Using a Semester-Long Writing Project to Support Essential Learning Goals

Professor Jennifer Gipson, French and Italian

Instructor: Jennifer Gipson, Assistant Professor of French (
Class: French 248 / Folklore 230 (Ethnic Studies): French in the United States

In this project, “A History of French in the Upper Midwest in Objects from the Wisconsin Historical Society,” was inspired by the British Museum’s exposition “History of the World in 100 Objects.”.  Students became “experts” on an item of their choosing from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Special Collections.

Course Description:

Why does Wisconsin have cities named “Luxembourg” or “Prairie du Chien”?  Why was the short story now hailed as the first known work of “African-American” fiction actually written in French and published in Paris?  What ties to France did residents of post-Katrina New Orleans cite in a satirical petition begging France’s then-president: “Buy us back, Chirac”? For Native Americans, had the land sold in the Louisiana Purchase even ever been “French”?

This class will trace these and other questions of cultural and linguistic identity through the study of literary texts; political and religious writings; maps; film; folk narrative; music; and customary practices. Throughout, we will work to understand how notions of “race” and “ethnicity” in the U.S have been shaped by French influence and the French language—as seen, for example, in the renegotiation “whiteness” among Cajuns or the impact of Native American’s early contacts with French-speakers. We will also be attentive to ways that cultural artifacts or traditional practices become part of broader economic, artistic, or ideological exchanges. To this end, we might consider the Cajun music in Madison, the recent success of the History Channel’s reality show Swamp People, or even the competition for the design of Wisconsin’s state quarter. All lectures and class work in English.

Note that this class meets the Ethnic Studies Requirement: Our assignments will be geared towards the four essential learning goals associated with this requirement: “awareness of history’s impact on the present”; “ability to recognize and question assumptions”; “a consciousness of self and other”; and “effective participation in a multicultural society.”  To meet these goals, we will study a variety of cultural artifacts, the links between which may not be immediately apparent.  Thus, we will work to draw parallels between different parts of this class and to relate themes of this class in relation to larger questions.  In short, success in this class requires that you think about course topics (e.g, race, ethnicity, or Americanization) outside of class.

Primary Learning Goals of Project

–Synthesize knowledge by relating item from the Wisconsin Historical Society to class themes

–Discover how objects (texts, maps, photographs, etc.) tell stories

–Challenge assumptions about history by discovering first-hand a multiplicity of histories and thinking about how people shape certain histories (c.f. Ethnic Studies Essential Learning Outcomes)

–Learn about campus resources, special collections, and why primary documents matter–

–Develop sensitivity to registers of oral and written discourse in preparing an audio essay

First Day of Class

-Reflection: If you had to pick five objects to tell the story of your life…

-Discussion: What would a history of Wisconsin in five object look like?

-Goals: Think about how objects tell stories and how histories (or archives) are defined by choices that people make..

Last Day of Class                                                

-Students presented a UW google sites page with an image of their item, a short abstract, an audio essay with transcript, and a one sentence question they sought to answer (example used with permission):

–“Did the French presence in the United States determine the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition?” (object: the diary of Charles Floyd, a member of the Corps of Discovery)

–“What do 18th century portraits of métis people tell us about their lives?” (object: Portrait of Chief Tshu-gue-ga)

Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.  Lewis, James Otto. The Aboriginal Port-folio: a Collection of Portraits of the Most Celebrated Chiefs of the North American Indians.Philadelphia: J.O. Lewis, 1835. Online facsimile at

Intermediate Stages of the Project

  • Field trip to Wisconsin Historical Society and presentations by librarians (third week of class)
  • Students view objects classmates have chosen and sign-up for their own object via UW Google forms, writing a short personal statement about their choice (other fields for call number, permalink from catalogue, tags )
  • Professor gives approval and initial guidance via comments on UW Google forms spreadsheet and encourages students remain attentive to how new class concepts relate to “their” object.
  • Writing assignment (draft for Writing Fellow + final version for professor): Short description + Close reading of item (distinguishing description and research from analysis).
  • Conference with professor (students bring a carefully written one-sentence question that they seek to answer with their object.  This challenges students to distill the importance of the object into one sentence, building on skills hones in our regular 50-word sentence assignments.  The question also provided a convenient way for me to check to make sure students were on track before they completed an audio essay script draft for their Writing Fellow.
  • Writing assignment (draft for Writing Fellow + final version for professor): Script for longer audio essay with background + development of description and analysis from the first assignment.
  • Software Training for Students sessions: 1) basics of Google sites and recording with Audacity and 2) help session to assemble (hopefully) prepared materials into a webpage.

Selected Evaluation Criteria

  • Conformity to instructions
  • Quality of analysis (analysis description)
  • Ability to relate object to overall class concepts
  • Effective communication (differences between written and spoken discourse)

Resources for assignment design