Can you teach something you essentially created?
As a Graduate student at Emory University I developed my own digital mapping methodology for my research. I introduce data visualization into literary analysis to examine how Francophone women writers present radically subversive narratives of colonized spaces in Indochina, West Africa, and the Americas. During my graduate career, I received great support from the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, the Fox Center Digital Dissertation Scholars Program and my advisor in the shape of technical assistance, community and encouragement. But once I was given the chance to teach an introductory class in French Literature, I wondered: “Will I be able to convey my approach to maps and literature in a convincing way to undergraduate students?”
One step at the time
First step: Let them know what to expect
I made sure that the students knew what to expect from the class title alone “Paris et sa géographie (Paris and its geography) – A digital approach to literary analysis”. On the first day of class, I introduced them to the concept of Digital Humanities and suggested three avenues to pursue during the semester: Digital Mapping (ESRI StoryMap), Textual Analysis (Voyant) and Digital Storytelling (iMovie). I emphasized the objective of the course, which was to familiarize themselves with digital tools, and to explore their creative, analytical and methodological purposes applied to literature. The syllabus clearly stated “You do not need to be a seasoned coder to take this class, my objective is to introduce you to a variety of simple tools and to provide expert help with those.” Upon seeing nervous faces on the first day, I do think that a little reassurance goes a long way.
Second step: Introduce them to the resources
During the first week, I scheduled a virtual tour of the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, located in the Woodruff Library. A very engaging and friendly Alexander Cors, the Program Coordinator at the time, gave a comprehensive tour of the institution, highlighting all their services and experts. The students were discovering the center for the first time and seemed curious about it.
Third step: Build your syllabus around your (digital) approach
All five modules for the semester were centered around a different perspective of Paris, i.e. “Paris for the people” or “The streets of Paris.” For each assigned text, I carefully scaffolded analytic and interpretative questions to direct their reading to the way the city was depicted and more specifically to the spatial, racial and class dynamics. During our online classes, I always historically contextualize the spaces mentioned in the texts and included a lot of maps, old and recent. The introductory class is meant to establish a foundation for French literature over the centuries, so the students read Renaissance accounts of Medieval Paris as well as contemporary narratives of Paris and its periphery.
Fourth step: Walk them through your methodology
In my research, my digital approach is to retrace the characters’ itineraries through the space of the novel using text mining, geo-referencing, database building and digital mapping. In order to translate this into my teaching, I walked my students through by implementing different exercises. Each class was framed by the way characters move and evolve in the city to bring their attention to spatial dynamics in the text. I would showcase maps of Paris and ask them to locate the different places they found in the narrative, this proved particularly effective when teaching Métro by Leïla Sebbar. The book is a collection of snapshots of textual impressions of strangers on the Paris subway. This exercise was conducive in fostering in the students a sense of curiosity for ‘pinning’ things on a map.
Fifth step: Guide them through the assignments
The final assignment of the class was a digital project. But they did not wait to the end of the semester to develop their ideas. The midterm assessed their literary interpretative skills in addition to a 250-word ‘pitch’ of their vision/ idea for their final project. I directed each of them towards a workshop taught by our GIS Librarian Megan Slemons on ESRI StoryMap which helped them grasp the tool. Towards the end of the semester, they had incremental assignments where they shared their geo-database, the progress on their StoryMap as well as the more ‘traditional’ parts of their essay.
Sixth step: Enjoy their creative outputs
I was simply dazzled by my students’ digital projects. Seeing them develop their vision was quite simply the most rewarding pedagogical experience of my teaching career. One student wrote this in her final essay pitch:
As far as results, I think that utilizing a mapping tool would truly demonstrate why Salim Bachi chose to include this aspect of spatiality in the text. It is clear that these places play an important role in the development of the story and this [digital] project would be better at demonstrating this than a traditional essay or text. I also think that because this mapping tool can include images, it would allow for a better understanding of how modernity blends with antiquity in France, in both its architecture and belief systems.
The feeling that comes with successfully translating your own methodological research approach into a digital pedagogy is unmatched.
My students have kindly accepted that I share their work with you, so please see for yourselves:
Paris en un clin d’oeil – Zoe