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Can (Role-) Playing the French Revolution En Français Also Teach the Eighteenth Century?

Peggy Schaller

Introduction | Changing the Game with a Game | Roles | Readings | Rules | Results | Post-Mortem

AS A PROFESSOR of French in a four-year liberal arts university, I am called on to be a generalist in all things French. Confronted with the prospect of teaching that perennial staple, French Culture and Civilization (C&C), to American university students as part of their French language program, I faced the anxiety that often comes with the freedom of teaching such a broad and all-encompassing subject. As the course name implies, the main component is cultural and historical in nature, introducing language students to a more in-depth understanding of the countries where French is spoken and the French-speaking peoples that inhabit them. However, the course content must focus study in a direction that may be historical, sociological, geographic, cultural, political, artistic, or most likely some combination of these areas. At the same time, the importance of language in the classroom becomes a variable instead of a primary concentration. As part of the upper division French program, the assumption is that the course will be taught in French.

Given the two-semester nature of C&C at my university, the angst lasts for an entire academic year. The first semester is intended to focus on France from Antiquity through the Revolution and its aftermath at the end of the eighteenth century. It is this half of the course that I focus on in this study, leaving the nineteenth century and its march toward modernity for another analysis. In preparing for the class, I opted for a sociologically motivated chronology so that students would associate themes or movements with large blocks of time and then more easily grasp the concepts that are exemplified through the main historical figures in the events represented by those time blocks. Thus we would study Antiquity and the battle of Vercingetorix versus Julius Caesar, question why Montaigne’s “Essais” represent the shifting ideology of the Renaissance, and compare the Gothic cathedral’s representation of the medieval quest for God to the humanist philosophy of the Renaissance embodied in that period’s sprawling horizontal chateaux. In the final section of this class, we would focus on Louis XIV’s centralized nation, the shift in Cartesian thought on intellectual development, and the influential philosophes and their enlightenment ideals. The French Revolution would, I determined, serve as the culminating event of the class. The early modern period, my primary area of research, would be the largest component of the course. None of this was terribly innovative on the surface, but it served as the sturdy spine on which to build more innovative course design.

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