By Mark Shuman
Last fall, when Bridget Franco wrote in a letter that she was coming back to Notre Dame for a football game and was willing to share her latest research with current students, Associate Professor of Spanish Maria Rosa Olivera-Williams was delighted to hear from the “stellar” former student.
“But I told her I had a better idea,” Olivera-Williams says. “I realized there was a cohort of young scholars doing important work on the literature and culture of the ‘Southern Cone,’ and that everything started at Notre Dame. So I proposed that we have a colloquium in the spring with two other Notre Dame scholars.”
Olivera-Williams, who directs the Latin American Studies Program in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, worked with Franco as well as with Michael Lazzara—another “rising star” in the field—while they were undergraduates at Notre Dame. She also served as advisor of María Guadalupe Arenillas during her dissertation research on contemporary literature from South America’s Southern Cone, which includes the countries of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay.
Held on March 22, 2010, Revolution, Crisis, and Memory: Narratives from the Southern Cone featured discussion and paper presentations from the three alumni of the department’s program in Iberian and Latin American literature who have gone on to careers in academia.
Franco, who also received a master’s from Notre Dame, is assistant professor of Latin American literature and film at College of Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass.; Arenillas is assistant professor of modern languages and literatures at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich.; and Lazzara is associate professor of Latin American literature and culture at University of California, Davis.
“The three of us presented work that had many similarities and concerned a new vision of the Left in the Southern Cone,” Arenillas says. “The audience and the panelists engaged in a very interesting conversation.”
About 85 participants, including undergraduates and graduate students from the department as well as the Ph.D. in Literature program, transformed the two-hour colloquium into the type of scholarly discussion professors such as Olivera-Williams view as essential to creating a lively intellectual atmosphere.
“I’m honored to have such distinguished colleagues as former students and thrilled to continue working with them,” Olivera-Williams says.
Reuniting rising academic stars with their former mentors and introducing them to current students helps build connections across academic generations.
“We all liked what happened at the colloquium, and the interest it generated,” says Joe Buttigieg, director of the Ph.D. in Literature program and William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English. Co-sponsors of the department colloquium included the Ph.D. in Literature program, Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies, and Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts (Henkels Interdisciplinary Visiting Speaker fund).
Besides their inherent value as assemblies of scholarship, these kinds of academic events hone the skills of aspiring university professors.
“When you write a paper in that sort of company, it has to be well-crafted and professionally done,” Buttigieg says. “The papers become articles to be published, and when you are applying for a job in this very competitive atmosphere, published work indicates readiness as a professional and academic.”
All three of the colloquium’s presenters rapidly secured faculty positions, a laudable accomplishment in a difficult job market for Ph.D.s in the humanities, Buttigieg notes.
Advocacy on behalf of postgraduate students is a hallmark of our programs, where administrators and advisors assist students in writing grant proposals, organizing academic conferences, and spending summers doing international research and advancing their language skills, Buttigieg says.
“As students head out to do their work, we try to link them with scholars who can turn into mentors away from home,” he says.
Postgraduate students also benefit from resources provided by the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning. For example, the center provided colloquium participant Arenillas with a pre-doctoral fellowship, with funding from the graduate school and the College of Arts and Letters, that allowed her to study at the University of California, Davis, with fellow alum and South American literature scholar Lazzara.
Kevin Barry, interim director of the center, says the program that assisted Arenillas has sent 20 College of Arts and Letters postgraduate students to teach in other universities over the past six years.
Established in 1995, the Kaneb Center graduate student program supports developing teachers through a range of programs that include consultations, seminars on leading discussions and grading for newly-appointed teaching assistants, and help with academic job searches.
“We help them prepare the teaching part of their application packets,” says Barry. “A well-rounded packet lends a competitive edge.”
Arenillas credits her Kaneb fellowship teaching experience with giving her “a higher profile” when she went on the job market.
She also points to the impact her professors had on her. “Being in the classroom with someone so knowledgeable and successful opens many doors,” Arenillas says of Olivera-Williams. “But if you follow your passion and do what you really like, things have a way of working out.”