Virtual Visit of Underground Paris

My upper-division course "Nineteenth-Century Paris Underground" (French 438.01, Fall 2014) was the focus of my ITEL cohort project. I was the only instructor of this course, and this seminar was my first time teaching the course. Seventeen students were enrolled in the course, the majority of whom were juniors and seniors, both in the College and the School of Foreign Service. This course dealt with literary and non-literary representations of the underground spaces in Paris constructed during the 19th century (the metro, the sewers, the Catacombs, etc.) as well as depictions of the figuratively "underground" worlds of criminals, prisons and prostitution. By implementing a short digital video project of a "virtual visit" of one of Paris' underground spaces I hoped, in the first place, to enable students to better visualize and comprehend the physical spaces under Paris and their importance in French history, literature and culture in the nineteenth-century and today. I also hoped that this project would teach them how to work with digital archives and analyze and synthesize visual sources, in addition to written ones. Finally, I hoped that the project would serve as an innovative way for students use their French language skills outside of other oral and written projects.

For my ITEL project, I asked students to create a short digital video of a "virtual visit" of one of Paris' underground spaces. Using digital archives (such as the Bibliothèque Nationale's Gallica) as well as contemporary resources (official websites of Paris' museums or transportation systems, for example), they were to research, create and edit a "tour" of one of these spaces (the metro, the sewers, the Catacombes, etc.) accompanied by a narrative in which they spoke (in French) about the importance of the space both in the nineteenth-century and today. Students would use iMovie to create these short videos, upload them to YouTube and then share them on our course blog.

As I had initially conceived it, the project was to be carried out using tablet technology. In particular, I had hoped that students would use the L'Illustration app, a digital archive of all the issues of France's first illustrated weekly newspaper (1843-1944), which covered the debates surrounding the construction of many of these underground spaces, as well as the constructions themselves. I had worked with the L'Illustration app in a previous course (French 442 – Parisian World's Fairs: 1855-1900, Spring 2013), in which I'd asked students to search newspapers from 1900 to analyze the depiction of the 1900 Universal Exposition. However, as I began to work on this project, I realized that, since Paris' metro, sewer and catacombs were built over such a long period of time, and since the app does not currently provide a search function for looking up subjects in the archive, students would have essentially had to wade through hundreds of lengthy issues in order to find images that may or may not have been there. Because of this, I made the decision to eliminate L'Illustration from the assignment, and once that was eliminated, the need to work specifically on a tablet was eliminated as well. Students could use their laptops to search images in the various databases suggested and create and edit their videos using iMovie on their laptops as well. I distributed a handout in class giving them thorough directions on how to use this technology and also supplied them with the information from the Gelardin Media Library on how to use some of these tools.

As I mentioned above, this project was conceived as a way for students to have access to nineteenth-century visual culture and to learn to navigate archives of primary source materials. I hoped that they would be inspired by the format – as opposed to written essays and oral presentations – to think in creative ways about the space they were representing, as well as its historical, social and cultural importance. I like to offer my students different opportunities for practicing their French language skills, and thought this would be an innovative way for them to produce language. Finally, I hoped, as students depicted a "virtual visit" of the underground space of their choosing, they would reflect on the style and narrative tactics of the nineteenth-century authors we read in our course who, themselves, depicted these underground spaces.

After the presentations of their "virtual visits," students received a survey that I composed with the help of Kristine Bundschuh. Along with this document I am submitting the file with the results from the survey. Students answered seven questions related to the project:

  1. In general, how effectively do you think Georgetown faculty use technology in their teaching?
  2. The technology used in our ITEL activity ("visite virtuelle")...
  3. Please comment on how you would improve the ITEL activity ("visite virtuelle").
  4. Please comment on the effectiveness and/or limitations of the ITEL activity ("visite virtuelle") overall.
  5. How much time would you say you spent in total on the "visite virtuelle"? Specifically, how much time was spent on discussing and composing the text of your video versus the technical aspects of the project (saving images, editing, uploading the video, etc)?
  6. How well did your group work together? Were you able to find time to meet with all the members of your group? Did you feel that the work was split evenly among the different group members?
  7. How much did your work on this digital project contribute to your understanding of the history of Underground Paris? What, in particular, did this digital project allow you to do that you could not have done in an oral presentation or a written assignment? What aspects would have been better suited for a written assignment or an oral presentation?

