January has been and gone, and brought with it two student nemeses: exams (which are, quelle surprise, even more daunting when they’re not in your mother tongue) and snow (you try forcing yourself out of bed at 8am through a blizzard for a two hour lecture on the sociology of culture spoken in French so garbled you can only understand one word in ten).
For your reading pleasure I saved all of my exam papers so that I could paint a truly accurate picture of the utterly arbitrary, yet paradoxically drearily formulaic, state of the French university system (future exchange students, I’m sorry, but someone had to tell you). My first exam was on the history of France since 1940, a topic that holds much scope for debate due to number of divisive events that occurred, from collaboration with the Nazis to the Algerian war. However, the paper consisted of four statements:
- The characteristics of French decolonisation.
- The Vichy regime: origins, characteristics, place in history.
- The cohabitations of the Fifth Republic.
- 10 May 1981: why, how and consequences.
If you study history in the UK you will understand just how baffling it was to be presented with an exam that not only didn’t contain any questions, but also didn’t allude to the concept of historiography or different schools of thought. My test on contemporary French political life was no better; the main question was simply: “The relations between the president and the first minister under the fifth republic.” “But what about the relations? And between which of the 6 presidents and 20 first ministers?” I hear you cry! Like French administration, and the fact that the food is so delicious yet the obesity rate here is the lowest in Europe, the answer remains a mystery. The exam that really took the gâteau, however, was on French history from 1789 to 1914. Instead of being presented with more statements about which we could just regurgitate whatever facts we could recall from the many, lengthy lectures, we were given what could only be described as a forty question “pop quiz”. It was simultaneously insulting that we were only deemed capable of giving one word answers, and yet also frustratingly tricky in its specificity. My eventual mark was a solid 1 out of 20, which I may frame as proof that the first year that actually counts towards my degree has been an academic shambles so far.
Thankfully, we change courses half way through the year and so I’ve started 7 brand new sets of lectures. ‘Rapports Sociaux de Sexe’ (Gender Relations) is the first class I’ve taken here taught by a woman and is excellent. It basically consists of the professor waxing poetic for 2 hours at a time about feminism and equality, and I can pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with her, which was when she used a photo of ‘Meeses Bankes’ from Mary Poppins in her slideshow on the suffragettes. Other classes that I expected to be fairly conventional have turned out to be bizarre, particularly one called ‘L’Investigation Journalistique Face Aux Pouvoirs’ (Journalistic Investigation Facing the Powers). Each class the professor sets out exactly what we’ll be learning about, and then proceeds to completely ignore his plan and stalk about the room, vividly describing his own time in the field or the inner workings of some detailed research into government corruption or the secret service. I come away fascinated, but convinced I’ll be repeating the 1 out of 20 debacle come the second round of exams.