Teaching the French Revolution in First-Year Writing Dr. Gabrielle stecher | gstecher@iu.edu

An interactive course design overview & winner of the 2024 SEASECS Martha F. Bowden Teaching Prize


What happens when we design thematic first-year writing courses grounded in examining revolutionary eighteenth-century texts and events? Engaging with such texts can give early undergraduate students a model for recognizing, articulating, and responding to the persistent powers, forces, and patterns that maintain a hold on our world. I argue that such course design allows the historical past to converge with students’ experiences in the present moment through the acts of reflective and multimodal writing. By reflecting on their reading and the ways they come to understand history through engagement with these texts and the many voices who speak through them, students desterilize and diversify their understanding of the historical record while coming to recognize how their own lives have been shaped by forces of both continuity and change. This writing is a way for students to tell their own stories (about reading, about history, about the present), and it also becomes a starting point for expressing our individual and shared hopes for a more peaceful and unified future. It positions students to engage with the past as reflective, critical, and active readers tasked with both understanding the rhetorical power of literary texts and finding their own voice as they simultaneously write to their contemporaries and speak back to the authors of the past.

So, how did I get here?

In the fall of 2021, I decided to take a chance when planning a new Writing About Literature first-year writing course at the University of Georgia. Every first-year writing course I design focuses on a particular theme, and the approach is often interdisciplinary. And while I don’t always bring my own scholarly training in the 18th and 19th centuries into the classroom, I felt that this was my moment to make the attempt. The chaos of 2020 that spread even into 2021 had made reading 18th-century revolutionary discourse for me feel all the more real, so I took this as my one opportunity to share with my first-year students the British pamphlet wars that emerged in response to the revolutionary controversy that was brewing in France in 1789.

Inspiration for this course came, too, from Rebecca Spang’s July 2020 piece in The Atlantic, titled “How Revolutions Happen” in which she discusses how the triple whammy of a global pandemic, economic crisis, and the fight against social injustice were “stirrings of a revolutionary era” and that we were (and are) surrounded by the rhetoric and images of past revolutions. These were the exact kinds of connections I wanted my students to make this semester.

My initial concern, however, (and one I shared with a few students) was that FYW students can be resistant to reading, especially older texts-- “I’m not an English major,” they say, or “I don’t care about history-- much less literature about history-- it’s hard and boring and I can’t stay engaged.” I took it as a challenge to make the French Revolution-- and more specifically British reactions to the revolution-- feel less distant, more relatable to their lives. It was not the easiest class I have ever taught, as it took a lot of work to properly contextualize the revolution for my students and teach them how to be active readers of the often challenging and complex language of this discourse. Yet, it was ultimately a success, and my students left the class with a better understanding of the kinds of revolutionary rhetoric and imagery that shape our understanding of past, present, and future change and conflict.

Pedagogical essays on this course design were presented at SEASECS in 2022 and at CCCC in 2023. The following Adobe Express page presents an annotated, interactive, and updated version of this syllabus, linking, wherever possible, to curricular assets that I've published as open-educational resources.


The threat of revolution echoed across Europe as the Bastille fell on July 14, 1789. The turbulent chaos of the French Revolution, with its calls for liberty and equality, uprooted society in an often violent and extreme manner. As Britain looked towards France, British conservatives and radicals alike were forced to confront their own history of monarchy, patriotism, and the rights of individuals. In this course, we will explore British attitudes towards the revolution, publicized and hotly contested across a wide variety of literary genres, including poetry and the novel. We will write reflective essays and produce multimodal projects where we explore the lasting impact of the French Revolution and what it means to read revolutionary history through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts.

Unit 1: Reflecting on the revolution

Assigned Texts + Reading Strategies

  • Richard Price, from A Discourse on the Love of Our Country
  • Edmund Burke, from Reflections on the Revolution in France
  • Mary Wollstonecraft, from A Vindication of the Rights of Men
  • Thomas Paine, from Rights of Man
  • Helen Maria Williams, du Fossé fable from Letters on the French Revolution (letters 16-22)
  • William Blake, A Song of Liberty & The French Revolution
  • William Godwin, from Enquiry Concerning Political Justice
  • Charlotte Smith, from The Emigrants

To make students more comfortable with the language and structure of these texts, create collaborative graphic organizers that become resources students can return to throughout the semester.

Homework assignments might include the completion of reading responses, which are presented either as short handwritten response papers or digital annotations on a social annotation platform such as Hypothesis. Regardless of the modality, these responses follow the 3-2-1 format: 3 observations from the text about things that struck them or were provocative in some way, 2 connections to other texts or cultural artifacts, and 1 thoughtful question that can provoke a deep class discussion.

Coming to class with talking points increases student confidence, and once they determine the basic gist of a text, students are able to start thinking critically about the recurring images and metaphors that appear across texts as well as the rhetorical choices these authors made-- how they captured, retained, and/or lost the attention of the reader, how they conveyed passion and empathy, etc.

