Fiona Caughey was selected as the recipient of the 2023 Chiara Maria Levin Award for Breadth and Excellence in the Romance Languages.
This prize honors a graduating major who excels in more than one Romance language. It was made possible by generous gifts from family and friends to honor the memory of Chiara Levin (B.A. French 2005), who passed away in 2007. It is intended as a tribute to her memory and passion for language learning.
Each year we ask the recipient of the Chiara Maria Levin Award to write a bit about themselves and the role that their language studies have played in their lives and how they hope to use that knowledge in the future.
When I began my freshman year at the University of Michigan, I probably spent too much time researching ways to leave campus. That is, by winter break, I had organized a plan to study abroad for as long as possible while remaining a U of M student! The plan was, more or less, straightforward: one summer in Grenoble, France, and then two back-to-back semesters, probably during my junior year, shared between France and Italy; I was even considering Senegal and Morocco. As a U of M student who planned to stay on U of M’s campus for as little time as possible to study abroad, it’s ironic that I never did find the chance to leave. Now, as a recent graduate, I’ve been able to reflect on how staying on campus as a Romance Languages & Literatures (RLL) major has shaped my scholarly and personal goals in ways I never would have expected that fall of my freshman year.
Beginning my time at U of M, I enrolled in the Residential College to complete their intensive-immersion language program, choosing French, the language I studied during high school. By my sophomore year, while disappointed by my cancelled study abroad in Grenoble, I began taking Italian, starting from the ground up with the 101 course in the fall of 2020. It would not surprise me if the prerequisites for the RLL major were among the most credit-heavy requirements at the University: 8 semesters, or 16 credits, of study of each language (totaling to 32—and that’s only if you take two languages!) before you can officially declare the major with an advisor. By my junior year, after taking intensive second-year Italian in the spring, I was able to begin upper-level seminars in my new language.
Although I couldn't study abroad in France, Italy, or Senegal because of COVID-19, the pandemic allowed me to maximize my time making use of all the academic resources students have at their disposal. In the fall of my sophomore year, I began to explore these resources through extracurricular research. Beginning with French Professor Michèle Hannoosh through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), I exposed myself to Algeria and Morocco, tracing the French artist Delacroix’s own journey abroad and exploring the ways in which he expressed himself during his travels: through his diary and watercolors. The following year, I had the opportunity to dip my toes into translation with Professor Hannoosh, translating into English some of these witnesses to Delacroix's travels and greater thought from his Journal.
During this time, I also began work in the University’s libraries. First, I got a job cataloguing images of French Romanesque (early Middle Ages) architecture at the Art Architecture & Engineering Library (AAEL), which sparked my interest in medieval studies. During my junior year, I was able to engage with a new medium, maps, at the Clark Library in Hatcher through an internship for my minor in Museum Studies. My mentor and I studied 19th century plans of Paris and Rome. This past year, I merged these two interests, medieval studies and cartography, into an honors thesis: “Ténacité instable : mouvance visuelle en L’Image du monde.” The essay investigates geographic representations in a series of French medieval manuscripts. After having critically engaged with these medieval French maps and having read in Italian Dante's Inferno, which was written in the 14th century, I was able to challenge the wildly held assumption that people in the Middle Ages thought that the earth was flat. In other words: do you recall the old wives’ tale that Columbus thought he was going to fall of the earth while sailing the ocean blue? Well, I'm rather confident that he didn't think that was possible!
Looking back, I’ve realized just how much my knowledge of French and Italian has allowed me to explore such a variety of subjects. As an RLL major, I always welcomed this diversity. Alongside the course on Dante’s Inferno, I took another class on Italian fascism, a technical course on French phonetics, and a final French class on the South Pacific. My research and subsequent honors thesis allowed for even further exploration on a variety of subjects. My professors continuously engaged with my diverging interests and likely scatter brain—I initially wanted to study colonial French Southeast Asia for my thesis! —, something I have found unique to the Department of Romance Languages & Literatures. Knowledge of Romance languages can, quite literally, take you anywhere.
While my plans to study abroad certainly did not play out as expected, my research experiences on campus have laid the foundation for future ones: I’m planning to study library science alongside Romance languages at the postgraduate level. I see myself one day working in an academic library as a subject specialist or teacher. This summer, I’m grateful to be able to continue merging my scholarly interests with work in U of M’s libraries. Using materials from the Clark Map Library, I’m developing a syllabus on the history of cartography and “border-drawing” for a seminar I’ll be teaching this August in Mongolia.
As I leave Ann Arbor this fall, I’ll finally be able to pursue my original plan: living abroad! This September, I will be moving to the Franche-Comté region in France as an English teacher through the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF). While I look forward to the move, I’m also taking a moment to look back at the abundance of opportunities and support afforded to me as an RLL major. To anyone considering the major: start early, take advantage of the program’s diversity, and know that by studying Romance languages, things might not always go to plan!