“Bonjour, tout le monde!”
This is how Marie-Claire Morellec, former chairwoman of the French department and professor of French at Hillsdale, first greets students as they walk into her classes. Junior French major Luciya Katcher recalled the first time she arrived in one of Morellec’s classes and heard the enthusiastic, sing-song voice that would eventually convince her to major in French.
“I’ve always loved the language and the culture, but the stories Madame Morellec would tell us about growing up in France or how the French perceive our ‘American idiosyncrasies’ really piqued my interest,” Katcher said.
Now, Hillsdale bids adieu to Morellec, who has retired after 25 years at Hillsdale College. Affectionately called “Madame Morellec” by her students, Morellec taught at the University of Oregon for five years before the allure of classical education brought her to Hillsdale.
“Hillsdale offered the possibility of having a career in teaching at a small liberal arts college, which emphasized the teaching of the canon, as well as the ability to know and serve my students better than at a large institution,” Morellec said. “I received a classical education myself, studying Latin, Spanish, German, and English, as well as Literature and Philosophy. I truly believe that it is the best education one can receive.”
Sherri Rose, associate professor of French, has worked alongside Morellec since 2015. Rose emphasized that Morellec’s teaching style is compatible with a classical education.
“Good teaching is not about providing students the answers, but rather engaging them in asking the important questions,” Rose said. “Dr. Morellec loved exploring literature, history, art, and cinema with students, all through the lens of the French language.”
But Morellec’s responsibility as a French professor extended far past teaching conjugations and vocabulary.
“She created a fun class atmosphere that was reinforced by constant encouragement,” Rose said. “Dr. Morellec regularly organized trips to Ann Arbor or Toledo for students to see French plays, operas, or enjoy a meal in a French restaurant. She has been a dynamic tour guide during the weekend trip to Paris for the past 20 summers of Hillsdale students studying abroad.”
Morellec previously directed the Study Abroad Programs in France for the Oregon State System of Higher Education, a program she quickly implemented on Hillsdale’s campus. As director of the French study abroad program at Hillsdale, Morellec organized the college’s first program in Tours, France, where she’s sent more than 130 students since its founding in 1997.
“I went to France with our students every year. A wonderful experience,” Morellec said.
The program is central to Morellec’s teaching philosophy, which encourages students to discover cultures outside of the typical classroom setting.
“I think it’s really part of your education to see that it’s not a matter of language, rather, a matter of countries and cultures, civilizations and history,” Morellec said. “The world is an amazing place. You understand the world better through different cultures and discover what everybody really wants — to have a good life.”
A native of Brittany, France, Morellec channeled her personal experience with French culture into her lessons.
“She illustrated for us life under foreign occupancy, a concept of which we Americans have little experience,” Katcher said. “She told stories about her father protecting French Jews during World War II at the expense of his own security and of her childhood trips to Saint-Malo as France rebuilt itself. To see the world through her perspective was incredibly important to me when studying our western heritage.”
Senior French major Joy Brower has nothing but fond memories in Morellec’s classes. Through listening and communicating with a native French speaker, Brower was inspired to share in Morellec’s passion for understanding different cultures.
“She always asked us provocative questions about the texts we read, films we watched, and history we studied,” Brower said. “I think this helped her students to think liberally and explore ideas about both the universals and particulars of the human experience.”
She says Morellec’s enthusiasm, generosity, patience, and intellectual curiosity greatly contributed to the French department.
“Madame Morellec has truly blessed her students at Hillsdale,” Brower said. “C’était un grand plaisir.”
Whether it was it her genuine French accent, personal experience with French culture, or sunny disposition, Morellec brought a certain “je ne sais quoi” to class. Her dedication to her students’ education helped make learning a new language a positive endeavor.
“She was sure to sweeten our tough classroom experience by bringing us French pastries and chocolates to class,” Katcher noted.
Morellec’s career came to a close as Hillsdale was forced online due to COVID-19, an event she describes as like “leaving through the back door.” Regardless, Morellec’s legacy will live on through the countless students she’s taught.