The 1970s: what happened to those lucky enough to get a PhD in French

By Susan Husserl-Kapit. Reprinted from True Romance: the Magazine of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Harvard University, volume 15, 2005-2006, pp. 46-49. Thanks to Robyn Ochs for her encouragement for the creation of this article.


Robyn wrote all of us to write her what we’ve been up to in the past year. That works for most of you but not for us, who left the RLL Department in the 70s. The story below is what we’ve been up to for the past 30 or so years!

In the late 60s, a group of young college graduates enrolled in Harvard’s Romance Language and Literature Department with high hopes. All loving French language and literature, they hoped some day to teach French at the university level. By the time we finished our courses, however, America’s political and economic situation had changed. Jobs had become scarce.

That meant that, while some of us did fulfill their academic dreams, some didn’t. Among those who didn’t, the completed dissertation was not the distinguishing factor, since not all those who finished did find full-time academic jobs. The people in this second category had to change gears and forge other career paths.

As did the third category of RLL alums who, for varying reasons, did not finish their dissertations. One of them, Donna D’Moch Warner, was struck by the aptness of a recent article in a Harvard publication: it advised graduate students to pick a topic they love. If not, it warned, working on the thesis just might be torture! That did indeed derail some of us. Problems with thesis advisors derailed others. And life itself pulled others off the PhD track.

This article will give updates on all of us, starting with those whose careers followed a straight line and wending its way toward the more unexpected paths and destinations.

The academics

Among those who went into academia, and perhaps the first to leave Cambridge, Bernard Bichakjian is also the only one whose entire career maintained the same focus, linguistics. His job timing was perfect since when he got his doctorate in 1972, the job situation was “fortunately, different in Europe,” he writes, “where the baby boomers were flocking to the universities. There, it was a period of expansion.”  

Holland’s University of Nijmegen offered Bernard a position he accepted and held in French Linguistics and Literature until 2002, when he reached mandatory retirement age. He chaired the department for many years, taught French and general linguistics and describes his research and the subject of his recent book as follows:

After my thesis, I turned to Transformational Grammar, but with the empirical support for the innatist model becoming increasingly tenuous, I sought inspiration elsewhere. Stephen Jay Gould’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny provided me with the necessary insight to show that languages evolve and to define the process. I have my detractors, but the challenge of defending language evolution is stimulating. See Bernard’s profile on ResearchGate.

Holbrook Robinson (Ph.D. ‘74) also went straight into academia, at Northeastern. Since being Department Chair from 1976-1995, he teaches courses on the theory of literature, French culture, and language. “Having an academic life,” he writes, “means, intellectually, doing what you want if you are fortunate enough to get tenure.” Since he does have tenure, he spends a good deal of time on an old passion: musical composition. He lives in Cambridge, in the same house as in graduate school, and also has the “same job, same wife, and almost the same car from 1969 till now — and no regrets.” See his faculty profile at Northeastern University, Boston

 Annie Ross, now Anne Gillain (Ph.D.’75), also went straight into academia. Like Bernard and Holbrook and several of the others in this category, she made her whole career at one institution. In her case, it was at Wellesley College. Also like Bernard and Holbook, she was department chair and is now tenured. Her direction changed a bit, however, since Harvard. Rather than French literature, she teaches French language and cinema, the former, based on audiovisual materials, and the latter, taught from a psychoanalytic perspective. In 1978, she got a DEA (Diplôme d’Études Approfondies) in film from Paris III and has written several books on French literature and cinema. She lives in Cambridge and became an American citizen in 1980! See a 2013 review of one of her books on Truffaut

Richard Ferland (Ph.D.’73) went straight into academia, after which he took a winding route only to return to it as chair of his department. After five years teaching at UMass-Boston, he spent a year in Utrecht, researching French Jansenists on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Then, “one year of part-time teaching at a private high school, Simmons College, and Harvard College Extension was enough for me. I knew that I would have to leave Boston to get a decent job.” So he went to Stetson University in DeLand, FL and has been there ever since. His diversion from the direct path was getting an MBA from there in 1986. He used that degree to develop a strong international/study abroad program but still teaches French literature as well. See his faculty profile at Stetson University, Tampa, FL

