So I’ve been in France for a little over a month now, and I think I can kind of give a good picture of the “ studying “ part of studying abroad.
The first big difference I found between UW-Madison and the French university in Aix, AMU, was the lack of technology. Gone are the days of picking out your dream classes on schedule planner and having it neatly spit out 1237241 possible schedules you can choose from.
In French college, students in each major, or license here, usually take the same schedule as all the other students in their license that semester. Because all the students have the same schedule, there aren’t multiple times offered for each class and core classes from different licenses often are scheduled at the same time. This isn’t a problem if you are an actual French student since you only have to choose from schedule 1 or schedule 2 to find all the classes you need for the semester.
For an American student, it’s a little bit different. Depending on your major, you’ll probably need to take different classes from different licenses in order to find course equivalents back at Madison. Since the French school system isn’t set up to allow student’s to do that (there isn’t any reason for them to need to take classes from across different majors), crafting a schedule can be kind of a pain. In addition, the website isn’t super modern and is missing a lot of information.
Everyone in the program this year got an additional culture enriching experience by having the AMU website completely shut down by someone protesting solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. (If you don’t know about the Charlie Hebdo attacks you should Google it since it’s way too long to explain in this post !)
You’re best bet is to party like its 1984 and make your schedule by looking up classes in the notebooks in the APA office. Yes, it’s a little annoying, but do-able!
I got lucky and was able to schedule all my classes for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and one on Friday, leaving Monday completely freeeeeeeeee for travel! ” Abroad ” is included in ” study abroad ” and I plan to abuse that as much as possible.
The classes I ended up with were a French literature class, History of Media, a writing workshop, Anthropology of Provence, Phonetics, Oral Expression (theater improv), and a methodology course that is obligatory for my program. You are required to take 14 credits for the semester, but I signed up for 20 credits so I could drop some classes.
The conversion for class hours to credit hours is 15 hours of class = 1 credit.
The last three classes are classes through the program so they are only with other American students. The first four however, are classes regularly offered through the French university and are with the native French students. Taking classes with REAL French people seemed a tad bit terrifying, and for the first week, it kind of was.
The first shock I received upon taking actual French classes at actual French college was the overall appearance of the building. In France, attending college is dirt-cheap. A student will only pay 400 euro for a semester!!!! That’s 480 American dollars and only $30 more than ONE MONTH of my rent in Madison. Yeah, I almost spit out my drink when I figured out the conversion.
Since tuition is so low, there isn’t much money left over for renovating or overall beautification of the campus. Actually, there aren’t even really campuses in France.
The best way I can describe the FAC is that it’s kind of like an inner city high school.
There isn’t really any technology in the classrooms, there is graffiti everywhere, the chairs/desks/doors are kind of broken, and the bathrooms rarely have soap or toilet paper. I am also convinced the building has no heating system.
Also, the building has these really nifty chain link fences sticking perpendicularly out of the walls. We asked one of the yearlong students what they were for and she replied nonchalantly “Oh, that’s to catch the bricks and things that fall off of the top of the building.”
Another student in my program remarked that there were holes in the fences and the response to that was
“Yeah, you probably just shouldn’t walk to close to the walls.”
Not all of the FAC buildings are like that though. I guess just the one we get to attend is. For the past ten years there have been plans to tear the building down but for whatever reason they keep falling through. Judging from the amounts of crumbling cement I’ve seen construction workers wheel through the hallways each day (yes, that’s a real thing), I’d say they really only have to wait a year or two before the building collapses and does the job for them.
It’s not all bad though; my school at least has my name on it!
The way classes are held is also different in France. For example, if you have a four-credit class, that class will meet once a week for four hours. I signed up for 20 credits so I had 20 hours of class my first week. Overwhelming was an understatement.
My first class of the week was my literature class titled “Un Gai Savoir?”, which translates to “A Happy Person Knows?”. It’s a literature class that studies the different theories about laughter and how they can be applied to classic French texts. This class is a little different in that it is a four-credit class, but it is split up into two, two hours sessions per week. One on Tuesday and one on Thursday. The class went by smoothly, was interesting, and my Tuesday professor looks and dresses kind of like Zooey Deschanel will in 15 years.
My second class of the day was my History of Media class. This class is a full on four-hour lecture course. How I was going to survive I had no clue.
The class started off a bit rough. It turns out the class was only supposed to be for 40 people maximum, but 70 of us enrolled. That meant cramming 30 extra people into the tiny room we had. Classes are rarely held in big lecture halls.
Our professor had to send half of the class off on a hunt for abandoned chairs through out the building before we could start. After about a half hour the seating situation was figured out and class started. Our professor started class by asking all of the foreign students to introduce themselves. All of a sudden, I had 70 French faces staring intently at me waiting for me to speak.
I panicked. Most people have fight or flight when they are faced with stress. I’m apparently part possum and have a third, innate response to stress: to freeze. Of course, when you’re faced with a room full of people waiting for you to speak, freezing doesn’t really work.
