Mini Grant, Big Changes

In Fall 2020 and Summer 2021, Humanities for the Public Good supported 18 faculty across over ten departments and three colleges in redesigning graduate courses to foster a more equitable, inclusive and student-centered pedagogy. As part of this course redesign mini-grant, faculty members were asked to collaboratively experiment in redesigning graduate courses not only by thinking about how graduate training can prepare students for various careers, but also how graduate curriculum can be enriched by diverse voices and perspectives. Department of French and Italian professors Roxanna Curto and Anny-Dominique Curtius participated in the Fall 2020 cohort, and joined HPG Postdoctoral Scholar Laura Perry and RA Luke Borland to reflect on that course redesign process and share their experiences so far.

What course did you decide to redesign as part of your HPG mini-grant? What were some the outcomes you hoped for in redesigning it?

Anny-Dominique Curtius: We chose to redesign Introduction to Graduate Study in French, a course that hadn’t been offered for some time in our department. Initially this course was offered for 1 s.h. Then I proposed to my department to raise it to 2 s.h. to better prepare students for the changing profile of academia. For some time, I had observed how students in our program were progressing through their studies and how the profession was really drastically changing, and I thought bringing the course back was an important thing to do. 

Roxanna Curto

Roxanna Curto: I felt it was important to have a course where we could just have a discussion with graduate students about the field, the profession, and answer a lot of their questions, and encourage them to ask more. One of the things I wanted to address was the way that the field of French and Francophone studies has changed, from a focus on each century as a sort of subfield, where students need to have a certain amount of coverage in each subfield, to being something that’s more open. The influence of Francophone literature, meaning literature written in French from Africa and the Caribbean, now has a much larger place.

Also, I wanted to have a space for conversations that you don’t have time for when a student comes to talk to you in your office. Because they’re often just talking about what to register for next semester. And so in that process, you’re trying to kind of tell them about these broader issues, but there’s no time in a 30-minute meeting to talk about them.

How do you see the course as preparing students for working in the field of Francophone Studies and beyond?

Anny-Dominique Curtius

Anny-Dominique Curtius: One important thing to address with such a course is the idea of creating a community among graduate students. This course is about introducing them to the intricacies of the profession, but at the same time, creating this sense of community that they will need throughout their careers. That sense of community is so important, especially for the type of work we do in Francophone studies, which requires discussing diversity, equity and inclusion as part of the global interaction involved in the field. This is a field where we read, discuss, and analyze closely cultures, peoples, and communities who have been affected by phenomena related to exploitation and colonialism over centuries. You need to think about what it means to be diverse, what equity means, what it means to be included or excluded. We worked to really capture this sense of community, bring it in the classroom, and have this discussion every week.

Roxanna Curto: It was especially important to do that since many of these students started during the pandemic. So, in some cases, they hadn’t even met their other classmates in person.

How have graduate students responded to the course, or helped shape it?

Roxanna Curto: That’s been really great. One of the things we do in the course is foster the idea that students are developing as scholars and academics, and that they need to develop their own voice. So we’ve had activities where they worked on presenting themselves in terms of their professional background and their interests. I think it has been quite successful in having them view themselves as having an identity within the profession and within the field.

Anny-Dominique Curtius: We have had some transformative moments. Last week, when we were finishing a module on the state of the humanities, I introduced them to the Humanities for the Public Good Ph.D degree. I explained the major ideas that we have been discussing at the Obermann Center, and it was absolutely fascinating to see how captivated they were by the program. They had a lively interest and asked questions after questions. I felt that they captured the essence of the HPG Ph.D. and I realized how conscious they were of the work that needs to be done in the humanities to allow such a program to exist adequately and insightfully. 

Roxanna Curto:  Over the last few weeks, students are really starting to develop as advocates for the humanities. They’re realizing that is going to be part of their professional life. 

Anny-Dominique Curtius: Absolutely. As we tell them, they are the future of the field. What they will bring to it is the shape of things to come.

How has co-teaching impacted the course? What has the process of working collaboratively been like?

Roxanna Curto: One of my favorite things about the classes has been when I provide my perspective and Anny provides hers, because we come from such different backgrounds and experiences in different educational systems. We have these two complimentary rapports with the profession, the field. The students find that very interesting.

Anny-Dominique Curtius: I’m glad you mentioned that, Roxanna, because the diverse backgrounds we both come from help the students to grasp the fascinating issues that they will have to work with in their future careers.

Roxanna Curto: Part of the benefit of co-teaching is for students to see the different identities that Anny and I have and to gain an understanding that there are different ways to be successful in the academy. Graduate study does not have to be about advisors cloning advisees to be exactly like them. There’s flexibility there, and there are different approaches, languages, styles, and emphases. I think co-teaching works really well to do this. 

Anny-Dominique Curtius: I’ve always looked for ways to team-teach or to invite writers, artists, or filmmakers in my class to present students with different perspectives. I have done that for every class I have taught at the university. It’s natural, for me, and it’s essential for students’ awareness. This is how I introduce students to diverse viewpoints. I don’t want them to just be in conversation with me and their classmates. I prioritize a circulation of ideas.

This semester, a companionship is building up between Roxanna and I, class after class, and we all feed on that. We have different styles but one single objective: creating a sense of community and exposing students as early as possible to what it means to create a community, what it means to team up and work collaboratively.

Anny, you also redesigned another course as part of participating in the HPG course redesign minigrant — a course that you will teach in Spring 2022. Could you say more about that?

Anny-Dominique Curtius: It’s actually a double movement, as it’s two courses that I am combining into one. In Fall 2019, I offered a course on slavery museums and memorials that was taught in English with additional discussion in French, and I thought that some aspects of this course could be really important for a graduate seminar I’m offering this spring titled “Francophone Thought.” This course explores the genesis and evolution of the interdisciplinary field of Francophone studies and spans several time periods, literary traditions and cultural practices. So, I thought that various aspects of this seminar could be enhanced by studying slavery museums and memorials.

The course will cross-pollinate theory and practice. In the area of theory, we will examine critical paradigms that inform literature, films and the visual arts. We will develop new knowledge on how to think about trauma and memory. We will also benefit from what artists, architects, choreographers, dancers and civilians from grassroots organizations have to say about slavery memorials. I’m revamping the course to include the critical visions that they could bring to the class regarding designing a memorial, dancing trauma, painting trauma, addressing trauma in their daily lives, or organizing against colonial toxicities. For instance, we will discuss how people working in banana plantations deal with health crises that derive from contamination of soils in the Caribbean. Similarly, we will analyze the impact of nuclear testing on communities in the South Pacific.

My objective is to bring all these experiences to students to show them that theorizing can be approached differently. How do people live with cancer and other diseases caused by pesticides? How do architects think about the best ways to design a slavery memorial in Montgomery or in Nantes? How do choreographers represent trauma with dancers? So, I expose students to social debates and artistic expressions to realize how theory does not exist in a vacuum and should be related to real life.

Roxanna Curto: There’s a continuity between these two courses. The majority of the students who are in our Introduction to Graduate Studies class this semester are going to enroll in Anny’s class in the spring. It will be interesting to see how they carry over our discussions about interdisciplinarity in graduate studies into that course. Because we’ve been talking about in the abstract, but now they’re going to actually take a course that is highly interdisciplinary. So, they’re going to see that put into practice.

Learn more about HPG course design minigrant awardees in the Fall 2020 cohort and Summer 2021 cohort by following those links and stay in touch by subscribing to the HPG newsletter!