Penn State Intercom......August 9, 2001

Class illuminates
the City of Light

By Gary W. Cramer
Public Information

To compare and contrast social climates and outlooks on moral issues, a typical 18th-century Parisian provides a better counterpart than a 21st-century one to contemporary Americans, according to a University cultural theorist who's teaching a new class on the city of Paris this fall.

While it's introducing the cultural, artistic, literary and social life of France's most celebrated city from the level of yesteryear's emperors to peasants and today's movie stars to blue collar workers, the course, "Paris: Anatomy of a City" (French 137), also will show how the nation has interacted with the United States over time. French 137 is designed to be appreciated by students from any field of study, and will be taught in English.

"We felt that for a general education course, focusing on a single city would be a different, exciting way of tackling broad, interdisciplinary topics without letting them get too broad to handle," said Julia Simon, associate professor of French, who will teach the course. "And since we are not actually visiting Paris, we'll be using CD-ROMs, DVDs and the Internet extensively to simulate the experience. For instance, one of our first exercises will be to pretend to take the Paris Metro subway system on a tour of the city by using a CD-ROM that highlights its neighborhoods."

Simon also plans to address how France, once an inspiring model of democracy for the Americas, has undergone many radical changes in government and addressed societal challenges, such as immigration, that are similar to those faced here in notably different manners. She is the author of Beyond Contractual Morality: Ethics, Law, and Literature in Eighteenth-Century France (University of Rochester Press, 2001), which examines such issues as multiculturalism, public education, tolerance, private morality and the rights of women and minority groups through comparisons of French trends in the 1700s to American trends of today.

A frequent visitor to France, Simon is injecting her in-depth knowledge of its history into the course via a variety of unconventional texts and topics.

"Most people don't realize how much there is to see in Paris that harkens back to ancient Roman influence in the region -- we'll examine that by CD-ROM," she noted. "We'll look at the infamous sewers of Paris and the importance of music, especially jazz, to the nation. Plus, I'm not sure how multicultural people expect France to be, but there are very strong North African and Arab influences in Paris now that we will investigate. I'm even showing off the city's café and bistro heritage by highlighting restaurants that have been around for more than a hundred years."

Simon adds that there will be DVD tours of museums and a guide to Internet resources with links to major architectural attractions; places where expatriate U.S. jazz greats went to find appreciative audiences; and other sightseers' favorites.

Another chance to pit France's and the United States' world views against each other will come from reading Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, in which he recorded his adventures in Paris in the 1920s.

"My one big wish is that anyone who takes this course will really want to go to Paris by the time it's over," Simon said. "Hopefully, they'll come away with a realistic sense of the city and its life."

Gary W. Cramer can be reached at