On Thursday mornings, I walk into my school just off of Boulevard St. Michel in a beautiful old building. It used to be the royal school of drawing back under Louis XV, and entering the enormous carved stone entrance feels like going back in time. Crossing the secluded courtyard and climbing the stairs brings me to my classroom, an impressive room lined with bookshelves of English literature and dominated by a gigantic round table. Early comers discuss in French their plans for the weekend or the amount of work they have as they wait for class to start. When our professor enters and the class quiets down, she begins the day, saying:
“Alors, on va commencer with the oral presentation on Virginia Woolf…”
And with that shift from French to English, my brief language respite for the week begins.
This semester, I am taking an English-language literature class in La Sorbonne Nouvelle’s “Monde Anglophone” department. The course, named “Réécrire l’histoire,” focuses on the links between history, memory, and representation through the works of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Pat Barker.
Because I’m a Literature major at Hamilton, the HiF program allows me to take one literature class in English to help me meet major requirements. However, more important for me than the credit was the chance to study English-language literature from a French perspective. I was curious to see if the French approach to these texts was different, and what it was like studying these texts among non-English speakers.
What I like most about this course is our depth of study for each work. At Hamilton, we are often able to cover multiple authors, books, and periods over a semester. However, instead of quantity, the French pedagogical system seems to focus more on quality, with us taking several weeks to discuss each work. For instance, we spent more than four weeks discussing T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land alone! This slower pace took some getting used to, but I’ve come to appreciate how much better I understand the texts when I take more time to consider them. Our lessons are also heavy in literary theory and poetic terminology that are completely new to me, which has been excellent for gaining more tools with which to study literature.
The other students in the class are all French students pursuing Master’s Degrees in Anglophone Studies. As someone who now fully understands the difficulty of reading and thinking in another language, I am continually impressed by these students’ grasp of English and ability to articulate their thoughts, often with very elegant British or Irish accents! Many of the works we are reading take a lot of time and attention for English-speakers, such as The Waste Land and To the Lighthouse, so I admire these students’ mastery of such difficult material.
But while the language might be familiar for me, there are still many aspects of the French education system that took some time to get used to. For instance, instead of continuous, smaller assignments, the classwork consists of a single oral presentation of 25 minutes and a written final at the end of the course. The professor publicly comments on each student’s presentation, not hesitating to criticize weaker arguments or missed points. This course is also dominated by the professor’s lectures rather than comments from students, despite the round-table environment and small class size.
My course in the “Monde Anglophone” department has far surpassed my expectations, and it is one my most interesting and engaging courses in Paris. It has been a surprising mix of the familiar and the foreign, which has introduced me to new ways of looking at texts. For Literature majors in the HiF Program who have the opportunity, I would highly recommend this experience.
by Dana Holloway