Teaching as Scholarship, Scholarship as Teaching: A Case Study

Warren Roberts | Apr 1, 1997

Bringing scholarship and teaching together is an ideal, I should think, that most historians would subscribe to. But how might the ideal translate into practice? We sometimes try to achieve the ideal by introducing students to outstanding scholarship in the courses we teach, particularly specialized upper-division courses. As experts in our subjects and being conversant with recent publications, we make the best scholarship available to our students so that they might share some of our expertise, and even some of our enthusiasm. As an instructional model, this clearly has much to offer, but it is subject to limitations that are defined by its underlying premise: as professionals, we teach students; the educational flow is in one direction, from above to below. By way of an alternative, I would like to suggest a teaching model that is interactive rather than top down, and within which faculty and students come together in a common enterprise.

I have tried to achieve that ideal in Culture and the French Revolution, an upper-division history course with enrollments that run from 25 to 50 students. When I introduced the course in 1978, I wanted to examine writers, artists, and composers whose creative lives coincided with the Revolutionary Age. This had become my own area of research, and I wanted to use the course as a kind of laboratory for my own work. That is, from the beginning I wanted to establish a dynamic between teaching and scholarship; my students would do what I was doing, and just as they would benefit from my understanding of the subjects we studied together so too would I benefit from their understanding. A book—a study of the revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David—came directly out of the course, and it is not the same book it would have been without the exchange of ideas with undergraduate students. That exchange took place in class as we discussed David, and it also took place through their papers. One way I measure papers, undergraduate or graduate, is whether I learn from them. Even when papers are based on the assigned materials for my courses, they are instructive to me. We all see things differently; ideas pass through the prisms of our individual intelligence, and students over the years have shown me much about the subjects I teach in class discussion and in the papers they have written.

When my book on David appeared in 1989, some colleagues organized a reception at a local bookstore that one of my ·former students attended. When I told her that an idea in the book came out of her paper on David, she seemed puzzled. I turned to the precise place in the text to show her where I was in her debt; she had developed an argument in her paper, based on her reading of an assigned book, which proved useful to me and that I incorporated into my book. By combining my own writing with teaching in my Culture and the French Revolution course, one activity has reinforced the other; my teaching has benefited from my writing, and conversely my published work is not what it would have been without the exchange of ideas with undergraduate students. They learned from me and I from them.

Art as History

An underlying assumption of the course is that art is part of the historical record, and that an artistic image is historical evidence. Students and I examine works of art together in class, with the benefit of slides. Once an image has been projected onto a screen, it awaits analysis, and thus lends itself to class discussion. As such, it is a unique instructional tool. Historians regularly bring other types of evidence into the classroom, key passages from primary sources that they incorporate into lectures, or documents they read in class as a basis for discussion. For the discussion to go well, students must remember passages from the document. A different type of dynamic takes place, however, when students discuss an image that is projected onto a screen. The image is there, in its entirety, on the screen, as students discuss it. By responding to images in their different ways and by engaging one another in the exchange of ideas, students achieve heightened understanding. The instructor can play an active role in, and benefit from, that exchange.

One of the works students and I discuss in Culture and the French Revolution, David's Tennis Court Oath, is not historically accurate. The deputies were not lined up along the width of the tennis court they occupied on June 20, 1789, as they are seen in David's work, but along its length. David also lowered the ceiling of the tennis court and took other liberties, such as including men who were not there in his design. For an accurate rendering of the Tennis Court Oath, one can turn to the historically correct prints of other artists who illustrated events of the French Revolution. Historically accurate prints of the Tennis Court Oath enable us to visualize an important event of the French Revolution, much as photographs would, to which these prints can be likened.

Paradoxically, David's departures from historical accuracy tell us more about the Tennis. Court Oath, at least in some respects, than the accurate prints of illustrators. What those departures reveal is the meaning attached to an event by a contemporary who was deeply involved in the Revolution and was himself an active player on the revolutionary stage. Moreover, the elevated, heroic style of David's Tennis Court Oath was a language that served his political objectives, much as the language of Marat was instrumental to his agenda. The medium was an integral part of the message. As students discuss these issues, they come to appreciate that artistic images have documentary value not only in a descriptive sense, offering a visual record of the past, but also as a record of subjective, personal, political responses to events, such as the Tennis Court Oath.

