Michèle Bissière

UNC Board of Governors 2018 Teaching Award Winner Michèle Bissière

UNC Charlotte

Teaching philosophy

I feel greatly honored to have been nominated for the Board of Governors' Teaching Excellence Award. I have dedicated my career to teaching, first as an English teacher in France (with a few teaching engagements in North America to improve my English skills), and then as a French instructor/professor in the United States since 1984. As a faculty member at UNC Charlotte since 1990, I have taught over twenty (20) different undergraduate courses in French language, literature, and culture—many of which I developed—, with consistently very good to excellent student evaluations.

In all my courses, I strive to develop my students’ critical skills and their ability to synthesize the material and apply their knowledge to new contexts. I also try to give them passion for the material by designing activities that are fun and challenging at the same time, and I encourage a broad view of learning that takes students outside the classroom.

Students usually describe me as a challenging, organized, and helpful teacher. I conduct all my courses almost entirely in French, at a level meant to challenge yet not discourage. Foreign language classes can be intimidating, because students often lack the skills to express their ideas efficiently. One of my goals for each class period is for each student to speak up, and I encourage participation by distributing very precise oral and written assignments ahead of time, which is especially useful for the less confident students.  

I believe that the atmosphere of a class is very important in promoting learning. I encourage students to get to know each other through interviews and presentations the first day, and through frequent group work during the semester.  I include what I know about the students in my questions and examples in language courses, and I encourage students at all levels to give presentations on topics that matter to them personally. I also encourage students to expand their horizons by attending cultural events. All these activities create a stronger learning community.

In addition to teaching, I consider advising and mentoring students a very important part of my work. I write many letters of recommendation, and I like to alert students to any experience that can help develop their potential and boost their resumes. As a result of this mentoring and of several initiatives that I promoted on the French staff or in the community, our students have received local and national awards, served as Bell Ringer at graduation, won prestigious scholarships and essay contests, taught English in French schools through the paid Assistant Program of the French Ministry of Education, and done volunteer work and internships in local schools. I have received many notes and tokens of gratitude from current and former students thanking me for these efforts on their behalf. To quote from a few: “Thank you for all you do for your students,” “Thanks for all your encouragements, letters of recommendation and nominations for awards!,” “[Thank you] for strongly endorsing my candidacy as a Senator for College of Liberal Arts and Sciences,” “You have always been an incredibly reliable professor,” “I can’t even thank you enough for all your help, guidance and mentorship during my time at UNCC. Even now, out in the ‘real world, I still remember the strong work ethic and thirst for excellence that you have helped instill in me.”

Teaching practice (CV 1-3)

Some of the courses I teach on a regular basis will give an idea of how I meet the above goals. FREN 3209 (France today) is a course on contemporary France that includes sections on geography, politics, religion, education, immigration, France and the European Union, among other topics. The material is dense, and the students, who often lack knowledge about France, need a lot of guidance to make sense of the information. Over the years, I have supplemented the rather dry textbook with a plethora of visual documents, songs, excerpts of films and TV programs to stimulate interest. To engage the students and respond to their needs, I ask them to send me reading notes, questions and critical comments about the material before they come to class. I use a variety of techniques to develop their critical skills. In the section on politics, for example, I use a cartoon of De Gaulle in the likeness of Louis XIV to review De Gaulle's role in forging the president-centered institutions of the Fifth Republic. To test the students’ understanding of French political parties, I ask them to read unlabeled excerpts of electoral platforms and use their knowledge and key words to “guess” which party each excerpt represents. I invite international students and former students who have taught in France to class. A sample of course evaluations shows that students appreciate these efforts:  “She makes the class interesting and challenging ... students have to use critical thinking and are challenged,” “She goes out of her way to do activities to stimulate course interest. She really cares about students,” “Very good at identifying and organizing key concepts which she then conveys to us,” “I cannot more strongly emphasize the usefulness of this course. Should be given before a study abroad opportunity”.

