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MIT students to visit Belgium on study-trip

Foreign Languages and Literatures Lecturer Cathy Culot
Foreign Languages and Literatures Lecturer Cathy Culot
Photo: Lisa Hickler

Cathy Culot takes comics very seriously. A lecturer in MIT's Foreign Languages and Literatures section, Culot grew up in Belgium, a country in which comic-strip albums today represent 60 percent of all books published. The most famous, The Adventures of Tintin, first appeared in 1929 and was the creation of Belgian artist Georges Remi under the pen name Hergé.

Culot will teach an Independent Activities Period (IAP) subject in January 2013 that will take about a dozen MIT students to Belgium to learn French and experience Belgian culture. The trip is part of the "January Scholars" program funded by an anonymous donor who began funding MIT study-trips to France about a decade ago. This is the first time the program will visit Belgium.

Comic strips — and visual arts in general — play an important role in Belgium. This can be partly explained by the fact that this country has three official languages: French, Flemish (Dutch) and German. Cathy Culot explains: "Because of the mix of cultures in Belgium, it was always very difficult to find a common language — but 'a picture is worth a 1,000 words.'" Culot's family is an example of Belgian multiculturalism. Her father is Dutch-speaking, and her mother is French-speaking. Belgium's long list of world-renowned artists include the Flemish painters Jan Van Eyck (1389-1441) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), and the surrealist painter René Magritte (1898-1967), to name a few.

Culot first got the idea to explore Belgium with her students a couple of years ago when she noticed that Belgium is underrepresented in textbooks in which the French-speaking world is mentioned. She decided to help "bring Belgium out of the closet." She began by developing an online interactive archive for her French classes called "Made in Belgium" that takes students on a virtual discovery of Belgium. The site includes interview clips with artists, such as the Belgian cineaste Chantal Akerman; and artisans, such as Christine Dandoy, the owner of Maison Dandoy, Brussels' most famous biscuit bakery established in 1829. Culot observed that students working with the "Made in Belgium" archive were intrigued with aspects of Belgian culture, such as how bilingualism is dealt with and how these artists preserve traditions in the 21st century.

You could get an idealized picture of Belgium as a place where all communities coexist in harmony. But the reality is more complex. Politically and economically motivated tensions have brought competing interests of different linguistic communities to the fore, much as has happened in the rest of Europe. Students on this study-trip will learn about the European Union, which has its parliament in Brussels, and understand why Brussels was selected as "the capital of Europe."

The Belgium trip is part of an IAP subject, 21F. 314: Topics in Interculturalism. To enroll, students must go through an application and interview process. Some prior knowledge of French is required, and preference is given to students who are French concentrators or minors, and students who have completed French subjects at MIT at the level of French IV or above. Applications are due Oct. 12.

For more information, visit the Foreign Languages and Literatures office (14N-305) or visit the website:

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