Feel the Fear and Teach the Revolution Anyway: Notes From a Historian of Post-1945 France

By Roxanne Panchasi

I learned a lot about “the terror” during my first few semesters on the job as an Assistant Professor of History. I felt like a fraud regularly and wondered often if that feeling might actually kill me. Even in those moments when I was teaching in my twentieth-century-to-the-present “comfort zone,” I spent a lot of time hoping no one would ask me about the (many!) events and people I either couldn’t keep track of, or just didn’t know anything about at all. Take me further back, into the early-nineteenth or (gasp!) eighteenth century and more intense levels of panic set in. The French Revolution made me feel especially nervous. Such an important set of historical events, actors, themes, and questions, for modern France and its empire, but also for the wider world. I was expected to help students better understand what felt like still-shaky terrain to me, even after years of studying French history.

These days, I’m getting more and more pleasure out of spending weeks, sometimes even a whole term, teaching the era of the French Revolution. Sure, some of this has to do with knowing the lay of the land better, including having more experience in the classroom teaching a wide variety of courses. But there’s more to it than that. My relative lack of expertise with respect to French Revolutionary history and historiography has gone from being a source of anxiety to something that now excites me about teaching the period. Each time I get in prep mode for the latest iteration of my advanced undergrad seminar on the Revolution, I have an opportunity to catch up on some of the most compelling recent scholarship, to learn more about the beginnings of a modern French nation understood increasingly in transnational and global terms, with careful attention to things like gender, race, imperialism, the environment, and affect. This work on the French Revolution helps me to think differently about some of the questions and thematics I’m chasing in my own research on the post-1945 period, to make conceptual connections while seeing a bigger picture of legacies and breaks with the revolutionary era.

There’s also a pedagogic benefit to this dislocation from my area of specialization, for my students and me. Teaching material outside of my field doesn’t mean that I’m no longer the instructor, but it does give me a chance to be that much more curious with my students, to nourish their interests as well as my own as we learn about the Revolution together. In my scholarship and teaching, I’m committed to pushing against (mis)understandings of the discipline as a site for the uncomplicated accumulation of “information” about the past and, for me, this also means challenging the assumed authority of the prof in the classroom. Stepping into the space of teaching with a lighter footing can make it possible for everyone, myself included, to tread with less emphasis on names, dates, or fixed narratives of what happened, and with more openness to questions about the nature and politics of historical interpretation and debate. Frustrating my own desire to provide answers from an always already illusory place of mastery spreads the responsibility for learning and teaching around in ways that can be productive, difficult, and thrilling. And more “facts” have never really helped me with feelings of fraudulence in any case. Dialing back my own investment in the position of the one who knows is the only thing that has ever put a dent in my worries about being enough as a scholar or teacher.

Loosening my own grip on the gathering and sharing of information has also allowed me to emphasize more how historians approach the past and how this has changed in myriad ways over time. I can think of no better case study than the French Revolution to show students the messy arc of shifts in what it has meant to do history at different times, to engage with a variety of sources while working in different social and cultural contexts, with powerful political stakes at every turn. The very nature of the Revolution’s eruption and unfolding, its radical experiments in the conceptualization and organization of time and space, challenged how and what history has meant politically since 1789. The study of the French Revolution has held the story of the emergence and evolution of the practice of history as a discipline unlike any other episode or example for over two centuries and counting. Debates about the Revolution’s origins and course are sites to explore questions about historical causality and effect, and to think through and between categories of difference including class, gender, and race. They are also a way into learning about a range of approaches to reading historical archives, actors, events, and representations—Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, post-colonialism and critical race studies, literary, cultural or queer theory, to name some of the heaviest hitters.

If the French Revolution lets me teach in a mode and in pursuit of issues I find compelling intellectually, there is another reason the subject works so well for me as a scholar of the post-45 period: despite François Furet’s well-known declaration that the French Revolution is over.[1] Interested in a critical history that speaks to and interrogates the present, I am ever-fascinated by the Revolution’s traces, all those political and cultural remains and effects that continue to resonate in contemporary France, and more globally. From 1789 to this week, the Revolution runs throughout French politics and culture, from the persistence of an idea of “the people” and their power to demand and bring change, to republican and revolutionary symbols, to the democratic, secular, and universalist ideals and practices that have shaped and infused French society, often in ways riven with contradictions. Beyond France’s borders, the rhetorics of liberty, equality, and human rights continue to inspire and provoke political claims, protests, and transformations. Indeed, our very understandings of what revolutions are and how they unfold regularly return to the era of 1789 as a point of reference.

Drawing of a man pulling off his shirt and covered with the dates of the French Revolutions.
George Delamare, La nation en marche. Paris : Imp. Curial-Archerau, 1945. 

When I started my job, I inherited a survey course from my predecessor: “France Since 1800”. The class was meant to complement another seminar devoted in its entirety to the French Revolution, a course that not all students took. Years later, I still teach versions of both of these courses. But I’ve never been able to start the survey in 1800. How could anything about 1800, let alone the decades and centuries that follow, make any kind of sense without the French Revolution? It’s where I start because—setting aside for a moment contested definitions of “modernity,” or debates about continuity with the ancien régime—it’s where the modern France I want to explore with my students begins and returns to over and over again, right up to the present. At some level, when I am thinking about or teaching the history of modern France and its empire, I am always thinking about and teaching in relationship to 1789. Whether we are historians working on “the Terror,” Napoleon, 1830, 1848, 1871, the era of the World Wars, empire and decolonization, 1968, immigration, race, and citizenship, the “burkini ban” or the Gilets Jaunes, we are always, in some form or another, historians of the French Revolution.

Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. She is the author of Future Tense: The Culture of Anticipation in France Between the Wars (2009), and the host of New Books in French Studies, a podcast on the New Books Network. Her most recent article, “No Hiroshima in Africa: The Algerian War and the Question of French Nuclear Tests in the Sahara” appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History.

Title image: Photo credit, Roxanne Panchasi, 2019.


[1] François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 1.

Further reading:

Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt, and William Max Nelson. The French Revolution in Global Perspective (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013).

Laurent Dubois, Lynn Hunt and Jack R. Censer. The French Revolution and Napoleon: Crucible of the Modern World (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017).

David Geggus, ed. The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History (Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing, 2014).

Gary Kates, ed. The French Revolution: Recent Debates and New Controversies (New York: Routledge, 2006).

Richard Taws, The Politics of the Provisional: Art and Ephemera in Revolutionary France (University Park, PA: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

2 thoughts on “Feel the Fear and Teach the Revolution Anyway: Notes From a Historian of Post-1945 France

  1. Oh, man. I feel this; I teach the American Revolution, but it often feels so vast that, when I first started teaching, I feared someone would ask me a question to which I didn’t know the answer. Then, I figured out that those holes in my scholarship made me prompt students to research those issues for their own papers and projects. It took me a long time to get comfortable with what I didn’t know (and it’s a work-in-progress). Thanks for the post!


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