Justin Izzo was in graduate school studying anthropology when he realized he didn’t want to be an anthropologist. For many students, this would be full-blown academic crisis, if not an existential one. But for Izzo it was just part of a discipline-straddling professional path that eventually led him to Brown as an assistant professor of French studies.
Izzo started studying the French language at age 11 and quickly became interested in French literature and culture. He went to New York University as an undergraduate, where he became interested in francophone studies — the study of French-language literature and cultural production from outside mainland France, often from former French colonies in West Africa and the Caribbean. His study brought him face to face with questions of race and colonialism as they related to the former French empire. He knew he wanted to explore these questions in graduate school, and he thought he could do it in a dynamic way through anthropology, rather than being limited, as he puts it, “to searching through archives.”
But as it turned out, anthropology wasn’t the right fit.
“I wasn’t cut out for fieldwork in many ways,” Izzo said. “I realized that while I wanted to approach anthropological questions, I didn’t want to do so as an anthropologist. I did my Ph.D. at Duke, and there the literature and anthropology departments are very close. I was offered the chance to change programs, which was a really serendipitous moment for me.”
Drawing on his background in francophone studies and his time in anthropology, Izzo started thinking about the history of French anthropology in relation to literature. It’s a genre he’s termed “ethnographic fiction.”
“It emerged out of a uniquely French way of doing anthropology,” Izzo said. “You have anthropologists who went to the colonies and former colonies, and also fiction writers and directors who are from these places, and they approach their subjects in ways that were reminiscent of anthropological approaches.”
Emblematic of the genre is French anthropologist Jean Rouch. While working in West Africa, Rouch would film his research subjects improvising scenes. He showed his “actors” the rough cut, and they would continue to improvise a story line until they had a complete film. Rouch considered the films to be fiction, but they offer nonetheless a window into the very real lives of people living in West African slums.
“Thinking through these films offered me a way of thinking about this genre that I’m trying to define as a whole,” Izzo says. “I’m trying to figure out what avenues it offers us for thinking across and between disciplinary boundaries in relation to the field of francophone studies.”
Brown offers the right environment for such interdisciplinary study, he says.
“The fit felt good from the beginning. For someone like me, who was trained between disciplines and will continue to work between disciplines, it was important to know that I would be at an institution that would not only support that, but would actively foster the kinds of connections that drive my intellectual activity.”
Also, Izzo adds, “My new colleagues bragged about the students — how curious they were and how they could assign things to them that other institutions wouldn’t dare assign.”
He plans to let his students flex their intellectual muscles in the French 750 class he’ll be teaching this fall. The class looks at the formation of French colonial identity through the eyes of thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville, Aimé Césaire, and Albert Camus. “We’ll be talking about ideas that are going to spark really interesting debates in class about what France’s responsibilities should be to its former colonies and how intellectuals should position themselves in relation to race and colonialism,” Izzo said.
His new job at Brown is also something of a homecoming. The Concord, Mass., native says he’s very happy to be back in the New England area after eight years in North Carolina.