Detective novel course brings texts to life in Paris

French lit

How do you learn about French language and culture from a classroom in Pennsylvania?

For Associate Professor of French Florence Jurney, the answer is elementary.

Putting a new twist on the department’s annual senior seminar, Jurney’s French and Francophone Detective Novels guides students through page-turning mysteries and crime adventures, and then takes them to the streets of Paris to experience the sights and sounds of the novels first-hand.

Over the spring semester, Jurney’s students read 13 detective novels spanning from the 19th century to the present. In order to “show students that they could read any popular genre with a critical eye,” she structured her class discussions around the history of Francophone crime literature and urged her students to analyze the authors’ descriptions of period politics and figures.

French tour

Students attend walking city tour with Maigret expert

While few of Jurney’s students had read detective novels prior to the course, many soon found themselves captivated by the texts. “I’ve discovered how much you can learn about a society from crime literature,” said French and globalization studies double major Maura Magistrali ’14. “Detective novels reveal a great deal about how a society considers life, death, and justice; you also gain a better understanding of a society’s politics and culture during the period when the book was written.”

Along with these textual analyses, Jurney wanted to provide a “physical context” for the course’s novels. She designed a spring break trip to Paris that exposed students to real-life French criminology, immersed them in the settings from their books, and allowed them to test their classroom theories on scholars of detective fiction.

The group’s itinerary included a visit to the National Bar Museum, as well as a rare private tour of Paris’s City Hall. They also visited the Main Police Headquarters in Paris, where two of the city’s top-level Scientific Police spoke to them about present-day investigative techniques.

These on-the-ground legal lessons were also combined with some literary and cultural ones. On their first afternoon in the city, the students toured the Bibliothèque des Littératures Policières, met with librarians specializing in detective literature, and pored through archives of original texts. Later in the week, they attended a murder mystery play and took a three-hour walking tour of the city with an expert on Maigret—French literature’s Sherlock Holmes.

For French major and educational studies minor Josh Griffiths ’14, this course was a highlight of his Gettysburg education. “I had the chance to see a side of Paris I most likely would not have seen otherwise,” said Griffiths. “We are very lucky at Gettysburg to have this opportunity.” 

After days of meetings with investigators, legal experts, and literary historians, the students tested their own detective chops through a digital mapping project. With only their course texts to guide them, they searched the streets of Paris to find and photograph key sites from two detective novels. Back on campus, they used these photos and texts to create an interactive digital map.

“The mapping project was a really cool way to put the books we've been reading into context,” said French major and environmental studies and educational studies minor Alyssa MacNeill ’14. Her classmate, French major and business minor Sam Schwarz ’14, agreed—adding that these novel-based tours of the city “put the fictional world into a physical place, encouraging us to discover new places in Paris.”

French signs

Students in front of sign for crime literature library

Along with allowing students to explore the books’ physical settings, the mapping project helped them examine the feasibility of the storylines—and they even spotted a few inconsistencies in the texts. Their findings led to discussions about the authors’ reasons for changing details, and why particular settings or locations may have been important. “It makes such a difference to use technology to highlight and enhance literature,” said Jurney. “That’s why engaged learning opportunities are so important.”

Furthermore, Jurney hopes that the course helped prove literature’s value for studying history, culture, and human nature. “Constantly, the liberal arts and literature are reproached for not doing anything real,” she said. “Literature is not just this ‘other thing’ where you lose yourself; it has real relevance to our present day. The morality of crime makes us think about our own values—and these questions of power, of relationships within a team, and how we treat people give us strategies for how we live our own lives.”

This May, the students presented their digital mapping findings through two presentations at Celebration ’14. Check out their digital map for Maigret and the Loner.

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Christine Shanaberger, associate director of communications/coordinator of presidential communications 717.337.6806

Posted: Fri, 9 May 2014

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