How to spark an interest in literature among today’s students? Creativity, and real-life engagement with today’s issues. This page, begun in May 2009 and updated regularly, offer suggestions for teachers and would-be educators in the Humanities.
Most recent articles are posted at the bottom.
1. Creative Project
The goal of the creative project is to allow students to engage with historical material–texts or images–produced during the French Revolution, or following any coherent theme or time period. In the past two years, my students and I have been inspired by the work of Prof. Jean Dibble, a talented painter and printmaker, who has joined classes to display her technique of “embedding” current and historic imagery as a way of challenging the viewer with the rich entanglement of the present and our remembered cultural past.
The creative dimension allows each student to tap into his or her own way of engaging with the material. In fact, it demands that they become personally invested in the material they learn about from reading books in a wholly different way.
Evaluation. To evaluate such projects could be difficult. But working with Prof. Jean Dibble and Ms. Amy Keenan-Amago, Art teacher at St Joseph Elementary School in South Bend, I designed an academic framework that I felt was satisfactory (although I will work on strengthening the “Working Crit” in future semesters). The evaluation process involves three important components: 1) a “Working Crit” at mid-point, where each student presents a 5-minute explanation of their concept, medium and one example. A set of evaluation rubrics is distributed in advance, and two classmates (plus the professor) provide written feedback on each project; 2) a final Round Table where the student presents a 5 to 10-minute explanation of the product, including aspects such as color, composition, integration of text/images, provenance of text/images, and the political message; 3) a two-page summaryof the project is submitted and forms part of the final grade.
Projects may include an altered book, a collage, a painting, a film, a poem, a story, a website, or a drawing. For a beautiful example from Fall 2008, see Catherine Davis’s posting of June 13, 2009: “Altered Book: “Shards of History.” (See also my own effort, a less-beautiful but heartfelt altered book posted on 5/14/09, “1789-2008: The People Want a Voice”.)
TAS session on “The French Revolution: A Cultural Approach” (Fall 2009): K-12 teachers from the South Bend area who enrolled in the session I offered for the “Teachers as Scholars” program undertook a modified version of this project, and a few examples of their good work are posted on the “Revolution in Fiction” site. See the postings by Cynthia MacWhorter, Catherine McPhee, and Julie Congdon, from October-November 2009. Teachers as Scholars is a community outreach program that brings together university professors and area school teachers for sustained discussion and learning of cutting-edge research in a variety of disciplines. Initially launched at Notre Dame in 2000 by support from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, it is now supported by a number of grants both internal and external, and has afforded opportunities for hundreds of teachers and professors to join forces for a refreshing and invigorating series of classes.
2. The Heritage of the Revolution Today
While living in Angers as Director of Notre Dame’s study abroad program in 2001-03, I enjoyed teaching a course on the Revolution and Counter-Revolution in the Vendée for students at 2nd and 3rd year level (sophomores and juniors). To incite students to become better acquainted with their host families and other local resources, I created an assignment on The Heritage of the Revolution Today. For classes based outside France, I would provide a bit more guidance on research, such as how to do key-word searches in electronic databases of newspapers and other popular media, for example.
The assignment consists in three steps: 1) identify an example of the revolutionary heritage from a modern-day source; 2) pursue research on the artifact, i.e. consult books on the personality, event, or phenomenon in university or municipal libraries (a bibliography was provided for guidance); 3) prepare a 2-page commentary-description, citing at least one scholarly source, on the artifact and what it means for today’s audiences. Include an image or photo, if relevant.
Students found a wide variety of examples, and enjoyed this assignment very much. Their discoveries included: 1) an account of the universalist French system of national education (gleaned from a student’s conversations with French classmates); 2) a tragic account of the Republic’s persecution of Catholics in the Angers region, as relayed by the testimony of a French host family who had a portrait of a Vendéen ancestor on their dining room wall; and 3) an advertisement for a pager, using Marie-Antoinette as an example of poor time-management! (See posting of 5/16/09 on “Marie-Antoinette pager & Sans-culottes chic”).
