DANBURY, CONN. — The Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomph and the Louvre are but a few of the famed Parisian landmarks that draw visitors to the City of Lights. There is so much more to see and experience, however, as 17 Western Connecticut State University students learned last spring during a study-abroad trip to Paris.
The Honors and American Studies course, “Americans in Paris,” enabled Professor of English Dr. Donald Gagnon and Professor of History and Non-Western Cultures Dr. Leslie Lindenauer to teach students first-hand the ways in which French and American cultures have influenced — and continue to influence — each other in history, politics, art and other fields of inquiry.
The weeklong trip was the culmination of the course that met six times in the spring semester. During that time, Gagnon said, “the intellectual basis of the course was explored and the materials of study presented and engaged. These subjects then were the basis for the field study work when we arrived in Paris at the end of the semester.”
For Lindenauer, a course like “Americans in Paris” (and the upcoming “Americans in London”), “underscores the importance of understanding the past in three dimensions. Being able to walk the streets and neighborhoods where Americans lived and worked adds immeasurably to students’ understanding of the past, and its links to the present. The students became the very Americans in Paris we had studied in class.”
Some of the material students studied in advance of the trip included Benjamin Franklin, and Abigail and John Adams and their political maneuvering with France during the American Revolution; as well as Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man” and “Common Sense” and how they derived from and influenced French political philosophy. Additionally, students learned about Charles Sumner and his writing about slavery in the United States after visiting Paris, and Henry Adams and his understanding of progress deriving from study of French religious architecture. Additional topics included Djuna Barnes and Ernest Hemingway and their contributions to American literature and participation in “The Lost Generation” of American writers, and the linked artistic philosophies of Stephen Sondheim and George Seurat.
While “Americans in Paris” is a course offered within the Kathwari Honors Program, about half of the field-study travelers were not honors students, and were able to use the American Studies credits to fulfill different humanities and general education credits.
The trip was curated by Gagnon and Lindenauer, and featured an historical and literary treasure-trove of destinations.
When asked what the travel included, Gagnon recited a lengthy list of field-study sites. “Some of the locales that we visited included Benjamin Franklin’s residence; the site of Gertrude Stein’s literary salon with the ‘Lost Generation’ of American writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and Café Deux Magots, where literary greats James Baldwin and Richard Wright met up in Paris after leaving the USA to escape American racism.”
Gagnon said the journey also brought them to Shakespeare & Company, the bookstore that drew famous American literary figures; Place de la Republique, the site of much of the revolutionary activity that returned popular rule to France; and Pere Lachaise Cemetery, the final resting place for many famous American ex-patriates such as musician Jim Morrison, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan, Richard Wright and Josephine Baker.
Also on the tour were Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame cathedrals; Place des Voges, where writer Victor Hugo lived and wrote much of “Les Miserables”; the Deportation of the Martyrs memorial, to victims of the Holocaust; and the Pompidou Centre, museum of modern art.
Finally, Gagnon listed Musee D’Orsay; Versailles, the palace where much of the political discourse about France’s participation in the American Revolution occurred; the site of the Paris Exposition of 1900, where Henry Adams developed his ideas about energy and time; Paris Disneyland, where French myths, Americanized by Disney, were then re-interpreted for presentation to French audiences; and many others.
That’s a lot to cover in a week, and the destinations made a definite impact on the travelers.
WCSU senior Zachary Schroeder found it enlightening to gain a glimpse into the lives of everyday Parisians and a new perspective on foreign culture.
“Getting to visit locations such as Notre Dame Cathedral and Versailles, which we had previously only learned about through books and pictures, really had the effect of bringing history alive,” the political science and history double major said. He also enjoyed exploring this new culture alongside his classmates.
“While the academic portion was very interesting, what I found enjoyable was the sense of community and friendship that developed among the WCSU students over the course of the week,” he said.
Honors Program Assistant Director Jessica Lin’s first impression of Paris included some pleasant surprises. “I was surprised at how clean and organized Paris was,” she said. “The metro system was easy to understand. Everyone we encountered there pretty much spoke some English, if not fluently. The fact that we saw palm trees in Paris was actually shocking.”
Lin described her time in the city as ethereal, since traveling to Paris had been one of her biggest dreams ever since walking into her seventh-grade French class. “The day we visited Notre Dame also happened to be a Sunday, where there was a mass at the time, too,” Lin said. “When the choir came out, their voices carried through the whole cathedral. I didn’t understand what they were singing, but I couldn’t help but feel that I connected with them in spirit and soul.”
Among their scholarly requirements, students were required to maintain a daily journal of their experiences in Paris and focus primarily on how their perceptions influenced their understanding of the sites and events. Upon their return, students reflected on those experiences and presented a final paper in which they contextualized their field study with the material discussed previously in class.
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