For Humanities courses that value digital literacy and creativity as core academic and career competencies, students might be tasked (in class or for homework) with remediating content from one of the assigned readings into an image using a free tool such as Canva or Adobe Express.

The Hybrid Reflection Essay

To prevent students from simply regurgitating the conversations had in class about the texts, I developed a hybrid essay promp that combines close reading analysis with reflection to get students thinking about their experiences of reading revolutionary discourse in the 2020s.

In this essay, students are responsible for addressing two concerns:

  1. First, they are tasked with narrating their experience of engaging with and close reading responses to the French Revolution. Citing specific moments from the texts, students draw connections between the readings and discussed what struck them about these passages and why. In order to showcase their engagement with revolutionary discourse more broadly, students discuss at least two but no more than four texts from the unit, thinking carefully about how their selected texts are in dialogue with each other and how this reading experience shapes their understanding of the conflict. Students are also encouraged to discuss a particular lens that they could apply to these texts and why they think that lens affords promising or important revelations for contemporary readers.
  2. The second, and most important task, is what transforms this essay from close reading to a hybrid reflection paper. Ultimately, their reflection should convey how and why they think readers in the current decade could benefit from experiencing revolutionary history through literary texts. What might these texts teach us, and why are the lessons and images they convey still powerful and relevant today?

Each essay, then, considers both the student’s holistic experience of engaging with the text as a contemporary reader AND particular moments of close reading. In this way, they present both WHAT they observed and HOW their observations made them feel or encouraged them to think.

They are given full creative control over how they structure their reflection; the most successful papers showcase its author’s personality, offer a unique, fresh, or interesting insight on the topic, and use evocative details to show, rather than tell, the significance of their reflection and interpretation of the text.

UNIT 1: Reflection + RESULTS

With the prompt in mind, it was time for students to begin brainstorming potential topics or, at the very least, a list of concerns and buzzwords that revealed themselves in the readings but that also seemed particularly resonant in our current moment. We took to the board to jot down a list of themes and topics after taking a few moments to review Price, Burke, Paine, Wollstonecraft, Williams, and Blake, and this is some of what they came up with: Power of protest, tradition versus progress, entitlement and privilege, natural rights or rights of the individual, the relationships between individuals and institutions, learning and enlightenment, liberty, and light versus darkness.

Students quickly and enthusiastically began tracing connections between these authors and current debates in their personal, social, and political lives. No two papers were the same, even when a handful of students made connections between BLM and police brutality and the violence enacted during the French Revolution. The paper topics themselves largely varied, and while I did see a lot of what you might expect (like BLM and the 2016 and 2020 elections), I want to provide two examples just to demonstrate how some students thought outside of the box: One student applied our discussion of the institution versus the individual to the state of affairs with USA Gymnastics following the revelations of the crimes committed by Larry Nassar and the ways in which the institution failed to protect its minor athletes. Another student pitted Wollstonecraft against Burke to craft an argument about the necessity of empowering women’s voices instead of treating women as delicate, dehumanized objects or trophies forced into silent obedience or helpless passivity. She was able to apply this to the brave testimonies of women in the R. Kelly trial.

Ultimately, this particular project succeeded in bringing historical texts to life for my students. Once they were equipped to recognize the ways the past is constantly jumping up to meet the present, they became more willing, if not eager, to dive into these texts, which made our next two units move all the more smoothly.

The hybrid reflection-close reading essay (not to mention the other major assignments discussed below) could easily be applied to non-revolutionary matters. By encouraging and making space for reflective writing, we signal to students that thinking critically about, processing, and sharing their personal experiences is vulnerable, real, and valid work worth doing-- and, as such, it’s worth our time to teach. Further, the hybrid essay gives them an opportunity to make connections and transfer what they’ve learned to other contexts. It forces them to take time to truly reflect, and this is where deep learning happens because they are having to sit with and articulate to a reader their own understanding and synthesis of these timely and perpetual topics. And by connecting their understanding of the revolutionary era’s violence, turbulence, and the institutional forces that shaped it to those of the present, students became better prepared to recognize these dynamics and patterns in the future. Once they know what the stakes are and how it feels to grapple with them, they become better positioned to enact change-- this, I think, can give us all hope.

Unit 2: Political Cartoons

Preparing to Pivot Mid-Semester

Originally, I planned for the second unit to explore poetry of the revolution, including Charlotte Smith’s The Emigrants, as well as excerpts from Wordsworth’s Prelude and Coleridge’s revolution poems, but I recognized early on that this was a bit too ambitious for FYW students who were, at the time, simply overwhelmed by the pandemic and generally trying to stay afloat. I made the decision to pivot to a political cartoon unit, where we studied cartoons that commented upon the authors and texts we read in the first unit. This was one of the best decisions I made that semester, as it allowed students to translate their close reading skills to the study of images, and it gave them the tools they need to engage with and think critically about contemporary political cartoons (of which there are plenty). This also coincided with a special event and exhibit at UGA’s special collections library on political cartoons, so students were invited to visit the exhibit and the lecture they hosted and make connections between our historical survey of cartoons in FYW and the cartoons from the 20th and 21st centuries on display.