3. Collective utopianism
Inspired by Prof. Laurent Loty (Univ. de Rennes 2), who visited Notre Dame in spring 2005, students in my class, “L’Utopie et la dystopie au siècle des Lumières” enjoyed studying a variety of literary readings on the theme (Voltaire, Rétif de la Bretonne, Réveroni Saint-Cyr), as well as the opportunity to write their own stories. The stories were then bound and shared with other students and teachers of French literature, in France–metropolitan and Ile de la Reunion–and the USA. (See list of publications in posting of 5/28/09: “Édition de fictions utopiques et juridiques,” by Prof. Laurent Loty)
For more information:
- On a “cultural approach” to teaching the Revolution, see Douthwaite, “Making History from Fictions? The Dilemma of Historicism in the French Revolution Classroom,” EMF: Studies in Early Modern France 7 (2001): 201-25.
- If you would like assignments and/or more documents related to these projects, or the syllabus of the 2005 “Utopie et dystopie” class, or the 2008 “Revolution in Fiction” class, contact email@example.com.
4. Read J. Willett, The Writing Class. Practice her principles, if you can.
Jincy Willett‘s novel, The Writing Class has some excellent pointers for how to teach and enliven a class devoted to the pursuit of literature. Its super-sharp focus may be difficult to sustain in real life, but we’d be curious to hear from anyone who tries…
5. Crossword puzzles and Word games
a. The New York Times crossword puzzles are intelligent, well-designed, and often have a creative theme that can be incorporated in teaching. See for example the July 14, 2009 puzzle on the theme of Bastille Day, or August 11, 2009 on things French. A handy archive of puzzles with their themes and answers is available on The New York Times Crosswords in Gothic.
b. Word games, such as the Dictionary game, can also usefully complement a class discussion, especially if the book’s vocabulary or style is difficult for students. In a session on the notoriously impenetrable Jacques le fataliste, for example, I took 45 minutes or so to engage students in the Dictionary game (and lugged Le Petit Robert to class for the occasion). I gave student groups 5 minutes to scour the text in search of an unfamiliar term, then seek out its definition, which they wrote down and submitted to me, as moderator. I then presented each word to the group, one at a time, and the groups were given 2 minutes to quickly invent their own fake but convincing-sounding alternatives, which were submitted in writing and read aloud by the moderator. Each group voted on their favorite definition, and the group which convinced the most people of their fake won. Results were hilarious! It was great to be able to laugh together, and inject a sense of pleasure into our study of Jacques, which is, after all, supposed to be funny…
6. Jeopardy gamebalzacpoegame1balzacpoegame2balzacpoegame3
Students like to compete in small teams, and it is easy to create a Jeopardy-style game using Powerpoint and hyperlinks; one can insert any kind of content. Why not literary quotes and examples? See attached for examples of the game page, a question, and an answer, from a game testing students’ knowledge of Balzac’s short story, “An Episode Under the Terror.” Tip: Allow at least 45 minutes to play this kind of game in class. It does take a certain amount of prep, and you want to have enough time to enjoy it.
7. Lemov’s taxonomy of effective strategies.
“Building a Better Teacher,” by Elizabeth Green (New York Times magazine, March 2, 2010).
Check out the inspiring tips and video clips of America’s best teachers practicing some simple strategies for bringing their subjects to life, in the excellent article by Elizabeth Green. All of us, whether in elementary settings or advanced graduate seminars, can learn from these techniques to help students stay focused, enthused, and sharp.
