Emily Cranford teaches the strangeness and familiarity of world culture with latest French class

Posted by Centre News in Academics, Experts, News 04 Apr 2014

cranfordFrom medieval North African Muslims and Renaissance-era cannibals in the New World to the 18th century Persian Empire and early modern feminist writers, Visiting Instructor of French and Humanities Emily Cranford’s latest class covers a wide swath of French culture and literature. And though the class, titled Travel and Otherness Until the French Revolution, is taught in French and focuses on French perspectives, it has much to reveal about how human beings in general understand themselves and so-called “others” or strangers.

“Travel literature has fascinated me for years,” says Cranford, “especially travel in the past and written encounters with ‘strangers’ in early modernity. In my research and teaching, I focus on how strangeness or alterity can form an individual’s and a society’s self-identification. I wanted to share these kinds of exchange and encounters with students because not only are they fascinating but they help us understand how we view strangeness, otherness and ourselves today.”

The course spans an ambitious amount of material, including medieval French representations of Muslims and North Africa, monsters, the imagination, cannibals, travel to Rome and the New World during the Renaissance and the exoticism of the Persian Empire.

“We will be working intensely on researching and writing about works of literature and culture that precede us by centuries,” Cranford explains. “This will involve specific research tools and methods as well as thinking critically about the advantages and disadvantages of trying to understand ‘others.’”

Students will create an oral presentation using critical articles that expand on a theme covered in class, leading a class discussion about that topic following their presentation. Students will also write a research paper on a topic of particular interest to them, presenting their findings to the class at the end of the term.

Cranford is especially passionate about the fact that her class brings the past to life in a way that is immensely important for students.

“I want my students to realize that while the past seems strange or foreign to us, there are many similarities between what intrigues us as people and individuals,” she says. “I want them to understand that what we call Western civilization is the result of encounters with eastern civilizations as well as what used to be seen as ‘savage’ lands.”

Cranford also emphasizes that phenomena we as a contemporary culture find fascinating were also fascinating to people who lived in the French-speaking world hundreds of years ago.

“I hope that students find some personal or academic connection to the texts we read, the people they encounter in these texts and the popular ideas circulating at this time,” she says. “I think it’s important for my students to take this class in order to better understand how contemporary French and Francophone cultures have been shaped by people and societies other than the French state itself, that France has been a country with ties to Africa and the Americas for hundreds of years, that we shape our identities by comparing ourselves to others and that strangeness or novelty is a result of custom rather than nature.”

Indeed, this is the element of the class Cranford is most looking forward to.

“I’m excited to help my students find a personal connection to the past that helps them to grow intellectually and to understand themselves in a new way,” she says.

Learn more about French at Centre.

By Mariel Smith

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