I managed to stammer out “My name is Sarah and I’m American” in French after two tries. I was so embarrassed and ready to run out of the room when I noticed the two girls next to me were still staring at me and smiling. They asked me where I was from in America and after one poorly drawn map and a very convoluted explanation of what the Midwest was, they came to the conclusion that Wisconsin was in the south. Sorry, guys.
With my face still red and nervous sweat ensuing, I then heard the professor say that we were each to do a 30-minute oral presentation on a subject relating to French media over the semester. Then she said we would be picking out subjects, partners, and date of the presentation right now. As in, I had no time to even figure out what half the subjects on the list even were. I was seriously ready to walk out of the room then and there when again the two girls next to me turned and said, “If you have any questions just ask us. We can help you.”
Light shown from the heavens, a cool breeze came out of nowhere to stop my sweating, and I had to fight the urge from wrapping them both in a bear hug. Their names were Chloé and Iris and I am totally determined to make them my new best friends.
They helped me sign up for a presentation, which due to the whole having double the amount of students are we were supposed to thing, turned into a written exposé instead of an oral one. *Cue angels singing *
Thanks to Chloé and Iris, I will be turning in a paper on French TV during the 1950s on March 31st. Not too shabby.
The rest of the class was a regular lecture and went off without a hitch. Well, except for the whole frantically trying to copy down everything my professor said while she rapidly listed off strings of dates and other important information during the three-hour lecture.
In France, professors don’t use power points and they rarely write things on the board. They have hand written notes they’ve taken on notebook paper and then will stand in front of the class and talk at you until the class is over. French students take notes by copying down every word. I’m not kidding, they write down everything.
Imagine a million Joan Holloways (Madmen reference) on speed typing up notes being dictated from an equally amped up Rodger Sterling. That’s what it’s like to be in a French classroom. If you get annoyed by keyboard clicks, stay far away from France.
My Wednesday classes were much more uneventful. My Anthropology of Provence class was actually held in a building a bus ride away from our regular building which gasp actually looked like college! There were no falling bricks and the class was in a lecture hall! I was immediately overtaken by Madison nostalgia.
The class was mostly made up of foreign students and we spent the whole time looking at water color paintings of Provence or looking up pictures of provincial food. At one point, our professor just started calling on the native French students and asking them what type of herbs their moms put in Ratatouille. Compared to the day before, it was like attending academic yoga.
My second class that day was the phonetics class offered through APA. This class is taught by a professor who came over with us from UW-Madison and is dedicated solely to improving our pronunciation of French.
Overall, Wednesday was a good day.
My fifth class that week was the writing workshop on Thursday morning. My professor hadn’t shown up yet even though class was supposed to start at 9 and it was 9:20, but I noticed a middle aged guy in a suit coat with a briefcase arrive and start joking with some of the students in the hall. Then after ten minutes, he walked up to the door and unlocked so everyone could enter. I figured he must be our professor.
He started the class be apologizing for being late but then saying he would probably be that late every day. The attitude here is that the student is supposed to adapt to the professor’s schedule, not the other way around like in the US. The class started off fine, we analyzed a screenplay and then were told to write a short story. The professor asked five students to give one word each. The words ended up being door, barbeque, dream, handicapped, and family.
We were given ten minutes to write a story that included all of these words. At the time, I had no clue what the French word for handicapped meant, but I ignored it and starting writing my story anyways. My roommates had asked me about prom the night before so I wrote my story about a high school girl who has a bad dream that barbeque chicken gets thrown on her at prom. It was stupid, but I didn’t think anyone would see it so it didn’t matter. Then, my professor starting calling on all the students and asking them to read their story out loud!
I was the only foreign student in the class so I opened with “Hi, sorry, I’m American and my French isn’t that good.” Which was met with some snickering around the room. I started reading my story and my professor had to ask me to repeat certain parts since even he couldn’t understand me because my nervous stammering had taken over again. Then he chided me for not using two of the words on the list. It was not good to say the least.
After class, I tried to earn some brownie points by asking what books I should read on the bibliography he gave in order to better prepare for the course. He replied in complete deadpan “ Why don’t you read Edgar Allen Poe… you can probably find that in English.”
I said thanks and then he looked at me again and asked, “Do you really think you’re going to take this course?”
Consider brownie points earned to be zero.
I said yes again, but will probably drop it.
My literature class met again that day and that went fine, and then I had my theater class, which was actually really fun!
It’s taught by a professor who let’s us call him Claude and also let’s us be as weird as we want to. In fact, he encourages it. The class is called “Expression Oral” and I recommend everyone in the APA program to take it!
I finished the week alive, and having listened to the most French I’ve ever listened to in my whole life. I only had two mildly embarrassing experiences and I think only one class (the writing workshop) will turn out to be a dud. As for now, tout va bien!