Polygence blog / Student Spotlights

College Research Student Carly Writes a Research Paper on French Colonialism and its Connection to Political Unrest in America

8 minute read

Carly is a junior in her undergrad at Stanford University. She worked with her mentor, Jin, to analyze the underlying themes of the Francophone novels: "The Stranger," by Albert Camus, and "Meursault, contre-enqêute," by Kamel Daoud. After putting their novels in conversation with one another, Carly found that these themes were actually applicable to the heightened political unrest in the U.S. during the summer of 2020. After further research, she was able to connect all three magnificently in a research paper that is set to be published in Berkeley’s journal of comparative literature, CLUJ. Read more to learn about Carly’s Polygence experience..

What led you to taking on a Polygence research project and choosing the project that you did?

After everyone had been suddenly sent off my college campus due to COVID, I decided to take a leave of absence, but I wanted a way for me to keep up with my French. I know Jin from being on the Stanford Wushu team together, and she was actually a general mentor to me after being the TA for a seminar I did in France last summer. Thus, we were already very close and I was familiar with Polygence, so she suggested that we do a Polygence research mentorship project.

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As for choosing the subject and form of my project, I knew coming in that I would want to do a paper of some sort and something that I had already started reading on my own was The Stranger by Albert Camus. It's a novel about a Frenchman born and raised in Algeria named Meursault, who murders an unnamed native Algerian man for seemingly no reason. The book is about the lead-up to and the fall out from that murder. Jin happened to have already known this book well, so she suggested that we read it together, meet each week, and have a discussion about it. Having more structure to my readings and discussing them with Jin really helped my French in a lot of dimensions, but it was also really fun to see how my project began to take on its own shape as time went on.

Why did you decide to analyze the Black Lives Matter movement along with these two texts in your paper?

It was a bit of a journey. Before I connected my studies to anything going on in the U.S., I noticed that a lot of the scholarship around The Stranger has focused on the absurd condition of Meursault, who refuses to play the social games of bourgeois society and is punished for it. The colonial context of The Stranger has often been ignored until pretty recently, which is mainly because of Kamel Daoud’s work. He’s an Algerian author who wrote a response to The Stranger from the Algerian perspective — specifically the perspective of the brother of the unnamed Arab that Meursault killed. The Stranger doesn’t even say anything about the Arab point of view, but Daoud makes a point to give these characters a story and explore the situation from their side. He also explores the colonial context of The Stranger, so I think it was a great thing to read both of those books together. I realized that the juxtaposition these two novels made to each other was something I wanted to explore in my project.

Honestly though, I didn't expect to end up connecting any of this to contemporary American politics. Yet, just as I had finished Meursault, contre-enqêute, George Floyd was murdered. As we all remember, that terrible event was dominating news outlets for at least a week, discourse online was engaging with it for several months, and of course, protests were happening across the country for multiple months, too. So, it was a very prominent moment in most of our lives.

I didn’t want it to be just a moment that passes by for me, because it garnered such a strong emotional response in me, and also because of the momentum we suddenly had for potentially very positive political change with policing reform and even abolition. I was having a lot of intense conversations with my family and was learning a lot of interesting things from social media at that time. I didn’t want racial justice and police brutality to be something that I eventually stopped thinking about. Of course, I knew about BLM before George Floyd’s death and I already agreed with their message, but this was the moment where I realized I needed to take things further. I wanted to find a way that I could personally invest in thinking through these issues.

What were the main messages you wanted to convey by connecting the literature you had read to current U.S. politics?

I was watching the Conan O'Brien show during the week after George Floyd’s murder, when he hosted different black intellectuals and artists talking about police brutality. Van Jones came on and said something that stuck with me, which I then connected to a quote from Meursault, contre-enquête. He explained that with all of these police killings in the past, black parents had always been able to find some random thing that they thought they could tell their kids not to do so they would be safe. Don’t talk back, keep your hands up, don’t wear a hood, things like that. Yet, what made George Floyd’s death different and what really made it hurt more was that there was just no longer anything that they could even point to.

