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Old Books and a Collective Research Project in a Re-focused Survey Course: Global Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century France

John R. Iverson

THREE years ago, I made major adjustments to a course on eighteenth-century French literature that I had previously taught on four occasions. The major elements of this overhaul were the explicit articulation of a dominant theme for the course and the inclusion of a collaborative research project that culminated in an exhibit at our campus library. The resulting course thus addressed multiple goals: introducing students to the period, developing a sustained reflection on cultural perspectives as a key element of the French Enlightenment, creating direct contact with authentic materials, and integrating the entire class in a research project. This formula proved to hold many advantages, achieving much or all of what I might previously have accomplished in my standard survey course, but adding a dynamic, collective dimension that greatly enriched the learning experience. This model encouraged deep historical contextualization while generating a feeling of more immediate contact with the eighteenth century.

Photo by and reproduced by permission of Sarah E. Hurlburt; all images reproduced by permission of Whitman College Penrose Library.

Three converging factors led me in this direction. The first of these was a departmental reflection on the nature of our advanced courses in French. Historically, these were defined as period literature surveys, aimed at preparing our undergraduate majors for senior examinations, a summative exercise that we continue to administer. Each course bears a responsibility, therefore, for providing students with an overview of the period in question; to some extent, the reading lists for these courses are determined by the reading list for the major exams. At the same time, as a departmental unit, we wanted to introduce more critical depth into these courses and to distinguish between them more clearly in terms of the tools and critical approaches students might encounter. For these reasons, it seemed desirable to consider new pedagogical models. The second contributing factor was my participation in an institutional initiative in support of joint student-faculty research projects. Although I initially questioned the feasibility of such projects in my area of specialization—I assumed that linguistic obstacles and the need for extensive historical knowledge would render student research ineffectual—I was encouraged by the experiences of colleagues in the humanities and was completely won over by my experience working with a student during the summer of 2007. Supported by a Louis B. Perry Research Award from Whitman College, Rosemary Brownlow carried out insightful work on the subject of Beaumarchais and calumny, digesting a vast array of period sources and developing considerable expertise in a short time.1 I emerged from that project eager to apply similar principles to the classroom setting. The only remaining question was what kind of project a whole class might pursue.

Fig. 1. Juan Jorge and Antonio de Ulloa. Voyage historique de l’Amérique méridionale fait par ordre du roi d’Espagne. Amsterdam: Arkste and Merkus, 1752. Reproduced by permission of Whitman College Penrose Library.

The third factor, finally, which produced a neat intersection of the preceding two, was my discovery of the existence of a group of illustrated books from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries in the Special Collections of our campus library. I first learned of these holdings when one of our librarians showed me a map of Louisiana from one of the volumes in the Vernon H. Macfarlane Collection. Curious to know more, I found that this collection included many geographic works and travel narratives, several of them in French. I soon recognized that my eighteenth-century course had found a new focus in the general notion of French knowledge about the world at large and that the Macfarlane Collection would serve as the target for a collective research project. As a result, the old introductory survey became something quite distinct, more stimulating for me and more engaging for the students.

In many respects, the first half of the course—intended to introduce the major currents of eighteenth-century thought and provide a context for the subsequent research project—proceeded in traditional fashion, with a selection of literary readings similar to those I had incorporated into other eighteenth-century courses. These included many of the same canonical authors: Bayle and Fontenelle, Marivaux, Montesquieu, Graffigny, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot. The only adjustment that I made to previous syllabi was to exchange certain titles in favor of others that more obviously lent themselves to a discussion of cultural perspectives. (For example, we read Marivaux’s L’Île des esclaves rather than the more standard Le Jeu de l’amour et du hasard.) Nevertheless, despite my familiarity with these texts, I found that the course evolved differently than in years past. With the guiding thread of cultural perspectives as a constant element of class discussion, there was a high degree of coherence in the course progression. Rather than artificially constraining our insights, however, I strongly felt that this class ultimately emerged with a more complex vision of the Enlightenment than had sometimes been the case with previous groups. My original goal of providing an overview of the period was thus fulfilled; in addition, the class came away with a set of questions and hypotheses that positioned us well for the more exploratory phase of the course.

John R. Iverson - Global Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century France

Fig. 2. Jean-Baptiste Du Halde. Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique, et physique de l’empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise. Paris: P. G. Le Mercier, 1735. Reproduced by permission of Whitman College Penrose Library.

