Teaching literature

I’ve always thought of myself as a literature teacher, and this has probably been one of my greatest sources of disappointment since I stopped being a full-time researcher and became a full professor. In my two first years as a professor, I didn’t get to teach literature since a colleague (since retired) was the official literature expert in the German department at my University. I taught civilization and waited for the bombastic upcoming time of my life, where I would finally get to teach what I love most: literature and the history of literature. A year and half later, I just finished the third term in which I could teach it, and once again I am mostly overwhelmed by the feeling that I am pretty pathetic at it (at B.A. level at least – things work better at M.A. level). 


Of course, I could blame it on the students, or better yet: on an educational system that devaluates literature, reading, text, and to some extent literacy at large (including data literacy, but this is another debate). I could blame it on the fact that their knowledge of the language I teach is so poor that it is ridiculously challenging to try and interpret literature in all of its complexity under such conditions. There is, for sure, a balance to be found between trying to get them to gain a new perspective on the written world, and presenting it in a way that they are likely to understand. My problem really is that I don’t have the faintest idea what interests them, and am not really able to grasp how they read. An interesting theoretical issue for reception aesthetics really. A pedagogical ordeal for me. I am boring them to death every time I try to present complex contexts, I am clearly not speaking the same language as them when we read texts together (they don’t even take notes and probably don’t consider it learning material). I tried different settings (flipped classroom, group work, creative writing, focus on youth literature…) and it has always had a very limited success considering all the conceptional effort I had invested into it.

Over the past term, I was offered by my colleagues of the Europa Universität Flensburg the opportunity to conceive an online program where we would invite living authors to read from their works and discuss them with the students. We alternated French and German authors (my German colleagues teach French literature while I teach German literature) and set us the pretty optimistic goal of having the students organize themselves in bilateral teams. While some aspects proved somewhat disappointing, many others were successful, even much beyond my expectations. To be honest, I only realized at the end of the term how much this lectures series had become of an eye-opener on literature for the students. Again, the students and I experienced these lectures very differently, and if there is one thing more anticlimatic than a weekly zoom lecture on a topic you know is boring to death the people who might (or might not) linger behind the curtain of black squares you talk to, it certainly is the end of a 1-hour reading session where all the protagonists log off one after the other.

In the following blogposts, I would like to write a little bit about my point of view, but also to let the students talk about their experience on the two readings we had in German (they agreed for me to quote from their work), since the French students were in charge of introducing, moderating and writing a synthesis on the German sessions, while the German students did so for the French authors. The readings with Mikaël Ollivier and Erwan Desplanques were just as fun, and they helped the French students relax and gain self-confidence in that they were sure to understand what the authors were saying. One of the many intercultural values of the lectures came when we realized that about all German students who took French in High School knew Mikaël Ollivier’s work pretty well, since his texts were often given for French examinations, while it is not the case in France. As a result, the author was very familiar with Germany, where he had extensively toured for lectures over the past years – quite an unexpected twist to see our German friends know this French author better than we did! In the session with Erwan Desplanques, the German students proved extremely creative in terms of getting-to-know- you introductory games: they even managed to melt the ice wall of webex blank squares, which I consider a great achievement…

Screenshot taken during the reading by Erwan Desplanques, on Decembre 10th, 2020. CC-BY.

But the sessions I will dedicate the following blogposts to relate to the German authors who made us the honour of reading from their work, and of discussing extensively the writing process, which, to my great surprise, the students were fascinated by, almost as if they had been themselves not only avid readers, but writers in spe, only hiding it to the academic world all this time. Here you will find the blogposts on the reading by Arne Rautenberg and that by Elsa Koester

I would like to finish this post with an (authorized) quote from an e-mail I received from one of the students right after the final lecture of the term:

Je voudrais tout d’abord vous remercier de m’avoir donné cette occasion de rencontrer ces auteurs et participer à cette expérience m’a bouleversée bien au delà de tout ce que j’aurai pu imaginer. (…) Je crois que c’est le déclic final dont j’avais besoin pour retomber amoureuse de la littérature et de l’écriture. 


And I would like to thank the Franco-German Youth Office for their funding, which went to the authors. 

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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