Because only ten students responded, I had a very easy time reading and making sense of the data. If I were to do this again, I would have asked students to complete the survey in class, rather than on their own, in order to get more responses. Students generally seemed to feel that the technology used for the assignment was relatively easy to use and worked reliably. Opinions on whether the assignment was a good complement were more mixed, with only eight out of ten students strongly agreeing or agreeing. Six out of ten students agreed that they would use this assignment again, and only four out of ten students agreed that they would recommend it to other students. I was somewhat surprised by this response, as the overall course evaluations had been very strong. But I felt confident that the, at times, negative response to the assignment was specific to the assignment and not to the rest of the class.

In the lengthier student responses, I learned a lot about the aspects to which students objected. For example, one student wrote that the presentations could be more specific. Students had been required throughout the semester to contribute a 10-minute oral exposé on a topic of their choosing related to the subjects we were reading (the 1867 World's Fair mentioned in the Zola novel, Nana, that we studied, for example, or the subject of homosexuality in 19th century France). At the end of the semester, when our focus turned to the literal underground of Paris (Catacombes, sewers, Metro), some students had already done short presentations on these topics. In this sense, a small amount of the material incorporated into the "virtual visit" was repetitive. For this reason, I appreciated another student's suggestion that the activity could have occurred earlier in the semester. Perhaps re-thinking the oral exposé assignment in the context of the digital video project would have made the project stand out as different.

Aside from expected comments on the difficulty of getting people together for group work, students generally reported that their groups worked well together and did not spend an excessive amount of time on the technological side of the project: most groups reported spending 2-3 hours on editing and uploading of the video, with the exception of one group that reported spending 10 hours. Aside from this last group, I think that the project was successful in that it enabled students to meet together outside of class and focus on the themes of the course as a community.

Given what seemed like a slightly unfavorable response to the project from the numeric answers to the survey, I was pleasantly surprised to see many favorable comments about the effects of this project on students' overall understanding of the course topic, Underground Paris. Students commented that they appreciated the visual nature of the project and that the assignment enabled them to better visualize these spaces and their geography in Paris. Additionally, I was very pleased to note that the students appreciated being offered new ways of exercising their French language skills: one student thought that this assignment helped create a nice variety of assignments throughout this semester; another commented that the videos were better than a written assignment. On the other hand, one student did suggest that the topics could have been learned through a written or oral assignment. I take this suggestion seriously, and think, once again, that, in order for this assignment to seem truly valuable were I to teach this course again, I might need to re-think the parameters of our oral exposé assignment. All in all, this feedback was very helpful in understanding what did and did not work about the "virtual visit."

Comparing the results of this survey to the ones from my Spring 2013 course – Parisian World's Fairs 1855-1900 – was very enlightening. Students in the 2013 course raised some of the same points about the difficulty of getting students together to do group work, however they universally enjoyed exploring the digital archive of L'Illustration that I mentioned above. Their strong praise for the research aspect of the assignment, rather than the digital video production, makes me wonder whether finding a way to incorporate L'Illustration would have made this assignment more successful. In other words, instead of having students return to archives that they might have used in their oral exposés, it would give them access to an entirely new set of sources. Because of the difficulty outlined above about the "searchability" of the journal, I might need to, in advance of the semester, perform a thorough search of the archives to find instances of the newspaper in which the construction of the underground spaces is mentioned. If I were to do this, I could offer students a small number of issues to examine, rather than the hundreds of issues they would have otherwise had to search. I also think that, in addition to submitting the video, I would ask students in future versions of this course to produce a written narrative about their research agenda when working on the project. To me, it was evident that they were learning new skills as they combed the Bibliothèque Nationale's database for images, however I think that having students write out a narrative about the visual bibliographic work they had done might make what they had accomplished during this task clearer.

In general, I felt like I was well supported throughout this project, and do not feel like I encountered any university-related challenges related to the project. Any adjustments I would make in the future are specific to this course and based on what I learned from the students' comments.