French university pedagogy seen by an American

Something should be said about professor-student relations. For the most part, contact is limited to the classroom, where the student’s ignorance is taken for granted and the professor does all the talking without permitting questions. The theory is that the students haven’t enough background to make intelligent inquiries.

At Nice last summer, on the final day of a month-long session, the students, under the direction of the two young American assistants, prepared a series of skits commenting on their experience. One skit consisted of two scenes in a classroom. First, an “American” professor entered in sports shirt and tennis shoes, telling his students he wanted to know them and inviting them to his office to discuss their problems, even their life outside the classroom. When he had finished his brief, informal talk, he asked if there were any questions, and of course no hands were raised. The next scene presented a young woman, a doctoral candidate from the Sorbonne, as the lecturer — chic, crisp, equipped with a quire of notes. At the end of her virtually unintelligible lecture, she too asked if there were any questions. When a dozen eager hands shot up, she replied coolly, “Answer them among yourselves. I shall see you again next week at this same hour.”

I found this in an American’s comments on French university pedagogy… set in Bordeaux… in 1966. In other words, in a moment fairly far removed — one might think — from contemporary university realities here. It’s a description from an era when a novelistic style of describing everyday life was more common in academics’ professional commentary, and some of its syntax is not contemporary. Take the last sentence of the first paragraph, “The theory is that the students haven’t enough background to make intelligent inquiries.” Is there not a ring of a different era in this phrasing, this vocabulary?

Now, obviously the main point of this passage is to dramatize a cultural difference between French and American academic systems. The conceptual structure here is more complex than it initially appears: what we have here is a retelling of a French skit about American and French professors, that is, an American representation of a French representation of an American’s pedagogy apparently understood by French students within a logic wherein differing national characters are mapped out in pedagogical space. A logic where cultures are projected into pedagogies and individuals are taken, more or less, as tokens of a cultural whole. Admittedly, the author goes on to describe these episodes as “humerous hyperbole”; but we can see a whole logic of structural difference here:

Attribute American French
Inst. Rank American ‘professor’ Doctoral candidate at the Sorbonne (ie, a stranger to Bordeaux)
Gender Man (apparently not young) Young woman
Appearance Sports shirt and tennis shoes Chic, crisp, equipped with a quire of notes
Speaking style Brief, highly informal talk Virtually unintelligible lecture
Relation with students Invites social relations and proposes contact outside the classroom. Wants to “know” them, academically and nonacademically. (Hints of the liberal arts fantasy of protracted student-teacher intimacy.) Apparently entirely academic and impersonal.
Student response “Of course, no hands were raised.” Many hands raised, but conversation was dismissed and students are told to talk amongst themselves instead.
Summary of social relationality The professor’s desire for student sociality and recognition is turned down flat by students, who seem to have no desire for their professor. The professor seems to propose dialogue only as a way of getting an opportunity to refuse dialogue, while the students appear to want sociality (or attention) from the professor, but are in turn rejected.
Results No dialogue. No dialogue.

As a structural diagram of one moment in the construal of cultural difference, this one has some intriguing elements. France is personified as a young woman and America as a man; France is formal and distant while America attempts to be friendly and personal; France is well dressed while America is in sports clothes; French academic discourse is apparently very hard to understand but nonetheless a major local prestige object (or at least it attracts lots of questions), while American academic discourse is linguistically simple but culturally and affectively incomprehensible (evoking zero student response). One thing that Anglo readers might miss is the tacit reference to a well-entrenched historical pattern that the young French lecturer embodies: at least since the 19th century, I believe, young French academics have taught in the provinces but are still, at heart, Parisians, may even be weekly commuters from Paris, and generally scorn the provincial world, just as she appears to scorn her students. The figure of the young woman is deeply aestheticized and gendered, apparently not merely by the American observer but also by the French students themselves. I don’t really know how this fits into French academic imaginaries, but I am sure that haughty Parisian intellectual culture must have a distinct and problematic image in the provinces. This haughtiness is, of course, demonstrated and confirmed by the professor’s refusal to engage in dialogue. Whether the students’ eagerness to ask questions was (ostensibly) because of the institutional prestige of the lecturer, the incomprehensibility of her discourse, or the nonacademic qualities of her style or gender, I can’t really make out here.