There's a very similar passage in Meursault, contre-enquête where the main character is sitting in a bar reminiscing about everything that happened with his brother, after his death, and the larger context of decolonization in Algeria. He's looking around this bar, seeing all these Algerian men and just wondering what they did to not become a Moussa. And he decides there's really nothing that they did. Any of them could have been Moussa and so, I think the message that's being conveyed in that book is actually very similar to the messages that are trying to be conveyed by Black Lives Matter. That's something that I wanted to pull out more in the paper.

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What advice would you give to those who want to write a paper?

For me, the biggest challenge was how long it took since my motivation started to dwindle at some point. I was revising and revising to the point where there would be some weeks where I would just be like, “I need to look at this document, but I don’t want to anymore.” I tend to be a perfectionist, so this is a typical struggle for me. I always battle between making my paper the absolute best and being weary of overworking it. I realized that once you get to that point of barely being able to look at your paper, you just have to send it off. Once it's done, it's done.

I’d also recommend reading a lot of texts and giving yourself plenty of time to think and take notes. The more specific ideas you have coming into a paper, the more specific research you can do, and the better direction you'll have. Yet, definitely don't worry if you don't have a very specific idea at the start, because no matter how broad or how narrow of a field you're exploring, things will come up and you’ll be able to to find something you're interested in. Also, make sure to explore your options without the burden of needing to produce a concrete answer to a question. It took me until college to realize that a paper can be an exploration of a question you really don't know the answer to. In my opinion, research is a chance to ask questions that you don't actually know the answer to, but would like to discover.

What did a typical meeting with your mentor look like? How was it helpful to you during your time with Polygence?

It definitely depended on which phase of the project we were in. For the first few sessions, I had my assigned section of the reading that we would discuss. Sometimes, Jin would pick out special passages and ask me to answer questions about it beforehand, or she’d have me pick some out for us to look at. This way I was able to practice not only reading and speaking, but writing French as well. Our conversations were always relaxed, but super thought-provoking. I was always left feeling like I had seen the text in a much clearer and different light, which often helped me realize how parts of the paper fit together.

Jin was a big help when I was looking for a journal to submit my paper to, while also being a fantastic writing mentor — both in terms of coming up with more general ideas during the early stages and offering more nitty-gritty comments towards the end. Jin is also a very kind and compassionate person. I was so grateful that in our session right after George Floyd was killed, Jin let me be emotional and stressed out. She listened to me as I’d tell her about the conversations I was having and the things I was seeing on the news. It was all unrelated to our project at the time, but she allowed me to do that, which I think encouraged me to start thinking about the two things together.

What do you feel is the most valuable thing you gained through this research project?

Honestly, the confidence boost and the knowledge that I am capable of doing this whole project on my own, as well as having created something that I am proud of and would like to share with other people.

Outside of the tangible skills that will obviously come in handy (i.e. improving my French and critical thinking), It was thrilling to have this project that I undertook — unaware of how it would relate to my life — actually furnish me with an opportunity to think through a lot of political arguments. It gave me better justifications for a lot of things that I intuitively believed, but didn't really know how to express to people. Now, I feel like I've had an opportunity to use something I was studying to actually help me understand how to counter certain arguments. Furthermore, living in a place that's predominantly white and with most of my family being pretty conservative, it feels good to feel more prepared to have conversations with the people around me about these things.

That’s one of the things that I think is amazing about Polygence projects too. It’s okay if your initial plans or goals change over time. I was able to shape my project around the things that just happened to grab my interest in the world, which I didn't foresee at all. I also don't think there's any other opportunity where you're going to get to work this directly with people who are this highly educated, enthusiastic, supportive, and good at teaching either.

For students who want to learn more about discrimination in the U.S. what would you recommend that they do, read, or watch?

That's a really tough question because there's so much. I think following the news and creators of color in all forms of art on social media is a good place to start. That’s what I did in the summer, along with reading more novels by people of color and watching shows on their experiences. There's so many things you can do. I think just listening is the most important way to learn, as well as finding movements and organizations that you believe in and actively, financially supporting them if you can.

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