Fictionalising a controversy, teaching differently. Interview with Valérie Beaudouin and Olivier Fournout

Partners of FORCCAST project experiment with different teaching formats. At Télécom Paristech for instance, the pedagogical team has come up with an original combination of two fundamental dimensions of the programme: the analysis of controversies, and the embodiment of the main protagonists involved through simulation or fictionalisation.  We met with Valérie Beaudouin and Olivier Fournout, who teach courses covering ICT issues and the analysis of Telecom controversies and are in charge of this decisive experience.


Hello to you both, could you tell us how you came to be teaching controversy courses at Télécom Paristech and what your roles are as teachers?

Valérie Beaudouin Historically, a course covering ICT issues (“Enjeux des Technologies de l’Information et de la Communication”, aka “ETIC”) was set up at Télécom Paristech in the department of Economic and Social Sciences cooperatively with the IT department. Nicolas Auray developed this course so as to link it to the controversy analysis courses at the École des Mines and SciencesPo. In this context, we provided classic ETIC courses covering a wide range of subjects. Then, five years ago, we decided to try out a different way of teaching this course.  Formerly, some students spontaneously staged short sketches for the simulation part during their final oral exams. We felt that it provided a far richer, and tenser vision and version of a given controversy. So we introduced the possibility for the students to use fiction to present a controversy, instead of creating a website.

Olivier Fournout I think the starting point is that we at Télécom have long been specialised in fictionalising/staging social rationales. This is a method I have developed in partnership with a number of very different institutions. We work on this type of educational methods with Le Corps des Mines, Université Paris Dauphine, and of course here at Télécom Paristech, but we also explore other topics besides controversies. The common basis of these interventions is that we always ask the students to investigate, to describe a situation and formalise an experience related to the theme in the first place, whatever the subject may be (group dynamics, managerial challenges, web relationships etc.). Then we help and guide the students in setting up a fictional transposition, which is traditionally a reenactment and whose objective is to reflect what has already been studied in terms of social rationales and societal issues. The next invariant is that the students are put in a situation of group creation, and have to co-produce their sketches, plays or scenarios. Nicolas Auray turned to Valérie and me since we were experienced in transposing social issues into fiction to apply it to the field of controversies in the context of FORCCAST research project.

Using fiction as a way to report on the exploration of a controversy is an atypical experiment. What steps did you take to get there?

Valérie Beaudouin Over the past few years, we have tried out various reporting formats. We started with theatrical staging. In the first year we worked on two issues: same-sex marriage, which was then a very topical controversy, and the Notre-Dame des Landes airport building project. In the second year, we found it interesting to have two groups working on the same topic, so as to obtain two different outcomes. So the students addressed the following issue: “should the clients of prostitution be penalised?”. In the third year, we broke new ground as we used short film format. The desire for change stemmed from our being greatly frustrated of having only one performance which we had no record of. The students’ work was no longer visible. So we tested out the use of short films so as to keep a copy, and be able to share the students’ work more easily. This year, we have decided to use three different formats: theatrical staging, short films, and performance poetry.

Over the past two years, we have also changed the topics as we focused on matters of sustainable development. We have sequentially dealt with the tragedies of the Anthropocene (video), then the question of technologies as a possible solution to global warming (performance poetry), and how agriculture can feed ten billion humans (theatre and video).

Olivier Fournout Here at Télécom, there are around twenty groups of eight first-year students, who deal with different topics. Only three out of the twenty groups are involved in our experiment. Every year, we try to take on more groups, but we are only two permanent teachers who master this methodology. On each occasion we work together with artists who are experts in the format we have chosen: a short-film maker, someone with a background in theatre or a poetry performer, so as to bring in their additional skillsets. The essential point here is that we both have dual responsibilities: controversy analysis and artistic transposition. Valérie is both a sociologist and a member of the Oulipo. As for me, I have a longstanding practice of theatrical staging and fictional writing, while also being a researcher at the SHS Departement. So we can support the students on two levels, and in the same way the artistic collaborators are selected because they are also capable of working on the core matter of the controversy. This means that we will eventually be able to take on one group individually, whereas right now there are five of us dealing with three groups. Once the experimental phase is completed, we will have acquired common foundations and best practice.

You are using three different formats this year. Why?

Olivier Fournout From an educational perspective, each format has its advantages and disadvantages. This year, we are introducing performance poetry, and as we are also using theatre and short film, we will actually be able to take a critical look at all possible formats.

Valérie Beaudouin From what we have seen so far, there is an improvisational aspect in theatre which makes it all work really well, while in short films, the students are less likely to improvise because the shots are very brief, and we did not get the same quality of spontaneous dialogue in the final production.

