Observing the French Revolution: A Multidisciplinary Program

Anne C. Meyering, December 1988

A multidisciplinary program on the bicentennial of the French Revolution provided an opportunity to "cross the disciplinary boundaries" and, with enormous collaboration from all concerned, create an exciting program of activities. Michigan State University with funding from the Michigan Humanities Council has pulled together a program with both scholarly and popular elements. I backed into the project, "The French Revolution: A Bicentennial Celebration," in the spring of 1987 when I contacted Herbert Josephs, professor of French, Michigan State University, on a matter relating to undergraduate instruction abroad. In the course of our conversation, he asked whether I would be interested in planning some activities to celebrate the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Professor Josephs, whose speciality is Diderot, knew that I was one of two members of the history department specializing in French history. Although my main research project is in the social and economic history of nineteenth-century France, I was also working on an essay on the current historiography of the French Revolution. I agreed that it would be a good idea to draw attention in 1989 to that event and in the autumn of 1987 we went to work on the project.

First, we made an appointment with the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, John Eadie, to seek his support for the venture and found him to be not only enthusiastic but also generous in his support. Next we attempted to identify other individuals throughout the university interested in observing the bicentennial. A meeting we called early in December attracted only three other faculty members: one each from the humanities, theatre, and music departments. From them we learned that the theatre department was planning a major project for the 1988–89 repertory season, a stage adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities; that the faculty member of the music school was enthusiastic about the idea of the bicentennial celebration; and that many members of the Michigan State University humanities department were teaching about the French Revolution in their courses at least once a year.

Our next step was to contact the heads of all the relevant "units" (departments, schools, programs, etc.), as they are called at the university, and ask each to designate a representative who would work with us to develop a set of activities that would reach as wide an audience as possible. Of the eleven units we contacted in the College of Arts and Letters, I am pleased to report that all but three participated. Further inquiries turned up other interested faculty and professionals in the university museum, library, department of political science, and the honors college.

We met with these representatives in January 1988 and designed a program for the following year. The group was enthusiastic in its support for a multidisciplinary symposium to be held at the university in April of the bicentennial year. Group members nominated scholars from their respective disciplines whom we could invite to participate in the planned symposium. In addition, the program would include the theatre department's production of A Tale of Two Cities including special matinee performances for school children. An accompanying study guide for secondary students has since been developed to enhance student comprehension of the production.

The MSU School of Music would also participate by staging concerns of period music, complementing the honors college's special series of courses on the revolutionary epoch (such classes devoted to Rousseau's philosophy and another concentrating on the history of the Revolution itself). The university would also schedule a film series to coincide with these offerings, bringing such masterpieces as Renoir's Marseillaise and Wajda's Danton to the community. Still another participant in the observances would be Kresge Art Museum. From mid-April to mid-May this campus institution would host an exhibit of prints from the revolutionary era on loan principally from the Library of Congress. The Kresge would also be the site of a unique weekend, April 15–16, 1989 of programs devoted to lectures and music from the 1789 epoch. Featured on the program would be scholars such as Raymond Erickson, City University of New York, and Thomas Crow, University of Michigan, as well as Steven Lubin and Sally Sanford, nationally renowned interpreters of eighteenth-century musical forms.

Once we agreed upon a program, we had to find a way to fund it. When we reported back to the dean in January, we discovered that the financial picture at the university had changed considerably and he was much less sanguine about obtaining funding. Fortunately, we learned that the next deadline for grant proposals to the Michigan Council for the Humanities, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was in March. Since the council's primary aim is to fund programs that reach the general public, our proposal had to demonstrate that the program would reach a broad audience.

This was not a problem for the theater production—its own proposal to the Michigan Council incorporated a program for reaching secondary school children. For us, however, the proposition that we needed to attract a wider audience than the university community at first seemed a formidable task. The council's program development officer was very helpful at this point in advising us on "audience development." She suggested organizations of secondary school social studies and French teachers in whose newsletters we might place an announcement of the program's activities or whose mailing lists we might purchase. She pointed out newspapers which might carry such announcements and articles, suggested that posters be placed in store windows and tacked on library bulletin boards, and instructed us on placing announcements on local radio and television channels. We proposed in our application to the Michigan Humanities Council to send announcements of the project to appropriate department chairs at all of the colleges and universities in the state. To further strengthen our application, we solicited letters of support from colleagues at Calvin College, Eastern Michigan University, and the Flint branch of the University of Michigan.

The Michigan Humanities Council ultimately agreed to fund the multidisciplinary symposium which will be held at MSU from April 20–22. Entitled, "The French Revolution: Representations and Reality," it will begin on Thursday evening with a session on "The French Revolution: Word and Image," featuring Ronald Paulson, The Johns Hopkins University and Sherwood Dudley, professor of music, University of California, Santa Cruz. The subsequent Friday morning session on April 21 will be devoted to "The Language of the French Revolution: Expression and Repression," and will include papers by Linda Orr, professor of French, Duke University and Sandy Petrey, who teaches French and comparative literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. That afternoon, the symposium will feature a session on "The Idea of Revolution: Construction and Destruction," with presentations by Suzanne Desan, University of Wisconsin, Madison and Bernard Yack, department of politics, Princeton University. On Saturday morning there will be a concluding session, involving each of the six speakers and the audience in an extended discussion on the theme, "The French Revolution: Dreams and Destinies."

—Anne C. Meyering, is an assistant professor of history at Michigan State University. Other NEH-supported programs marking the bicentennial of the French Revolution will be the topic of a panel scheduled to meet at 2:30 p.m. December 28 at the AHA annual meeting Cincinnati.