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French professor helps students learn 'the art of living'

By April Hunt | Emory Report | July 12, 2017

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French professor Dalia Judovitz has spent a lifetime studying questions related to the nature of knowledge and how it informs our understanding of ourselves. After devoting the next year to research, she will officially retire from Emory in fall 2018. Emory Photo/Video

Dalia Judovitz has spent a lifetime studying questions related to the nature of knowledge and how it informs our understanding of ourselves.

This spring, as she finished her last semester in the classroom, her teaching has proven to connect with students, inspiring their interest in French philosophy and literature to prompt even more questions: What is the nature of who we are? What makes a happy life?

Her courses such as “The Art of Living” and “Cultures of the Self” have encouraged her students to grapple with these ideas.

“I want to nurture that way of learning in my students, so that learning comes alive for their entire lives,” says Judovitz, National Endowment of Humanities Professor of French.

She joined Emory College of Arts and Sciences in 1988, after teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, at a time when Emory was separating French and Italian into its own department, instead of being included under Modern Languages. After devoting the next year to research, she will officially retire from Emory in fall 2018, leaving behind a long legacy of teaching, scholarship and service. 

Judovitz served 10 years as chair of the Department of French and Italian, building up the department with an international team of scholars and a focus on interdisciplinary teaching.

 “We still teach French literature and culture but do it with consideration for philosophy, linguistics, the visual arts, psychoanalysis and more,” she says.

In her own courses, Judovitz uses French theory to encourage students to think about living their best lives by exploring texts such as Michel de Montaigne’s “Essays.” Writing during the late Renaissance, Montaigne argued that our “great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.” His call for self-cultivation relied on experience rather than reason alone and implied a recognition of the body’s role in determining knowledge and the meanings attached to the self and its relations to the world.

Reprising ancient stoic and epicurean traditions, Montaigne opens up an understanding of the self as an ongoing process of self-formation and composition, one that stands in opposition to René Descartes’ later definition of modern subjectivity, “I think therefore I am,” that gave rise to the mind-body dualism.

Engagement in this ethical endeavor of “self-writing” requires, as the French theorist Michel Foucault contends, learning how to read, write, interpret and compose not just texts but also the actions and conduct of our lives, says Judovitz.  

“She brought me to understand philosophy not as a detached, purely academic discipline, but as something that can refashion your entire relationship to yourself and the world,” says Benjamin Crais, a film and comparative literature major who graduated in 2016 after taking Judovitz’ “Art of Living” course.

“She taught me to approach scholarship as something that should not be autonomous from the rest of your life,” adds Crais, who starts his doctoral program in literature, focusing on media theory, at Duke University this fall. “She showed a whole history of philosophy concerned with the composition and cultivation of the self.”

Teaching more than subject matter

Judovitz has applied the practice of constantly crafting and challenging herself to her work. She has authored five books and has a sixth coming out this fall entitled “Georges de La Tour and the Enigma of the Visible” with Fordham University Press.

Georges de La Tour was a Baroque French painter whose work she first saw on a visit to the National Gallery. Fascinated by the aura of mystery conveyed by his use of candlelight, Judovitz wondered how he managed to imbue his paintings with a sense of the sacred. Noting the preponderance of biblical cues and clues, she discovered that La Tour’s works are “meant to be deciphered rather than merely seen.”

“I’ve had to research his color palette as well the history, theology and philosophy of the period, to truly understand what makes his work so haunting,” Judovitz says. “I was thinking about how little space there is in modern life for the sacred, and realized that it’s magical that he could convey the divine in everyday life. He accomplished this artistic feat, not by 'showing the sacred,' but rather by unfolding its meaning through the beholder’s experience of the painting as an instrument of insight.”

Camila Reed-Guevara, a sophomore majoring in classics and philosophy, initially planned to use Judovitz’s 300-level French course on subjectivity just to get the language credit. But the professor’s training to look more closely at what she sees, and to try to find a deeper interpretation, resonated enough that Reed-Guevara sought independent study with Judovitz this spring.

“I can make so many connections in my other classes now, but it’s more than that,” she says. “The concept in stoicism is to practice moderation, not as a sinful act but so you can learn to enjoy what little may come. I had someone tell me that academics means living in your own world, but this feels like a way to better the world.”

It does not surprise Judovitz that students have responded to her teachings that way. She has found Emory students to be eager for ways to challenge their thinking because they recognize that a more theoretical understanding will open up the world to them, regardless of what they go on to become.

French theory, she says, is particularly interesting for people who want to ask why and how we come to think as we do — and challenge any certainty. She sees that in Emory students and in her colleagues who have encouraged her interdisciplinary style of teaching.

“We have formidable, formational roles as teachers. We are always teaching more than our subject matter,” Judovitz says. “We are teaching students how to engage and relate to the world in richer and more meaningful ways. That work has been both a mission and an obligation.”