Olivier Fournout But it is also true that a short film is very valuable, because it provides a record that we can show later on, whereas a filmed theatrical performance is always a little poor in comparison to the experience of the actual performance. However, what we are going to try as well,  for research articles in particular, is the transcription of the theatrical dialogues in a booklet. I have a hunch that this format will be quite appealing, and less disappointing than footage of a play. As regards video shooting, we are still learning. While we have already used theatrical staging extensively in other courses, in various institutions, and dealt with a variety of themes, we are still trying to improve our shooting techniques so that we can give greater power to the students and let them take responsibility for their own choices of form, improvisation, shooting and storytelling.

Valérie Beaudouin There is also a significant practical detail: this year we have twice as much time to produce a short film. Last year, we were severely limited by a tight time period. There was just one day for shooting, then one for editing each film.

So you’ve been working on the fictionalisation of controversies for 4 years now, what advantages and disadvantages have you noticed so far?

Olivier Fournout You’ve put the finger on the core point of our research. We are true militants as we believe there are plenty of advantages. But this does not mean that we always take a critical stance on anything being done in the classical way. We get students to work on the core of controversies, they construct a debate tree, and a mapping of players and arguments. Fictionalising provides an very effective presentation of the opposing players, and it is an interesting way to report on social rationales. The reporting could be done on a website, but why not use fiction as an optical instrument for viewing social rationales? That was our initial idea. In the preface to Cromwell, Victor Hugo says: “the theatre is an optical point, everything that exists in the world, in history, in life, in man, must and can be thought through there.” So the basic idea is that, through fiction, we can capture the richness of the debates being held in society.

Valérie Beaudouin The second idea is that fiction is a tool for showing what cannot be shown, especially passions and emotions, everything that is irrational and that does not appear in the debate tree. It is well known that controversies are guided by conflicts, or stances in which the personal dimension is extremely important. And we often find that the debate trees produced by our students seem rather smooth, and lack the dynamic tension of a performance.
The final point is that there is a temporal dimension to fiction which allows us to see how a controversy develops. And how, throughout interactions, exchanges and alliances between the players, their postures and positions change. It is very important for us not to present a controversy as something simplistic, but instead as something in perpetual motion and evolution. Theatre and fiction help us show the dialectic of controversies.

Olivier Fournout Speaking of which, I’d like to add what Bruno Latour said in Face à Gaïa: “In my opinion, only theatre is capable of exploring the range of passions that correspond to current issues. If ecological questions cannot be effectively represented because of their amplitude, ubiquity and duration, it is then up to works of art, which are also works of thought, to attempt to depict them to the senses in a new way.”
Social controversies have such a high level of complexity, sometimes set in very long gone or future time periods, that classic mappings can grasp only one aspect of them. Theatre or fiction can then complete this exploration. In this way, what is unrepresentable can be depicted, heard and seen. Speaking of the same-sex marriage controversy for instance, theatrical staging highlighted the fact that homosexuals are not to be considered as a block, but instead as individuals with various positions on the controversy. In a given category of players, there can be irreconcilable differences, and a single player can be ambiguous as regards the matter of the controversy. This can be shown with subtlety in theatre, in one single cue. But this factor tends to be obscured by large-scale groupings of categories of players, and sometimes we forget that a single player does not always have both feet on the same side. Yet art is great at bringing out ambivalences, paradoxes, and internal contradictions.

By creating a fiction based on their research, the students in your groups are committed to exploring a controversy differently. What do you think this process gives them?

Valérie Beaudouin It requires a real commitment from the students, but they are extremely motivated by what they do. In comparison with students who follow “classic” ETIC courses, we have noticed a far higher level of involvement. They carry out the same investigative work as the other ETIC groups, but we expect a lot from them in terms of their capacity to deal with their analysis of the controversy in depth. One of the many advantages of fictionalisation is that our students are led to act and take part in the fiction. In these circumstances, they need to examine the controversy more deeply so as to nourish their role. They have to move off their own centre. The quality of their performance and the final sketch is directly related to the quality of the investigations that they carried out beforehand. All of the research material will truly nourish their writing, the positions they will take and the dynamic of the play.

Olivier Fournout In comparison with other ETIC course groups, we add on a fifteen-hour work time over a weekend. Fictionalising requires some additional work from the students in the current format, which was not the case for the first theatre groups. In the first year we worked the same number of hours as the other classic ETIC groups, but far more intensely, and with oral results which were just as good. So increasing the work time does not necessarily improve the quality. But this is probably essential as regards short film shootings due to all the technical and editing work. As for theatre, the art of improvisation makes it possible to get to an excellent performance using a simple plot, without everything being written down in detail or planned ahead.
When a team of students presents their mapping, each of them take turns to speak. And they do not necessarily have to listen to each other as they have prepared their oral and know what they are going to say. But during an improvised staging, they have to remain mutually attentive. If they don’t listen to one another, then they will not be able to dialogue. So they move off their own centre on two levels: first, they take on roles that do not always keep with their own positions, and second, they need to listen to their group mates’ arguments so they can respond effectively.

