Running spontaneous races: my experiences in the French classroom

If you were to look through my class notes, what you would find is a myriad of half written sentences and a handful of question marks in miscellaneous places. This completely epitomizes my experience of studying in a French university.

This year of studying abroad has been eye opening.

I thought I knew a decent amount about French schooling and the French university system. However, I’m not sure who I was kidding, as I had never actually studied in a French university before until this year.

Being in a French university is both easy and difficult. Half the time I have no idea what is going on, and the other half of the time I feel like I’m killing it. That’s the beauty of it. I always feel like I’m on my toes.

This semester especially I’ve been able to examine, through frustratingly puzzling moments in my own classes, what exactly the differences are between the university experience I’m used to and that which I’m experiencing here in Paris.

I’ve already discussed the enrollment process on this blog before, however, the classroom experience itself, though an extension of such a process, can get even a little more tricky to get the hang of.

First and foremost, the lecturing style can be quite different. As a graduate student, I’m used to having specialized, discussion based classes. I’m finding that in a French university, no matter which level, the courses are very heavily lecture focused. We, of course, have lecture-based classes in the United States. However, these types of courses are usually your general education classes or lower level classes that have a large amount of students. You usually find these types of courses in undergraduate levels. Graduate classes tend to involve combining some lecture with a large amount of discussion and some hands-on work in the classroom.

Now, having had my fair share of lecture-based classes, I wouldn’t necessarily think it’s a problem. However, when you combine that with a language barrier, you soon start to feel like you are running in a race to write down everything the professor is saying but have no idea which direction you are going. You are being given directions as you are running the race, not ahead of the time, and sometimes, you misunderstand them altogether, leading you to end up taking the wrong turns and getting all turned around.

What I mean by this is that professors here tend to just launch straight into their lectures, and they often don’t use PowerPoints or the board behind them for notes. They also don’t usually do a recap from the previous class period either. They usually read/paraphrase from typed/written out pages of complete paragraphs, as if they were presenting you the material from a paper they wrote and not necessarily from a lesson plan or list of notes to present to a class.

They also tend to ramble. So while you’re scrambling to take notes, you are also struggling to distinguish what’s important to write down and what isn’t, all while trying to understand that obscur word you’ve never heard of before. (You still write the obscur word down though, hoping you spelled it correctly, because it could be important. Hence the miscellaneous question marks.)

While you’re scrambling to write down main ideas and concepts, you can’t write or type fast enough so you forget the other half of the sentence they said, and since it’s in a foreign language, you can’t even try to recall it because words from a foreign language tend to stick less in your brain because you’re less familiar with them (especially when said sentences involve words and ideas that you’ve never heard of before). So, you leave sentences/notes half unfinished, and you just put a question mark by them hoping you’ll understand them more later (though doubtful).

Your professors ensure you that you can always stop them and ask questions, since they know you are a foreign exchange student, but by the time you figure out that you didn’t understand something and need clarification, they’ve already moved onto the next idea. Besides, who wants to be that random and slightly ignorant student who raises their hand to ask “um, I’m sorry, what does that word mean?” These are masters classes. I can’t lie. Admitting to not knowing certain words while holding up the entire class can be a bit intimidating, so I usually don’t.

Most of the time I know what they are talking about. It’s just random words that come out of nowhere that usually leave me puzzled.

The beauty about being an exchange student is that I’ve been able to choose whichever classes I’d like to take. The downside of that, however, is that the courses I’ve chosen are courses that are part of specific masters programs. So, it’s likely that I’ve missed preceding courses. So, sometimes my professors will make references to certain works, authors, time periods, etc. that I’ve never studied in my life. So, I usually sit there, looking confused and like an idiot, hoping that they’ll explain parts of it so that I can get a grasp about what they are talking about. Most of the time they don’t, so I write it down, hoping that I’ll remember to look it up later. Unfortunately, most of the time I forget. Oh well…

These references might not even be from former classes though. They might be cultural in general, which again, leaves me confused and feeling much like an idiot. I’ve studied my fair share of French civilisation, culture, and literature, but I am realizing how much education is aligned with culture, as there are certain things that I just do not know and didn’t have occasion to know because I’m not French. There are certain things that my French classmates know that I just simply don’t and just simply won’t. Though expected to some extent, I didn’t expect that it would leave me so lost in some occasions, nor as confused, nor frustrated.

