Foreign Languages and Literatures
Bytes & Books, Spring 2020 (Volume 34, no. 1)

What motivated you to apply for an IL grant for French 424 20th Century French Culture?

I first heard about the grant during a new faculty orientation meeting when the recipients from last year were talking about their experiences. I had done some work with Diane Shaw, the former special collection librarian, about caricatures from the 18th century in my 18th century literature class, and I wanted to think more creatively about how I could take advantage of the library’s resources. Originally, I was thinking about doing a digital project using Scalar to make the course more engaging for students. I had not really thought about information literacy as a guiding component of the course until attending the brownbag. Hearing about what some of my colleagues had recently done inspired me to rethink the learning outcomes and expectations for my course.

Could you talk about why you used a WordPress site and how you used it?

I decided to build a WordPress site because it does not require as much learning curve as Scalar. There were three assignments. For each assignment, students posted on the site their projects along with reflections on the research process in English. This allowed students to interact with each other’s work, to work collaboratively. Because we were using a WordPress site, I was able to turn to the site in class to help guide discussions and to show students the connections between their projects. In future iterations of the course I intend to have students, for instance, comment on each other’s work, ask each other questions directly on WordPress, and extend the discussions beyond just class time.

What were the assignments? What did they entail?

The first assignment involved students in groups researching newspapers from primarily the Colonial Era in North Africa because those were the newspapers that were available through Gallica, the National French Library’s database. We were reading about colonial Algeria at the time and I wanted students to locate primary sources, to contextualize them, and to think about how to derive meaning from them in different ways. This proved to be pretty challenging because the newspapers expressed a wide range of political orientations. Even just interacting with a primary source was a challenge for the students since the newspapers are not like today’s newspapers.  Many were very specific to the time and place for which they were designed.

The second one required students to find an image from Gallica and told an imaginative a story about it. For instance, one student used images from Colonial Senegal and imagined a dialogue between women who were braiding each other’s hair. The class was reading the novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Guadalupian author Maryse Condé. Condé had come across a reference to an enslaved woman from Barbados named Tituba in the archives of the Salem Witch Trials. Her novel is the imagined narrative about this woman’s life, before, after, and during the trials. Through her creative imagination, Condé tells a story about Tituba, giving her a voice, an agency in history. I wanted students to try out that experience—to think of themselves as both historians and authors by reconstructing a historical moment through the research process and using fiction to fill in the blanks. We had a lot of conversations about what the archive contains, what it does not contain, how you identify gaps, and how you think critically about why we do and do not have access to certain information.

For this assignment, students at first had to post their images on the WordPress site. They described their image, talked about where they found it, what it was depicting, and what they were able to find to help understand the historical context behind the image. Part of the challenge with this assignment was that some of the images had very little metadata associated with them so sometimes we just did not have answers for questions such as: Where does this come from? Who took this picture? What is it part of? Who is that person? But that experience in itself was valuable for students. We have these archives but that does not mean we have the full story. Another challenge was that a lot of times students did not know where to begin to do research about their image, for example, what thread to pull on and where should they do if the thread they’re exploring doesn’t lead them anywhere?

For the third assignment, students picked a site of memory (e.g. a physical space or an object), researched it, and discussed how this site commemorates—or possibly distorts—historical events. This project was based on the work of French historian Pierre Nora who demonstrated how French history is commemorated in specific spaces, objects, and symbols of national memory. Battlefields, national anthems, and monuments, for instance, are sites of memory. Nora has been criticized for presenting a homogenized and colonial narrative of French memory and Frenchness. Students, then, were tasked with establishing alternative sites of memory by examining how colonial and postcolonial histories are commemorated—or overlooked—in various spaces. The commemoration of the past—or the lack thereof—is always the product of political and social factors. I wanted students to think critically about the physical manifestations of memory and forgetting and how they shape our relationships with the past.

A student wrote hers about the island of Gorée off Senegal, a site often visited because it is where slaves left for the New World. Recent studies have shown that there actually were not as many slaves that were there as people have believed. Her paper asked: Does it actually matter? How “accurate” does our study of history need to be in order for this to be an important site of memory? Another student researched Griottes, female storytellers in Senegal, and argued that these storytellers can be understood as sites of memory. A lot of her work involved constructing creative research methods, since often the work of the Girottes is oral and not written down. She used, for example, audio recordings, film, and image analysis of photographs.

You worked closely with Ben Jahre and Angela Perkins on your class. What were the advantages of collaborating with a librarian?

Ben and Angela were extremely helpful. They had several workshops with the students and also met with students one-on-one, more than once. My students were able to achieve high level of research in large part because of Ben and Angela’s work.

The librarians also helped me better conceive the course. Talking with them throughout the semester allowed me to workshop ideas and think through all the pieces. It was really great to have feedback and input from a team of information professionals. There are aspects of the research process, for instance, that I learned intuitively but do not always think to explain to the students in an explicit manner. The whole process made me realize how important it is to make them explicit to students and devote more class time to discussing what it means to do research.

Do you have any advice for faculty who are interested in integrating IL into their classes?

I would say have conversations with librarian and also other colleagues early on in your thought-process. Pitch your idea and see what people think. After the information literacy brownbag presentation this past Fall, a colleague approached me and we had a really interesting conversation about a project that she was developing for her class. I was helping her, but she was also helping me because I was hearing about how she was designing her course, which in turn gave me new ideas for my own courses. This is what I love about the faculty community at Lafayette. It is truly a place of collaboration where faculty are excited to talk about their work. This makes it a great place to think about IL across disciplines.