In studying history and its manifold implications, it is imperative that an individual derive information from its origin, necessarily forging connections between past and present to glean significance from them. Language, too, provides import by its foundation-the French term “bourg,” for example, denotes a market town and is the root of the word “bourgeois,” or, a member of the middle class. It is therefore appropriate that Julian Bourg, an associate professor within the history department, specializes in 19th and 20th century European intellectual and cultural history, with particular emphasis on modern France and French theory.
Bourg was born and raised in Nashville, Tenn.-which he referred to as the “New South” due to its high level of integration-wherein his father taught sociology at Fisk University and he, “like most other people,” played guitar throughout his youth. For his undergraduate education, Bourg moved to Providence, R.I. to attend Brown University.
Initially, Bourg pursued philosophy, but he became more interested in its evolution in the concepts of art, society, theory, and perspective as they progressed over time-or, intellectual history: the progression of ideas and culture.
“I got the bug to study intellectual history,” he said. “I thought that European history and ideas were different enough from American history … I found that very intriguing.”
While studying European history, Bourg grew particularly passionate about France. He spent the spring semester of his junior year in Paris, which further reinforced this interest in the nation and its history, language, and culture.
“I was horrible at French before the trip, but I definitely improved through learning by doing-out of necessity,” he said. Additionally, he advocated heavily for the study abroad program, reflecting on the positive experience he had while in Europe.
“I learned more about myself there, outside of the U.S., than I did within any course I took at college,” Bourg said. After obtaining his B.A. in history from Brown in 1992, Bourg left for San Francisco, where he worked in restaurants and as a teacher’s aide for two years.
Having searched for employment during a recession, Bourg talked about how he can relate to and sympathize with individuals who have graduated in the last five years with degrees and negligible job opportunities.
“I was bus boy with an Ivy League degree,” he said. “I have lots of empathy for students now, what with the very tough job market.”
Bourg’s duration as a grammar school teacher’s aide helped him recognize not only his areas of interest, but also that he wished to continue his education and pursue graduate school. He therefore went on to attain his master’s degree in history at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley in 1996.
“It was a good foundation for studying the history of ideas, given that I was researching a lot about the history of religious thought,” he said, noting how religious thought often influences societal conception and the progression of ideas. After, he attended the University of California, Berkeley for his doctoral studies, and he earned his Ph.D. in 2001 with a dissertation on contemporary French thought and ethics in France from 1968 to 1981.
Following graduation, Bourg researched at the French Archives for three years while editing and adding to his dissertation, which he worked on from 2001 until 2007, when From Revolution to Ethics: May 1968 and Contemporary French Thought was published as his first book. He compared writing and editing his dissertation to an apprenticeship. “It is a very modest thing-the conversation begins before you and goes beyond you … you’re just contributing to it,” Bourg said.
Bourg then worked at Berkeley, Washington University in St. Louis, Bryn Mawr College, and Bucknell University before coming to Boston College in 2010. At these universities, he taught courses on European intellectual history since the Enlightenment, the history of film, and postmodernism. “It was very exciting-I got to teach what first got me interested in history,” he said. Additionally, in response to student interest concerning Sept. 11, Bourg devised a class on the history of terrorism, which followed the development of terror and terrorism from the Reign of Terror through the present with primary sources and historical interpretations of terror.
Bourg brought the course to BC and will be offering it for the first time in two years this fall. For the class, he is writing a book about terror over the past 200 years due to the lack of such a textbook at present. “I have to invent the wheel-something to be useful for students,” he said. In addition, Bourg teaches History 300; graduate research seminars; the history core, which the department is in the process of rethinking; and he will instruct Theories of Violence next spring.
“I find the faculty amazing, and the students are incredible and seem excited, which makes me excited, because I am learning alongside them, in dialogue with them,” Bourg said about his experience at BC. “There is one thing, though: BC students are so smart, so hardworking, but we would all have more fun if they challenged more, if they were more critical.”