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Women on Grounds: Marva Barnett

We awarded the Elizabeth Zintl Leadership Award to Marva Barnett, now Professor Emeritus, in 2002. She also received UVA's Thomas Jefferson Award in 2011. Marva is the editor of Victor Hugo on Things That Matter (Yale UP, 2010). Learn more about her work at

Tell us about your path to UVA, to where you are now.
To a large extent, happenstance and luck brought me to UVA, back home to Virginia.  I came here as an assistant professor of French, hired to oversee the Required Language Course Sequence.  But I was competitive only because three years earlier I had landed—almost randomly—a one-year position at Purdue University.  Jobs were tight during the long recession of the early 80s, and I think I applied for them all.  I wasn’t particularly looking for a position in Indiana, and I didn’t have any direct experience supervising graduate teaching assistants or training French teachers.  Still, the search committee must have been persuaded by my “I’ve been supervised, so I know how to supervise” because they hired me.  I enjoyed working with the Purdue graduate teaching assistants, and that experience qualified me for a similar two-year position at Indiana University. There I benefitted greatly from having Professor Albert Valdman as a mentor and learned about language-program direction from the best.  So I was one of the few experienced language-program directors when the UVA position opened up.

Of course, I wouldn’t have been interested in such a job if I hadn’t loved French and hadn’t loved teaching.  I credit my junior- and high-school French teachers for making French interesting.  I thank my wonderful parents, both dedicated high-school and college teachers, for showing me how meaningful teaching can be.  Besides, I liked helping my mother grade multiple-choice tests when I was young. Little did I know that I would spend 40+ years creating tests and designing assignments—though I quickly lost my fascination with grading!

My love of teaching and my desire to help colleagues explore effective teaching approaches led me in 1990 to create the Teaching Resource Center, known today as UVA’s Center for Teaching Excellence.  My love for French language and literature led me to become what I am now—a specialist on Victor Hugo.  My interest in Hugo goes back to my teenage years, when his Notre-Dame de Paris captivated me with the cathedral (still one of my favorite Parisian spots) and with his hero, Quasimodo.  That interest has broadened to include Hugo’s life and his work, especially his epic Les Misérables.


Tell us about a defining moment in your research/work at UVA.  
I rediscovered my fascination with Hugo when I had the chance to teach a new French course, and my colleague Janet Horne shared her knowledge of Hugo’s political life with me.  Why not create a course around Hugo, who did everything: poetry, novels, theater, social justice initiatives, graphic art work, correspondence. That was the first defining moment.

The second came at the Center, when my colleagues and I participated in a workshop to develop our coaching skills so that we could better help teachers address questions or problems they face. During one of our practice sessions, we had a chance to tackle one of our own quandaries. I’m grateful to Deandra Little and Freda Fretwell, who intensely listened to me wonder about which possible research project to pursue.  Should I dive into something around Hugo, following up on my course, or should I finish a study of reflective thinking that I had begun?  “All you need to do,” said Deandra, “is listen to yourself as you talk about these possibilities.  It’s easy to hear which one excites you.” Ever since that moment, I have greatly appreciated the power that comes from really listening to someone else.


Dream dinner party: what three guests would you invite?
At this point in my life, I would invite poet/novelist/social commentator Victor Hugo, photographer Jean Baptiste Hugo (Victor Hugo’s great-great-grandson), and actor/philanthropist Hugh Jackman.  My conversations with each of them (albeit with Victor through his writing rather than in person) have shown me their thoughtfulness about what’s beyond us. The more I read, teach, and write about Les Misérables, the more I think about the spiritual side of life. Victor, Jean Baptiste and Hugh are insightful, too, about what we can do to make this world a better place, so I would love to share ideas with them and hear what they have to say to each other!


Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite anti-hero or villain?
I have many, of course, but the two heroic characters who spring to mind are Jean Valjean in Les Misérables and Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. Both have the courage and tenacity to change. I guess I don’t spend much time thinking about anti-heroes or villains.


What is your screensaver? 
Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris at sunset, photographed from the back, down the Seine.


Please share the best (or at least pretty good) advice you’ve received recently.
Since I currently spend much of my time writing, I first think of great writing advice I’ve received:  from Andy Kaufman, author of Give War and Peace a Chance, whose encouraging “Keep trusting the process” has helped through slow times, and from English Professor Steve Arata, whose “Touch the project every day” has kept my writing alive even when life seemed too busy. 


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