After Hadley Wood got her PhD, in 1972, she got a teaching job at SUNY Brockport, and, five years later, at Point Loma University in California. She taught French at the latter for 22 years, became full professor and department chair before her career took “a very sudden turn.” In January 2000, she explains “the Provost asked me to create and develop a Center for Teaching and Learning on our campus.”  She took on the new job while also teaching French until 2004, when she finally decided that she could really only do one. At that time she left teaching to become Dean of General Education and Vice Provost for Faculty Development.

“I think I already knew, while at Harvard, that I was more interested in teaching than in research. So I feel that I have actually ended up with a career that well fits who I am and that has allowed me to do things I feel passionately about. See her faculty profile at Point Loma, San Diego, CA.

 With a Ph.D. in Romance Languages (’72) from Harvard University, and a M.Div. from Weston School of Theology (’74), John Michalczyk began to teach at Boston College. He started there teaching comparative literature in the Honors Program, including film studies in his courses. His next step was teaching mostly film history courses, and the final one was making documentaries for PBS. Now, he combines all of the above, while chairing the Fine Arts Dept and co-chairing the Film Studies Program.

“I am currently teaching La Nouvelle Vague,” he writes, “and go back to my original research in French on the topic.” He adds that he occasionally teaches some ideas about his doctoral thesis on art, film and propaganda in the Spanish Civil War, using the Malraux novel of his thesis as a focus. See his faculty profile at Boston College.

Susan Dunn took one of the most startling career paths we could have imagined! She also went straight from Harvard to her first job and stayed there. In her case, it was Williams College. That part is a straight line. But then, she switched from French literature (Ph.D., ‘73) to American political history!

She explains her evolution: “When I was studying 19th-century French literature at Harvard in the late 60s and early 70s with Paul Bénichou, I never thought that within three decades I’d be writing books about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin Roosevelt. But looking back, my intellectual evolution seems logical to me. My thesis at Harvard was on the historical novels of Gerard de Nerval. I guess I was always a political person (weren’t we all in the crazy ’60s?) who tried to find connections between history, politics, and literature.”

She adds that Williams made her a professor of humanities so “I can teach whatever courses I desire. I still like to teach one French literature course a year — how can I give up my favorite authors?” See her faculty profile at Williams College.

French teachers outside the university system:

Monique Bilezikian got her Ph.D. in 1975 but had left Harvard in 1972 to
teach at the University of Michigan, with her thesis to be finished within three years. In order to meet the deadline, she had to track down her thesis advisor in Cambridge during his short stays there and even fly to Paris for consultations. After teaching at Michigan, she was happy to relocate on the East Coast in the Washington DC metropolitan area.

In 1990, after teaching at Georgetown University, she left academia to start a career teaching French to adult professionals, first at the World Bank, then at the Foreign Service Institute, the U.S. Department of State Language School. She now supervises a staff of 34 instructors and, depending on the time of year, between 40 and 120 diplomats and embassy personnel. She works in a diverse and multi-cultural environment where about 60 languages are taught. She finds it “stimulating and rewarding as we see our students with solid language skills leave for overseas francophone posts in embassies around the world.”

She lives outside Washington, DC, in Maryland and works in Virginia. 

I myself, Susan Husserl-Kapit, got my doctorate in 1973, and started, like Richard Ferland, teaching part-time at several institutions simultaneously: Harvard, Radcliffe Institute, Boston University, and others. Because I was single, I feared terminal loneliness if I left Boston for a rustic area. Nonetheless, after teaching at the Extension for nine years, I had to leave because of an old Extension rule that all instructors must already teach full-time elsewhere. I therefore accepted a position outside Boston, at the Phillips Exeter Academy. The teaching level was similar to Harvard’s so I stayed until I found a similar position in Boston. The level was the same, plus I could return to the city!

Determined to teach in an environment like the Extension, I did the next best thing, taught at the Boston Center for Adult Education, which led me to form my own adult education program for professionals. I also worked full-time at Houghton Mifflin, editing French college textbooks.

