Reflections on Researching and Teaching a History of the French Empire: A Staff-Student Collaborative Project at the University of Exeter
This multi-authored blog post details a collaborative project run by Dr Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley since January 2020. Seven History students at the University of Exeter (single and combined honours) were selected to work as Project Advisors alongside Alex as he researched and wrote a journal article on connections between the revolutions in France and the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) during the 1790s. Alex and the Project Advisors have also developed a series of teaching resources linked to the journal article. These will be made publicly available once the article has been published. The Project Advisors are Isaac Avery, Nick Collins, Ella Kennedy, Lizzie Laurence, Eleanor Lionel, Jessica Lloyd and Arlen Veysey.
Ella Kennedy writes: I applied to be a Project Advisor because this area of history really interested me. The project is centred around the idea of a ‘Dual Revolution’: the symbiotic influences of the infamous French Revolution and the Saint-Domingue slave revolution across the Atlantic (which is not so engrained in the public historical consciousness). The application process also declared an interest in making academic research more accessible for students. For me personally, the social foundations of this historical research were engaging. Alex’s work uses the proliferating French pamphlet culture during the mid-1790s as evidence for competing domestic French discourses about revolutionary events in Saint-Domingue, as well as underlying issues such as slavery. The project’s transatlantic approach helps explore a number of themes, including changing values within French Revolutionary society, public engagement with and education about revolutionary events (both in France and in Saint-Domingue), and the impact of empire on the issue of equality within France.
Inevitably, the project’s focus did evolve. For example, the original and expansive timeframe that we had intended to focus on (covering much of the 1790s) has narrowed, and a month from the middle of the period (Fructidor Year II in the French Revolutionary calendar, or August/September 1794) became more prominent. However, the educational purpose of the project has prevailed, with the group producing a set of learning resources to accompany the article for student readers. Hopefully, these resources will help to guide undergraduate students through the complexities of understanding the primary source material on which it is based (via worksheets with translated pamphlet extracts) and the dual historical contexts (via a timeline and biographies of key historical actors). These resources are intended to equip student readers with the tools necessary to tackle this and similar articles.
The role of Project Advisor
Jessica Lloyd writes: When I first signed up for the role of project advisor I was not entirely sure what to expect, but it has proved to be thoroughly rewarding. The project has been far more collaborative than I expected, involving numerous (coronavirus-necessitated) video sessions and lots of group work prompted by our own interests and ideas. Alex asked several things of us, beginning with engagement with his own academic research – namely, an article-in-progress examining the intersection of print cultures between the French colony of Saint-Domingue and the metropole. Our initial meetings gave us an introduction to his research, as well as an opportunity to voice our own thoughts on his work and what the role of a Project Advisor should be. Fast-forwarding a few months, we had the chance to read the initial draft of Alex’s article, and provide feedback from a student perspective – something that I cannot believe does not happen more often, given that students form the majority of readers for many academic articles. Alex outlined his writing process for us in regular meetings, through email updates, and by posting material to an online hub. This opened my eyes to the scale of research that goes into journal articles.
Later in the project, we were able to collectively decide on what format teaching resources could take, and the Project Advisors decided for themselves who would work on each resource. Our final decision was to make a timeline resource (aimed at contextualising the events at the heart of the article) and a worksheet based around translated extracts of primary sources used in the article (designed to stimulate student engagement with original source material). Given that these ideas were self-generated, the project has given us the opportunity to follow our own interests in the realms of historical research and translation. It has certainly been a challenge, especially with the conditions imposed by the pandemic requiring us to talk remotely throughout the most important stages of the project. However, I think we can all agree that it has given us a rich insight into the nature of academic research, as well as stimulating us to consider how academic material can be made more accessible for a student audience. I really hope that this project can provide a useful model for future collaborative ventures between students and academics, with the primary aim of heightening student engagement with academic writing.
Isaac Avery writes: I have greatly enjoyed the experience of being a Project Advisor. It was a very varied role as I was initially asked to read drafts of the article and give my thoughts as well as suggesting areas where extra primary source material could be helpful for understanding the topic. From this, Alex provided a primary source for me and a several other Project Advisors to translate and think about how it could be turned into a worksheet for students. I really enjoyed being given different tasks and learned a lot about the process of developing content for a university seminar. The translation work was also a great opportunity to refresh my French. I found gaining an understanding of how an academic plans, researches and writes a journal article particularly eye-opening and extremely useful for my own work.
