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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Aggie Profiles: Professor Tobias Warner


A Multilingual Look at Radical Literary and Educational Innovation

“Une Si Longue Lettre,” a novel by Senegalese author Mariama Ba, is often referred to as a “liberatory feminist classic” in the words of Tobias Warner. Warner, a professor in the UC Davis Department of French and Italian, has researched this novel extensively, tracking its translation from the original French into Wolof, a comparison which yields more complex takeaways than the English text alone. It is precisely in the space between languages and geopolitical boundaries, applying this comparative, and often radical, literary methodology that Warner finds his academic niche.

“Une si Longue Lettre” is more easily interpreted as a feminist liberation from polygamy and patriarchy, but in a class with Warner, one may believe they have discovered a more nuanced and elusive feminism and prerogative in general. This novel and the experience of coming to one’s own conclusions on it is a rich lens from which one can learn about Warner. Although he earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, Warner has found himself working in the French department.

Almost all of my teaching is in the French department because that’s where I’m housed […] that’s very typical for people who train in comparative literature and in language departments,” Warner said. “I teach a lot of texts, I teach some of the texts that I write on but I teach some texts from North Africa, from West Africa, from the Caribbean.”

As a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, Warner chose to focus on texts in French, English and Wolof and is fluent in all three languages. Wolof is spoken by 80 percent of the Senegalese population, although French is the nation’s official language. As French is the language of government and some institutions, Warner identifies fertile grounds to research on the politics of language.

“My work looks at the politics of language in Senegalese literature,” Warner said. “So I look at the history of a debate between writers who are working in French and those who are working in Wolof and I look at that in a kind of longer time frame. So I look at how that debate traces back to the colonial period, particularly colonial education, the uses of French literature in colonial education and I trace the history of this tension all the way up to essentially the present. So what makes the research interesting is that it’s not a phenomenon that’s unique to Senegal.”

Warner identified two tendencies in the Senegalese literature that he researches. One is, in his words, more normative. In this tendency, authors endeavor to create a standardized literary history similar to those found elsewhere in the world.

“One of the ways in which it’s often framed is that it’s about cultural authenticity, about decolonization and I affirm all of those things, but I also suggest that what’s at stake is really the definition of literature itself,” Warner said.

The other tendency is more radical, according to Warner. In this one, writers experiment with alternate modes of iterating their work.

“They could take a novel and they could explore something new with it,” Warner said. “They could write a work that isn’t just in one language but is in a couple different languages. They could shoot films that were multilingual. They could makes works that were for radio as well as for print […] what the politics of language does on the one hand, it sort of makes a literary tradition that is very similar to others but on the other hand it’s great space for writers and translators to just really experiment with what literature is, who it’s for, what kinds of discursive practices can be literary.”

Warner is engaged in a deep critical study of the nature of literature along the lines of post colonization, cultural production and the linguistics that illustrate it. Because of his research, he often finds himself interacting with primary sources and archival documents. Among these documents of colonial education, Warner is fascinated with the debates engaged with by colonial educators around instructing on literature. Teachers in the colonial period assigned to students under the imperial regime went so far as to question these students’ capacity for literature. Their discourse was manifested in an incredibly authoritative educational regime, something upon which Warner has reflected considerably.

“I often think about my teaching as shaped by a reaction to [studying colonial education],” Warner said. “Saying, rather than thinking about how to impose a particular view on students, from above, how can I take the classroom and create more space in which students can come to their own readings, their own conclusions? So sometimes that means that I’m a little bit less directive than other professors and I recognize that but for me that’s where that comes from. So it comes from studying closely a very, very authoritarian system of education causing me to reflect too on what my role is as a teacher in systems of power as well.”

It may now be clear why reconsidering the goals of the text “Une si Longue Lettre” in Warner’s classroom is the best way to get to know him as an educator. He is rigorously anti-authoritarian and entrenched in a politics of language that is often unclear and blurry, as traditions and histories become when sullied by imperialist forces. Warner enters the classroom eager to learn from his students, resistant to lecturing and an almost painfully attentive listener. He extracts original thought and committed engagement from his students through rich discussion. Although it’s often difficult to deeply study African languages due to a lack of institutional presence, Warner finds his 10-year commitment to studying Wolof and his research abroad to be a more honest investigation into the field of comparative literature.

“It’s more of a dialogue between and across languages that interests me,” Warner said. “I think that studying it as a dialogue is probably more faithful to the way in which that debate has actually happened.”

This dialogue is essential to the nature of colonial projects from their beginning stages until indirect rule. As colonial regimes insisted on divisiveness within the colonial state, compartmentalization of religious and ethnic groups through standardization of language took place. In Senegal, similar forms of Wolof were spoken among Animist and Muslim groups.

“The ability to say this is Wolof and this is distinct from French, that distinction too is a historical one,” Warner said. “So even the distinction between Wolof and other closely related African languages is at least partially the result of missionary linguists who wanted to maximize the differences between communities, one of which was Islamic and another was Animist, and so they called them different languages and studied them as different languages[…]to be sure there were differences, but often the distinctions between our ability even to speak of where Wolof begins is part of the history we’re studying. So it’s tricky to then say, ‘this is entirely different or we can entirely tell.’ Language is messy, but that’s what’s interesting about it.”

When Warner was 20, he traveled to Senegal as an exchange student. Speaking French, he thought he would be equipped in the classroom and abroad. However, he vividly remembers his first experience in a university class.

“I remember being in my class […] and before the lecture began, the professor would be talking about a famous Senegalese novel written in French and discussion before that was mostly if not entirely in Wolof,” Warner said. “Both among the students and among the professor as well. So once class began it switched over from Wolof to French.”

For Warner, this was the spark that ignited his academic and professional goals up until this present moment.

“I became curious about the history of [language switching] and how literature came to be written in French and how institutions such as universities and educational systems contribute to that,” Warner said.

Warner manages to be at once committed to his research and his classes in the French department. He makes efforts to incorporate the comparative methods from his research to the texts read in his French classes, whether through looking at colonial documents or reading North African, West African, Caribbean or French literature with the breadth of historical and geopolitical awareness they require. These more technical approaches are maintained without loss of the emotional and social lessons Warner has learned from the social realities of colonial education.

“It’s about creating situations where students kind of engage with texts and come to their own conclusions, their own readings,” Warner said. “I think there are ways you can bring that expertise in but I think it’s important to do so in a way that supports student learning and supports student insight and analysis rather than dropping a preformed idea.”


Written by: Stella Sappington — features@theaggie.org


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