Saucy starts and sourcing sources: some thoughts on teaching modern French history

As academics we are not only researchers, but also teachers. Balancing the two can sometimes be tricky, especially in the early days of our careers – or around marking season. Moreover, teaching French history in itself has certain obstacles: most of our students cannot speak French. How do we get around this? We like to feature guest posts from doctoral and post-doctoral researchers to discuss their personal teaching experiences – we’re delighted to have this contribution from Dr James Connolly (University of Manchester) as he reflects on his experience as a Teaching Fellow.

In April 1969, the apocryphal story goes, Madame de Gaulle was talking to the American Ambassador just after Charles de Gaulle had announced his retirement. The Ambassador asked Mme de Gaulle what she will most look forward to now that her husband is retiring, and her response was, “A penis.” Charles approached her and said, “My dear, I think you’ll find it’s pronounced ‘happiness’…”

This is my opening gambit every time I teach a class on modern French history. With just one joke, I like to think, I overcome one problem of teaching French history by putting students at ease if they are uncomfortable pronouncing French words (“Hey, Mme de Gaulle spoke English badly, so who cares if your French accent is non-existent!”). The joke also, very quickly, introduces them to the General and the fact that his shadow looms large over modern French history. Or at least those are my excuses.

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This year was the second time since I began teaching in 2010 that I had the luxury of teaching a course specifically on French history. This time, however, I got to create the (third-year) course completely from scratch, which was exciting, fun, but also slightly intimidating. As someone in a 12-month teaching-heavy lectureship, I had a LOT of other teaching and marking to do (as well as create a first-year course), so I had to find a balance between putting together an innovative, exciting course, and one I could teach well and whose handbook/content I could create relatively quickly. This is one of the eternal challenges of the early-career, teaching-heavy academic.

In the end, I opted to combine my research and teaching interests, whilst drawing on my previous teaching experience on my supervisor’s course ‘The French Civil War, 1934-1970’ a few years previous. The result was a course entitled ‘A Century of Conflict? France, 1900-2000.’ Although it covered social, political, ideological, and other forms of conflict and tension, I hoped that the promise of military conflict would draw in a sufficiently large cohort of students to enable mini-group discussions; in the end, I had a grand total of eight, much lower than I’d hoped for, and even then it was rare for everyone to be present. For what was supposed to be weekly a three-hour seminar (across 12 weeks), finding the right teaching dynamic and approach for such a small cohort was key.

As many of us know, one strategy that usually encourages discussion is the use of primary sources, distributed before or in class (I prefer to do so in class). However, this year there was a drawback: only three of my students spoke French. My solution was to translate documents myself. However, this takes time, a key resource those in teaching-heavy positions sorely lack. It also means that some media become largely out of bounds, such as the wonderful wealth of digitised newspapers on Gallica.fr. There are some great pre-existing translated source out there, but not as many as there should be; particularly useful resources for this are Eurodocs or the University of Warwick’s digitised/translated sources. The result of this, for me, is that I rely a lot on speeches of key personalities (skewering things towards the political), or official statements or documents, such as the FLN proclamation of 1st November 1954, or the 1940 Armistice clauses. The former often work better, as even in English some of the lofty rhetoric, emotion, and underlying ideologies can be teased out and discussed. The latter can often end up being a bit dry, simply reinforcing facts you have already said, but in more detail – not in and of itself a bad thing, but not as easily a spark to in-depth debate or questioning. I found that by splitting the class up and providing a mix of different types of documents, students were more willing to engage with the sources and the underlying problems or themes – especially if you then get the groups to present the documents to those who have not read them. It is also important to provide documents that are not too long, but long and complex enough to elicit questions or responses. I am always trying to tweak and improve my use of written sources, seeing what works and what does not. I wouldn’t say I’ve hit the sweet spot yet, but I’m getting better, and I rely on student feedback to help me improve.

Something that worked very well for me in the past, but not so much this year, was using audio-visual primary sources. A fantastic resource for historians of modern France is www.ina.fr. Video clips have the advantage of usually being comprehensible even for those who do not speak French (although I did often have to do my own, translated voiceovers), and I think allow you to transport students ‘into’ the period in a more direct manner than texts. It does, however, require a surprising amount of preparation: you need to locate good videos, consider how much you will show, why, what questions you can ask etc. Sometimes you are simply adding another layer of ‘colour’ to the class, but I think videos should also be analysed critically like any source – some of my students’ best comments have been in this vein. Audio is evidently more problematic for non-Francophones, but music can still form its own, understandable language; or at least add some ‘spice’ to a class. The use of such sources was one of my favourite parts of teaching my supervisor’s course in 2012 – but why did it not work this year? Well, the room in which I taught had a broken speaker system for 8/12 weeks. When I realised the speakers had been fixed in week 9, I was delighted, but this soon turned to disappointment: the poor internet connection meant that what was supposed to be a compelling, colour video of the képis bleus in Algeria ended up resembling a blurry flick-book. The wider discussion about French ‘pacification’ policies had to rely, once again, on textual evidence, much to my chagrin.

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Every new course needs a good pool of primary resources for students to sink their teeth into. For historians of France, a wonderful range of media and possible sources are available online, but often the best stuff is not in English – and resolving this problem eats into your already-precious time. Once you put in the time, however, you will have a stash of English-language primary source that will serve you well for years. At the very least, you will have ‘plan B’ texts, useful for when things don’t go as planned in classes (be it class size or technical malfunctions).

Due to bandwidth issues, this year my course relied more than I would have liked on primary texts that were sometimes hard to find and often rapidly translated. Given the emphasis on critical analysis and deconstructing the wording of texts, I did sometimes worry whether my rushed translations would cause a problem. As Mme de Gaulle discovered, it only takes one misunderstanding, one mistranslation, to move from the refined to the obscene. I like to think that my classes nevertheless remained mostly refined, although I shall go on refining them – all in the quest, of course, for pedagogical ’apiness.

James Connolly is Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Manchester, where he will begin a Simon Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in September 2015.

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