Historians do not have to be art historians to use artistic images in the classroom. Understanding history, they select images that have documentary value, complement other types of evidence, and relate to course topics and themes. The patriotism of David's Tennis Court Oath captures an idea that can be traced to specific 18th-century sources. In his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750) Rousseau decried the voluptuous paintings and statues that corrupted morals, and' he called upon artists to portray the deeds of brave men and staunch patriots. This idea took hold among a generation of artists, among whom David was the finest and the most articulate. David projected a Rousseauist moral vision in grand salon paintings before the Revolution and he did so again in the Tennis Court Oath. To read Rousseau and to examine paintings that express his ideals is to integrate different types of evidence, textual and visual.

The opportunities for this type of integration are endless. Historians of mid- 19th-century America could use George Caleb Bingham's paintings of county elections to illustrate political democracy at work. Another possibility would be to contrast different types of visual evidence, such as Matthew Brady's Civil War photographs with Winslow Homer's Civil War lithographs and paintings. Historians teaching World War I could juxtapose patriotic posters and songs with photographic and artistic images of the war, fictional accounts such as Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and World War I poetry. Whatever period or periods historians teach, they will find images of various types useful tools, particularly when combined with other evidence.

Teaching with Manuscript Chapters

My original reading list in Culture and the French Revolution last year included a book that was more expensive than I had expected. Nothing else was available to replace it, so I rethought and revamped the course. I had been working on another artist, Jean-Louis Prieur, who did illustrations of the French Revolution for the Tableaux historiques de la Revolution francaise, deluxe prints offered for sale to the public, first issued in 1791; so I decided to include him in the course. But the problem with including Prieur is that there are no books on him. And because the only written material I could use was the manuscript chapters that are part of my current writing project, a comparative study of Prieur and David, I decided to include my chapters on Prieur, along with photocopies of his 69 illustrations for the Tableaux historiques.

The last-minute—and fortuitous—inclusion of my own manuscript chapters in the course had benefits I had not intended and made this one of my most satisfying teaching experiences in 32 years in the classroom. As a dedicated revolutionary, Prieur rendered his tableaus in a highly partisan manner, and they reflect a radicalism that eventually resulted in his execution. Once it is grasped that Prieur's artistic record is subjective, one can reconstruct, in some measure, his particular responses to the French Revolution. I believe that students’ grasping the subjective nature of Prieur's work opens the door to other discoveries and possibilities for them as students of history. History is not just something that happened; it is something that people experienced, and they experienced it differently. To see the Revolution through the eyes of Prieur is to define a set of responses that reflect the attitudes and prejudices of one person. This becomes a reference point for responses by other artists to the same events for which Prieur offered his visual record.

Examining Art: An Example

An example of how Prieur's visual record of the Revolution differs from that of another artist is his illustration of the July 14, 1789, murder of de Flesselles, a government official, and Jean-Francois Janinet's illustration of the same event in the Gravures historiques des principaux evellemellts depuis l'ouverture des Etats-Gelllfrallx de 1789. The incident illustrated by both artists took place in front of the Hotel de Ville (the Paris city hall), which opened onto the Place de Greve, the oldest public square in Paris. The Bastille had just fallen, and a crowd had walked from the hated fortress to the Hotel de Ville with de Launay, the governor of the Bastille, as captive. Suspected of treason, de Launay was shot in the Place de Greve, decapitated, and eviscerated just before de Flesselles, also suspected of treason, walked out of the Hotel de Ville. Prieur's illustration shows a crowd that rushed toward the Prevot des marchands, brandishing pikes, lances, swords, and pitchforks that charge the tableau with a sense of militancy. In contrast, only a handful of men are seen at the entrance of the Hotel de Ville in Janinet's print, and they occupy the lower third of the illustration, most of which is taken up by the fine architecture that provides a stately backdrop for the violent episode. Janinet's men hold swords, but inconspicuously, at least in comparison to the raised arms in Prieur’s illustration, a comparison that drives home the distinctiveness of Prieur's tableau. Also, in Prieur's tableau the right hand of de Flesselles points toward a lantern that hangs directly overhead. Janinet's print does not show a lantern, nor do the illustrations of other artists who portrayed the Hotel de Ville at this time. Prieur put the lantern there for a reason, as a symbol of revolutionary justice—Desmoulins wrote a Discours de Ia hlnterne aux Pal'isiens in the summer of 1789—and it was from lampposts that the people hanged—lanterne—their enemies. A crowd hanged two hated officials from a lamppost on a building on the opposite side of the Place de Greve, directly across from the Hotel de Ville, on July 22, eight days after the murder of de Flesselles, but the lantern had not yet become an instrument of popular justice on July 14, 1789.

