Ourida Mostefai

Professor of French Studies and Comparative Literature
Ourida Mostefai
Professor of French Studies and Comparative Literature
Photo: Mike Cohea/Brown University
Much of what is evolving in the 21st-century world — marriage, the relationships of religions and governments, sovereignty, immigration, the structure of families — has roots in the 18th-century Enlightenment. Ourida Mostefai finds it a fascinating area in which to work and teach.

For Ourida Mostefai, a joint appointment as professor of French studies and comparative literature is an opportunity to bring together her many and varied interests in a new way. Having grown up in France, Mostefai is fluent in both her native tongue and in English and has honed her expertise in several genres of literature both as an undergraduate student in France and in her graduate studies at New York University, where she earned a Ph.D. in French literature. She has spent the last 27 years teaching at Boston College, where the majority of her classes were in the French department. Here at Brown, with appointments in two departments, she plans to broaden the way she teaches certain subjects.

“I’m really free to expand beyond the national boundaries. I am now able to teach the courses I’ve been offering for many years, like the 18th-century novel, from two perspectives: from French studies, in courses taught in French, but also from a comparative perspective, which is very exciting.”

Mostefai’s specific area of interest, the Enlightenment, is equally multidisciplinary, which is, in part, what drew her to the subject.

“When you work on the Enlightenment in 18th-century studies, your colleagues really belong to all of the disciplines. It’s an area that brings together people from all fields that are interested in this period when in cultural history and in the various arts and sciences something new was happening and a new form of modernity was emerging. That’s a really interesting thing.”

Mostefai also looks at the contemporary relevance of the ideas that came out the Enlightenment, including ideas about family, politics, society, and race, that are still a strong focus today.

“I’m very interested in exploring the ways in which these concepts have continued to be imported into our modernity and remain relevant. I’m not saying nothing has changed since the 18th century, but I think the Enlightenment has a lot to teach us about our own era.”

When she teaches the Enlightenment, Mostefai encourages her students to consider the 18th century in relation to our contemporary world. For example, in one of her frequently taught courses on the family, students look at issues that were arising in the 18th century regarding adoption, marriage, and divorce, as well as the modern-day challenges to traditional notions of family, like the definition of marriage, surrogacy, and adoption.

“In other words, I am interested in the Enlightenment, and I’m also interested in the lessons that we can continue to draw from the Enlightenment,” Mostefai says.

Two areas of the Enlightenment in particular are currently piquing Mostefai’s interest. One is the way the massive population migrations that occurred as a result of the French Revolution appeared in the literature of the period. She’s also looking at the relationship between religion and the state, particularly how modern European nations have dealt with and were able to come up with ways of constructing a secular space, often a difficult process. Mostefai says she sees many parallels between how those issues played out in the 18th century and attempts today to separate religion and politics amidst the presence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in the Western world.

Mostefai plans to continue building on her research in these areas and hopes to turn both projects into a series of articles and eventually books. Mostefai’s body of work is so prolific is that the French Ministry of Education made her a chevalier (knight) of the Ordre des Palmes Academiques for her contribution to the arts and humanities, which she says she was “very honored to receive.”

Despite her new appointment, Mostefai is no stranger to Brown, having taught as a visiting professor here last year. She has several courses planned for the upcoming and future semesters, including classes on Orientalism, the Algerian War in literature and cinema, and the French language’s social and political dimensions and issues.

Although the scenery may be familiar, Mostefai is beginning her new appointment with a fresh outlook, ready for a permanent position at a new institution.

“I think this is providing me with new opportunities both in terms of my contact with students but also with new colleagues I have here at Brown in the two departments and across the humanities in general. It’s very exciting.”