The challenge of developing teaching resources
Nick Collins writes: Thinking in depth about how to teach history produced unexpected insights into historical practice and historiography. Consider the humble timeline: a mainstay of teaching history in schools, but rarely if ever used at undergraduate level. We had decided as a group quite early on that a timeline would be useful for helping students understand events in relation to their context, but the further we delved into the topic, the more interpretative issues confronted us. Firstly, what events should we include? A few were obvious, but in the end it was harder to decide which events should not be included: we were aware that excluding events might have the effect of removing them from a student’s understanding of the topic.
The second issue lay in explaining these events and how they related to each other. A simple chronological list would have allowed a student to check dates quickly, but would have done very little to aid understanding. We decided to include an explanation alongside each event, but this threw up other issues. Once we started writing, it was a challenge to keep the timeline short enough to function as a resource which could be used quickly and easily. We imposed a word limit on each entry, but still we had a more fundamental issue to think about. How should we write each entry, when there was a danger that students might treat our explanations as definitive? We gave each entry a reference to the secondary reading upon which it was based, in order to encourage users to explore the events and their interpretations further.
A final issue was the most unexpected: the dates of some events actually proved quite difficult to track down. They were always there, eventually, but sometimes we had to search through several books or articles. Alex explained that historians often rely on their readers having a basic understanding of chronology (they also face the space constraints of publishers), and often assume that chronologies have already been well-established by previous generations of historians anyway. This poses a problem for students who are new to a subject, and makes resources such as our timeline all the more important.
These issues which we encountered do not just relate to resources such as this. History has long moved beyond obsession with chronology and narrative, and rightly so. But this does not mean that sequences of events can be ignored in history. Like it or not, events do take place in a particular order and each one has the potential to have an impact on how the next unfolds, however slight. To understand history in this way does not need to imply inevitability or destiny. Issues of chronology are of interest to all historians and we hope that those outlined above might provide readers with some of the insight with which they provided us. I had thought little about chronology since A-Levels, but this work provided me with an opportunity to engage on a deeper level with an issue of critical historical importance.
Translating and studying French primary sources
Isaac Avery, Jessica Lloyd and Arlen Veysey write: As French speakers, we worked as a group on a student worksheet designed to prompt engagement with two primary sources featured in Alex’s journal article. The sources represent opposing sides in the factional struggle at the centre of the article between groups of ‘colons’ and ‘anti-colons’ writers and politicians (the colons opposed the abolition of slavery in the colonies, while the anti-colons supported it and celebrated the actions of black and mixed-race revolutionaries). The two pamphlets provide insight into both sides attempts to spread ‘fake news’ about each other as well as their contrasting opinions on the colony of St. Domingue and the unfolding revolution there.
We had the task of translating both sources from original eighteenth-century French, using photographs provided by Alex. Having divided the sources between us, we each worked on translating our respective sections into English, trying to convey tone as well as meaning in our English versions. This often involved moving beyond literal word-for-word translations, adapting whole phrases and sentences to ensure the English version made sense and was a fair reflection of the original meaning intended by the French author. We used a modern online dictionary (wordreference.com) to help with general translation, and the online Dictionnaires d’autrefois (part of the University of Chicago’s ARTFL Project on French sources) for obscure words and phrases and to ensure we did not produce anachronistic translations. The process required a certain amount of trial and error in order to translate the sources as accurately as possible.
Once we completed our individual sections, we proofread each other’s translations to iron out any errors and ensure a seamless flow between the different sections before finally sending it to Alex for final checks. We also provided suggestions on how the translations could be presented to students, including what level of contextual detail in the introductory summary and any footnotes would best encourage the analysis of the source. Balancing the amount of information given to the students is important because this teaching resource should help develop analytical thinking and other skills – rather than simply telling students what to think. Now complete, we await the feedback from students and hope that it helps them connect with the topic of Saint-Domingue and the idea of a ‘dual revolution’.
What happens next?
Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley writes: First, I would like to write a big ‘thank you’ to my Project Advisors for their contributions. It has been a productive and enjoyable experience for me as an academic to have students following my research and writing so closely, and I am excited about the teaching potential in the resources we have developed together.
The project is not going to be fully completed for a while, because we are going to have to wait for my journal article to be published before the teaching resources can be used. I have recently received positive feedback on the first draft of my article from two colleagues (Professor Colin Jones at QMUL and Dr Ronen Steinberg at Michigan State University) and I am planning a formal submission by the end of January 2021. I am sharing all the feedback I receive with my Project Advisors (as long as I receive permission to do so). The teaching resources will be cited in the finished article, and they will be made freely available on a dedicated website.