Space travellers, refugees and the power of images

Guido Furci reflects on the power of images in his pedagogic practice, and responds to Fiona Johnnstone’s post on the potential of visual culture in the medical humanities.

During the last four years, I have had the opportunity to teach French as a second language and history of European culture to migrants in Paris who were returning to school. As when I offer French and Italian courses to students who are not native speakers of these tongues, I often used multimedia materials: videos, songs, film excerpts, blogs, and advertisements. Each class was a chance for students to talk openly about things that life and its contingencies had not given them the chance to discuss. Many current topics came up: presidential elections in France and the U.S., proposed reforms to the French educational system, the wins and losses of the Paris Saint-Germain soccer team. Even though I was careful not to overload the grammar component of the course, I was glad to see that my students progressed sufficiently for us to have fluid interactions. I shall never forget how debates on soccer or the traditional cuisines of their various lands could evoke passions equal to those revolving around such questions as capital punishment!

I also strove to introduce topics of conversation common in Parisian streets and cafés, such as the enlargement of public spaces such as parks and pedestrian zones in the centre of town, and the exploits of the French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, whose mission in outer space was an extremely popular subject on French social networks a couple of years ago.

Image credit: Marion Duvernois.

The first time we spoke of Thomas Pesquet, I projected onto the classroom screen several of the interviews he had given just before his departure and immediately upon his return to Earth. Of course, these sequences were a pretext for exercising their oral comprehension. However, students sometimes seized the initiative. In one case, they suggested producing a “récit aventureux” — a tale of adventure — of their own. With enthusiasm, I accepted the idea, especially after one of them added: “It won’t be hard to talk about unusual experiences based on fact. Thomas Pesquet will not only serve as an example; the physical sensations he describes remind me of those I felt after spending two weeks hidden in a boat in the Mediterranean.” It was the first time that one of the students had alluded to his own past, and the first time I fully realized the social responsibility possibly involved in teaching.

Talking about pictures of an astronaut in a Sorbonne classroom made a twenty-something eager to work through traumatic events as though they were science fiction, which paradoxically could allow him to accept their reality and get beyond them …

In the framework of my research on modalities of construction and transmission of traumatic testimonial narrative, I have often examined the function of images, the value of metaphors and the importance of form in the work of writer-witnesses. Once again, the practical side of teaching had led me to recognize something that might appear obvious. And at the same time, reading Fiona Johnstone’s post on the potential of visual culture in the field of Medical Humanities, I was surprised by how many “obvious” thoughts I should go back to, in order to deepen/problematize my analysis!

Guido Furci is a COFUND Junior Research Fellow (Marie Curie scheme) at Durham University. Before coming to the UK, he worked for Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD), the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah (Paris), the School of Comparative Literature of the University Paris 3 – Sorbonne Nouvelle (Sorbonne Paris Cité) and the Swiss International School of Paris and Dijon (where he supervised the Division of French and Italian). His current research focuses on the notion of “indirect witnessing”, and the experiential and conceptual meaning of voices in the work of Primo Levi.

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