Feel the Fear and Teach the Revolution Anyway: Notes From a Historian of Post-1945 France

Age of Revolutions

By Roxanne Panchasi

I learned a lot about “the terror” during my first few semesters on the job as an Assistant Professor of History. I felt like a fraud regularly and wondered often if that feeling might actually kill me. Even in those moments when I was teaching in my twentieth-century-to-the-present “comfort zone,” I spent a lot of time hoping no one would ask me about the (many!) events and people I either couldn’t keep track of, or just didn’t know anything about at all. Take me further back, into the early-nineteenth or (gasp!) eighteenth century and more intense levels of panic set in. The French Revolution made me feel especially nervous. Such an important set of historical events, actors, themes, and questions, for modern France and its empire, but also for the wider world. I was expected to help students better understand what felt like still-shaky terrain to me…

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before during after

I tried something different in my summer intercession writing-intensive seminar this May-June. In the past, I’ve assigned pre-class reading analyses/responses (sometimes graded, sometimes not). When I started at SFU, before there were such things as writing-intensive courses, asking students to write every week (let alone more than once per week) was relatively unusual. Since then, it’s become a fairly standard practice. And with standardization has come student exhaustion.

And I have grown weary, too.

before

So in this six-week seminar (two meetings of 4 hours each per week) I decided to try something new. New to me, anyway. Instead of having students write a whole page or 2 in preparation for seminar, I asked them to prepare brief “Talking Points” in response to prompts I gave them each week. These assignments were typically divided into two parts: one that asked students to identify passages from assigned texts that corresponded to a particular question or issue, and another that asked them to formulate a question for discussion with specific reference to the readings. Students turned these in via Canvas about an hour before seminar so I had a chance to look them over. Then we spent the first hour of seminar each week discussing what they had come up with. Given the fact that we had 8 hours to work with each week, this bit of structure was very helpful.

during

In our seminar sessions during the week, I asked students to do another type of brief assignment, something I called a “WriteNOW”. They wrote during class time, by hand (unless this posed a specific problem for students that they could tell me about privately) and submitted this to me once it was completed. Like Talking Points, WriteNOWs were assessed on a satisfactory/not satisfactory basis. If a student was sick or had an emergency of some kind, they weren’t penalized and could make these up at a later point if this made sense. Otherwise “complete” typically meant “satisfactory”.

So having prepped for the week by reading, picking out key passages, and formulating questions in advance, students had a chance to respond to additional materials (images, brief primary texts, films, etc.) during class time. They also had plenty of opportunity to discuss various materials and issues in smaller and large groups during the week. And then, once our seminar meetings were through, they had a chance to think back on what they’d learned during the week. A graded short reflection, a set of “Afterthoughts” was due a day or two after our last seminar meeting of the week.

after

Afterthoughts often asked students to revisit other writing they had done earlier in a given week, or to reach back further to previous weeks in the course, in and outside of class time. I graded and provided feedback on these mini-essays each week (350-500 words). Students also had a chance to comment on each other’s Afterthoughts online before the beginning of the next week.

None of the individual components of this “system” for pulling reading into writing into discussion and back into writing were all that different from other things I’d done in the past. But something felt different. Giving students an adjusted routine for their writing (including a chance to formulate thoughts after class), a clear set of guidelines and a set of prompts to shape things a bit, along with some slightly different names for these “new” assignments all meant that everyone (including me) felt we were doing something a little unusual while we were still reading and writing and talking to one another, as always. Something about this flow felt more organic to my students, and to me, as the person reading things and grading things each week. I don’t know exactly why it all worked as well as it seemed to, but it did. I’m going to try it again next term. Hopefully I can use this set of assignments for a little while before it all starts to seem like old hat and I need to change things up again…

digitizing wwii

When I first arrived at SFU, someone mentioned a cache of French World War II documents housed in Special Collections. At the time, I was a brand new faculty member trying to finish a dissertation on another historical period and get my footing in the classroom. I forgot about the collection and didn’t think about it again for years.

A few months ago, I decided to teach a summer intensive seminar on France during the Second World War and I remembered these documents. I got in touch with Special Collections and (thanks to Melissa Salrin!) had a look through what turns out to be an AMAZING set of posters, pamphlets, newspapers, and other sources from Vichy,  the French Resistance, and the Liberation. I’m now very excited about using some of the materials with my seminar this coming term. Many of my students are unable to read French, so the posters will be especially useful. 

If you’d asked me in 2001 (when I first heard about these sources) whether I’d be talking about digitizing them one day, I would have said ‘What do mean “digitize”?’ I also never imagined at the time that I’d teach this particular seminar, or that I’d be as interested as I’ve become in working on pedagogy and a variety of forms of scholarly activity. Technologies shift. Our own interests and ideas about what kinds of work we want to do change. And isn’t that a good thing…?

I recently learned that I received funding from the SFU Library for the digitization, translation, and annotation of over 140 posters in the collection from the period of the Liberation in France. I’m super excited about this project that will create a permanent repository of these posters for consultation by researchers, students, and a wider public. I am also developing a related digital humanities project that will present these materials in a way that will work well for students and teachers.

The provenance of the World War II collection at the SFU Library is a bit of a mystery. I’ll be keeping track of our efforts to track down the source of the whole collection (the posters comprise just one element of a larger whole) and of the stages of bringing the digitization home in all of its facets. I’m hoping that I will be able to share our process with others to illuminate some of the ups and downs of these types of initiatives, and to help others who might be interested in pursuing similar projects. More soon!