French Historians under the spotlight: Jennifer Sessions

Welcome to ‘under the spotlight’, a monthly interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions – all summarised in less than ten minutes. You can catch up with previous posts here.

We’re excited to welcome Jen Sessions as the first subject of 2016-17. Jen is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Crossing Borders Program at the University of Iowa as well as presiding over the French Colonial Historical Society. Her recent book, By Sword and Plow: France and the Conquest of Algeria (Cornell University Press, 2011), uses archival, visual, and literary sources to trace the foundation of the French settler colony in Algeria in the mid-nineteenth century. Jen tweets via @Laprofmme.


In the length of a tweet, what is your research about?

The relationship between modern France and its colonies. I’m especially interested in cultures of empire and settler colonialism in Algeria.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

My dad was a French teacher for much of his career, which turned me into a precocious francophile and prompted me to learn French. But when I had to decide whether to pursue history or literary studies in graduate school, and whether to focus on France or Britain—I had done an interdisciplinary, transnational undergraduate degree in the history and literature of France and Britain—one of my wonderful undergraduate mentors, Susan Pedersen, asked two key questions: Do you want to read novels or work in archives? And would you rather spend your time in Paris or London? Those were easy to answer: Novels and archives, in Paris. So into French history I went.

You’re given a time machine for one day. Where would you go? What would you do?

That’s a hard question. I’m really curious about exactly how people go about pulling down discredited public statuary, so maybe Algiers, July 5, 1962, to feel the euphoria in the streets and watch citizens of the newly independent Algerian Republic take down colonial monuments. But just for fun, I’d also love to sit in Sonia Delaunay’s fashion and interior design shop, Casa Madrid, in Madrid, in 1919, and watch this wonderful artist turn her talents into a successful business in the “feminine” arts. If I were really lucky, I could bring a simultaneous coat back with me to the present.

Who would you invite to your French History fantasy dinner party?

Right now, I’d say the inhabitants of the Algerian colonial village of Margueritte (Aïn Torki) to see how they would talk to one another about the 1901 revolt I’ve been researching for the last few years.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

Most rewarding is the combination of intense, individual intellectual work, whether in the archives or at home behind the keyboard, and collaboration with inspiring colleagues and students. Most frustrating is the sense that these rewards are available to fewer and fewer historians, as budget cuts and the new corporate mindset undermine universities and faculties.

What one change would you like to see in Academia during the next 5 years?

More attention (and money!) to academic and intellectual affairs, less to athletics (an American thing) and wasteful “efficiency” measures that add nothing more than extra paperwork and meetings.

If you weren’t in your current role, what would you be doing?

I’d love for it to be something creative, but probably something much more banal like lawyering.

What key piece of advice would you offer postgraduates/early career academics?

Keep all of your options open.

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

All of the archives! I do love departmental archives—they are so friendly and full of unsuspected treasures. But Paris has such great company for lunch breaks.

Writing in silence or to music?

Music, preferably something to sing along to.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

European Social Science History Conference. Methodologically very diverse, despite its name. It’s one of the biggest gatherings of historians in Europe and a great place to get out of the French history box, learn new things, and generate new ideas. And sometimes be reminded of the value of counting.


Thank goodness we don’t have them in the US. Tenure review is stressful enough, and covers both.

Typed or handwritten?

Typed, then handwritten, then typed again.

Éclair or saucisson?

The questions keep making me choose between two equally essential things! Do they have saucisson-flavored éclairs?


Many thanks to Jen for taking part. If you’d like to suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know via @FrHistNwk.


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