Readings during the second half of the semester became more focused, closely centered on accounts of actual contact with foreign cultures and the types of treatment those accounts subsequently received in literary and philosophical works. For this purpose, I selected three regions visited by Frenchmen and other Europeans during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: China, New France, and the Pacific. As representative “direct” observations, selections from the Lettres édifiantes of the Jesuits were supplemented by readings from the père Du Halde’s Description de la Chine, Lahontan’s Nouveaux Voyages en Amérique septentrionale, and Bougainville’s Voyage autour du monde. As examples of works informed by these primary accounts, we read Voltaire’s Orphelin de la Chine, Saint-Lambert’s Les Deux Amis, conte iroquois, and Diderot’s Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville. Grouping readings in this way, we were immediately pushed to reflect on the ways in which “factual” knowledge of the world is constructed in these texts, both by the initial observers and by the readers of the primary accounts. The students recognized, as well, that the primary sources were in several respects structured by literary conceits. In looking back to earlier readings, they could see how the trope of the foreign observer, à la Montesquieu, was intimately linked to the experiences of real world travelers from the era. In this way, they began to perceive more clearly the interconnectedness of different types of knowledge and to call into question the neat distinction between “fiction” and “non-fiction.”

Fig. 3. L’isle, Guillaume de. Atlas nouveau contenant toutes les parties du monde, où sont exactement remarqués les empires, monarchies, royaumes, états, républiques, etc. Amsterdam: Jean Cévens and Corneille Mortier, 1733. Reproduced by permission of Whitman College Penrose Library.

Also during the second half of the semester, we began our collective research project, working with period travel narratives housed in the Special Collections of our library. Our college archivist, Michael Paulus, introduced the students to characteristics of eighteenth-century books, talking about the fabrication of printed material and looking at the types of information commonly included in period peritexts. Armed with these guidelines for “reading” an eighteenth-century volume, the students were then assigned one work that would be their focus for the research project. After completing an initial assignment describing the volume, the students briefly introduced the work to their classmates in a second session in the Special Collections room. To deepen their study of the volume, they were also assigned a bibliographic task that required them to identify at least three modern sources that would help them better understand their assigned works, and they each selected a particularly interesting passage from the work for a translation exercise.

Fig. 4. The exhibit in the library, May-July 2009. Photo by John R. Iverson.

As the culmination of the course, we then worked together to prepare a temporary exhibit at our college library, using one of the large display cases in the main stairwell of the building. This is a heavily trafficked area, and students were aware that their work would be viewed by hundreds of passers-by. Around the reproduction of a period world map, the students arranged the books, along with brief presentation cards identifying the works and reproductions of selected images. One student who had previously done museum work found that our presentation standards were not quite professional(!), but the rest of us were pleased with the display (Fig. 4).2 I later had the satisfaction of hearing from a colleague that he had spotted one of the contributing students with her father, as she explained the work she and the class had done, translating from the French and English of the display into her father’s native Spanish.

Fig. 5. A detail from the exhibit. Le Page du Pratz. Histoire de la Louisiane. Paris: De Bure l’aîné . . ., 1758. Photo by John R. Iverson.

I tend to be wary of investing excessive value in student evaluations, but the comments from this class—among the most enthusiastic I have ever received—indicated that the research project had effectively mobilized a high level of interest. One student wrote, “The research I conducted at the library was, for me, one of the most interesting and exciting things I’ve done at Whitman College. I felt like I was conducting research that was important and new. It dovetailed extremely nicely with what we were learning in the course as well.” Another noted, “I especially enjoyed the second half of this course, which dealt with the exploration of the world and the perspectives of both the French and foreigners at the time. I thought the Macfarlane project was really cool and it gave me a realistic grasp of the French knowledge and outlook on the world during the eighteenth century.” These and other comments underscored the psychological benefits of encountering primary source material, creating direct contact with the eighteenth century. In part, the appeal for students perhaps stemmed from our visits to Special Collections and from having the opportunity to handle period books. But it was also a function of the connections students were able to make between “real experience” and literary reinterpretation, between documentary sources and creative works. And it was, most emphatically, a product of our joint research endeavor that helped to demonstrate the ways in which the literature of the past is informed by multiple contextual and cultural layers. 

As a coda to these comments, I will add that the positive impacts of the research project have, in fact, encouraged me to restructure other advanced literature courses to include a similar element, even without the support of a trove of rare books. In my seventeenth-century course last year, we focused thematically on the relationship between individual and society, giving important weight to les moralistes. The research project in this case revolved around the reading of La Bruyère’s Caractères and a study of its many nineteenth- and twentieth-century adaptations and imitations. This year, in a course on literary Paris (1600–1800), we adopted a sociological approach to literature that led us toward an exploration of the multifaceted contemporary reaction to Le Mariage de Figaro. In both cases, Google books and other digitized materials granted access to rare period works and created a similar kind of research experience within a collective framework. At the same time, the research projects accentuated the specific theme for the course. In the case of La Bruyère, we observed the perpetuation of the Grand Siècle and the enduring moralist tradition in France. In the case of Le Mariage de Figaro, we developed a probing reflection on the dynamics of literary life in the pre-Revolutionary capital.

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