Women in French

My colleague, Vesna Rodic, and I participated in the 7th International Women in French conference held at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Canada, May 21-24, 2014. The overarching conference theme was Women and Memory. Our presentations were in the pedagogy session that Vesna had organized on Approaches to Teaching Women and Memory which comprised of three papers:
Vesna Rodic: Memory and Gender between Words and Images: an Approach to Teaching Assia Djebar’s Regard interdi, son coupé in an Introductory Literature Class.
Aubrey Kubiak: Our Mothers, Our Selves: Teaching Annie Ernaux’s Une Femme.
Seda Chavdarian: Narratives of Remembrance: Teaching Nathalie Sarraute’s Enfance.

There were many interesting sessions spanning several centuries of women writers in French and Francophone literature. This year’s conference did not have as many pedagogical sessions as usual, but the depth and breadth of the presentations were extremely useful in enhancing our teaching. Although it is difficult to choose between the sessions, I would single out three sessions that were of great value to my teaching: what I learned from my colleagues in our own pedagogy session, a session on travel writings of women authors, and the keynote speaker’s lecture.

Vesna’s excellent paper on multiple literacies and the interrelationship between the use of the visual to enhance linguistic and cultural literacy, and vice versa, was very informative. The intertwining of Djebar’s text with two related paintings, one by Delacroix (Algerian Women in their Apartments) and the other by Picasso (Algerian Women) was an excellent example of the use of different teaching tools to help make students gain access to what might as first seem a difficult text.

The session on travel writings of women authors was of particular interest. Entitled Souvenirs: Memories, Mementos and Women Travelers, it introduced us to lesser known francophone women writers such as Tiphaine Samoyault, Jovette Marchessault, Sophie Cottin, and Isabelle Eberhardt. These authors’ travel journals provided insight into their creative process and a unique perspective on the places they visited. The presentations gave me the idea of using travel journals in language classes. For example, asking students to write about a past voyage is a typical assignment. However, it can be taken several steps further by using the authors’ travel logs. Students can be asked to imagine the places the authors had visited or better yet, after reading their work, students can be asked how those authors would have written about the students’ own voyages. Furthermore, I saw the connection between these texts and our travel study programs. When I was directing our summer session Paris program, for one of the assignments in the culture course (French 43A), I would ask the students to keep a journal of our field trips in Paris and the surrounding area. They were asked to write not only about what they saw (which could have been googled anytime) but much more importantly, their emotional reaction to it, an emotional travel log, so to speak. Everyone agrees that travel study programs are crucial for advancing language and cultural literacy, open-mindedness, and awareness of multiculturalism. However, the long-term goal is their personal growth and the transformation they go through as a result of study abroad. The session on the travel journals of the women authors helped me think about new approaches to using literary travel texts in language classes and also in study abroad.

The third session was that of the keynote speaker, the Haitian writer, Marie-Célie Agnant. Her lecture entitled Ces voix dans ma mémoire [These Voices in My Memory] provided an excellent insight into her creative process and how her thoughts found themselves on the page. It helped me think about creating lesson plans using comments of various authors regarding their creative process in order to sensitize students about writing from early on.

I believe very strongly that students should be exposed to authentic literature from the very beginning. Literature can indeed be used to teach grammar, culture, reading, and critical thinking. It can be used as a “text book” so to speak; in other words, as a tool to sensitize students to notions of literary creation, and linguistic and cultural nuances while improving their communicative proficiency. If we do not expose our students to literature from the very beginning, how can we expect them to all of a sudden be able to read, discuss, and analyze a literary text in more advanced classes? We must do everything possible to break down the artificial divide between language and literature teaching. The WIF conference once again reaffirmed my belief that literary texts could and should be used in language classes.

In our profession we are always in search of novel ways of engaging our students and creating a dynamic teaching and learning experience. Effective teaching requires continually challenging ourselves as well as inspiring and stimulating our students to go beyond what is merely called for by the curriculum. In this age of everything “instant”, it becomes even more important to find ways to keep the students’ interest. In my classes, I always try to help students make the connection between language and literature. What I learned in the Women in French conference provided me with even more tools to accomplish my goal.

I am forever grateful to the BLC travel grant program for making it possible for lecturers to continue their professional development and for helping keep teaching a dynamic process that continues to challenge and fascinate.