In his Death of de Flesselles Prieur placed a historically incorrect lamp over the entrance to the Hotel de Ville because it had become a symbol of revolutionary justice, and he would include lamps in other tableaus to invest them with political meaning. A lamp is not just a lamp in Prieur's tableaus, it is a highly charged political symbol, and as such it invites discussion in class. To understand Prieur's visual record of the Revolution, one must crack the artist's code, and recognizing the symbolic meaning he attached to objects is one way to achieve this objective. It is not my intention to show students how to decode Prieur; rather, I tell them that we are all in the same boat and that by examining his tableaus together and paying attention to detail, we can try to reconstruct his images. Sometimes I find the significant detail, and sometimes they do.

Discussing Art: An Example

Once students understood that Prieur did not hesitate to depart from historical accuracy if it served his purposes, once they appreciated that he was a rhetorician whose visual language was highly political, and that to understand him and his art it is necessary to crack his code, they made contributions to class discussion I would not have thought possible; sometimes they even saw things I had not seen. For example, when examining Prieur's Intendant Berthier de Sauvigny—a tableau that illustrates a Paris uprising on July 22, 1789, in which crowds lynched two hated officials—a student asked me what the child in the lower right-hand side of the tableau had on his back. I had given no thought to this detail, but said it was a basket, and added—the idea came to me in a flash as I looked at the tableau—that it was a symbolically empty basket. As such, it reinforced one of Prieur's themes, the connection between hunger and violence. The price of bread reached a peak in the middle of July, after disastrous hailstorms in the spring. Among the most hated of officials was Foulon de Doue, who was reported to have said years earlier, during the 1775 famine, that if the people were hungry they could eat hay. It is his head that is stuck on a pike in Prieur's tableau, and into whose mouth straw has been stuffed. The crowd had not forgotten Foulon's remark.

The violence of an angry crowd in the uprising of July 22 had specific causes, and the symbolically empty basket carried by the boy identifies one of the causes, hunger. A classroom discussion of the basket in this illustration led to a remark by a student that baskets appear elsewhere in Prieur's tableaus. I had not noticed any of the baskets, and after class pored through all of Prieur's illustrations, trying to find baskets, and to see what meaning, if any, they had. This led to a rethinking and reinterpretation of three tableaus in which I found baskets. Having revised my manuscript, I discussed the revisions in class which led to further exchanges of ideas. If ever there was collaborative learning, this was it.

Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning was not limited to the classroom. I kept photographs of Prieur's tableaus in my office so students could examine them when they were writing their papers. This, I believed, might be useful because the photocopies I had handed out to students did not capture the detail that is such an important part of the visual evidence; to get at the image effectively, one must examine it in microscopic detail. Students came to my office, therefore, sometimes several at a time, to sort their way through the images.

There is a table in a library adjacent to my office, and as students examined Prieur's prints, they would ask me if I could help them explain something they had picked out, a detail, say, or some item of possible symbolic importance. I use a magnifying glass myself to examine detail in the illustrations, and when sorting through them with students, I took it from my desk so we could see better the parts of his tableaus that were in question. I ended up leaving the magnifying glass with the' illustrations so students could use it as they wished. Their use of the magnifying glass, it seems to me, put a new spin on the examination of historical evidence. When students and I examined Prieur's tableaus together we exchanged views on what we saw. My understanding was heightened by this exchange, as was that of my students. As one student put it, we had become a research team. I could not have put it better myself.

