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French Theatre of the First Empire: Enhancing Research-Based Learning

Katherine Astbury, Department of French Studies, University of Warwick

In the course of a new French module on Revolution and Empire, students will be involved in the process of digitally preserving one of the University’s most significant special collections, the Marandet collection of 18th- and 19th-century plays by selecting the plays to be preserved and then producing original research based on ‘their’ plays. They will therefore have opportunities for collaborative original research rarely offered at undergraduate level. Indeed, the opportunity to take responsibility for the digitisation and literary contextualisation of a primary text is unique and represents a significant development in the way in which extra-curricular activity can be integrated into the curriculum. This article describes the module design and discusses possible issues around assessment of the learning outcomes arising from students’ activities.

Aims and rationale

In the inaugural year of the Undergraduate Research Scholarship Scheme (URSS), a French student used the Marandet collection of plays very successfully as the basis of her project (see Warwick Forum, autumn 2002). It confirmed both the collection’s potential and the extent to which students get much more out of independent research projects than the more traditional exams or even extended essays on syllabus-based material. There is a substantial body of research to back up this impression that what Boyer labels ‘scholarship of inquiry’ can be beneficial to learning.i The work explores whether it would be possible to extend and adapt the URSS to undergraduate taught modules.

My final-year teaching has for some time been designed to give students the opportunity to undertake original primary research as students are encouraged to make extensive use of electronic resources – many of the set primary texts the students download for free from the Bibliothèque nationale’s website, which allows the module to run with material that has never been readily available before (revolutionary plays or pamphlets for instance rarely found in affordable editions) and the possibilities for independent research projects have been dramatically increased as students can search for their own material to supplement the suggested reading.

About half the cohort each year takes the opportunity to do a long essay instead of the exam. Students can go beyond the syllabus to find primary material, or use the library’s special collections and this gives them a greater sense of responsibility for their own learning. The opportunity to convert a one-term module on the Revolution into a year-long ‘Special subject’ coincided with the launch of the Education Innovation Fund, to which we bid, proposing to design more creative opportunities for students not just to undertake original research at undergraduate level but also contribute to the preservation of material for future generations.

The module aims were:

  • To integrate more fully extra-curricular research elements into the mainstream curriculum
  • To provide students with insight into the preservation of documents, the collection of data and creation of bibliographies
  • To develop their evaluative skills
  • To enhance their skills in criticism and synthesis
  • To improve their research skills and time management skills
  • To produce a recognisable outcome in both the digitisation of texts but also written work based on that research

Design and planning

The new module, Revolution and Empire, will run for the first time from October 2006. It aims to introduce students to the key events, people and ideas of the French Revolution and the First Empire through contemporary sources and largely uses material available on-line (e.g. the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Gallica website) as the basis for discussion. By the end of the module, students will be able to assess the impact of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire as well as the role of the writer in times of great political and social change, when censorship, rhetoric and propaganda all had a part to play. Particular attention has been paid to the plays of the period as the cultural form most obviously affected by ideology and public opinion.

In the course of the last academic year, the library began an ambitious project to digitise the 300 plays in the Marandet collection that cover the period 1789-99. The Marandet collection of 18th- and 19th-century plays is one of the university’s most significant special collections but which is as yet largely underused. The project to digitise an initial sample of the collection was both to preserve material and to make the collection as a whole much more visible. Unlike the Bibliothèque Nationale’s electronic material, these plays will be fully searchable as the Gale Eighteenth-century collections onlineii has revealed the enormous potential of searchable text. This collection of Revolutionary plays will place Warwick firmly at the centre of ongoing research into theatre of the Revolution as its online plays will offer something nowhere else currently offers. The innovation in the new final-year module is that the students will be involved in the next stage of the library project: to digitise a further selection of plays from the early 19th century and contextualise them.

As there is currently no readily accessible material on theatre of the Napoleonic period available on-line or in student-friendly editions, the work the students will do on the plays of the Revolution and Empire is new in two ways. Firstly, having introduced the students to the potential of the digitised Revolutionary part of the Marandet collection in the first part of the module, they will then be involved in the process of creating resources on the Napoleonic period for themselves. Secondly, this is a genuinely collaborative project between the French department and the Library, which aims to create new learning opportunities for Warwick undergraduates by involving them in the process of preserving texts for future generations of researchers. It takes the notion of research-led teaching to a level beyond that which the students have achieved on earlier modules as the work will be a genuine partnership between students, tutor, and library staff and this partnership will be the dominant element of the module.iii Students’ understanding of the role of research in French literary studies will be enhanced and they will at the same time be developing their ability to carry out research in the discipline.iv

The first stage for students will be to identify a corpus of plays from within the Marandet collection (there are over 500 plays from the period 1799-1815 in the collection, offering ample scope for thematic study or for examination of an individual playwright or genre). These will be digitised to provide a permanent resource for researchers world-wide. The students will thus gain experience of research-based practice by selecting texts from the Marandet collection for preservation through digitisation and then be responsible for overseeing the preservation process to the finish: checking the digitised content, uploading them and adding to what is a very scant body of secondary material by writing on their selected plays.

