L’Université v. University

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Having gone to school in France before, I was expecting my transition to my FLE (French version of ESL) classes at the Sorbonne to be perfectly smooth, but culture shock had other plans for me. There are some huge differences between my French language learning classes here and those that I take at Temple, for better or worse. Here are the biggest ones that I have noticed so far:

The Sorbonne, the university that hosts our classes (but sadly not our classrooms)

      1. Structure

At Temple, the entire semester is outlined in the syllabus. From day one of the class, you know exactly when everything is due and what you will be learning each and every day. For someone who already has the time and date of their Fall semester finals written into the December section of their planner (yes, for the semester that doesn’t even start for another month), this is comforting and wonderful.

No such thing exists in my class. No syllabus, no outline of grading policies (see below), very little forewarning for assignments. When you are told what will be on the test, there’s a solid chance that this will not be very accurate.

The con with this method is, of course, that I cannot plan as absurdly far ahead as I would like, but I’ve come to realize that there are also a few pros to this.

The first is that the lack of a pre-announced schedule allows for the professor to adjust their lessons exactly to the class’s needs. For example, our phonetics teacher scrapped her entire 3-week lesson plan to accommodate for our class’s advanced level. Had she handed out highly detailed syllabi beforehand, it would have been a huge pain in the neck to alter the plans.

The other positive is that it is forcing me to take things as they come rather than planning and worrying over them for weeks or months in advance, which is always a good thing.

    2. Grading

Grading at Temple is very objective. The grading policy is given and explained on the first day and is based on math. Each assignment and exam is worth a certain percent of your grade. Again, very structured.

Here it is much more subjective. Brownie points are a very, very real thing in my class and are something that I plan very much to cash in on. Students in my class who pay attention, show effort, and come every day are going to be given 2 extra points at the end of the semester. When you’re graded out of 20 (more on this in a minute), this is very wonderful news. In reality, I guess that these brownie points are really just our attendance and participation grade, but again, this is not based on any kind of math.

This subjective grading allows teachers a lot more freedom when grading, which can be good or bad depending on who your teacher is and what kind of student you are.

Another point on grading is the 20 point system, which does not coordinate mathematically to the American system (of course). 10 is the baseline for passing (70% in the US). Anything above a 14 is an A, 16 and up is an A+, and anything above 18 is considered rare. 20 is nearly impossible unless you’re doing math or another very objective subject that doesn’t require written responses. This doesn’t take long to get used to once you know the conversions, but it really is a strange jump to make.

3. Classroom Etiquette

French classroom atmosphere and professors are known to be stricter than their American counterparts, but I am not completely sold on this point.

While my professor is very much the boss of the classroom, unflinchingly going 20 minutes past the end of class more than once without apology or acknowledgment, he never hesitates to humor the purposefully off-topic questions that my classmates pose with lots of google image searches and impromptu discussions on everything from prostitution to literature to hedge-grooming. In our defense, these are technically cultural topics, and our class is technically on both the French language and culture.

While American college students would most likely revolt if a professor dared to go so far over class time, I would not be surprised to experience such off topic discussions in schools in America, especially in classrooms with friendly atmospheres and discussion times structured into the curriculum.

Something that exists in French classrooms that doesn’t in Americans that dictates the formality (or lack thereof) is the “tu/vous” issue. In English we have “you.” You call your grandma you, your doctor you, the president you. In French we have “tu,” the informal you,  and “vous,”the plural or formal you. I dislike this a bit, because it creates a hierarchy that is ingrained into the language.

Some professors, the most traditional or strict, will call students “vous” and be offended if you accidentally use “tu” with them. Others will “tutoie” you (use tu) but still expect you to “vouvoie” them. Both of these are normal. I’d like to imagine some very young or hip professors accept being called “tu,” but I have yet to experience this.

Overall, there are some pretty significant differences between my experiences at Temple and mine at the Sorbonne so far, but I know that the three professors I’ve had so far aren’t representative of every French teacher out there. While I am definitely someone who prefers structure, I am still enjoying my classes very, very much.

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