McGraw Teaching Seminar: Disciplinary Knowledge and Practices

The Preliminary Assignment

Our second meeting of the McGraw Teaching Seminar focused on disciplinary knowledge and practices. To prepare, we were assigned to groups composed of participants in drastically different disciplines. I was paired with a chemist, a political scientist, and a classicist. The assignment was to meet and discuss, learning about our own disciplines through the eyes of “novices.” Our assigned discussion questions were as follows:

  1. If you were to take an introductory course in my field, what would you expect to learn?
  2. What would you want to learn more about?
  3. What particular challenges do you think you would confront?

We then had to answer the following two main questions:

  1. Write a paragraph or two that reflects on the various novice responses toward your introductory course that you received from members of your breakout group.
  2. Write one course goal and a lesson for a class of novices in your field that addresses how you would respond to one of the perspectives you received from your breakout conversation. What would your goal be? And how would you design a class meeting around advancing students toward the goal?

My Responses

1. The first question that arose was: what is an introductory course in French? Language or literature or culture? In other words, is the focus teaching language as a tool or is it to help students read literature? There is an implicit answer to these questions in the way language and literature departments are structured: introductory courses tend to be language classes, with the goal to get students to more advanced courses in literature or culture. For the purposes of our discussion, we restricted talk to an introductory French language course.

We decided that a novice in an introductory language class would expect to attain basic competency in terms of communication. There was some discussion about which competencies were most important: oral or written. This conversation evolved into a more important one: how much of a language class consists of basic exercises in grammar and conversation? Language is a tool, determined by how students need to use it. This is true for any language: for instance, in academia, scientists speak a different “English” than that of a literary scholar or historian. In an introductory language course, how do you integrate how students will eventually use the language — elements of culture, literature, politics, history, etc.?

2. One course goal that should be necessary in an introductory French language class should be promoting a broad understanding of the history, culture, and literature of the French and francophone world. While spending class time on larger cultural discussions might seem antithetical to teaching a language or worse — a waste of precious class time — I believe that activities based on authentic cultural documents can promote discussion-based classes that leave a greater impression on students. Rather than isolating grammar points, such activities allow students to see grammar in action and participate in a culture that is not their own, promoting cultural understanding. There are two main dangers associated with this method: first, preparation takes much longer; second, these activities risk to discourage students if not properly scaffolded.

Activity based on Current Events

In light of recent events, an appropriate activity might take the form of discussion about last Friday’s terrorist attacks throughout Paris. This could involve “reading” some of the Twitter hashtags and images that have sprung up in support of Paris. Using Twitter hashtags as authentic documents is not only politically relevant, but is also a level-appropriate pedagogical tools since they consist of very few words and images linked to a specific context.

A hypothetical activity might have students look at the descriptions and images that people were posting to find their loved ones, have them discuss what they were doing at the time of the attack (this would be an excellent way to practice the two types of past tenses — the passé composé and the imparfait) and then to move it to a larger discussion of the greater significance of the attacks. To target the conditional tense, one could have students debate the French political response and its potential repercussions. Such an activity would also be a good moment to reflect on France’s colonial history and relationship with former colonies, many of which are Muslim-majority.

While some might criticize such an activity as impossible given the language level in an introductory class, as long as the objectives are clear and the activity is properly scaffolded, students will likely be more invested in current events than in a rudimentary discussion of how they got dressed in the morning. Indeed, French teachers have the obligation to discuss this tragic event at any level, as some of these students might hope to study abroad in France one day. Activities of this nature contribute not only to a more complete understanding of the French language (which is inseparable from the culture), but to the greater goals of a university education — to create well-rounded and engaged citizens.