Assigned Texts + Reading Strategies

  • Issac Cruikshank, “The Doctor Indulged With His Favorite Scene,” c. 1790
  • “Smelling out a rat; or the atheistical-revolutionist disturbed in his midnight ‘calculations,’” 1790
  • “The knight of woeful countenance going to extirpate the National Assembly,” 1790
  • “Sublime and beautiful reflections on the French Revolution, or the man in the moon at large,” 1790
  • “Don Dismallo running the literary gauntlet,” 1790
  • James Gillray, “Fashion before ease; or, a good constitution sacrificed for a fantastic form,” 1793
  • James Gillray, “Tom Paine’s Nightly Pest,” 1792
  • “Wha wants me,” 1792

Major Assignment: Rhetorical Analysis

For this assignment, students build on the close reading and analytical skills they practiced in Unit 1, applying these strategies to the study of political cartoons, visual artifacts that convey an argument.

Students analyze one political cartoon from the accompanying list that presents an argument about one or more of the British revolutionary writers that they encountered during Unit 1. They craft an argument about the persuasive power of the cartoon: what is the message of the cartoon, and how does it convey its message or argument? Why or why not is the cartoon successful at persuading its audience to think about its subject in a particular way?

To accomplish this goal, they consider how the cartoon functions rhetorically and analyze its visual elements, including, but not limited to: images, symbolism, language, layout, color, analogy, exaggeration, etc. While most of their evidence will come from analysis of the cartoon itself, they are also welcome to cite passages from the primary documents from Unit 1, so long as they are relevant, concise, and directly support the argument at hand.

Unit 3: The Historical Novel


The semester ends with a reading of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as a means of thinking about what the revolution looked like at a distance through the historical novel and how Dickens was drawing on Thomas Carlyle for his source material. The first unit especially was a primer for our study of the novel, so students were already familiar with the contexts of the revolution and its major events before we had to tackle what it meant to read a fictionalized rendering of it in a new form and genre.

Options for Major Assignments

This course may assign one of two major assignment prompts for the third unit. Though both options centralize analysis of the primary text (A Tale of Two Cities), the two prompts diverge in outcomes. The needs of your students + institutional context will inform which major assignment is most appropriate, though both prioritize multimodal or digital ways of thinking and doing.

OPTION 1: The Research-Based Scrolling Essay

This interactive syllabus is presented in the form of an Adobe Express webpage. In my literature and writing courses, the webpage function becomes a tool for crafting engaging, multimodal essays. Instead of turning in traditional research papers, students create a scrolling essay that allows them to complement and supplement their argument with multimedia (images, videos, podcasts, links to other readings or archives, etc.). Not only does this assignment allow students to practice transferrable research & digital literacy skills, but it also allows them to experiment with a creative tool that they can use in other academic, professional, and personal contexts. To model for my students my own use of Adobe Express, I present the assignment prompt and any helpful guides using the same tool.

Students can be asked to submit a proposal for their research project prior to beginning the drafting stage.

Your scrolling essay will weave together multiple forms of media to make its case. You can embed powerful images, videos, headlines, and more alongside your text (linguistic) argument. This collaboration of media can powerfully bring your essay to life for the audience, helping them appreciate its immediacy and relevance. How can you motivate them to think critically about your chosen topic by incorporating images, videos, etc. into your project?

OPTION 2: Designing a Book Cover

For this assignment, students imagine that they have been hired as graphic designers for a university press. Their first on-the-job assignment is to design a book cover (using Canva’s free book cover template, Microsoft Publisher, Google Slides, or Adobe Illustrator) for a new edition of A Tale of Two Cities. There are two components to this project: the digital cover design and a written rationale. Each student uses Artstor or Google Images to select a painting, photograph, sculpture, or drawing that they believe is representative of some aspect of the novel. They then create a polished, publication-ready book cover around the artwork they have chosen, taking into account discussions about visual rhetoric and design principles had in class. In order to convince the editor that the proposed cover pairs well with the text, students must also submit a written rationale (4-5 pages in essay form) that both justifies the design and analyzes the image that was chosen to represent and market the book.


Thank you for exploring my revolution-themed, first-year writing course design. If you have any questions, please do get in touch! My OER catalog + teaching portfolio can be accessed here.

Gabrielle Stecher is an Associate Director of Undergraduate Teaching + Lecturer in the Department of English at Indiana University Bloomington. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Georgia in 2022.