The students will retain control over their group of plays (each student would typically take 3-5, grouped around an author, genre or theme) and be responsible for the quality of the finished digitised product. Work in progress seminars will allow those undertaking these research projects to work together and share findings, so that the experience will be akin to the URSS scheme, only with the added advantage that they will effectively be working as part of a research team and can receive peer support. After the exam boards, the essays would then be added to a new Marandet website that the library and the French department are setting up to showcase the collection. The tutor will retain quality control (though typically any essay awarded a 2:1 mark or above will be uploaded). The students’ work will help, therefore, to make Warwick a centre for research into French theatre of the Napoleonic period and will complement the Library’s own project to digitise the Revolutionary period.

There are precedents for this type of work. Sheffield Hallam have for a number of years run an ‘Adopt-an-author’ scheme whereby third-year English undergraduates conduct original research using the Corvey microfiche edition of women’s writing from the early 19th century: ‘Students who take the module 'adopt' a little known author from the Corvey archive and undertake to produce a biographical essay on their chosen author; synopses of two of their texts; an account of the contemporary literary reception of these works, and a critical dissertation which aims at some level to locate the author's oeuvre in relation to established literary landscape of the period’.v The Marandet project is different in that the students will not only be ‘adopting’ texts but responsible for their digitisation and therefore for the creation of a resource as well as a body of literature on that resource. The Corvey project has demonstrated however, how effective the fusion of teaching and research can be.vi It has also shown how important the publication of student findings is if the project is to be ‘real’: the Corvey project created its own undergraduate journal, Corinne, specifically for the publication of undergraduate work.vii

Assessment

The learning outcomes for the Marandet element of the module make explicit that students should be able to:

  • demonstrate improved research skills;
  • think critically and independently about theatre of the Empire and position individual plays within an informed literary and historical trajectory;
  • show a better understanding of the nature of research in French studies and of the processes of preservation undertaken by the Library;
  • collaborate more effectively with others.

The departmental model of assessment for French Special Subjects is the traditional essay, which is hard to vary at this stage of the development work. Innovation and the market economy sit uncomfortably together – the department was concerned that students might be put off opting for the module if they felt there was a risk involved because the assessment was radically different to the format they are used to. The module is therefore a compromise between genuine research-based learning and the standard lecture/seminar + exam format. Students will have the opportunity of doing one or both of their 4000-5000 word assessed essays for the module on the theatre of the First Empire but they are also free to decline the opportunity to become involved and may choose to sit a 3-hour exam on the Revolution instead.

An alternative way of assessing the research-based learning involved in this module would be to ask the students to produce a reflective portfolio. This would provide evidence of the stages in their project – from a report justifying their selection of plays to be digitised to ‘work in progress’ presentations, to the ‘finished’ product and its contextualisation.

Evaluation

The students will be encouraged to reflect critically throughout the selection, preservation and research phases. They will have opportunity to provide interim and end-of-module feedback and the library staff and module tutor will be in regular contact monitoring progress. At the end of the module as it runs for 2006-07, those involved in the process will meet to discuss how it went and what changes are required for it to run again in 2007-08. If sufficient numbers of students opt to write their assessed essays on the Marandet collection, the intention is to run a 1-day workshop in May where they can present their findings publicly.

Conclusion

The original research that students will undertake on their selected plays will be of benefit to them personally and to the wider academic community. I already have experience of running a successful URSS scheme based on the Marandet collection. Whereas that concerned an individual student who was working alone, this involves a whole cohort of students in archive-based work and in the process of assessing and preserving an important in-house resource. Taking responsibility for the preservation of these texts and adding to the almost non-existent body of secondary material is an opportunity for original research rarely offered at undergraduate level. It helps to highlight the process of research and the process of preservation and allows students to make an informed choice about postgraduate study. It represents a considerable extension of learning opportunities for undergraduate students in French but it is also a model that could be applied in other departments.

Once the grant from the Education Innovation Fund comes to an end in the next two years, the students will have left an invaluable research tool for future cohorts of students in French and is equally of immense value to History, English and Theatre Studies students. The project‘s legacy is therefore both the resource itself and the impact on learning opportunities for current and future students.

References

i For a summary of the state of research into linking staff research interests and the curriculum see

http://www.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsd/5_research/link1/cdesign1/ltrdobu.html and http://www.brookes.ac.uk/schools/planning/LTRC/guidelines/section1.htm

 http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/ECCO;jsessionid=C40E653075B1F3603E6768D2E68501D5?locID=warwick

 For more on the desirability of this see the Robbins report of 1963, CMND 2154, paragraph 555.

iv See ‘Strategies for linking teaching and research based on Jenkins et al (2002) and Zetter (2001), in Jenkins and Zetter, Linking Research and Teaching in Departments (2003), downloadable from http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources.asp?process=full_record&section=generic&id=257

v See http://www.shu.ac.uk/schools/cs/corvey/site%20index/index.html

vi See Emma Clery, ‘Canon-Busting, the Sequel: Reflections on an Experimental Fusion of Pedagogy and Research’ (1998), http://www.shu.ac.uk/schools/cs/corvey/articles/CCUEPaper.htm

vii See http://www.shu.ac.uk/schools/cs/corvey/corinne/#one

Citation for this Article
Astbury, K. (2006)French Theatre of the First Empire: Enhancing Research-Based Learning. Warwick Interactions Journal 28. Accessed online at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/cap/resources/pubs/interactions/archive/issue28/abastbury/astbury
(Accessed )