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Short stories prove pathway to teaching French

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

LAWRENCE – Allan Pasco has taught French at the University of Kansas for more than 30 years, and he has learned that the short story is ever more relevant to today’s time-crunched students – and to their professors.

Thus, the title of Pasco’s 11th book is “The Nineteenth-Century French Short Story: Masterpieces in Miniature,” part of a series from publisher Routledge on 19th-century lit. It is intended mainly for Pasco’s colleagues in academe. He urges them to make use of the short story’s compact nature to impress upon their students concepts such as “metaphoric detail, image and sequential structures, allusions, frames, cycles and open conclusions.”

Pasco, who is the Hall Distinguished Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature in the Department of French, Francophone & Italian Studies, examines short stories by such masters as Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant.

“My interest has generally been in the novel,” Pasco said. “But I'll do anything to do a good job in the classroom. And I found myself more and more teaching the short story because the students can handle it in a limited period of time. Novels are simply too long. I've learned that because it is easy to teach short stories as wholes in 50-minute class periods. Students do pretty well learning how literature functions.

“We teach in French, and when you're teaching a foreign language, you are tempted to focus on the little grammatical details. But what we really want to do is to open people up to a larger experience than they've ever had before.”

How, then, to accomplish that, when students are still learning the language? The answer is the short story, Pasco says in the book.

“By the time they come to me in a third-tier class,” he said, “they have an introduction to French. Their pronunciation and their knowledge of grammar is shaky. They make many mistakes, and it's part of my job to straighten those things out; to get them so they can ... read 10 or 12 pages for a class two days hence. Consequently, the temptation for me is to talk about how a sentence works and why you have to translate the word this way and not that way -- never touching on the bigger picture.

“I want to get to something that's really significant. Of course, I've got a dual job. I need to teach the language part. But, in the end, I especially need to teach people the literature part, how to enjoy art, how to deal with complex problems, even how to think, which is the real goal for many of us.”

What makes the French short story different than the Italian or the American or any other?

“I'd like to say it is because it's better, but it really isn't,” Pasco said. “In general, I work with the French, and their history is incredible for being at the forefront of aesthetic discovery and creation. Now, the reality is I meant for my book to be for anybody interested in the short story of whatever country, hoping that even though I would use mostly examples from France, they would point to things that you can find in the best creations of whatever country.”

Why concentrate now on the literature of 19th-century France? Pasco said he wanted to bring renewed attention to stories that could benefit from a bit of contextual preparation.

“Literature is to teach and to guide and to open people to new experience,” Pasco said. “If it doesn't do that, it's not necessarily the fault of the work. It may well be that we're not sufficiently trained, that we haven't been oriented in ways that would make it possible for us to see those things. I'm hoping that this book will attract people who teach literature and encourage them to reach beyond what they've done in the past, to see things they haven't seen before.”

Photo: Allan Pasco with a copy of his new book, “The Nineteenth-Century French Short Story: Masterpieces in Miniature.” Credit: Rick Hellman / KU News Service