So in addition to running this race while I have no idea which directions I’m going, I’m also expected to jump through hoops at miscellaneous intervals. Fun times.

It’s all part of the adventure though.

Additionally, imagine coming to the first class of the semester and your professor shows up half an hour late, leaving you to wonder if you have the right class, the right building, and the right classroom. He shows up as if nothing was wrong and starts lecturing, leaving you to wonder internally “bruh, you were just half an hour late? nothing to say for yourself? is this normal?” Why yes, yes it is. We’re halfway through the semester, and my professor has been at least 20 minutes late every single class. #justFrenchthings yeah? yeah. That would never happen in the States, and if it does, there’s an unspoken rule that if a professor is 15 to 20 minutes late, that the class is cancelled/it’s okay to leave the class, even if the professor didn’t say anything about the class being cancelled or being late.

If the classroom aspect of it wasn’t confusing enough, the individual learning part of my classes threw me through a loop. What do you mean I only have to turn in one paper at the end of the semester, and what do you mean that I’m the one who chooses the subject in accordance with the course? You mean, I get to choose what I write about? What is this place?

On the one hand, I love the freedom with this type of course evaluation. I never have to read for class if I don’t want to (even if not doing it means risking not fully understanding the material in the class), and I don’t have to write a paper about a subject that I don’t care about. (I should clarify that I do have some freedom in my subjects for my graduate level classes back home, but it’s usually in relation to a specific book, article, or group of books. Here, any singular aspect of the material of the class is up for grabs.). It means as well that I only have to worry about one paper for the entire course of the semester, no other homework, papers, presentations, etc., much like I would find back home in the United States.

(The downside to this one assignment thing though is that if I blow it, I blow the entire class. There’s no way to make up my grade if I screw it up. Go big or go home, I guess).

This aspect of my classes makes me realize how American I really am. I’m not used to being this free to study what I wish to study, in addition to the information presented in the actual classroom. The professors usually provide a list of books that are recommended to read for the course, but none of these are required. There’s also usually between five and twenty different books. It’s highly likely that you will not be able to read all of them, even if you wanted to (which most of the time you don’t).

When it comes to my final paper in both classes, the professors will give suggestions, but as long as you are in accordance with the course itself, then you are free to do whatever. Such freedom, but such confusion as well. How do I go about choosing a subject for my paper? Which aspect of the class would be the best aspect? How do I go about researching this? It’s kind of sad to admit that I’m not used to being this independent and this in charge of my own learning. It makes me question my capabilities as a graduate student.

As if culture shock in other areas of my life here in France weren’t challenging enough, but again, it’s all part of the adventure.


So, what’s the lesson in all of this? Besides the fact that the French education system can definitely be completely confusing and sometimes misleading, especially as an American.

Well, the lesson, my friends is that this system, though I would never choose to complete an entire degree in it, is that it prepares students to be self-learners. They quickly learn how to become independent, as well as to be critical not only of the information that they are presented with but also with the information they choose is important for learning more about. French students can learn as much or as little information as they choose. The grade they get in the class might depend on it, but ultimately, they are responsible for their learning, not the professors, which seems to be opposite from schooling in the United States.

Though university schooling in the U.S. does lead students to be independent in some ways, it is not to the degree that it is here. Professors in the U.S. are expected to have a syllabus with an outline of each topic being covered for each week, with the exact books/articles to be read for each week, the exact assignments due, and what exactly those papers/presentations should be written/researched on. We will learn the information that we are told to learn. We have no idea how to be independent learners.

This sort of experience is making me question my culture altogether, and what I thought was considered independence. Who knew that the French classroom could leave me to ask such deep life questions like: what does it mean to be independent, and who does that make me as a student and as a person if I’m not as independent as I thought I was? Who am I? Yes, yes I do ask myself that question, more than I care to admit since I’ve been here.


I’ll probably be mostly fully adjusted just as I’m about to leave. So it tends to go…

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