Making Connections: Unraveling Political and Social Upheaval in Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’
A distinctive feature of the first-year academic experience at Franklin & Marshall College are the discussion-based seminar courses called Connections. Students are assigned to these 16-peer classes based on their indicated academic interests shortly after they enroll at F&M. The courses are held in the seminar rooms of their College Houses — five residential cohorts within the larger student community.
This feature spotlights some of our Connections courses and the engaging faculty who lead them. This week, we talked with Professor of French Lisa Gasbarrone about “Les Misérables,” an in-depth reading and analysis of Victor Hugo’s renowned, 19th-century historical novel.
Question: What topics do you cover in your course, and does the group of students you have affect how you teach it?
Gasbarrone: I have taught various Connections classes over the years. The most recent one (in fall 2022) focused on a reading of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.” We read the novel along with selected secondary sources as we discussed a range of topics. History, politics, revolution, redemption, the nature of crime and punishment, the causes of poverty, equality and equity, justice, mercy and the law — these are just some of the questions that Hugo raises against the backdrop of the political turmoil of early 19th-century France.
Teaching is always a work in progress, so yes, I adjust my approach in relation to the students I have in front of me. I try to be flexible, just to see what works, and every class is different. You have to meet students where they are.
Question: These 16-student courses are ideal for introducing first-years to discussion-based learning at F&M. What’s your favorite part of the teaching and learning process in a Connections environment?
Gasbarrone: I enjoy the fact that students are new to college, and many approach the first semester with a kind of eagerness and open-mindedness that you don't always see later on. That said, the adjustment to college-level work is difficult for many, and it has become harder over the years to help them make the transition. I always choose topics that I love, and I hope that my enthusiasm is contagious. I particularly enjoy exploring ambiguities and nuances of reading with students. Hugo’s novel is full of paradoxes, ironies, antitheses and just flat-out contradictions. There are few right answers, and that makes the work very interesting.
Question: Our faculty are experts in their fields. Can you tell us a little about your area of specialization or the topic you find yourself drawn to through research?
My research interests have varied over the years. I started my career as what the French call a dix-huitèmiste, with a dissertation on Rousseau and botany. I published a few articles from this work, then wrote an article on Diderot’s philosophical dialogues and another on literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and French feminist Hélène Cixous. I've also done literary translations, including several pieces in a volume titled “Music and Culture in Eighteenth-Century Europe.”
More recently, I have been writing on the novel in Quebec and also on Victor Hugo (“Restoring the Sacred in Les Misérables”). I've turned my focus to the idea of the sacred in literary texts, and I currently have a book manuscript just recommended for publication at McGill-Queen's University Press (“The Sense of the Sacred in the Early Novels of Quebec”). I grew up in Maine and have always been drawn to the neighboring province and our shared history. As a Catholic, I was also drawn to the references to the sacred, filtered through a Catholic imaginary and prominent in this literature.
If there’s anything that pulls these threads together, it’s perhaps the range of things that interest me. That, and the idea of being outside of the mainstream. The recent Intro to Literature course that I taught was “Rebels and Outsiders,” with a focus on authors who were writing against the grain or from the margins.
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