prof profile: Frank Brisard

on turtles, Dutch custard, and the X-Files


The Prof Profile shows professors like you’ve never seen them before, as people. dwars asks the questions that have been bugging students for years; like "what does your lecturer eat for breakfast", for example. Frank Brisard, professor of Linguistics, gets cross-examined this month.

First, the one question we all want to know the answer to: do you have any crazy stories from when you were a student?

During a kind of open mic night (we call it 'free podium') I once staged a mini theater show featuring music by John Zorn (for the fans: something from Naked City). That was pretty wild. I also played the violin, without any kind of musical training whatsoever, in an impromptu gig on Campus Drie Eiken, performing poetry by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It sounded a lot like Joy Division. The band also included Vitalski, the self-appointed perennial night mayor of Antwerp. For the more juicy stories, go ask your friendly neighbourhood film professor.


Are there any television series you (used to) follow religiously? Why or why not?

I kind of like Callboys, a Flemish show that aired this fall, though I’m not necessarily a huge Jan Eelen fan. It’s got good photography and great acting. I really dig Tom Dewispelaere, who plays Kjetl. At times his style reminds me of Wim Helsen’s comedy, which I’m particularly partial to.

I’m not really religious about television series anymore these days. I used to be, though, especially with The X-Files. I’m pretty sure I missed out on getting to second base with a girl maybe once or twice, just because I wanted to go home and see that week’s episode. Ah, the nineties…


Are you more of a cat person or a dog person? Or something else entirely?

I am definitely a cat purrson, though at some point, when I get crippled or retire, I would like to get an Alsatian (Shepherd Dog) or something. I love animals in general. I used to share my apartment with a rabbit called Thumper ('Stamper') that I was very close with. We would watch The X-Files together, just the two of us (cf. above).

Lately, I’ve become fascinated with the secret life of turtles, thanks to some friends in Amsterdam who have one named Butch. Apparently, they climax in the most spectacular of manners. Well, the males do, rarely reciprocated by the females, who are usually eating or involved in some other incidental business. For some reason, YouTube is full of comic and compromising tortoise video compilations.


Are there any specific places in Antwerp that you like to go to?

I like to go to the Albert Heijn store close to campus, to get chocoladevla for my daughters. We live in Brussels and so we’re denied the many wonders of Dutch supermarkets. Vla is a type of custard that’s typically eaten (drunk?) straight from the carton. Yes, “Ils sont fous ces hollandais!” When I walk around in Dutch cities, I’m always pleasantly struck by the exotic aromas that invade the streets from every little roti place or toko. Generally, however, it is my experience that food in the Netherlands smells better than it tastes.


What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened in one of your classes?

Me apologizing to an empty chair after bumping into it. Me not understanding a question from a student, while in fact they were responding to something I’d just asked (“Turn this sentence into a question”). Stuff like that. Open lesdagen (where high school students can see what university classes are like, red.) can be fun too. Sometimes the high school students attending classes are tailed by their overbearing parents. I’ve had to ask the question “Whose mom is this?” at least once in class.


You're a linguistics professor. What aspect of language is most interesting to you?

What interests me most is how people use it. Language, especially your mother tongue, is a powerful tool for creating an image of yourself and presenting it to the outside world. However, people who happen to have mastered the standard variety or formal register and exploit that skill to look down on others who don’t use quite the same level of language … Those people give me the creeps.
As university students, you should definitely be aware of the language that you use and how it might be complemented by more appropriate varieties in various specific contexts, but you should never feel ashamed of how you speak.


Lastly, could you shed some light on this age-old question: why did the chicken cross the road?

Probably because Werner Herzog (German director in whose films animals often behave strangely, red.) hypnotized it from the other side. Google him on chickens: “The enormity of their flat brain, the enormity of their stupidity, it’s just overwhelming! … Try to look a chick’n in the eye with great intenzity.”