tags: Top Young Historians
Judith Surkis, 37
Teaching Position: Associate professor of history, and of history and literature, Harvard University
Area of Research: Modern French cultural and intellectual history, as well as the history of gender, sexuality, and empire.
Education: Ph.D. in History and Certificate in Women's Studies, Cornell University, June 2001
Major Publications: Surkis is the author of Sexing the Citizen: Morality and Masculinity in France, 1870–1920 (Cornell University Press, 2006), which examines how masculine sexuality was central to the making of republican citizenship and social order. Her new book project, Scandalous Subjects: Policing Indecency in France and French Algeria, 1830–1930, explores how cultural debates about sexual scandals constituted and regulated the distinction between public and private in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century France.
Surkis's other publications include "Enemies Within: Venereal Disease, and the Defense of French Masculinity Between the Wars," in C. Forth and B. Taithe, eds., French Masculinities(forthcoming).
Awards: Surkis is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Jan Thadeus Teaching Prize, History and Literature, 2005;
Nancy L. Buc Fellow, Pembroke Center for Research and Teaching on Women, Brown University, 2003-2004;
Bowmar Research Assistantship to Prof. D. LaCapra, 1999-2000;
Einaudi Center for International Studies, Research Grant, 1997-98;
Fulbright Research Grant, France, 1996-1997;
Mary K. Sibley, Phi Beta Kappa Research Grant, France, 1996-97;
Council of European Studies, Pre-Dissertation Grant, Summer 1995;
Einaudi Center for International Studies, Travel Grant, Summer 1995;
Einaudi Center Western Societies Travel Grant, Summer 1995;
Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities, 1993-1994;
Phi Beta Kappa, elected 1992;
Albert Arnold Bennett, Class of 1872 Award, Brown University, 1992.
Surkis co-chairs the Colloquia in Intellectual and Cultural History at Harvard's Center for European Studies and the Seminar on Gender and Sexuality at the Humanities Center.
I am part of the last generation of grad students to research my dissertation at the "old" Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. With its intricately domed ceiling in forged iron, the reading room was a masterpiece of modern nineteenth-century architecture. Initially built to be rational and efficient, the library I encountered operated according to elaborate rituals. With repetition, these rites, which at first appeared arcane to the American researcher, became a cherished and comforting daily routine.
For those of us used to grazing in an endless frontier of open stacks, the first challenge was learning how to get a place and how to order a book. Entry into the luminous Salle Labrouste was conditional upon an interview; being admitted felt like belonging to a select club. Even when granted permission, securing a seat was not easy, as the limited number of spots- some 360 in all- were in high demand. A late arrival could mean waiting an hour- or more- for one to become available. This intervening time, if often frustrating, also created camaraderie; the wait was also an initiation into the unique temporality and sociability of the "B.N."
Upon entry, a rigid plastic tablet, inscribed with a seat number, had to be delivered to the librarians who surveyed the readers from the back of the room. They exchanged this card for another, smaller one with a barcode, which could then- finally- be used to request books. The order duly dispatched, another wait was in store. Seated at my place, reviewing notes from the day before, I would eagerly anticipate the librarians who would serve up the day's reading from off their loaded book cart. With the inner workings of the stacks well hidden, this conveyance of volumes directly to my place felt almost magical and certainly luxurious. Whether I had ordered a tome of Kantian philosophy, a pulp novel, or a handbook of military hygiene, the texts were treated with an equal measure of at times incongruous respect when they were set in front of me.
This attitude reflected my own approach to historical inquiry, one in which very different sorts of works coincide. In these august surroundings and with such attentive handling, the most minor text seemed worthy of consideration. Here was a concrete experience of the legitimating work of the library itself. My history of how sexuality shaped the meaning and modality of French citizenship at the end of the nineteenth-century found support and sustenance here- and not just because Michel Foucault used to work in the "hemicycle" of the reading room.
The library offered a genuine intellectual and social community. As a destination for scholars from all over, this "national" institution was, in fact, a genuinely cosmopolitan space. The relationships I developed there confirmed my interest in French history. I pursued my studies not because I was particularly passionate about things French (as much as I enjoyed lunching in the nearby Palais Royal), but because of my interest in a set of questions about the historical relationship between democracy and sexual difference and about the political meanings of masculinity. In the library, I met colleagues with whom I exchanged myriad ideas over the bad coffee machine coffee in the stone courtyard off the rue Richelieu. Here, perhaps for the first time in Paris, I felt at home.
By Judith Surkis
About Judith Surkis
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