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Notes from a Davidson classroom

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By John Syme

Chambers 2196 is a fully-wired, medium-sized conference room with a rectangular table configuration, plush rolling chairs, and floor-toceiling bookshelves. Thursday morning at 9:40 a.m., nine French majors sit in their senior seminar on French and francophone literature, iPads at the ready as part of a pilot study of classroom use.

Home from Davidson in Tours, France, now they’re discussing René Maran’s Batouala, the Goncourt Prize-winning 1921 roman nègre out of equatorial Africa, colonial land of rubber and ivory riches.

Caroline Beschea-Fache elicits from her students a plot review that soon blossoms into explication, then further into contextual analysis, pausing in paired discussions of a sun-and-moon legend contained in the novel, then back to a full-class conversation—“Je vous écoute!” urges Beschea-Fache—of the literary, cultural, artistic, and political movement of francophone black intellectuals of the early 20th century known as la négritude. Sartre called it an “anti-racist racism” necessary to the goal of racial unity.

A student notes parallels between aspects of la négritude movement and the Harlem Renaissance’s appropriation of elements of African identity. Yet more questions and answers spring from here. What is the relationship of culture and language to identity? How would the intended audience of the Batouala, French intellectuals in France, affect the form and content of a novel set in a cultural environment where books are a rarity? Je vous écoute!

The conversation spirals on, from Paris and New York to Martinique and Senegal, through culture, art, history, and politics, circling back through recent “transdisciplinary” class visits by Professor of Political Science Ken Menkhaus and by Professor of Art History and Humanities Shaw Smith.

Beshcea-Fache pushes and probes her students, who respond in kind. It is critical to learn to read texts at the deepest levels, she declares. Because in 1921 or in 2012, on vous écoute!

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