I’ve been abroad in the south of France for almost two months now, and in school for two weeks. At first I thought studying English literature in France would be like studying English literature at home. Boy was I ever wrong…….
Here’s a brief insight into what it’s like to study the humanities as a foreign student.
In many ways, it’s a lot less advanced. You may initially find yourself thinking that these classes will be the easiest ever. For one thing, they only read a maximum of two required texts per semester per class. (Compared to the ten sometimes fourteen-ish novels I read per semester last year in my English classes, that’s a breeze.) In addition, though, many of the students in my classes are not fully fluent in English, so you can imagine what a challenge it is for them to read books like Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe or Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf! Many of the teachers cater to the French students’ difficulty with the language and spend a lot of time on vocabulary, literary devices, spelling changes in old vs. modern texts, et cetera… which is all stuff I learned way back in high school.
It’s interesting to hear the European perspective on British, American, and Canadian idiosyncrasies. One of the funniest things we discussed in class today was the British/American/Canadian hesitation with speaking curse words in public, and the fact that they’re banned in schools. Apparently, this is not a big deal to the French, and they view swear words as really cool. Often French kids who write a song title that has a swear word in it would write it with the stars (as we do in America, Canada, and Britain), and then write the actual swear word in brackets beside it, for clarity’s sake! French students don’t get suspended for swearing or for having a swear word on their t-shirt (although it’s not considered polite or appropriate to swear in front of a respected adult such as a teacher). This is just one example of how the French view of Anglophone culture is quite different from our own perspective of our culture, and it’s neat to see why and how foreign people interpret the different cultures of English-speaking countries!
Upper-year classes are typically entirely comprised of discussion groups. Discussion is usually pretty rigidly directed and is encouraged to follow a specific train of thought. Independent and creative thinking is not really commonly appreciated. My classes taught “lecture-style” are centered on listening to the professor and eventually regurgitating that information. My “discussion-style” classes, while much more open, still follow a guided conversation on set topics, and the teacher typically steers the discussion/thought process to a specific perspective of the text. Creative thinking is not really encouraged; students are usually told there is a “right or wrong” answer. Conversation is also usually very rigid as the teacher marches the students through a set list of questions. This is one area of the French education system that I find very disappointing- because no matter what level of understanding a student has of a language, I think free and independent thinking should always be encouraged. (But, this perspective is obviously the product of a North American society and educational background.)
A happy surprise… there’s no essays. The French don’t really do a degree in English literature, they do a degree in English- so the focus is more on English as a language rather than the body of Anglophone literature. While it doesn’t seem like a big thing, it kind of is- mainly because developing students into skilled writers isn’t the main idea. Instead, the focus is on wholly understanding a text, then taking steps to analyze and criticize it. In many cases, there is no written aspect to an English literature course, because the final exams are often oral. In the exams, students are given an excerpt from the text they studied and are simply asked to comment on it in any way, and on any aspect of that excerpt, that they want. This is very different from our system of examinations and evaluations, of course, and it makes a lot more sense when you think about the fact that in the French education system, studying English is more of a practical skill based on levels of proficiency in oral, auditory, and comprehension areas.
Influences on the text such as the historical, social, religious, and political undertones of the time period are not considered very important during the study of English literature. As I mentioned above, the focus is primarily on simply understanding the text, then making observations about the text within itself. While some historical understanding is often required- especially concerning terms no longer in use in Modern English- there’s typically no “background information” given about the texts. The French are all about diving right into it and getting down to the nitty gritty. While this is probably a relief to the French students, I always feel like they’re missing out on a lot, especially because most of the texts studied in literature courses are from a much older time period. I think it’s important to note the differences between then and now.
While school in a different country can sometimes be annoying- I can honestly say right now that I miss the Western-style education I receive at home- I think this is one of the most important and interesting facets of study abroad.
If you have ever studied abroad before, did you find the education system very different from at home? Was it better or worse?
If you’re interested in following more of my study abroad adventures, hop on over to bonjour-provence.blogspot.com and take a look at my personal travel blog!