One of the perks of being a branch campus is from time to time we get faculty to come over from The New School in New York. This past spring we were happy to welcome Rebecca Reilly from the Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. In addition to teaching courses at Parsons Paris, she was also working on her own book and dissertation. We were happy to chat with Rebecca – pictured above with her bicycle – and learn about her experiences in both Paris and New York.
What is your background and how did you end of at Parsons / Parsons Paris? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Was there turning point or defining moment that helped get you where you are now?
I completed my B.A. at The New School, and was part of the inaugural class of the M.F.A writing program at The New School as well. I did always want to be a poet, of all things, and being in the M.F.A. program, especially in the first class of a new program, made so many things possible. I studied with amazing poets like Susan Wheeler and David Trinidad,and met the talented group poets who are colleagues and friends to this day, my classmates: Mark Bibbins, Kathy Ossip and Soraya Shalforoosh, all of whom also have recent books out or forthcoming this year.
As far as ending up at Parsons Paris, I’ve taught in The New School’s writing program for a number of years, and also worked on a collaboration between Eugene Lang College and the American University of Paris, so when the opportunity came up to send a cohort of Lang students to Parsons Paris, I was honored to be the faculty member sent to lead the pilot semester. I taught at The University of Paris, Nanterre, for several years the first time I lived in Paris, so the combination of all this French experience, and my long association with The New School, came together in this happy opportunity.
You’re a published author, can you tell us about your work.
My first book, Repetition, is coming out in Spring 2015, with Four Way Books. It is a memoir about the first time I lived in Paris, a number of years ago. Set in Paris and New York, the book chronicles a time of grief in my life, and how I came to the end of that time. My literary friends during this time were Paul Celan and Gertrude Stein, both of whom lived and wrote in Paris for many years, and accompany me in my thoughts on my walks through the city, as I come to know the city. The book is the story of what happened to me after my father died, as told to someone I loved.
What is the current dissertation you’re working on?
It’s funny, because my dissertation is about also about repetition, in the work of Gertrude Stein. When I sat down to write my dissertation, what would eventually become the memoir came out instead. Like most dissertation writers, I will do anything to avoid writing my dissertation, including writing a whole other book. Luckily, there is a lot of overlap between the two projects, and Gertrude Stein is a character in the memoir as well.
How did you become fluent in French?
I actually write about this in the book too, because it was such a happy part of the first time I lived in Paris. When I first arrived, I didn’t speak any French, and had not studied it in school. Three of the four years I lived in Paris, I took classes at a community center on the rue Montorgueil, in the 2nd arrondissement. It only cost 20 euros per year, and was taught by the most kind volunteers (Pierre! Serge!). The whole center was run by volunteers, to help immigrants who had come to France without papers–sans papiers. I would never have learned French otherwise, because most of the students in the class spoke no English, I was forced to speak French all the time, and to stay in it most of the time, because they were my friends, and we spoke it together outside of class too.
What was your experience teaching at Parsons Paris this spring, and how did it differ from the New York campus?
I loved teaching at Parsons Paris. It was so nice for me, personally, after having written a book about living in Paris during such a difficult time in my life, to return to Paris under such happy circumstances, and to see it anew. It was funny how much alike the two campuses are, in that Parsons Paris has the same openness, the same intellectual and creative energy so present in New York. But, at Parsons Paris, there is such an intimacy of scale, all of the creative energy of the different disciplines comes together in a really interesting way–I was able to get to know my colleagues in the other fields, and was inspired by the various and exciting projects they were working on. Same with the students, I had the sense of Parsons Paris being a place where both students and faculty were really making things–even if you came in on the weekend, or at night, students would be working in the design labs, faculty working in the office–there was a feeling of collaboration, openness, and creativity throughout the building.
What is the Eugene Lang School and how is it related to The New School?
Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts is the seminar-style, undergraduate, liberal arts college of The New School University. It is similar to Parsons Paris, in that it has the intimacy of a small college, but draws upon the resources of the larger university, and is located in the greatest (sorry Paris!) city in the world. Also like Parsons Paris, its small scale allows students and faculty to collaborate in an intellectually rigorous and creatively adventurous atmosphere—so too at Lang, I always have the sense that both students and faculty are engaged in exciting academic and creative projects.
What will the relationship with “Lang” and Parsons Paris be moving forward?
I look forward to Lang and Parsons Paris continuing to develop programs and send students and faculty between Paris and New York, as the two divisions of The New School work so well together. In Spring 2015, Robin Mookerjee, who is the chair of Lang’s writing program, will bring over another cohort of students and teach two courses.
It was exciting for Lang students to be in Paris, with their own university, and to take courses designed to introduce them to French language, literature and philosophy. It was a great fit for our dual degree BAFA students, who are enrolled at both Parsons and Lang, but also for our Liberal Arts majors single-degree students from a number of liberal arts disciplines. It was great to have Lang and Parsons students together in the classes as well, as they took such different creative approaches, from the product design student who turned out to be a French phenomenologist in the making, to a politics major from Lang who wrote a combination ethnography/autobiographical history of her family, of migration, between the Ivory Coast and Paris, complete with photographs.The students brought all their creative and academic backgrounds together for the courses, and created amazing writing projects.
What will you miss most about leaving Paris?
My bicycle! Which Anne has been so kind as to photograph for me. My friend Ella has agreed to adopt it for me in my absence, but it was so fun to ride my bike to work at Parsons Paris. I will miss my colleagues at Parsons Paris, drinking coffee on the terrace while grading my papers and talking to those colleagues, while looking out over the rooftops of Paris. Otherwise, I will miss pastries and baguettes.