I now divide my time between freelance textbook editing, authoring language books, and private instruction. I do what I love – teach French to motivated students, determine my own hours, and have the best commute possible.

Richard Kennedy was at Harvard from 1967-69, then two years in the army, then back at Harvard from 1971-1975. He had always intended to teach college, he writes.  Unfortunately, however, he eventually realized that he couldn’t follow the advice Donna mentioned above: he couldn’t relate well to his topic, Julien Green.

He left Harvard with an M.A. in 1975 to teach French, Latin and English at two different private secondary schools: Dwight-Englewood School (‘75-‘01) and then Oratory Prep (2002-now), both in New Jersey.

A group of his 7th and 8th grade graders taught him, fairly early on “what a colossal gas it is teaching kids that age once you know how. Never a dull moment!”

After 26 years, he moved to Oratory Prep, a Catholic school, because he felt a growing dissatisfaction at non-denominational Dwight-Englewood due to its increasing lack of religious feeling. “As good as D-E was,” he writes, “it had neither prayer nor flag pledge:  It paid allegiance to nothing higher than itself, and I knew that I needed something of that order to direct my life towards.”            

He has now found that something at Oratory Prep! See his page there (Summit, NJ).

 Those who changed careers completely:

Tom Bugos (Ph.D. ’76) got his MBA the year after he was offered tenure by the same university, Xavier, in Ohio! Several years later, following the completion of an M.S. in Computer Information Systems, he changed careers to software engineering because, as he writes, “I was looking for a discipline that would permit me to be more ‘creative’ than the study of language and literature allow.” He defines ‘creative’ as the “ability to develop a real-world business solution which previously did not exist.”

In 1999, he founded Contract Software Engineering, Inc. so that he could work for his own company, he writes, “and invoice clients directly.” At present he works for Thomson Financial in Boston. 

Donna D’Moch Warner came to dislike her thesis topic, Jean Cocteau, and longed to be active in the real world. Getting a job at Abt Associates, a social science consulting firm, where she worked for fifteen years, gave her that opportunity. She credits her “academic background in French Literature for good writing, analytic and critical thinking skills,” but realized eventually that, “…it proved no substitute for statistics!”

That led her to her MBA in 1984, after which she directed several non-profit programs. Since 1996, she has served as director of Strategic Planning and Program Development for the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program.

“I am addicted to the hectic pace and the rewards of this work,” she writes. “Along with my work with the Department of Public Health, I skirt the fringe of academia as a co-investigator with the University of Massassachusetts Medical School on research projects.”

Like some others, Louise Apfelbaum Masurat had trouble finishing her thesis when her advisor, Professor Solano, retired right after her General Exams.  With no professor in her field, Old Provençal, to advise her, she moved on to several other careers. After Harvard, she taught English at Boston’s Fisher College, and then became an editor in the New York area, editing works as varied as cookbooks, cowboy novels, and science books by Carl Sagan! Her next career was as a real estate broker in rural New Jersey, following which she taught both real estate and humanities at her local community college.

In 2000, she moved again, this time to Pennsylvania, where she became active with the University of Delaware’s Academy of Lifelong Learning. She taught five courses there last semester, including cinema and computers.

            Legally blind (from Retinitis pigmentosa) for the last eight years, she moved with her husband to a continuing care community in the Chapel Hill, NC, area. She just might continue teaching in the Lifelong Learning institution in that area!

Alumni who have died since their Harvard days:

Kitty Kovacs, who’d gotten her BA in Spanish, switched to teaching Spanish and film early on. She taught at USC, then at Whittier College and wrote both on film and Latin American literature. She passed away in 1989.

Roland Tobin was a Christian Brother, had his MA, and had taught at Stonehill College before Harvard, without, we think, completing his dissertation. After Harvard, he was Director of the GTE English School in Algeria. He died a few years ago. 

John Lappin passed away in 2005.

Janeen Kerper died about 2002. She left Harvard after her M.A. in French. She then went to law school and practiced law in San Diego.

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