When literature engages directly with real-life controversies, one must seize the teaching moment! Students in a survey of French literature of the Middle Ages to the 17th century recently ended their study of Mme de Lafayette’s Princesse de Clèves (1678) with a discussion of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2009 disparaging comments on this classic work of psychological analysis, and the outraged reactions of French intellectuals and academics. The controversy inspired open-air marathon readings of Mme de Lafayette’s novel in front of the Pantheon in Paris, among other places, and generated unprecedented sales of La Princesse de Clèves at French bookstores. In solidarity with our colleagues Outre-Atlantique, I made pins for the students identical to those born by the demonstrators in France which the class members are now sporting on their backpacks. We hope to generate some local media coverage (in the student newspaper) via a student-written news release about the controversy and its repercussions in our class. Vive la lecture des classiques!
9. Real-life engagement through videoconferencing with students abroad *(see no. 11 below also)
In April 2010, undergraduate students of a survey class on French literature and graduate students in a seminar in Literary Theory at the University of Notre Dame had a powerful learning experience thanks to two videoconference sessions they participated in with counterparts in Prof. Riham Bahi‘s class in Political Science at the American University in Cairo. The readings (below) were distributed in advance to all students.
The first day was more focused on contemporary issues and translation of concepts from Orient to Occident. The US-based students were intrigued by the questions posed them by their counterparts in Egypt, about Occidental involvement in the Middle East, and representations of Islam in the media. We were interested to learn from one of the AUC students, a professional translator, that jihad is a very precise term that signifies “resistance,” not “holy war.” In discussing translations of holy texts, it was also interesting to note Haddawy’s choice of the word God instead of Allah, as used by Burton. The choice of English-language equivalents for Arabic concepts is more acceptable to Middle-Eastern readers.
The second day was focused on study of what we in the West consider a classic of Arabic folklore. But what we learned to our surprise is that the Middle Eastern students found The Thousand and One Nights a provocative, possibly inappropriate choice. Several mentioned that they had been forbidden to read it as children, and considered it obscene; they were surprised at our casual attitude toward what we considered its quaint or old-fashioned representations of male-female interaction.
This cultural shock, on both sides of the globe, was eye-opening.
It was also newsworthy. One student wrote the following email to me on 5/14/10:
“I also thought you would be interested by this article from May 5, from Le Monde, about islamic groups trying to forbid a new edition of the Thousand and One Nights in Egypt.
The discussion we had with the Egyptian students was actually very relevant…”
April 15: Collaborative class with the American University of Cairo and the University of Notre Dame on Postcolonial theory, Orient/Occident relations, and the Middle East today
• Said, Introduction to Orientalism, 1979
• Said, “The Clash of Ignorance,” article in The Nation, 2001
• Mitchell, “The World as Exhibition,” from Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1989
• Khawaja, “Essentialism, Consistency, and Islam: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism,” from Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 2008
• Elmarsafy, “Afterword” from The Enlightenment Qur’an: The Politics of Translation and the Construction of Islam, 2009
April 22: Collaborative class with the American University of Cairo and the University of Notre Dame on Occident/Orient relations as seen in translations of A Thousand and One Nights
[Nights 1-19 from Galland, Mille et une nuits (for Tuesday 4/20)]
• Prologue and Nights 1-9 from The Arabian Nights, trans. Haddawy, 1995
• Introduction and Nights 1-9 from The Book of The Thousand Nights and a Night, trans. Burton, 1885 (compare style, presentation)
** The discussion topics and homework questions are available on request. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on these dialogues, click here.
If you are a professor interested in connecting your students to one of these sessions which are run regularly at AUC, please contact Prof. Mourad Sinot, Dialogue Coordinator, American University in Cairo, email@example.com.
10. Connecting writers of the past to present-day concerns: Rousseau 2012: On the Road to DIGNITY. The best thing I ever did in the academy.
Spring semester 2012 saw Notre Dame join a world-wide examination of the legacy of the Swiss philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 2012 marks the tricentennial of his birth; the international organization of events is being led by colleagues in Geneva. See the “Rousseau 2012” website http://www.ville-ge.ch/culture/rousseau/english.html.
