a portrait of Maxence Leconte smiling
19th & 21st Century French Sports Culture: Public Humanities Faculty Fellow Q&A
Maxence Leconte, visiting assistant professor of French studies, discusses his research

Since 2019, Trinity University’s Humanities Collective has funded Public Humanities Faculty Fellows each academic year. The Public Humanities Fellowship program supports faculty in their efforts to communicate their scholarship in the humanities to a broad audience and engage local, national, and worldwide publics in the co-creation of humanistic knowledge. The Collective has funded 13 projects so far across various academic disciplines, resulting in many different forms of media, such as video essays, traveling exhibits, books, public talks, and more.

Faculty Fellows collaborate with their peers in academia, multiple generations of Trinity students, or Mellon Initiative Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURFs) to conduct their research, and they often incorporate their research into their courses. Through their fellowships, our humanities faculty showcase their brilliance as leading scholars across the nation and the world while creating opportunities for Trinity students to foster their own passions for humanities research.  

The Public Humanities Faculty Fellows for the 2023-24 academic year are visiting assistant professor of French studies Maxence Leconte, Ph.D., and oboe, bassoon, and chamber music instructor Gillian Lopez.

We asked Leconte to share a bit more about himself and his project, “Paris sports: retracing the culture of play and games in the City of Light (1854-2024).” Keep reading to learn about Leconte and his public humanities goals.

Tell us a bit about yourself!  

My name is Max (Maxence) Leconte, I am a visiting assistant professor of French Studies. I have been at Trinity since Fall 2021. As a first gen student, I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in history from the Université Catholique de Lille, my hometown in Northern France. After completing a study abroad program in San Francisco as a senior, I discovered that my true passion was to blend teaching and research at the highest academic level possible. After a journey of eight years that brought me to three different countries, I graduated with a doctorate in French studies from the University of Texas at Austin, where I began working in 2020 before coming to San Antonio. I still maintain strong ties with France, where my entire family resides, including my twin sister.

What is your research focused on, and why did you choose it?

My research investigates the rise of sport culture in France during the 19th and 21st centuries. Modernity offered writers and artists the perfect backdrop upon which to look deeply into human nature and rethink the role played by corporeality during the time period. I argue that cultural productions showcasing sport, whether literary or visual, not only captured how appealing this phenomenon was to mass society but also demonstrated a unique ability to produce powerful changes: the rise of sport as a spectacle, the body of the athlete, the novelty of physical culture all transformed society by modernizing categories of race, class, and gender. I chose to study this topic specifically because of its taboo nature in France and because the intellectual discourse often opposes the work produced by the mind from the work produced by the body in opposition. In my opinion, the advent of modern sport subverts and transforms our understanding of this dichotomy by showing us that sporting feats inspired intellectual works as much as physical endeavors.

Tell us about your research process.

My research is very much ongoing. In recent years, I have broadened my scope to sport culture as a whole during modernity in France. Originally, my research strictly focused on boxing. However, since most athletes often competed in different disciplines and were, for some, even writers, poets, actors, or actresses, I decided to analyze this phenomenon in its entirety. Currently, I am directing an edited volume on the history and culture of sport in Paris (1854-2024).

This project continues to lead me to unexpected places, again, both physically and intellectually! For instance, while visiting the archives of the CNC (centre national du cinéma) near Paris, I discovered that the birth of cinema owed much to the rise in popularity of physical culture and sport; in the early 1880s, two French engineers, Marey and Demeny, pioneered the use of a machine known as the chronophotograph to capture movements from the human body. Their creation was later adapted by the Frères Lumières, who are now remembered as the fathers of modern cinema.

Another example occurred while writing on the influence of boxing on modern art for my dissertation; I came across notes positing that Matisse and Picasso, two revered painters who lived in France during the 1910s, compared their artistic relationship to a boxing match. However, the references were lacking or imprecise. After communicating with art dealers in Paris and New York, I managed to track down the original notes written by the painters, currently owned by the Menil Collection in Houston. That was an exciting find, especially so close to us in Texas!

Jack Johnson training in Paris in 1914. Credit: BNF/agence Meurisse.

To this day, the most engaging part of my research remains its connection to transnationalism and inclusivity. It is fascinating to see that sport culture during modernity in France produced myriad bonds between artists, writers, sportsmen and sportswomen coming from very diverse horizons. The first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, was born in Galveston and lived in exile in Paris between 1913 and 1914, where he befriended novelists and painters. Barbette, one of the most famous aerialists living in the French capital during the 1920s, a close friend of Man Ray and Cocteau, came from Round Rock and learned circus acts in Austin and San Antonio. It was in France that they felt accepted for who they were. Just as well, their presence helped redefine France’s perception of race, gender, and social class.

Alice Milliat–pioneer of women’s sports and organizer of the Women’s World Games in 1921–rowing near Paris. Credit: BNF/agence Rol.

What role does the Humanities Collective (funding, promotion, etc.) play in developing your project?

The Humanities Collective has played a vital role in helping me assemble all the necessary resources for my current project. I will be traveling to Paris and Nice to finalize some archival research during winter break, and the preparation of this trip was only made possible thanks to the generous support of the HC.

Does/ will your research involve any Trinity students?

In direct and indirect ways, yes, my research involves students at Trinity. The idea and preparation of the project began when I taught a course on “Paris in the 19th Century” during my first semester at Trinity. Later, while teaching a course on “Sport and World Cinema,” conversations with students helped me conceptualize the project even further. Finally, I would love to teach some material based on my current research in an interdisciplinary seminar in the future! The opportunity to produce knowledge in a collaborative fashion is tangible at Trinity, so if any student wants to work on the history and culture of sport, they should absolutely reach out to me.

How and where will you share your findings with the academic and local community?

To begin, a public lecture is scheduled in December, in association with the Paris Archives and the City Hall: I will deliver a talk on the cultural and social influence of the boxer Jack Johnson during his exile in the French capital, part of a year-long series organized by professional and public historians to celebrate the upcoming Paris Olympics. In the spring, I will also present a summary of my project here on campus.

Opening Ceremony of the 1924 Olympics in Paris, Stade de Colombes. Credit: BNF/agence Rol.

What are your "public" humanities goals? What impact do you hope your project will have on the Trinity community and beyond?

One of my goals is to encourage the notion that research should be, whenever possible, connected to the public. My hopes are that Trinity students, and the community at large, will see many things we take for granted in life differently when learning about my project.

Jack Johnson at the Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris in 1913. Credit: BNF/agence Rol.

Something as simple as riding bicycles, playing sports on campus—with individuals of different color and gender—came at the expense of great social, technological, and cultural shifts and progress. Many of these did not happen so long ago, too, and some of these ideas are still debated today. To discover the progressive or conservative opinions of writers, artists, or filmmakers from a century ago is illuminating: It helps us understand that sport has always produced commentaries from society and that its participants have always been at the center of various trials and tribulations.


Read about Gillian Lopez’s research project, "Accompanied Instruction: Literacy Lessons through Music."

Kennice Leisk '22 is the content coordinator for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing. She majored in English and Latin and minored in creative writing and comparative literature at Trinity.

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