**this is just so long and I didn’t feel like editing it so if you just want said sage advice, I’d scroll all the way down 😉 **
This being the first week of November, we have less than two months left of classes and that also means that we’ve had about two months of classes already. Usually at this time, I’ve fully memorized the schedules of all my friends, become tired of my own, completed dozens of assignments, and suffered through a handful of exams. By November, registration for the winter semester starts and you’ve already got one foot on the threshold.
That is just so not where I’m at right now. I mean, yes, I’ve memorized the schedules of most of the people in my program and I’ve even wraped my head around my host brothers high school schedule and the sporadic work days of my host father…but thats just a habit. What I haven’t done is do anything. This is a huge difference between the university classes in France and those in the US.
For the most part, French professors assign one project and one final exam. With APA, we are required to have at least two grades per class in order for the credit to transfer to our US universities. This means that for some of my classes, after I’ve sat for two-and-a-half hours trying to follow the professor as he chews his french over the din of chattering students, I have to go up to them and actually, voluntarily ask for more work.
This way of learning is so foreign. In the US- not to say university courses are a breeze, cause that is far from the truth – we are accustomed to having our hand held in so many little ways. Consider the, until recently banal, textbook. Everything you are supposed to have learned over the course of a semester, every source you are expected to have read is all right there. With a textbook you can carry all the course’s knowledge with you to wherever and keep up with your reading with ease. You know exactly what is expected of you and the hardest part is finding the motivation to actually sit down and flic through all the pages of semi-wittily written text boxes.
At least in all the classes I’ve heard about here, there is no such thing as said textbook. At first I was excited by the prospect – no begrudgingly written checks made out to Amazon and no stressful mad-dashes to trade text books on campus before the first exam – it was a dream come true, I could taste the academic freedom of it all. But when you arrive to your first day of classes in Paris and you are given a simple sheet of paper with a list that seems to be longer than the page itself of the course bibliography, your new reality starts to sink in.
Sometimes the professor says, ‘ah yes, here are the 40 books in the campus library that I deem appropriate for this class, bon courage’. Or sometimes the professor doesn’t even hand you this list but rather, at rapid-fire speed, references scholars, books, and papers pertinent to their lectures. By the sound of fervently scribbling students around me, I deduce that what the professor really means is we had better go on a scavenger-hunt after class for said references.
Additionally, there are so few assignments that it is difficult to gage your own level of comprehension. US universities love assignments where the grading systems seem to have been designed by NASA engineers and you never really know how much something is « worth ». The semester gets divided up into little boxes that keep us all on a certain track and hand us all the support we « need ». But often this just manifests in students cramming just before exams or half-heartedly completing assignments that, because they only had a few weeks to complete, are only semi-engaging at best…not speaking from experience, or anything. But granted, you are constantly applying what you are learning. And that is something I definitely miss.
In my classes in Paris, we may be asked to complete weekly readings, we may be encouraged to find certain books, or we may just be sent the powerpoint slides from last-week’s lecture. But I have yet to have an exam or serious assignment due. This is definitely not to say I don’t spend time studying. In fact, I probably spend the same amount of time engaging in my studies as I would at home but in a completely different way.
What takes the most of my time is both writing in french and understanding the nuances of the french pedagogy. That’s right, you thought you were a pro at essay-writing…think again because the french structure their papers in a whole new and exciting way. (But don’t worry, you’ll only have a few weeks of low self-esteem and deep loathing for France because luckily APA gives you the tools to bridge this gap and I’ve found french professors to be very understanding and even willing to spend hours helping you.)
Oh yea, en plus, you probably only have each class once a week here. Perhaps this is the same at your US university, but for me at least, that was a huge change. I was accustomed to having my four-five classes two-three time a week. Now I have five classes each, once a week. Here’s my schedule for an idea of what this looks like :
– 11h30-12h and 13h30-14h30 are my private french classes at the APA bureau
– 15h20-17h30 is my economics class at Nanterre
– 8h30-10h30 is an environmental history class at the Sorbone
– 11h-12h30 is a literature tutoring class at Paris 8
– 13h30-15h30 is a class on the history of colonisation at Nanterre
-15h30-17h is the tutring class for said history course at Nanterre
– 9h-12h is the litterature class at Paris 8
So there you go. Long contact-hour sessions interspersed with a lot of time to procrastinate. Also you’ll notice that my Thursday is l’enfer so lets empathize for a moment.
Though I can’t back this up with any numerical proof – though I’ll let you know how it goes by the end of this semester – I can say that in order to be successful, you need two things.
1. You have to really know how best you learn. This is a semester when you could so easily take a backseat and just glide through. Or you could get completely lost and have a hard time with final exams. For me, this means that I went to the campus library and found one or two books for each class that best followed the syllabus (that I only actually received in half my classes) and that I read…a lot. At first, this is the most painful activity because you are referring constantly to the dictionary to translate words at the same time as you’re trying to grasp new concepts. But the more you do it, the better and faster you get. I also take notes during lecture and while I’m reading. This helps me engage more actively with what I’m learning. And the last thing I do is try to participate in class. This is probably the hardest of the three…its scary, you’re going to conjugate that verb incorrectly, and sometimes your professor will say – in front of everyone – that they had no idea what you just said. But you keep trying. Even if what you contribute has as much to offer and as much depth as a kindergartner’s account of their weekend, you are paying attention and practicing and people will respect you for that.
2. You need to keep your experience in perspective. Every APA student comes with a different level of french so we each have different goals and abilities. For me, my written french is null, I know my weaknesses. I didn’t come to Paris is take classes in french in order to become fluent in the various aspects of colonisation and I didn’t come here to master the structure of the french dissertation. So instead of stressing about not fully understanding everything I read on the industrial revolution, I focus on the little wins like all the new vocabulary I’m learning and how much faster and better I can read and how much easier it is to participate in class discussions.
There is so much more I could say about the French academic system that I think is important for APA students to know about…but I suppose we’ll hold off on all my sage advise till I know I’m actually going to pass some of these classes.