How does a young woman who was born in Pakistan, grew up for good chunks of her early life in Afghanistan and France, and enrolled at boarding school in Wales end up at a small liberal arts college in middle America in the late-1960s?
Dr. Anne Larsen, Hope College Class of 1970, chalks it up to an attractive college catalog, the promise of living in Hope’s French House, and, thankfully, the providence of God.
“My father (who worked abroad as an educator and then for UNESCO) wanted me to go to college in the States, so he gave me five catalogs to look over while I was in school in Wales,” says Larsen, professor of French and chair of the French section of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages.. “I felt like I was deciding on a college a bit by a roll of the dice, but in the end, I liked that Hope was a smaller school and it had a French House. Those were really the deciding factors for me.”
Five decades later, Larsen will now depart from teaching on the campus she had never heard of nor had ever seen before becoming a student after serving as a faculty member for 32 years. Between her undergraduate days and her return as a Hope professor, she earned her master’s degree and doctorate from Columbia University and taught for a little more than a decade at Tulsa University and Colgate University. All the while, she cultivated a love and an allegiance to teaching and conducting 16th century Renaissance literary scholarship. Her many journal articles and several book projects evidence Larsen’s commitment to all things French.
Raised for most of her formative years in France, Larsen never doubted that working in the Francophone field would be her life’s work, even though she majored in Spanish as well as French at Hope graduating magna cum laude. Her desire to become a college professor, though, became clearer on two undergrad occasions. Some might call it happenstance; Larsen attributes it to being in the right place at the right time when given the right influence.
“I was in a wonderful class,” recalls Larsen, “and my professor one day had to be away. He asked me, ‘Anne, would you conduct discussion of French philosopher Albert Camus’ The Stranger?’ So I did and I had such a good time doing that I thought, ‘I want to keep doing this. I want to be a college teacher.’
“I also decided to go into Renaissance and 16th century literature because of a senior paper I wrote at Hope about the Reformation Movement in France in the 1520s,” she continues. “At that time, we had to write a senior paper and defend it in front of the faculty. It was a research project designed to help students going to graduate school to develop advanced research skills. I was just taken by that whole process.”
The scholarship that she found so enjoyable as an undergraduate she naturally undertook as an educator as well, so her Hope students could find that same joy, too. For each of her several book projects, Larsen enlisted and employed several Hope students to work as language translators, indices creators, manuscript readers and image scanners. She recalls each by name – over 25 during three decades – with a smile, respect and appreciation.
There is one, though, to whom Larsen is particularly grateful, so much so that she dedicated one of the four volumes of her critical edition on the mother-daughter French writers, Madeleine and Catherine des Roches, to him. Michael Brinks ‘00 “did such extraordinary work for me,” says Larsen. “His artful translations over a summer and a term provided much inspiration to me in bringing the Dames des Roches to an English-speaking audience.”
“Anne is a very popular teacher but not because she is easy,” says long-time colleague, Dr. Sander de Haan, professor of German. “She challenges her students to work hard, but they learn and love her for it.”
Brinks is one major case in point.
Language does not exist in a vacuum, and good communication takes place not only through the spoken word but also through understanding. For that to happen, Larsen strongly urges her students to study abroad. Her top goal is not to only prepare students to participate fully in their study-abroad experience; her aim in promoting international semesters is also to allow for the emergence of a young woman or man who see the world in richer and more complex terms. The world is no simple thing, so it deserves complicated cross-cultural analyses and reflection.
“I tell my students often that there is only so much French you can learn in three, 50-minute classes each week. Of course, you can learn how to read and to write fairly well; you can learn how to listen and perhaps speak a bit. But the only way to truly understand is to go into the country itself and spend five months speaking their language, living their kind of life,” says Larsen who notes that she knows of only one French major who did not study abroad during her time at Hope. “It’s only within an immersion context where they speak the language during the day and in their dreams at night that they can be transformed by another country.”
Of course, that was Larsen’s experience as a young girl. After her parents moved the family from Afghanistan to France when she was seven, Larsen began to strongly associate with and become transformed by living in France, even though her father was American-born and her mother was Dutch-born but raised in Switzerland. Such an international family and upbringing can’t help but make a child value a global perspective. So Larsen, who also speaks Italian, sees borders only on a map. In her mind and life, few boundaries exist in treasuring the varied cultural beauty in this world.
And perhaps that is what Larsen appreciates most as well when it comes to researching early modern European women, her main scholarly interest. Ahead of their times, intellectual, brave and visionary, each 16th century female author, such as the Des Roches, Marie de France, Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Anna Maria van Schurman, became a Larsen priority and were thus brought back from the shadows of history to a place of published prominence once again. With each book and article, “I felt like I contributed to France’s pride in its literary culture,” she says. “There are more Nobel Prize winners of literature in France than any other country. It has been a privilege to contribute in some measure.”
“Anne’s scholarship is excellent,” adds de Haan. “She has brought a lot of fame to Hope College as a highly regarded researcher and author.”
In retirement, Larsen will continue to her research and writing, so soaked are the two in her scholarly soul. She is presently completing, with colleague Dr. Stephen Maiullo, assistant professor of classics, a critical edition and translation of Van Schurman’s manuscript letters and poems titled Letters and Poems to her Mentor and Other Members of Her Intellectual Circle. Then her next immediate project will be about scientific European women of the 17th century.
“Few have written about these extraordinary women – mathematicians, cosmologists, mineralogists, nutritionists. This is the next big field on gender and women’s writings in the early modern period,” she says. She’ll return to France for this new tome, back to the same apartment in Paris she has rented for the past several summers, back to her true cultural home – so more women in history can come into Larsen’s light.
“I’m looking forward to devoting my time to these new book projects,” says Larsen. “I can’t be more grateful for my years at Hope because they allowed me to do this writing alongside my teaching…. My life has been an adventure.”