Surrealist Poetry and Intermediate French

Carl Blyth, University of Texas at Austin


The Frustration of Foreign Language Reading

Despite my efforts to simplify the readings in my fourth semester French course,  my students often complained that they spent hours hunting for definitions in the dictionary.  I attempted to solve this problem with LitGloss, a project from the University of Buffalo that provides foreign language texts with grammatical and cultural glosses.  And yet, I discovered that glosses were no panacea.  In fact, it seemed that glosses actually made my students more passive and less apt to struggle with the demands of close reading.

Then I  saw a demonstration of eComma.  I knew immediately that it was what I had been looking for.  I felt certain that it would relieve some of my students’ frustration by turning a solitary task into a  group activity. My hope was that eComma would enable my students to “crowd source” their  reading burdens. I also felt convinced that eComma‘s  hypermedia environment would heighten my students’ awareness of the process of textual interpretation.

The Assignment

The readings in the course represented different literary genres.  To contextualize the readings,  the textbook  gave background information about the  author and the relevant artistic movement.  For example, in its introduction to the poem Liberté, the textbook described the author, Paul Eluard, as one of the major figures in the surrealist movement.  In addition to Eluard, the textbook briefly reviewed the works of other surrealist artists, including the Belgian painter René Magritte whose famous autoportrait “The Son of Man” pictures a green apple floating in front of a man dressed in an overcoat and bowler hat.

After viewing several surrealist paintings together, I instructed my students to not only “read” the poem on eComma, but to annotate the text’s surreal non sequiturs and  juxtapositions.  What was the effect of such unexpected juxtapositions on the reader?  I told my students that the assignment was to be done asynchronously in either English or French.  Finally, I gave the students a deadline that left me enough time to review their work before the following class.


My students’ annotations and insightful comments exceeded my expectations.  Everyone posted multiple comments and many students replied to each others’ comments.  In other words, the students were reading each other reading the text.  The result was a collaborative commentary that was more nuanced  and creative than any I had ever received from a student at this level.  Of course, this wasn’t the product of a single student, but of the crowd.

In-class Discussion

I used several eComma features to guide the in-class discussion.  I found the heat maps useful for pointing out that the the most annotated stanzas were the first and the last.  This led to an interesting discussion about the role of the first stanza in setting up reader expectations and the role of the final stanza in corroborating those expectations.  I used the sorting feature to display comments of individual users.  Thanks to this feature, I was able to demonstrate that some students paid more attention to concrete images while others attended to abstractions.  Again, this insight became fodder for an interesting discussion about reading styles. And finally, my students did something that was completely unexpected but very much in keeping with the activity. Several students annotated the text with visual images taken from surrealist paintings!  It was a great way to extend the previous day’s discussion of the interaction between surrealist literature and the visual arts.

Future Plans

My students’ reading behavior was greatly affected by the pedagogical task–to comment on the juxtapositions in the poem.  In the future, I envision a multi-step reading task that begins with a focus on forms followed by a focus on cultural frames of meaning.  I am also interested in determining the effects of synchronicity on reading.  Are some reading tasks better accomplished synchronously or asynchronously?