Michael J. West-Center for the Arts in Society - Carnegie Mellon University

Michael J. West

Teaching Professor of French and Francophone Studies, Modern Languages

Carnegie Mellon University
5000 Forbes Ave,
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
Office: Baker Hall 340D
Phone: 412.268.5028


For over twenty years I have worked as a teacher, primarily of French and francophone language and culture. My experiences inside and out of the classroom have led me to the rather unsurprising but no less important belief that teaching and learning are one. Accordingly, I try to be both a good teacher and a good learner, by remaining as curious as possible about the world and keeping an open mind. To the greatest extent possible, I try to put myself mentally in the place of the students with whom I work and in the place of the colleagues and mentors who have shown me so much. Temperamentally, I believe that a positive, relaxed environment is essential to successful learning. An open and positive attitude brings as much to the learning process as any amount of previous knowledge or experience.

Learning has very little to do with the mastery or transfer of skill sets but rather quite a bit to do with the ability to make connections among ideas, people and communities. Authentic communication involves more than the transmission of thoughts between a sender and a receiver. It certainly has nothing to do with a hierarchical – that is to say, hieratic – transfer of knowledge. Rather, authentic communication involves the construction and negotiation of meaning among different individuals and groups. My own thought processes tend to be more synthetic than analytical, focusing on what it is that connects or fails to connect ideas and people rather than discreet analyses of the ideas and individuals themselves. This is of course not to dispense with discreet analysis but rather to stress the importance of the relationship among subjects rather than the subjects themselves. This would tend to cast me more in a structuralist mode than a post-structuralist one, I suppose, although I tend to think of myself as a regretfully under-theorized post-modernist, with all the rights and privileges that pertain.

Part of my curiosity about technology centers on the point at which its purportedly liberating potential in fact turns out to have the opposite, unintended effect of turning the individual into a consumer of technology rather than in interdependent agent in a world of interdependent agents. The fascination exerted over me from a very young age by language in general and the French specifically is part of a greater fascination with language systems, language communities and the ways in which communication happens often in spite of language. A student once asked, “Those French people speak so fast – how do they ever understand each other?” While my answer ultimately failed to answer the question of how it is that the French actually ever really understand each other, a good deal of my intellectual efforts over the past several years have been focused on what it in fact means to understand one another and how that communication happens or doesn’t.