Rice professor knighted by French education ministry

French studies expert Julie Fette named chevalier in the Ordre des Palmes académiques

Julie Fette MOOC
julie fette mooc
French studies associate professor Julie Fette was named a chevalier in the Ordre des Palmes académiques (French for “knight” in the Order of the French Academic Palms).

The call from the French Consulate of Houston was not one Rice University French studies associate professor Julie Fette expected.

“You hear those stories of people who get those phone calls in the middle of the night from the Nobel Prize,” Fette said. “This isn’t exactly the same thing, but it did come as a complete surprise.”

The caller notified Fette that she had been named a chevalier in the Ordre des Palmes académiques (French for “knight” in the Order of the French Academic Palms), an honor bestowed by the French Ministry of National Education in “recognition of an individual’s merit, talent and exemplary efforts,” according to the Cultural Services of the French Embassy based in Houston. Created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808 to recognize outstanding members of the University of Paris, the contemporary incarnation of the award is granted to individuals making extraordinary achievements in the realms of French education and culture.

“It’s true that I have dedicated my career to researching and teaching about France to non-French people,” Fette said. “So without that being my intention, I’ve been an ambassador for France.”

Fette, who was awarded a Fulbright grant to study contemporary French children’s literature in 2022, recently co-authored a French textbook tailored for American students, offering a comparative analysis of French society.

“Since the first course I taught when I was still a graduate student, I used previous editions of ‘Les Francais.’ I loved it, but it became a little outdated after a while,” Fette said.

Hoping for a new edition of the textbook, Fette repeatedly reached out to author Jean-François Brière, professor emeritus of French studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

“Finally one evening I sent him a cold email, and I asked, ‘Do you need a co-author?’ I went to bed and didn’t think about it again,” Fette said. “In the morning, I woke up and I had an answer: Yes, he needed a co-author.”

The result is the fourth edition of “Les Francais,” an in-depth look at French society and culture that uses history and cultural anthropology to illuminate the present.

In 2015 when Rice put out a call for ideas for massive open online courses, Fette was teaching a course called “America through French Eyes.”

“Every time I taught it, I thought, ‘This is such a great course, seeing America through French eyes and reversing this gaze, but it could be so much better if it expanded to other parts of the world,’” Fette said.

She collaborated with Rice colleagues specializing in Africa (anthropology chair and professor Jeff Fleisher), China (adjunct lecturer Anne Chao), Mexico (associate history professor Moramay Lopez-Alonso) and Russia (associate art history professor Lida Oukaderova) to craft a truly global course titled “America through Foreign Eyes,” which has attracted nearly 18,000 students. That course is available for free on Coursera.

The consulate attributed the honor to Fette’s Fulbright award and her position as editorial board member for “French Politics, Culture & Society” as well as her efforts to organize events at Rice such as “In the Name of Freedom: Authoritarian Neoliberalism Against Academic Freedom,” a talk by University of Paris sociologist Eric Fassin in 2022.

“That showcases her commitment to fostering Franco-American intellectual dialogue,” the Embassy said. “(Fette’s) scholarly contributions, dedication to teaching and efforts to promote cross-cultural understanding make her a deserving candidate for the French Academic Palms.”

Fette’s certificate was signed on July 13, 2023, by then-national education minister Pap Ndiaye. Before assuming that role, he was a university academic who specialized in the U.S., even visiting and lecturing to French students at Rice in 2016.

“I feel especially touched that Pap Ndiaye was the minister who signed my certificate,” Fette said. “And the knighting is an honor that I share with French studies emeriti faculty Debbie Nelson and Bernard Aresu.”

“This comes at a time when the relationship between France and Rice is incredibly close, especially with the opening of the Rice Global Paris Center in 2022,” the Embassy said. “We are constantly working to deepen this relationship.”

The consulate plans to celebrate Fette’s honor soon, but those details are still being finalized.