I am particularly pleased with the way I meet my goals and promote active learning and collaboration in my advanced course on the history of French cinema, FREN 4007. In the first two-thirds of the course, students learn to analyze key classic films. In the last third, my role switches to that of advisor and facilitator as they undertake the project of writing sequel chapters to the textbook in groups of two or three. Each group does extensive research on a recent film of its choosing, writes a chapter modeled on the textbook chapters, and teaches that chapter to the class. This final project is organized in eight different stages over a two-month period, and students rewrite each part for style and content. I collect the papers in an electronic booklet and email it to the class at the end of the semester. It is very gratifying to see the students transfer what they have learned to a new situation and take charge of their learning, and I have also gleaned many ideas for presenting the material creatively from their presentations. Recent comments on the course as a whole include “I wish every class was as rich and challenging as this one” and “I like that we have a step-by-step process for the final project and appreciate the opportunity to review all grammatical errors before the final!”

In language classes, I have added feature films to the curriculum to help students improve their language skills and cultural competence. This initiative started at the elementary and intermediate levels thanks to Curriculum and Instructional Development grants in the 1990s. I also revamped FREN 3201 (French Grammar and Conversation). This course is challenging because it is the students’ first exposure to extended discussions in French and it draws students with different motivations, including some who take it to meet a 3000-level requirement. Teaching with film has helped bring the different groups together. When I first taught this class, I used a grammar book and a conversation book. Making connections between the two was sometimes difficult, so I gradually designed materials that integrated the study of vocabulary and grammar with discussion of a wide range of cultural topics. These materials evolved into my textbook Séquences, which is organized around the study of subtitled French and francophone films that students are expected to view outside class. The films included in the latest (third) edition acquaint students with, among other topics, the Erasmus European exchange program, Quebec history and society, the history of Iran, French colonization in Indochina and Algeria, the French educational system, the French banlieue (disadvantaged suburban areas), and polygamy in Africa, and they allow them to discuss themes such as colonialism, education, the family, immigration, sexual orientation and women's issues. Because the discussion questions are inspired by scholarship on the films, the book also provides an introduction to literary and filmic analysis that prepares students for advanced literature and culture courses. In addition to this intellectual content, the book includes lighter activities. One of my favorite sessions is when students perform skits inspired by the films at the end of the semester.

I consider Séquences one of my most important contributions to the profession. It was one of the first French language textbook based on authentic feature films to be published by a major US publishing house, and to this day it is the only one that includes the study of grammar. It has been adopted by over sixty institutions and has been well-received by students and instructors. A reviewer of the second edition for the Modern Language Journal, a top international refereed journal, praises the book for its ability to fuse the study of language and culture effectively: “Although it is not a particularly challenging task to select a series of interesting and relevant films for a course, integrating them into a text that meets the various criteria of intermediate learning is no small accomplishment. […] Much of the strength of Bissière’s text lies in its subtle and thorough exploitation of the linguistic and cultural possibilities provided by her film selections.” The reviewer concludes by describing Séquences as “an exceptionally innovative and useful intermediate textbook” and “an exemplary contribution to intermediate language learning.”

Connections among teaching, research, and service

Research (CV 3-10)

Séquences is just one example of how my publication agenda has evolved as a result of my teaching. After publishing on eighteenth-century French women writers (my dissertation topic) and women’s education, I started attending conferences and publishing on content-based pedagogy and contemporary French cinema. I have organized sessions and given numerous papers on individual films, themes in contemporary French cinema (immigration and education, among others), the remake phenomenon, and the teaching of literature and culture with film [CV 7-9, 17] These presentations, which combine a strong research component with pedagogical suggestions, have been well received by the high school and university teachers who attended them. Their impact can be measured by the awards and leadership opportunities that I have received from the American Association of Teachers of French as a result [CV 13, 15-16].

In addition to Séquences and numerous pedagogical articles, I also co-edited French/Francophone Culture and Literature through Film, published by Women in French, an Allied Organization of the Modern Language Association. The seventeen articles that make up the volume offer original approaches to using French and Francophone film in a variety of courses on language, culture, literature, women’s studies and literary theory. Most of the articles have a strong scholarly component in addition to pedagogical suggestions, which range from discussion questions to complete syllabi. The reviewer of the volume in The French Review of April 2009 describes it as “invaluable to anyone contemplating the teaching of a film course or an intermediate language/culture course that incorporates film” and notes that “[m]any of the articles surpass the deceptively simple title of the volume, taking on issues as profound and varied as the Holocaust, sexual identity, Orientalism, the effects of modernization on the African Griot, and post-coloniality.”

