Hands-On Experience of French Irony

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Connie Anderson, French

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2001

What kind of engagement is most effective in allowing students to make the target language their own? This, it seems to me, is one of the ultimate challenges for foreign language instructors. It is not that difficult to motivate students to pay more attention to formal accuracy, using the carrot and stick provided by grades. The same is true of content, especially if one stays on the well-trodden path of the argumentative essay, with its clear criteria. However, instances where students fully invest the foreign language with their own wit, creativity and intelligence are extremely hard to come by.

One way that I have found to tap into these hidden resources is with a project that takes the French tradition of the pastiche as its rough model. In the traditional application of the pastiche, students read the writing of a famous author and study the style of the language very closely, examining its salient aspects, such as tone, word choice, and syntax. They then write something of their own, trying to imitate the style of the author in question. This is the basis for an activity I have devised, which encourages the integration of students’ wisdom about their world into their study of French.

Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des ides reçues (Dictionary of Received Ideas) is a highly facetious, often quite amusing dictionary of terms that Flaubert saw as representing the epitome of societal stupidity of his day. It often reflects the historical context of the second half of the nineteenth century and can allow for discussion of a number of interesting topics, in particular, the origin and validity of stereotypes. For example, the cliched definition Flaubert reports for “Germans” is that they are a “people made up of old dreamers,” quite a contrast to more current stereotypes of Germans. The English are reported to be “all rich.” Such entries can lead to a lively discussion about stereotypes of different nationalities and their historical origins.

After reading and discussing a number of choice selections from Flaubert’s dictionary, students are invited to come up with entries of their own, for a modern day “dictionnaire des idées reçues,” written in French, of course. They are free to write about anything. Students know that a dictionary will be compiled from their best entries and will be distributed to the entire class. In both of the classes in which I have done this (Advanced Intermediate French, and Intermediate Conversation), I have observed that students often prove to be more than a match for Flaubert’s wit and astuteness. Despite (or perhaps because of) our laughter and the exceptionally free mood of the discussions, some of the most critical thinking of the semester has come out of this activity. It is not the same kind of critical thinking that students do in their compositions when they analyze a literary text, but the critical thinking that they engage in on a daily basis, which they too often check at the door before entering the classroom. To cite two of the numerous noteworthy entries that have been included in the compilations (translated): “the ozone: something that has created a large hole in the discourse between scientists and politicians,” and “the flag: a piece of cloth that symbolizes the union of people separated by everything but territory.” Rather than staying at a critical distance from Flaubert’s irony, this activity allows students to take on an ironic voice themselves, temporarily making it their own (or revealing their already well-developed sense of irony). At the risk of naively perpetuating another “idée reçue,” this makes for a highly authentic use of the French language!