Valérie Beaudouin The year we worked on same-sex marriage, in the spring of 2013 when the debate reached its height, we asked the students why they had chosen this topic and format. They said they wanted to be able to deal with this social issue serenely, given there was such a high level of conflict that they could no longer address the matter outside. There were students from both sides -for and against- and they expressed themselves quite spontaneously. There was a personal commitment, and thanks to a collective work of role-playing, acting and crossed reasoning, they learned to listen to each other and arrive at a calm and constructed dialogue. Some, but not all, even changed their minds, but everyone agreed they managed to listen and interact better through a dialogued interaction in a fictional context.

Olivier Fournout Furthermore, students enjoy theatrical sketches or videos. It takes them away from their computer screens, more than if they presented a website. They find the ludic side of theatre appealing.

And for you as teachers, what does the fact of being able to rely on a full piece of research change about your methods?

Olivier Fournout The prospect of having to create a fiction makes us highly sensitive to all tangible outcomes from the research the students carry out. The more tangible, the more sensitive we are to it. As a result, it is more likely to be transposed into fiction. Take, for instance, sustainable development: when the students told us about “urban vegetable gardens”, we immediately visualised a place, with real people, a setting, clothes, tools, an atmosphere… We already had a theatre scene. The more accurate, concrete and tackled with sensitivity the fundamental analysis of a controversy is, the easier it gets to use this material in a sketch.

Valérie Beaudouin In all of Bruno Latour’s and Michel Callon’s work on controversy analysis, there is a very close focus on the interactions and links that are made in the field, and a proximity to what is done in theatre. In order for it to work in theatre, it is necessary to go into the details of the acting between the actors, and the arguments they use… There is an equivalence between the research work around the controversy and the writing of a play or a short film scenario.

Olivier Fournout When the students fictionalise their issues, they sometimes create roles that are not necessarily part of the actual controversy, a narrator for instance. We believe this is a more creative way to approach a controversy . To paraphrase Frédérique Aït Touati, we would say that to us, fictionalisation is a creativity matrix for developing science of controversies (the full quotation is: “Copernican poetic figures participated in the production of new worlds of fiction and science that constantly provided new invention matrixes, because they were, above all, figures in motion”, in Contes de la Lune, Essai sur la fiction et la science modernes, Gallimard, 2011). Take again for instance the same-sex marriage controversy: the students added children who asked questions about their parents’ sexuality, what was going on at the Assemblée Nationale, and the outbreaks that occurred on the playground. This brings a great plus to the vision of the controversy, rather like in Voltaire’s Candide or Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. Narrators appear, examine the complexity of the social context, and depict it with new eyes. It even opens up possibilities of invention in terms of the very substance of the controversy. These child-narrators projected us into an imaginary perspective of what families would be like in the future, using invented drawings the students produced. Not only was the work on the content a success, but the form they chose for their fiction gave an opening so that everyone could ask themselves questions. The basic ground rule that must never be forgotten is that the students are the decision-makers. The fictional world they have created actually takes on a sociological dimension. For instance, the words and images they have used to discuss same-sex marriage reflect their choices set in a particular period. The value of representation is all the greater as they make their own choices, both in terms of form and content, while we don’t. One of our research directions is to analyse the sketches produced by the students. We try to figure out what the depiction they have chosen shows about the current social context.

What advice and references would you give to other teachers who are interested in your course programme?

Olivier Fournout We have written some articles on theatrical staging of social rationales (in particular P. Corten-Gualtieri, O. Fournout, et al. « Des étudiants réalisent un sketch théâtral ou un clip vidéo pour faire évoluer leurs préconceptions », in Questions de Pédagogie dans l’Enseignement Supérieur, 2011, and another to be published this autumn: S. Bouchet and O. Fournout, “La mise en théâtre de problématiques managériales. Étude d’un cas sur le burn out”, in Économie et Management for the Canopé network). Our priority now is to formalise our method applied to the analysis of scientific and societal controversies. Articles are a good way to capitalise on a practice, but so is sharing experiences, especially with what is being done at Forccast with the Micro-Lycée 93 – Le Bourget, which is fascinating and similar to what we are doing in many ways. And also, why not set up other collaborative teaching projects. They are an excellent way to learn and innovate even more.
We could get other people to join, from other courses and other academic institutions, other programmes, including international ones. The challenge is to find multi-skilled trainers (on both artistic and scientific levels), who could assist the students with the investigative and fictionalising processes.

Valérie Beaudouin It is very important for us that the students be autonomous and do their own stage direction. We are there to guide them but not to do things for them. In the same way, it is the students’ job to analyse the controversy and not the teachers’. They are the decision-makers and we cannot act on their behalf. The challenge we face as teachers or artists is to give up on the posture of someone who can do or actually does stage direction. We fully shoulder the position of the “ignorant schoolmaster” as defined by Rancière, and we just lead them along their own progression.




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