This spring, Professor Nick Nesbitt and graduate student Robert Decker are co-teaching “Haiti: Literature and Art as History of the First Black Republic.” The course offers an opportunity to explore Haiti and its culture, which, according to Nesbitt, “are at once singularly original and tragically misunderstood or even ignored.”
As Nesbitt explained, in 1804, the former slaves of French Saint-Domingue, under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, defeated the most powerful army in the world – Napoleon’s – to become the world’s first post-slavery black republic.
Yet despite this progressive feat, Haiti is often portrayed in a pejorative, demeaning way, even by mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.
“Haiti's tragedy in many ways is to have been so far ahead of its time,” Nesbitt said. “The abolition of slavery and corresponding decolonization in 1804 occurred in Haiti decades — if not centuries – in advance of the supposedly more 'advanced' North Atlantic nation-states.”
Haiti’s misunderstood legacy was an impetus behind the course’s conception. “I wanted my students to develop a historically-grounded and complex understanding of a country too often portrayed exclusively negatively in the news and media,” said Decker.
By designing a course that examines the country’s rich history and religion alongside its novels, plays, music, films, and visual arts, Decker and Nesbitt hope students leave the course with a more robust understanding of and even appreciation for Haiti’s “uniquely original and compelling” culture.
For both Decker and Nesbitt, the experience co-teaching the class has been an enriching one. “The opportunity to teach this material with [Decker] has at once broadened the scope and deepened the detail of our engagement, and I must say I benefit enormously from the insights and attentive, probing engagement of a quite brilliant cohort of students taking this journey of encounter with us,” said Nesbitt.
Decker, whose current research focuses on the themes of geography and history in Caribbean literature, agreed. “What I've enjoyed most about this class has been the opportunity to work closely with the students. One of the great advantages of the co-teaching program is that it doubles the typical student-teacher ratio in the classroom. This gives [Nesbitt] and me the opportunity to spend more time working one-on-one with our students.”
He added: “As the end of the semester approaches, I cannot say strongly enough how positive my experience has been. I believe that the co-teaching initiative benefits everyone involved: undergraduates, graduates, and professors.”
In the 2019-20 academic year, the Department of French and Italian will continue its engagement with the Collaborative Teaching Initiative, which aims to foster graduate students’ professional experience through the design and co-teaching of an innovative undergraduate course. In fall 2019, Professor Göran Blix and graduate student Maureen DeNino will teach “Literature and the News: Writing France in the Age of Print Capitalism,” and in spring 2020, Professor Katie Chenoweth and graduate student Renée Altergott will teach “Sound Media: The Printing Press, the Phonograph, and the French Language.”