‘Studying’ abroad here – what’s so different?
- The first day of the class
The entrance to the school building was packed with people where three guards were checking ID cards and bags of each student. Entering the lecture room, I was struck by its gigantic size. Rows of seats were filled with students, about a hundred and more at the lowest estimate. Presently, the door opened again and the professor came in, with a microphone in one hand and a pile of papers in the other. She began the class without further ado.
It was surprising that the professor began lecturing even without distributing the syllabus. Gender, race, class, intersectionality … french words and numbers as well as the sound of students’ fierce typing flew through my ears and brain. Students with their laptops open moved their fingers as fast as if they were trying to produce an identical copy of the professor’s lecture note. The paragraphs written on their laptop screen were rapidly growing every second the professor proceeded speaking. About two or three students spoke up during the entire class, asking short questions. Other than that, the entire class was filled up with the voice of the professor.
2. No syllabus, no class discussion. Survive on your own.
By the time I was at the end of my concentration and almost gave up taking notes because of aching fingers, the class ended. I followed the professor, introduced myself as an exchange student, and asked if she has a syllabus for this course. With a ‘I-know-what-you’re-talking-about smile’, she said no, and told me that I would be able to find the ‘bibliography’ on the department website. It was during the second class that the professor distributed that ‘bibliography,’ a list of books that students could refer to if they feel the need. I later figured out that most courses of public universities in Paris do not have syllabi. It was all up to students to review the class materials and catch up by doing extra readings on their own.
I also got used to the style of teaching in Paris public universities, which was also very different from that in Amherst. Among four classes I have taken in University Panthéon-Sorbonne, there was only one class in which the professor promoted active discussion with students. He asked the students the read the course materials uploaded on the student portal before coming to the class and encouraged them to ask questions based on the readings. Then the professor answered the questions asked by the students. But even in this class, debates among students were much rarely found compared to the classes in Amherst. Not to mention that all other classes were solely lecture-based, with professors dispersing their knowledge about relevant topics.
- As if reading a semester-long literature review
This semester, I took classes from political science department and art history department in University Panthéon Sorbonne. Have never taken any art history classes before coming to Paris, I cannot make comparisons between art history education here and that in Amherst. But for the political science classes, I found them a lot different from what I had taken in Amherst. Here in Paris, sitting in classes felt like listening to 13-week long literature reviews about each course. Goffman introduced this new concept, at that time Beauvoir’s text was considered groundbreaking in that, this text was refuted by whom, … The key difference was that the significance of each text was not discussed by the students but taught by the professor. Such lecture-based classes here definitely helped me with acquiring very basic knowledge about previous academic findings about gender, race, and political sociology. Now I can immediately and confidently come up with important quotes and research achievements of renowned scholars when asked. However, here in Paris, I hardly had moments of feeling that my point of view and attitude toward the world had changed while taking classes. I might have been shaped into a better undergraduate student, but me as an individual has not changed much.
- Perks of attending a U.S. college
I was also surprised to find that the academic trends of the United States are very commonly considered reference points, especially for political science classes. I could hear ‘aux États-Unis (in the United States)’ as often as ‘en France (in France)’ in each class.
In the course “Opinion and Election” the professor began his introduction to the course by explaining the key differences between the trend of political sociology in the United States and that in France, explaining how the U.S. academia focuses on quantitative analysis while qualitative methods are much more emphasized in France. The day after the U.S. presidential election, he even dedicated the entire class section to the open up the discussion about the analysis of the election result, while he never mentioned the Choi family’s manipulation of South Korean politics and the massive protests in Seoul demanding president Park’s resignation. In “Gender, Race, Class,” a large chapter was dedicated to the comprehension of black feminism in the United States, and I could hear familiar names of U.S. scholars such as Thomas Laqueur and Judith Butler. I could imagine that the Gangnam station murder case or the dismissal of voice actress Jayeon Kim would have mentioned and discussed in the class if they had happened in the United States.
I did have an idea about the leverage and the position of the U.S. in this world before coming to Paris. I knew it even before departing to the American continent to enter college. And maybe my decision to attend school in the U.S. also is an evidence for that. But it still was surprising and weird to see that the United States serves as a default value even in one of the First World countries. Thanks to my familiarity to the academic trends and political issues in the United States, the privilege that I borrowed from another First World, I could easily grasp at least a quarter of the class materials taught in Paris.
The differences that I encountered in Paris may not perfectly reflect differences between the college education in the U.S. and that in France, because there have been plenty other factors that could have affected my experiences – that University Paris 1 is a public institution while Amherst is private, and that I took classes for master’s track in Paris while Amherst only has undergraduate course. That I am not perfectly fluent in French might have affected my comprehension of the course material and teaching style as well. But this experience in Paris helped me figure out what learning styles suit me better, and reaffirmed my interest toward social science. Studying in Paris under different education system was like looking at the same object through a different lens, which let me know which lens I prefer, and whether I like that object no matter what type of lens I use.