:20): This is not a Paris Stories linked course, though it will be of interest for students who want to know more about issues of colonialism, race, and identity in France, all questions raised in IDS172, Prof. Kraus’ FYS, and during the Paris May Term.  The class examines Africa since 1940 through a series of case studies examining the process and legacy of decolonization. Our main case study will be Algeria, Nigeria, and South Africa. Our unit on Algeria will delve deeply into the Algerian War (as it was called by the French) or War of Independence (as it is known in Algeria) and its impacts on both Algeria and France. We’ll read some of the great Francophone thinkers on decolonization:  Memmi and Fanon.  

REMEMBER – you can apply now for the Paris May Term: Art, History, & Global Citizenship in Paris.  This year you can take our combined history/art history course (for CHII OR FA1 credit), an upper-level history or art history course, or a senior seminar. Come experience the place where all these Paris Stories happen!

Applications due Nov. 29.  Admissions and financial aid decisions in early December.

Politics on the Plate: Food and Identity in France


Couscous in France

~ by Lauren Janes, Assistant Professor of History

Recently, I reflected on the continuing intersections of food, race, and identity in French politics in an article for History News Network.

“We haven’t heard a lot in the U.S. about the far-right anti-immigrant Front National since their leader Marine Le Pen lost the French presidential election to Emmanuel Macron back in May. But the Front National is still in the news in France, mostly for growing divisions within the party over tone and substance: should the party distance itself from its anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant image? Enter #CouscousGate.

TweetOn September 13, Kelly Betesh, an official in the French right-wing anti-immigrant Front National (FN) political party, posted a photo on Twitter of herself dining with FN vice president Florian Philippot, one of the most well-known leaders of the FN at the time, at a couscous restaurant in Strasbourg (eastern France), tagging Mr. Philippot’s‏ political association “Les Patriotes.”

The photo at the couscous restaurant, though it didn’t even have couscous in the picture, launched a backlash online. Couscous is a North African dish, which is very popular in France, but some commentators decried couscous as inappropriate for patriotic French politicians. A good dinner in Strasbourg, these internet critics claimed, was of traditional French fare, especially the Alsatian regional specialty choucroute garnie: sauerkraut served with sausages and other meats.

#CouscousGate highlights the powerful role of food in marking the boundaries of French identity, a recurring theme in French politics over the last decade….”

The rest of the piece is at  And there is much more about food and French history in my Colonial Food in Interwar

Paris At This Moment

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Picnics on the Champs de Mars. I’ve always been struck by how the Parisians use their public spaces.

As a rising high school freshman, my first impressions of Paris centered around three (of the many) differences between the City of Lights and my normal existence in suburban Indianapolis. 1) The bread was the best thing I’d ever eaten, and it was for sale in every neighborhood. 2) My mind was busily absorbed in language. I spoke a tiny amount of French, just enough to be constantly curious. 3) Everything was old. The United States seemed to have nothing so connected to the deep past as the cathedrals and streets of Paris. (Much later, I visited the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings in Colorado and got a hint at how deep the history of America really is.)

How privileged I have been to build a course of study, and eventually a career, around this alluring place of food, language, and history. When, as a junior undergraduate, I started making plans to pursue a PhD in history, an insightful professor and mentor pointed out that much of the historian’s work happens in the archives in a place, and I therefore might consider where I wanted my place to be. And thus began my path as a French historian, centered, unapologetically, on making Paris my place.  

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I felt most at home in Paris in summer 2010. I was working as a graduate TA with husband Dustin at my side and baby Daphne in tow. Carrying around a cute baby started more pleasant conversations with Parisians than I’d ever had before.

Of course, study and time in the city complicated my relationship with Paris. There are parts of me that feel most at home there. My soul feels at ease in the public spaces of shared urban living. Yet I always eventually tire of the mental gymnastics of being foreign — of the constant struggle to understand a language and culture that, despite years of study, will never be my own. I’m now also much more aware of the role of my white skin in allowing access to safety, comfort, and ease in those beloved public spaces, and of the history of empire and racism that are also part of Paris.

When Heidi Kraus and I began to create a May Term course in Paris, our first instincts were to emphasize the aspects of the city we love and celebrate: art; physical connections to the past; food culture, and the lifestyle of a people who value leisure. And yet, as the November 2015 Paris attacks so shockingly reminded us, it seemed phony and wrong to teach a simplified view of a city that we had come to know with more complexity. So despite our time restraints, we strive to introduce students to the beautiful yet complex and troubled city of Paris. We share with students our joy in visiting the monuments to Medieval Christianity and the Revolution, in relishing three


The minaret of the Grande Mosquée de Paris, founded in 1926 as a token of gratitude to the Muslim soldiers from the French empire who had fought in WWI. The Grande Mosquée is just around the corner from one of my library homes, the Bibliothèque du Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in the exquisite Jardin des Plantes.

hour lunches and bustling markets, and in experiencing art in the world’s greatest collections. But this is not enough. We center our investigations on the role of the “others” in Parisian history and life, pushing students to think about the legacy of empire, the construction of national identity, and the place of religious plurality in a secular state. We can’t explore all the stories of Paris in our month with these students, but we try our best to introduce students to a complex understanding of the city. Now, with the expanded curriculum of Paris Stories courses, we can do even more.

~ Lauren Janes

Shameless plug: My book, Colonial Food in Interwar Paris, is part of the Bloomsbury academic book sale through September, making the paperback cost under $30. If you’re interested in the role of French imperialism in Parisian life, please do check it out.

Welcome to Paris Stories!

We are a team of Hope College faculty members, from several departments, teaching a series of linked courses on identity, the rise of nationalism, and the complicated relations between cultural insiders and outsiders.  We draw from texts, images, and stories of history, literature, art, psychology and communication studies to understand more fully the uses and meaning of citizenship.  

Our focus is the multifarious city of Paris:  heart of the French Revolution; birthplace of universalism; capital of a global imperial power; Catholic by tradition, secular by law, and largely Muslim in practice.  Paris, a cosmopolitan city that is home to people from around the world, long has been a refuge for writers and artists seeking intellectual and cultural freedom.  But it is also a place where women were denied suffrage until 1945 and where citizens of North African heritage are largely segregated to the outskirts of the city. 

As we confront the complexity of French national identity, we hope to gain insight into what we wrestle with in the American context. Perennial questions persist: who is American; who belongs and why; what do we believe in; how do we make meaning; and how do we make change?

We are examining another community to better understand our own. In asking these questions, we hope our students develop a richer appreciation of themselves, their faith commitments, their role as citizens of a nation, and their obligations in a global community.  Join us to see what we discover!


For more about who were are, please see the ABOUT page.  Stay tuned for more posts on Fridays, starting in September.  We will highlight our research and teaching, student work, and anything else that catches our interest related to Paris stories.  Follow us on Twitter @GCParisstories.  

~Lauren Janes, Heidi Kraus, and Natalie Dykstra