Skip Navigation

Teachers As Scholars Explore Francophone Culture

TAS seminars at UCLA enrich French class for many Los Angeles K-12 teachers and students

Over the past year, thirty Los Angeles teachers explored the richness and diversity of francophone film and literature in two seminars offered by the UCLA International Institute and its Africa, Europe, and Middle East Studies Centers in conjunction with the Department of French and Francophone Studies and the national Teachers As Scholars program based in the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

The courses dealt with French-language literary and cinematic works produced by diasporic communities from North and sub-Saharan Africa living in France. Coverage of the francophone world is being further extended this summer in a workshop for K-12 language teachers that deals with French-speaking communities in Lebanon, Canada, the Caribbean, Vietnam and Los Angeles.  

"France's history is now inextricably linked to Africa, from the 'mission civilisatrice' to colonial schooling, from the texts of Jean de Brunhoff (Babar the Elephant) to 'our ancestors the Gauls,' from the war in Algeria to the 'headscarf affair,' and from the politics of Jean-Marie Le Pen to the emergence of African communities in France today," noted French and Francophone Studies faculty member Dominic Thomas who led the two seminars.

The first seminar examined the legacy of French colonial rule and African responses to the colonial project through consideration of writings and films about Africa. The discussion was grounded in novels by two francophone African writers, Camara Laye and Mariama Bâ. Laye's L’Enfant noir explores the childhood of an African boy in the Mande region of former French Guinea during the later years of colonial rule, while Bâ’s Une si longue lettre looks at polygamy and gender relations in Senegal. Participants also viewed two feature films, Sugarcane Alley (Euzhan Palcy's exploration of colonial education in the Caribbean) and Chocolat (Claire Denis's film about colonialism and racism in Africa), and considered critical gender issues raised by the documentary Warrior Marks (by Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker).

French colonialism in Africa officially ended during the 1960s, and African authors have addressed its influence in their writings on oral literature, missionary activity, Islam, gender roles, traditional practices vs. Western modernity, colonial education vs. Qur'anic education, etc. These issues and divergent voices were explored in the second seminar which focused on attempts to locate their broader implications for the African diaspora in France, francophone Africa and the Caribbean today.

The primary concern in France remains the assimilationist drive toward the ideal of "Frenchness," noted Dominic Thomas, who recently published a study of Nation-Building, Propaganda, and Literature in Francophone Africa and Black France: Colonialism, Immigration and Transnationalism. This discourse is rooted in age-old colonial projections and stereotypes that link diasporic Africans with what the media and certain politicians castigate as "uncivilized" and "barbarous" practices associated with polygamy, excision and arranged marriages. Such stereotypes in turn serve to justify the marginalization of these communities to the peripheries of urban centers, which ironically creates the very ghettos that the French perceive as the inevitable outcome of US multicultural politics. These issues were addressed through two novels, Azouz Begag's Le gone du Châaba and Ousmane Sembene's Le docker noir, three films, Le gone du Châaba, Salut Cousin and La Haine, and Tahar Ben Jelloun's essay, "Le racisme expliqué à ma fille."

"The teachers were remarkably motivated and well prepared for the seminar," said Thomas. "They all read the assigned texts and many of them had [already] included the readings in their own curricular offerings. I think the fact that they had taught these books themselves made the seminar all the more rewarding, because it provided them with the occasion to share their own interpretations while also going beyond this in dialogue with their peers. Since one of the objectives of the seminar is to bring teachers from secondary education into the Academy, this exercise was particularly fruitful."

Morning sessions focused on literary works, while afternoon sessions were organized around film screenings. "I found this a very useful pedagogic tool," observed Thomas. "It allowed participants to decompress, to apply the theoretical discussion to a visual medium, and subsequently to frame our discussion around both film and text. Many of these films are difficult to find outside of an institutional setting and we are in a position to share UCLA's extensive archives with the academic community at large."

In advance of each seminar meeting, Thomas prompted teachers to consider various issues related to the readings, such as colonial education and French pedagogy, the survival of colonial stereotypes in the postcolonial period, and how these stereotypes inform the "construct" of the immigrant, particularly the immigrant of Maghrebi descent in the French context. Teachers completed the course by composing an essay on the similarities and differences between the American and the French contexts surrounding questions related to immigrants, minority communities and multiculturalism, and how this comparative approach can foster classroom dialogue and pedagogic innovation.

"As an educator, it is crucial to maintain close contact with those responsible for training the next generation of college-bound students," said Thomas. "The interaction provided me with invaluable insight into the kind of work that is being done in high schools, while also bringing the teachers up to date with the demands and exigencies of undergraduate education today."

The value of the Teachers As Scholars model for professional development and intellectual fulfillment was confirmed by the enthusiastic response of the teachers. "This seminar was filled with my colleagues, my peers, whose studies and experiences surpass my own, and this made the class very interesting and challenging," said Michela Carlton from Foshay Learning Center. "I'm working on a Racisme unit for French 3, and now I'll introduce these readings (or excerpts), as I feel confident about discussing them." She added that most of her students come from immigrant families, so this is "a very hot topic" in her classroom.

"Just sharing those hours with other teachers of French was a great experience," remarked Carmen Arenas from James Garfield High School. "I know of so many schools where there are only part-time French teachers. With this new spark I'm positive I'll be able to boost my enrollment… anything to promote francophonie!"

Delyna Diop from Washington Preparatory High School found the seminar to be "informative, stimulating and thought-provoking." Moreover, it was directly relevant to her teaching, being "closely aligned with my interests in literature and film from a francophone West African perspective."

"“This is a perfect example of the type of program needed for life-long learning," said Wyn Cane from Loyola High School. "It is available, friendly, pertinent, up-to-date, and reaches into new areas of an already established curriculum." Tabitha Thigpen from King Drew Magnet High School concluded, "I really enjoyed the small group setting, the informal sharing and discussion, and the lovely surroundings of UCLA."

This UCLA/USDOE-funded Teachers As Scholars project was organized by Jonathan Friedlander, Outreach Director for the International Institute and the Center for Near Eastern Studies, Vera Wheeler of the Center for European and Eurasian Studies, and Azeb Tadesse of the African Studies Center. Special thanks go to the school principals and administrators who granted the participating teachers classroom release time to attend these innovative seminars. For more information about the Teachers As Scholars initiative and the international studies precollegiate outreach enterprise, contact Jonathan Friedlander.

Center for Near Eastern Studies