Je suis Charlie takes center stage in class.

French Professor Chris Rivers refocused his course on contemporary French culture in response to the milieu surrounding the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

By Keely Savoie

The January terror attack in France on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo left 17 dead and shocked the nation.

But while English-language media coverage of the event presented the French people as solidly united in their state of national mourning, Chris Rivers, professor of French, noticed that French-language coverage told a different story.

When French public schools observed a moment of silence for the Charlie Hebdo victims, for example, French media reported that some students refused to observe it, revealing a deep rift in the contemporary culture along class and demographic lines. This was largely ignored by reports of the recent events in English-language sources.

“In most of the U.S. media coverage, the response in France would seem to be quite unified, but for a lot of people, young people especially, things are not so clear-cut,” said Rivers, whose course on contemporary French media and culture has long been popular with students preparing to spend a semester or year in France. “There’s a disconnect between those who adhere wholeheartedly to the canonical French belief in the unfettered freedom of expression, and those who believe that such a freedom must be tempered by respect of different cultures and deference to religion.”

Recognizing that the attack on Charlie Hebdo presented a singular opportunity to help his students glean an up-to-the-minute understanding of contemporary French culture, Rivers has revised his syllabus to focus tightly on the political context and cultural milieu that led to the attacks. Using contemporary media—newspapers, movies, popular music, bestselling novels, and blogs—he aims to highlight, tease out, and analyze the nuances in the demographic shifts, cultural prejudices, and political events that have culminated in a French society that is no longer as united and integrated as it once imagined itself to be.

The class will spend the semester examining these works, discussing them, and analyzing the larger political and social context that drives them—all in French, of course.

“When my students arrive in France, I want them to be conversant about these things,” explained Rivers. “French people talk about politics a lot. I want my students to be able to speak fluidly and spontaneously about complex contemporary topics in a sophisticated way.”

Adelyn Yeoh ’15, a math major from Penang, Malaysia, learned about the changes to the usual format of material used in his class and decided then and there to take it to help her to gain a better understanding the world.

“I wanted to brush up my French before I graduate and try to make sense of the world at the same time,” she explained. “I had been talking about Charlie Hebdo and the role of media in France with my Mount Holyoke friends, but I felt that we didn’t have the vocabulary or context to fully understand because we were viewing it from an American lens.”

Yeoh noted that being able to adjust her schedule to take a class outside of her major is not something she could do at just any college.

“That’s why I’m here. This is my last semester and this class is a way for me to take advantage of the full liberal arts education,” she said. “That’s the thing about Mount Holyoke. You get exposure to so many different disciplines.

“I wanted to be able to articulate my views on what is happening in the world,” she continued. “Sometimes there are things that you can’t fully understand because you don’t have the right framework or you are lacking certain information that you know you are missing, but you don’t have any avenue to bridge those gaps. That’s what I am hoping to get out this class.”

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