Sima Godfrey: A look back at 32 years at UBC

0

Upon her retirement, Dr. Sima Godfrey reflects on the most memorable moments of her 32 years as a faculty member of UBC’s French program, including powerful stories about students who touched her as much as she touched them.

Dr. Sima Godfrey, Emeritus Associate Professor of French Studies

“Watching students progress from undergraduate to graduate and integrate their diverse interests and ambitions has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career.”

Dr Sima Godfrey

Emeritus Associate Professor, French Studies

The most rewarding memories I have are of students, some of whom I had the pleasure of meeting years later at conferences, having become professors themselves.

It is not necessarily the students with the best grades who left the strongest impression. Sometimes it’s the shy students who have found their voice during a term. Other times it was students who fell in love with a job we were studying, or who were confused by a job and wanted to talk about it during office hours. Or the silent student in the back row who delivered an original rendition of a poem I had never thought of.

Particularly gratifying have been the students who have been able to combine their work on French literature with their interests and studies abroad: students who want to connect French literature with the painting they were studying in a history of art, or zoology students interested in Balzac’s investment in natural history in the human comedy.

A student had worked as an interpreter for tourists at a cooking school in France and started catering to pay for her studies. She ended up doing a master’s thesis that analyzed the meals in a few Zola novels, with all the culinary and class associations they invoked. An exchange student from Barcelona with a background in linguistics ended up publishing the first Catalan translation of a tale by Théophile Gautier that we had studied.

In such cases, I learned as much from the students as I hoped they could have learned from me.

Activists are campaigning to free Loujain al Hathloul. | Source: Samzek, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“One student who has truly humbled and inspired me in recent years is Loujain al Hathloul. She set out to change the world armed with her own fearless convictions and a degree in French.

Dr Sima Godfrey

Loujain al Hathloul is a French student from Saudi Arabia who graduated in 2014. She was in a class I taught called “What is Frenchness? which addressed various themes and principles of French national identity. There was no textbook for the class, just a big lesson pack with readings dating back to the French Revolution.

After graduating, Loujain returned to Saudi Arabia to advocate for women’s right to drive and for the dissolution of the male guardianship system. For her efforts, she and other activists were imprisoned without cause on May 15, 2018. While many of her colleagues were freed, after months of solitary confinement and torture, Loujain was only released from prison on February 10, 2021.

Several months ago she contacted me and we wrote to each other and were now able to chat on screen. The first time we reconnected face to face, she pulled out her old FREN 334 course pack, opened it to a specific page, and held it up to the screen. This is the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen” of 1791 (Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen) by Olympe de Gouges which we had discussed in class, next to the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. She told me that she never forgot this text or our discussions in class. I was speechless.

“Each page of Laberge’s novels took me out of my prison cell a little more. I have crossed time and oceans with her. The parts describing the feminist movement gave me even more strength to overcome fear, pressure and moments of weakness.

Loujain al Hathloul

Women’s rights activist and French studies graduate

In an e-mail, I reminded Loujain of the class visit of Quebec actress, author and playwright Marie Laberge, whose play was being studied that year. Here is part of the text that Loujain sent back to me:

I remember Madame Laberge’s visit, I had even bought her novels. I never had time to read them, but in prison my parents had brought me books from my library, and the series The Taste of Happiness of Madame Laberge was among them. Each page of his novels made me walk a step further from my cell. I have crossed time and oceans with her. The parts describing the feminist movement gave me even more strength to overcome fear, pressure and moments of weakness. I never imagined that under these circumstances I would read his stories. »

[English translation] “I remember Mrs. Laberge’s visit, I even bought her novels. I never had time to read them, but in prison my parents had brought me books from my library, and Mrs. Laberge’s books The Taste of Happiness the series was one of them. Each page of his novels made me walk a little further from my prison cell. I have crossed time and oceans with her. The parts describing the feminist movement gave me even more strength to overcome fear, pressure and moments of weakness. I never imagined that under these circumstances I would read his stories.

That’s why we do what we do. Anyone who has ever challenged the value of the humanities or questioned the “usefulness” of literature (in any language) should know this remarkable young woman who has now been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize and is the winner of the 2020 Václav Havel Human Rights Prize. She set out to change the world armed with her own fearless convictions and a bachelor’s degree in French.

The Department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies (FHIS) can be very proud.


Career Highlights

“Don’t be afraid of new opportunities or new challenges for fear of making mistakes. This is as true intellectually as it is institutionally.

Dr Sima Godfrey

I’ve worn different badges since I arrived at UBC in 1989. At first, I worked in the French department headed by the legendary Larry Bongie, UBC’s last life director. Later, I found myself in an expanded and vibrant department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies.

Between 1998 and 2007, I was the founding director of the Institute of European Studies at UBC, where we organized three international conferences a year, introduced the first interdisciplinary Master’s program in European Studies (relating to EU) in Canada and sent students to the European Commission in Brussels. It was both scary and exciting to build something new from scratch. There was a steep learning curve, there were many challenges, we knew some of the things we tried might work and some would fail, but that was no reason to avoid taking risks. If I have one lesson to share, it’s this: don’t run away from new opportunities or new challenges for fear of making mistakes. This is as true intellectually as it is institutionally.

Along the way, I have experienced many memorable moments of unexpected fun and laughter. Years ago, I published an article called “Lamartine and my shoes”, which examined the meaning of metaphors for shoemaking and footwear in the 19andFrench poetry of the 19th century and considered as the “worker’s poetry” of someandshoemakers of the -century. The biggest thrill of my career came when I received a request for The Shoe, Journal of the Institute of Calcology, to translate it and publish it in their beautiful glossy magazine. I then had a business card made that said: “Sima Godfrey, calceologist.


Recent research trip to Paris

I’m leaving my career at UBC on a high note, having just spent five glorious weeks in Paris during which I completed my research and the book I’ve been working on for far too long, The Crimean War will not take place (Crimea, the war the French won and forgot). I was delighted to come across documents I was looking for in beautiful old libraries in Paris.

The most moving event of my stay, however, was the ceremony of induction into the Pantheon of Josephine Baker, the only ninth woman admitted and the first woman of color, born elsewhere outside of France. As I watched the solemn procession of his coffin with full military honors marching towards the Pantheon, while loudspeakers played his music and thousands of applause, I felt privileged to witness this moment and a turning point in the history of France.


Farewell words

To all my colleagues and students braving the academic year under the uncertain cloud of COVID-19, I salute and admire you. I hope to meet many of you when I come to campus. The coffee is for me. Happy New Year, good health, good continuation and good adventures.

Share.

Comments are closed.