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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Guest Post: This Must Be the Place: Teaching Francophone Literacy Narratives

A guest post from Jennifer Solheim.

June 4, 2014

Jennifer Solheim is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. At the start of the semester she wrote about her course in Francophone Literature. I've asked her to tell us how it went. - JW

Many of you will recognize the title of this post from the Talking Heads song of the same name:

Home - is where I want to be
But I guess I'm already there
I come home she lifted up her wings
I guess that this must be the place

This is unhome all over, right? “I guess that this must be the place.” Unhome took on new significance over the course of the term, one that can be considered more broadly within the experience of the university: unhoming is also what happens in the acquisition of deep knowledge. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about deep knowledge this semester, as I’ll be starting a new visiting position this coming year: I’ll still be housed in the Department of French and Francophone Studies, but my teaching will be in UIC’s new Freshman Experience Initiative, one of the primary aims of which is to help students acquire deep knowledge throughout their undergraduate education.  Deep knowledge is an understanding through one’s own experience of new subject matter, whether prior experience or through new experience or with the knowledge itself. In the francophone literacy narratives course, for example, many of my students (as is almost always the case in UIC classes) were first or second generation immigrants who speak one to four languages beyond English. So for those students, early in our course, deep knowledge could arise from synthesizing their family’s experience of learning English in a new home country with the experience of Raj in Nathacha Appanah’s The Last Brother with speaking French to the woman for whom his mother was a housemaid.

That happened in our class. A lot. It was one of the things that most delighted me: my student from Poland, for example, often noted references to Communism and how different those references seemed in a French-speaking context from her own experiences in with her Polish family. Another student from Haïti made astute observations about language play and regularly asked challenging, thoughtful questions about translation issues – he would sometimes offer his own idea of how the French original may have been written, based on the English translations were we reading as a class. There were also students from Bulgaria, Japan, the Congo, and Mexico—all of whom experienced unhoming moments of deep knowledge acquisition, and generously worked through their experiences with the class, thus enriching all of our experiences of the literacy narratives. While I had anticipated that the class would be highly diverse in terms of ethnic and national background, it was the students’ openness and generosity in discussion with each other and the class as a whole that brought us all unhome. This was, by far, the most important aspect of the course, so far as I am concerned. It was a no-brainer to give high marks across the board for participation at the end of the semester, and to reduce this aspect of the course to a letter grade seemed altogether crass. I would have much rather given them flowers. 

Reading the students’ literacy narratives as moving to me as their willingness to share their experiences. I had designed the writing assignments in the course so that writing their own stories was something we returned to throughout the semester, and in lieu of the final exam they did a revision and expansion of their literacy narratives and wrote a letter to the reader about their experience of writing their own stories alongside our assigned readings. Although I encouraged the students who were majoring or minoring in French to reflect on their experience with French as their literacy narrative, since the course is in translation and open to students across disciplines I gave them the option of writing about different kinds of literacy. I had two students who were in the military (one American, one Algerian) who described chilling experiences that permanently changed their perspective on the use of force. Another student wrote about reading and books as a “beloved plague,” one that sheltered her from bullying classmates and a highly critical mother, and yet also kept her—in the minds of some—from participating in real life, although she decided, in the end, that all she derived from reading was worth the trade-off. A non-traditional student wrote about her love of foreign films since she was very young, and how that fed her love of learning languages and led to her leading a rich, adventurous life that has so far spanned three continents.  Another non-traditional student wrote about the parallels between learning to be a sous-chef in his early 20s chopping onions, and butchering French in studying the language as he returns to school twenty years later. Again, flowers. I could keep throwing you blooms all day, with what these students shared.

Many of them noted in their final portfolio letters the importance of meeting one of the novelists whose work we read, writer and scholar Evelyne Accad and her translator, French scholar and poet Cynthia Hahn. Accad’s novel Poppy from the Massacre is an unflinching yet lyrical portrait of women’s experiences of the Lebanese Civil War, and while my students were taken with the novel before they met Accad and heard her talk about the work, some of them felt imbued with a new sense of agency as students of French. Their questions were also lent a new legitimacy because they could pose the question to the author herself. We could get into all kinds of arguments about how the text is divorced from the writer once it’s been published. I’m just reporting the facts, and the fact is that many of them felt like the novel had come alive and that their questions were more important for the encounter with the writer. It reminds me somewhat of my own experience with seeing a band live following the release of a new CD – almost inevitably, I gain a deeper appreciation of the songs on record for having heard them live and shared the experience with the band in person.

It’s embodiment that seems key to me in the acquisition of deep knowledge. Giving students the opportunity to develop their own stories alongside those of critically acclaimed writers, as well as the chance to meet one of the authors, brought us all into the fold. There is something to this in considerations of the study of contemporary literature, writing pedagogy, as well as Francophonie and other postcolonial writing practices. I plan to explore these ideas further, and would welcome discussion in comments here.


Follow Jennifer Solheim on Twitter @JenniferSolheim

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