What literature has to teach

26 Jun 2024

Herle-Christin Jessen has been Professor of Romance Philology and Didactics at LMU since April 2023. Her goal is to carve out a greater role for literature in foreign language teaching.

“The golden thread in my research is literary learning: What do I learn from literature compared to other kinds of texts?” explains Herle-Christin Jessen. “To answer this, first we need to define what literariness is.” In this context, the Romanist has carried out research into modern poetry, for example, which has increasingly shed traditional genre boundaries over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries and become ever harder to distinguish from short prose texts. “How do we define a poem that no longer has any verses, does not satisfy the usual criteria? We need to go back and start from the beginning.” Specifically, Jessen investigated modern poetry in conjunction with texts of philosophy, literary theory, poetics, and programmatic discourse and, eschewing criteria, identified certain tensions that characterize this poetry.

Herle-Christin Jessen stands in front of a bookshelf and looks head-on into the camera

Professorin Herle-Christin Jessen

© LMU/LC Productions

Implementation in teaching practice

Establishing such new aspects in foreign language teaching and highlighting the relevance of literature in the 21st century are particularly dear to Jessen in her capacity as Professor of Didactics for French and Spanish literature. After all: “If we fail to convey the importance of literature in the 21st century, the environment for literary studies will become increasingly difficult,” she cautions. For this reason, and to strengthen the status of literature in society, she sees it as her task to “build sturdy bridges between academic expertise and teaching practices in schools.”

A decisive step here, Jessen explains, is to investigate first of all what is being read in class and why and to identify which genres are suitable for use in school lessons. Although these texts should be of high literary quality, they should be readable in the classroom all the same. “If I choose an epic poem containing 3,000 verses but do not select the passages schoolchildren will be equipped to understand, the enterprise will be fruitless,” notes Jessen.

To open the door to other, novel kinds of texts and literary genres in classrooms, the Romanist is currently working on a literature blog together with academic specialists, teachers, and students, which is due to go online shortly.

In search of the kinds of texts that are often overlooked by academic inquiry, but work well in schools, the team lighted on modern poetry, graphic novels, and science fiction. “Schoolchildren have good access to the latter in particular through streaming services and so forth,” says Jessen. Furthermore, sci-fi is a good way of exploring a nexus of science, realism, and fictionality.

Graphic novels are suitable for schoolchildren who still have difficulty reading, because much of the narrative is conveyed visually. As in science fiction, moreover, the stories are exciting, making them an effective gateway for schoolchildren into the world of literature.

The literature blog will feature sample texts and teaching projects. In addition, it is designed to bring together students and trainee and practicing teachers in a forum where they can post their views, present new texts, offer new educational insights, and share ideas on how to use the texts in everyday classroom contexts.

Graphic novel and dictatorship

In her research, Herle-Christin Jessen is also interested in the relationship between affect, or emotion, and literature. “I investigate, say, how feeling assumes an esthetic form and through this esthetic form becomes a new kind of experience – for example, how grief and suffering are represented in the text or in the form of sound and language.”

When it comes to Spanish literature, she researches the graphic novel as it relates to the Franco dictatorship. Since the start of this century, literary treatment of this period through the medium of graphic novels has proliferated,” she explains. “The focus is often on family relationships as a springboard for exploring a society characterized by dictatorship.” In this regard, Jessen is particularly interested in how the society is depicted through the lens of the family, which conflicts are portrayed, and which traumas are treated.

Herle-Christin Jessen studied at Heidelberg University, where she also did her doctorate and completed a habilitation thesis on modern prose poetry in France, Spain, and Canada. Research projects took her to Quebec and Madrid.

What is special about the professorship she now holds at LMU is the interface between specialist academic research and didactics. “To my knowledge, this is rather unusual in Germany,” she says. And although she is not an education specialist by training, “I was always interested in questions of education, because a large proportion of the students doing degrees in French or Spanish want to become teachers.”

At LMU, she is planning to continue a lecture series on poetry, which will be hosted every year in alternation with her alma mater in Heidelberg.

What are you looking for?