Think about the last time you met someone new. Did you speak a greeting? Shake hands? Bow? Whatever you did, the culture surrounding you likely guided your instinctual salutation.

Janell Watson, the new chair of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, believes to be successful in teaching languages one must educate students in culture and history. These elements go hand-in-hand in creating understanding and proper communication skills.

This remains true for Watson as a professor of French, even though much has changed in the department since she joined the faculty 20 years ago.

“The department was more focused on European languages, which was a nationwide trend,” she said. “Now we include Middle Eastern and Asian languages.”

Language options for students continue to expand. Russian has grown from a minor to a major, for example, and Watson is seeking a similar expansion for Arabic.

“Janell’s longstanding history with the department, which has allowed her to be part of its evolution into a larger program, positions her uniquely as a leader,” said Rosemary Blieszner, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “I’m delighted that she has taken on the critical role of shepherding the department’s future.”

In 1999, when a student majored in a language, the program was oriented toward literature. But now, to add breadth to the program, the department has enhanced its offerings to include such minors as French for business. Through a new Pathways minor under governance review, faculty also provide courses in French and Spanish for science majors. Two master’s degrees feature those languages as well, and a master’s degree in multilingual studies is offered both in Blacksburg and virtually.

The department also administers Project Global Officer, which offers scholarships for an eight-week summer study abroad for students in languages considered critical for national security — Russian, Arabic, and Chinese.

“My hopes and dreams, as chair, are that languages come to mind when people think of ‘global land-grant’ because we see ourselves as very much a key topic of conversation when internationalization is brought up,” she said. “My role as department chair is to help communicate the evolving role of language in the global land-grant education and mission.”

Watson, who received the university’s 2017 Alumni Award for Excellence in Research, specializes in what she describes as “French theory.” This involves a transdisciplinary approach to theoretical analysis that combines language, culture, politics, psychoanalysis, ethnography, information technology, political ecology, and globalization.

She is the author of two books: Guattari’s Diagrammatic Thought: Writing Between Lacan and Deleuze and Literature and Material Culture from Balzac to Proust: The Collection and Consumption of Curiosities. In 2013, she co-edited The Deleuze and Guattari Dictionary.

Watson is the editor of the minnesota review, a journal of creative and critical writing that launched in 1960. She serves on the editorial board of the international journal Deleuze Studies as well. She earned her doctorate in French from Duke University.

As chair of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, Watson is working with the faculty to expand its many study-abroad programs and helping host cultural events, film festivals, and weekly conversation tables that are open to the community at large.

Engaging with a variety of audiences is a point of pride for her department, she said. Language has a place everywhere, and the department’s presence can be felt from conversation tables to transdisciplinary programs to an online master’s degree that allows the faculty to connect with working schoolteachers.

“Language is fundamental to the human condition,” she said, before adding with a grin, “That’s my slogan.”

Written and photographed by Leslie King