Leave your guidebooks at home! University of Virginia French professor Ari Blatt prefers to think of his group of students more as historical archeologists than simple tourists. From uncovering the scars of the Nazi occupation to exploring the rarely visited working class neighborhoods of Belleville and la Goutte d’Or, students in UVa’s annual Paris J-term course spend an exhilarating two weeks discovering the forgotten layers of the city’s past to gain a deeper understanding of modern Paris and its historical evolution.
Rediscovering traces of the past
The course, entitled “Making Paris Modern: A Secret History of the City of Lights,” explores the material traces of the city’s former self that continue to shape its spaces and places and bear testament to the tumultuous history of a city and a nation. Alongside readings in fiction, poetry, history, art history, cultural studies, ethnography and urban studies, students have the opportunity to visit many of the Paris’ most well known sites, as well as the more forgotten and bizarre corners of France’s majestic capital, always with en eye towards unearthing the past.
Professor Blatt, who has taught at UVa since 2006, has a unique passion for seeking out the significance of the ordinary and forgotten in France’s urban landscape. Despite the transformations Paris has continually undergone, he thinks, history is still omnipresent. Blatt likes to compare the city to a palimpsest, on which each successive generation has written its own stories, while not entirely managing to erase those of its predecessors.
Students shouldn’t expect detailed itineraries. “I encourage them from the beginning to resist the temptation to see and do everything,” Blatt emphasizes. In a city that many fret is turning into an open-air museum, the idea is instead to immerse students in Paris through readings, discussions, site visits and even just wandering around aimlessly on the city’s sprawling Haussmannian boulevards or winding passages left unscathed by the 19th century prefect.
To encourage students to escape the tourist mindset of always having a plan, Blatt has developed exercises he hopes will make them more sensitive to the banal, but often overlooked, aspects of every day life in Paris. For example, students are asked to “exhaust a place,” in the way Georges Perec famously did in the 1970s, by sitting in a cafe and trying to record in a notebook everything they see. These small things, he thinks, “can be surprisingly beautiful or compelling or meaningful.”
The most meaningful part of the program for him: “watching the students become competent practitioners of the city… enlightened observers curious to understand how Paris works.” The course is, “one of the most invigorating things I do professionally,” he adds. “It’s exhausting, but never really feels like work.”
Making French studies more accessible
In creating the intense mini-course three years ago, Professor Blatt wanted reach beyond the French Department, giving non-French majors the opportunity to explore French culture and history. “We’re doing great things in French,” he observes, “but all of our undergraduate courses, save for an occasional course in translation, are taught in the target language.” The diversity of the French-language offering is something the Department prides itself on, but he also thinks they have a responsibility to engage in meaningful ways with students that don’t speak French.
“The J-Term in Paris course remedies this to a small degree,” he hopes. By teaching in English and opening the course to all majors, it has attracted undergraduates from all walks of life, from Engineering, Commerce, and Architecture to even Neuroscience. Of course, French majors and minors are also welcome to participate in the program, but are expected to complete all of their course work in French.
To cater to the diverse background of the 20 students he accompanies every year, Blatt has tried to design a program that provides enough flexibility for students to pursue their own interests in parallel to the core curriculum. Participants thus have frequent opportunities to explore sites that they might find most relevant to their own scholarly and professional interests. Over the years, Paris has been likened to everything from a ship to a beehive; Blatt wants each student to leave with his or her own personal metaphor.
Another concern for Professor Blatt had was that, while the Department runs successful programs in Lyon and Morocco every year, there was no University-run program in Paris surprisingly. Dozens of Virginia students come to the city every year through exchanges with various Parisian institutions, but these are all run through partnerships. The unique format of the J-term course also makes French culture and language more accessible to students that might otherwise never have a chance to study abroad at UVa, because of the demands of their course of study. UVa also offers a diverse array of over 30 J-term courses every year on and off grounds.
Cooperation with the UVaClub of Paris
Every year since the program began, the UVaClub of Paris has hosted a meet-and-greet event with Professor Blatt and his J-term students. During the evening, Paris alumni have the opportunity to share their own stories of building a life in Paris, while also hopefully rekindling an interest in their city’s past! Blatt says the evening is always a highlight for students, who are anxious to discover the ins and outs of living in France’s storied capital city.
This year, the event will be held on January 7, 2015 from 8-10pm. Full details can be found on the Club’s website.