My latest major publication, Le Cinéma français contemporain. Manuel de classe (Hackett Publishing Company), is directly related to the classroom. It is a co-authored textbook on contemporary French cinema that covers twenty major works from the 1980s to the early 2010s. It is a sequel (with major changes in outlook) to my co-author’s textbook on earlier French cinema that I use to teach the Survey of French Cinema course described on p.2 (some of the chapters are actually inspired by my students’ projects in that class). The French version of the textbook came out in November 2017, and my co-author and I are preparing a translation into English for Film Studies courses to be published in 2018. Like most of my contributions to the scholarship of teaching, this new project is based on extensive research on each film and its aesthetic, social, historical, and political contexts. 

Service (CV 14-18)

Many of my service activities at UNC Charlotte, for the profession, and in the community have been closely related to the classroom. As Study Abroad Advisor/ Coordinator for the French staff (1995-2009), I sought to increase opportunities for our students abroad. My work in that area, which includes co-designing our exchange programs with the University of Limoges and the University Lyon 3 in the 1990s, has benefited a small but steady number of students (5 to 12 students per academic year). More recently, I helped design a summer program in Limoges and collaborated on the submission of an outside grant from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to subsidize the program (not funded). Ten students attended in 2015 and 2016. I also initiated the creation of a Spring Break course on French civilization in Paris in 2017. I co-designed the program with the part-time instructor who regularly teaches the course on campus, and I accompanied the group during Spring break. This was a very positive experience that we will renew every year. Other student-related service includes serving as advisor for the French Club (2003-14), supervising student internships at Waddell Academy of International Languages (a CMS language immersion school), organizing our teaching assistant exchange with the University of Limoges (8 exchanges so far), and serving on various university committees to select Fulbright students, Honors scholarship recipients, and Levine Scholars.

Creating connections with the university at large and the community is an aspect of my work that I greatly value. My most important contribution in that area has been the organization of several French and international film festivals thanks to various grants and funding from community organizations (filmfest.uncc.edu). The festivals have given UNC Charlotte students and students from local schools and universities more opportunities to view foreign films. It has also allowed the language clubs to hone their grant-writing skills (some clubs have received funding to pay for film rights, speakers, and refreshments).

In the community, I have fostered relationships with the Alliance Française de Charlotte (a world-wide organization whose mission is to promote the language and culture of French-speaking peoples) and with CMS (in particular Waddell Academy of International Languages) that have brought opportunities to our students in the form of cultural events, grants, essay competitions, internships and miscellaneous support (the Alliance helps the UNC Charlotte French Club represent France during the annual International Festival).

Finally, I have served the teaching profession in my involvement with the American Association of Teachers of French—the largest association of French teachers in the world, with nearly 10,000 members. As Regional Representative from 2006 to 2009, I kept the EC informed about activities of the seven state chapters in the Southeast; I promoted the AATF at local and regional conferences, offered support when a French program was threatened, nominated deserving chapter officers for awards and sent annual letters of congratulation to over 300 teachers whose students placed in the AATF-sponsored National French Contest. As Vice President of NC-AATF, I have organized the program of several conferences for area teachers. My most important work for AATF has been as Film Review Editor for its scholarly journal, the French Review, from 2010 to 2016, a position which has led to new individual and collaborative research while providing new ideas for the classroom. I became Managing Editor for the journal in 2017.

I am pleased with the ways I have been able to integrate my teaching, research and service activities at UNC Charlotte, and honored to have received recognition for my combined contributions to the profession. The NC-AATF Teacher of the Year Award (2013), the AATF Dorothy S Ludwig Excellence in Teaching Award at the post-secondary level (2015), and the Palmes Académiques from the French Ministry of Education (2014) recognize professional engagement as well as excellence in teaching.

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