The Notre Dame events, titled “Rousseau 2012: On the Road to DIGNITY” explained why we should keep reading Rousseau today through the lens of key concepts on political justice, religious liberty, gender, education, and the human psyche. They included lectures by Rousseau greats Christopher Kelly, Christie McDonald, Serge Margel, and Jason Neidleman, which were attended by faculty and students from over a dozen departments. What made our commemoration outstanding, however, was its combination of commemoration and militant activism.
The large and gripping photographic DIGNITY exhibit in the Snite Museum of Art, was first unveiled in Paris from May-July 2010. See the DIGNITY @ ND page: http://www.nd.edu/~dignity/slideshow/index.html
Guaranteed to deliver a jolt to audiences, this exhibit provides a heart-wrenching, honest portrayal of what poverty looks and feels like, as reported by people speaking their own stories from five countries: Egypt, India, Macedonia, Mexico, and Nigeria. We were fortunate to welcome Johann Rousselot (INDIA) and Philippe Brault (EGYPT) to campus during the show. During his stay at ND, Rousselot also participated in the Fourth Annual Human Development conference, sponsored by the Ford Family Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity.
Student responses to the DIGNITY exhibit and the accompanying class, “Humanitarian Thought and Fiction, from Rousseau to our Day,” were tremendous. As faculty organizer of this event, I finally felt a connection with students in real-time.
The results are already palpable, in testimonials from students who are dedicating their lives to public service and teaching, and in a partnership I’m enjoying with a former student (see below, no. 13). As the Amnesty International people tell us, “My signature is powerful.” Let us take that power and make a difference in our world.
11. A caveat on no. 9, Real-life engagement through videoconferencing with students abroad
See the posting of 12/25/11 for some reflections on the videoconferences of 2011, during Cairo’s tumultuous fall of unrest. It was a memorable failure. And very much worth repeating.
12. Let’s Be Less Productive (Homage to all you teachers, and to Tim Jackson)
Tim Jackson’s article, “Let’s Be Less Productive,” in the New York Times (May 27, 2012) was a much-needed breath of fresh air for teachers. It seems every day brings more venom and negativity to bear down on our workaday lives, as if it can be best to outsource teaching to “e-learning” via computer or to punish teachers for the poverty of the children entrusted to their care. Even those of us who work in the most favorable situations on college campuses have noted a sea-change of late, faced with an increasingly hostile student body that perceives education more as a service proffered to clients, and administrations eager to seize on bottom-line rationales to winnow out less “marketable” programs.
To this market-based profit-oriented way of thinking, Jackson provides a useful corrective. “The care and concern of one human being for another is a peculiar ‘commodity,’” Jackson writes. “It can’t be stockpiled. It becomes degraded through trade. It isn’t delivered by machines. Its quality rests entirely on the attention paid by one person to another. Even to speak of reducing the time involved is to misunderstand its value. … The endemic modern tendency to streamline or phase out such professions [such as teaching] highlights the lunacy at the heart of the growth-obsessed, resource-intensive consumer economy. Low productivity is seen as a disease.”
So on this day, on the cusp of summer vacation, I offer a shout out to all of you whose labor obliges work with devotion, patience and attention. Thank you for a job well done. May you have a summer un-plagued by productivity, and re-enter the fray next fall with renewed zest for the important role you play in generating, and keeping alive, hope for our collective future. We’re counting on you.
13. Partnership with former students!
I am delighted to announce that Alexa Craig (ND’12; currently in Law School at ND), and I have been working together for over a year to teach what I hope will one day become a regular feature in South Bend as part of the inspiring 826 National network. Our little class, “Write YOUR Story!” meets once a week for one hour to enable kids ages 7-13 to learn story-telling techniques, write their own story, illustrate it, and place it into a hard-bound book. It is particularly designed for those who may need a little extra help to experience the joys of reading and writing. The course is offered for free at the Saint Joseph County Public Library in downtown South Bend. As you can see in the photo above, the look on the kids’ faces when they finish their books is priceless.