The Social Life of Fashion
Taught by: Susan Hiner
In French 280, The Social Life of Fashion, students analyze the social aspects of fashion, the relation between fashion and the construction of femininity in the nineteenth century, and the influences of a new consumer society on the vestimentary practices of the French. The course is conducted in French, and proper use of the language is complementary to the objective of thoughtful cultural analysis. While French language is the medium of the course, and French culture its context, the primary objective of the course is to produce a critical treatment of the role of fashion in French society of the nineteenth century.
Students are required to post to the discussion board at least once per week. Sometimes the postings need to be responses to readings, and sometimes they can be open topics.
In the past, I have used such boards in intermediate-level French classes, with somewhat different uses and goals and in other literature/culture courses taught in French and in English. In the Fashion course, discussion boards were used more as a pre-class activity.
My use of the discussion board is driven primarily by the need to create a stress-free atmosphere for students to communicate with me and each other that lies somewhere between written and oral performance.
In terms of oral performance, many students need some time to compose thoughts before speaking in class in a foreign language or are too timid to express their ideas fully in class discussion. This class is large, so not everyone has an opportunity talk much during class time. The discussion board provides a space for them to contribute to discussions already begun in class or to begin a new discussion in preparation for a subsequent class. The board helps them to feel more comfortable in the foreign language so that class discussion is neither daunting nor paralyzing. It also fosters a kind of writing-thinking community among the students that continues outside of the classroom.
Writing to the discussion board also makes them think about their reactions to readings before discussing them in class. And knowing what a student posted before class gives me an opening to get them to talk during class.
In terms of written performance, the discussion board cannot and does not take the place of a formal written assignment, but it does provide a forum for students to practice their written French. I don't correct language errors in the postings, though, as students have ample opportunity in a variety of formal written assignments to receive critical feedback. Posting also creates a record of the student's thoughts and activities over the course of a semester, a kind of journal.
The discussion board assignments were modeled after writing activities from my freshman course, "Writing Modern Life." Students in that course had various writing activities, such as open, brainstorming writing in class; two-page assignments; and research essays. My discussion board assignments in French 280 correspond roughly to the brainstorming activities we used in that course, with the primary aim of helping students understand writing as a process.
The Student Response
Some students are sometimes confused about writing without evaluation. Most of them have a positive reaction though-- the open blackboard discussion in French makes them more confident to talk in class. They also note the social aspect. Students respond to each other's posts and get to know each other via the discussion boards. Ideas and discussions that we are not able to follow up on in class time carry over to the blackboard, just as points about readings that are perhaps marginal to class discussion find a place on the discussion board.
One area I didn't explore enough was the visual culture of fashion. We did visit the drama department's costume shop, where students examined historical clothing and tried on reproductions of period costumes and garments such as corsets. Holly Hummel of the Drama Department also provided a beautiful and informative slideshow for my class, but I would like to give students even more exposure to visual material as it interacts with the written documents we study.We're currently creating a database of fashion imagery, to mesh with the readings. I want to have lots of materials at my fingertips when I'm teaching-- pictures for student presentations, research, and so on. The materials will be hypertextual: there will be links from text to image to text, etc.