Making beginners’ French more inclusive: reflexive verbs (introduction) with bonobos


Conceptually-difficult French: se reposer et se détendre

Here are some slides from a class that I taught today:

This is a reduced version of class notes from today: minus some material from our textbook, minus some live action and interaction (my students ask questions, and good questions at that), and plus a couple of gratuitous bonobos in addition to some of those we saw in class. It includes a bonus very short story in the middle.


How far one shares oneself, and personal matters, with students is a complex and delicate question.

Now. The bonobo is well suited to any discussions of reciprocity, consideration for and relationship with others, mutual aid, and collaboration. I have a deep love for the bonobo, in part for obvious anthropomorphic / simple human reasons, in part for anarcha-feminist idealist ones. I’ve long considered overly rigid separations of the public and the personal in the name of professionalism to be somewhere between troubling, antifeminist, misogynist, and inhumane. I have quite strong opinions about most so-called professionalism, closer as it is to a hypocritical abusive pseudo-professionalism and to fascism than to an ideal radical professionalism.

It can be tricky to juggle a wish to have the right to be a full whole human being in public, with my attachment to the idea of a public/private divide that respects and protects that which one wishes, for diverse reasons, to keep private; blame this on my background’s messy mix of the C/catholic and of the variously nonconformist, dissenting, and anti-establishment. One could do a whole other class using examples from religious history to illustrate the reflexive and the reciprocal, the difference between reflexive and other objects, activity and passivity, and indeed lesson one on subjects and objects.



In class today I shared my love for the bonobo, and I’ll willingly share it publicly here, as well as a further intimate biographical detail. One of the best gifts I have ever received was a coffee-table book of Frans de Waal bonobo portraits. This book always makes me happy. If I am ever having a difficult day, unhappy, in need to succour: this is the book to which I turn. This is my Consolation of Philosophy. (The giver knows who they are, and that my appreciation of this gift and of them continues. And that is as far as such revelations of intimate matters go.) Some images from this wonderful book, and some other de Waalery, made their way into these slides.


(I’ll return to our bonobos next term when in the next course we’re dealing further with pronouns and with past participles in compound tenses agreeing with preceding direct object pronouns.)

I was also good and careful to avoid going off on a rant about all the reasons why bonobos are brilliant. I shall leave you to find them for yourself. Rants and proselytising are all very well, but there’s a time and a place for everything. Being a more flexible kind of teacher (which, in the classic gendered student evaluations, will be called “disorganised” because I’m a woman, and would be called all sorts of lovely flattering things were I not), I’ve had to learn when to rein myself in, and to try my best to be attuned to every person in an audience, to read the room, to be sensitive to it and to its fluctuations. There’s a need to be mindful of time and pertinence: we don’t have enough teaching time as it is, and students are spread too thin over too many courses, so every minute is precious and must be used as well as possible. There is the unpredictable live improvisation that makes a class worth going to and that cannot be planned for or replaced by preprepared canned lectures; there is the live interaction in class, and the unpredictability of questions, through which students enrich our combined collective work (so that these slides aren’t what I prepared for class, or what I thought would happen, but incorporate student contributions); and then there are tangents and digressions that go too far.

A tangent to that tangent: there is work to be done on such balancing acts in the perfoming arts, from live teaching and comedy and acting and dance in 2018 to some of the senses of medieval Occitan poetic mesura: a term that’s about composition (of words, of music, of a work as a whole), performance, ethics, culture, and an art of being and of living. Mesura is one of these words and ideas that holds a whole ethos. Which term brings us back to Frans de Waal, and an idea of ethology: above and beyond ecology, anthropology and ethnography, ethnology, ethnicity, and ethics. A big beautiful idea.

Tangents are perilous creatures. Those that have anything to do with words are the worst.


To conclude: let us not only passively or patronisingly appreciate our kinship with the bonobo, but do more, actively, working hard towards a tougher more ambitious goal. Let us try to learn from our betters, that we may aspire to be more like bonobos.

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