Student Papers, Collaborative Learning, and Scholarship

The papers on Prieur were among the best I have ever seen. I took notes on them for my own benefit, and I made copies of several as a record of what students were capable of doing and because they suggested ideas I might want to incorporate into my two Prieur chapters. Those chapters are different now from what they were at the beginning of the semester. When students began to show me things I had not seen, I began revising the chapters, and did so for a period of several weeks. If my study of Prieur and David materializes as a book, I will dedicate it to my students. Discussing problems with them, sorting through images with them, achieving heightened understanding with them has been invaluable. Much of the time the key to my revisions was rethinking Prieur's images after discussing them in class. A student would ask me about something I hadn't noticed and by responding to it, I ended up making connections that had not occurred to me. Even when students made points I didn't agree with, they forced me to rethink some of my ideas or they suggested new ideas.

A student came to my office to discuss a Prieur tableau illustrating the first violent episode of the Paris uprising on July 12, 1789, when a crowd clashed with German mercenaries in the Place Louis Xv, at the far end ofthe Tuileries gardens. Looking at the tableau, the student wondered if what appeared to be a line of figures in the background was a depiction of French guards, who later in the day sided with the people of Paris and fired on the German guards. To answer the student's question, he and I examined the tableau with utmost attention to detail, with a magnifying glass. I was unable to tell from the tableau if Prieur showed French guards in the background, so to understand the illustration as best as I could, I went back to my sources in an effort to reconstruct the event. This led to a reinterpretation of Prieur's tableau: I concluded that the horizontal lines were not French guards but a row of shrubs at the west end of the Place Louis XV, which meant that Prieur viewed the scene from a different direction than I had supposed. I also understood the dynamics of the clash between soldiers and civilians better after rethinking the tableau. By asking a question about this tableau, a student made me look at it again, go back to my sources, and reconstruct one of the key events of the Paris uprising. Working through the tableau with a student was an exemplary lesson for me on how historians use evidence, and I believe it was no less valuable for the student. By chasing leads that prove mistaken, the historian sometimes sees more clearly.

The students in my Culture and the French Revolution class were there for various reasons, but mostly, I suspect, because the course meets an undergraduate writing requirement. It attracts a random mixture of students, as far as I can tell, in terms of departmental major, GPA, gender, and ethnic background. Such a group of undergraduates wrote (as a class) exceptional papers and enlarged my understanding of the subject I teach. Including my own work-in-progress in the materials for the course created a learning dynamic from which students and I both gained benefit. What reinforced that dynamic was my describing to students the changes that they had helped bring about in the manuscript chapters as the course proceeded. This enabled them to see that they were active participants with their instructor in his writing project. They had read something their teacher had written and, more importantly, they saw the parameters of that body of writing expand as a result of their contributions. Their thinking and writing benefited the thinking and writing of their teacher—an ideal commingling, I should think, of teaching and scholarship.

One of the most stimulating and, from my point of view, productive classroom experiences I have had came about as the result of pure chance. Fortuitous as it may have been, the structure of the course allowed it to happen. My original formulation of it grew out of a conscious attempt 'to bring my own pursuits as a historian into the classroom, and to share them with students. A corollary—and it too was conscious—was the belief that students were there not as passive recipients of dispensed knowledge but as active learners capable of engaging in the exchange of ideas and that I would benefit from that exchange as well. This has happened over the years, but it happened on a different level and with astonishing success this last time when I included these manuscript chapters from my current writing project among the materials for the course. Scholarship and teaching really converged as my students and I became, in effect, a research team. And, it should be stressed, these were not graduate students, but a random group of undergraduates.

Warren Roberts is Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He has been in the history department since 1963 and is the author of Morality and Social Class in Eighteenth-Century French Literature and Painting (1974); Jane Austen and the French Revolution (1979, paperback ed., 1995); and Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the French Revolution (1989, paperback ed., 1991). *The contributing editor for this article was Robert Blackey.


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