But something striking, and perhaps the reason why I’m posting this seemingly distant historical tidbit, is that certain features of this pedagogy are basically still accurate today, for several of the philosophy classes I’ve seen in action this autumn here in Paris. Teachers who tell their students that it’s a université de masse and that there are too many of them so they better talk among themselves? Check, yes, I’ve seen that. Formal academic impersonality with next to no pedagogical metadiscourse? Yep, seen that too. Failed efforts to get the students to talk? Yes, that’s pretty common. With the friendly as well as the standoffish faculty? Yes, student passivity isn’t terribly discriminating about that sort of thing. No overt complaints even in the face of incomprehensible lectures? Indeed.

A massive disclaimer seems to be in order: this isn’t meant as any kind of general educational indictment or global comment on anything. I’m not trying to say that all pedagogy here is bad or anything else of that scope. Nonetheless, I’m rather struck to see that some of the local modes of disengagement and pedagogical frustration haven’t changed much in four decades. As for the questions about how national characters are mapped pedagogically today, I can’t say that I’ve encountered anyone talking about that here so far, but I will keep my eyes open…

8 thoughts on “French university pedagogy seen by an American

  1. Do French students fill out course evaluations?
    Are faculty evaluated based on their teaching? How?
    What share of teaching is done by experienced professors?
    What is the relationship between the popularity of a department’s courses and its funding?
    What is the relationship between the popularity of a university and its funding?

  2. Hi Mike, OK, well, I must say this set of questions is a bit unexpected. Can you clarify more what all these have to do with each other and with the post? Or is this simply like background info that you want to have? And anyway, I currently have pretty weak answers to these questions, and will have to do a bit of research to properly answer. To be brief, I have not yet encountered any course evaluations; I don’t actually know about internal faculty evaluation but it definitely seems more research oriented; the majority of teaching in the department I’m looking at is done by experienced teachers, though there are rumors that temporary staff/grad students teach a fair bit overall (haven’t seen stats); and as for funding, I don’t think funding has primarily been department-based or even primarily university-based until fairly recently; they are shifting to more of a contract-based, smaller-unit-centered system but I think for a long time things like salaries and capital costs were just paid centrally by the ministry. I’m not aware of there being any kind of institutionalized popularity metrics for departmental courses or for universities in the way that the US has ratemyprofessors and US News & World Report, certainly not ones directly tired to finances even with more contractual arrangements. There isn’t the same sort of consumer mentality here, and many professors explicitly diss questions of student satisfaction.

    The kinds of data that are considered important — here’s something that perhaps should interest you — turn out to be culturally variable and hence culturally dependent; there’s more data on immigrants and “socioprofessional” origins of students’ families, and none on race, for instance. (Being an immigrant is of course sometimes a code word for being not white, though, kind of the way that “illegal immigrant” in the US tends to connote latin americans.)

    But again I will check into some of these things and perhaps clarify. Baptiste and other Francophones, please chime in if you’re reading!

  3. I’m sorry, I think posting so many questions without any explanation is kinda rude. I am definitely curious about the answers, and I think they each, to a greater or lesser extent, are related to the incentives faculty/departments/administrators have to provide educations students desire.

    I’ve got more questions, but don’t feel obliged to try to answer them:

    If the ministry was paying salaries, how did they decide how many new faculty in which departments?

    To what extent do students have a choice of university?

    Is faculty salary data public?

  4. There have been centralized disciplinary committees (of the Conseil National des universités) that did a lot of the work of giving jobs (kind of like a central committee for all potential sociology hires), though actual hiring selection is now more at the university level than it used to be and I think the national bodies only pre-screen candidates (supposedly for disciplinary competence, though it seems that things can descend into ugly politics). Students can pick any university they want, and switch whenever (though I guess it’s probably not so easy to switch at the doctoral level). Faculty salary data is not public on an individual level, to my knowledge, but it is also structured by a fairly strict set of seniority grades and so the only salary question for most individuals has to do with their step in their grade, and I suppose any additional research funds they may have individually obtained. Certainly there aren’t the same kind of customer satisfaction incentives as in the US, but I am not persuaded that an analysis in terms of institutional incentives is necessarily the most useful here; to my mind the real question has to do with the cultural system of values that determines the incentive structure. If you want to put it that way.

  5. Fascinating! Another question I have is how employers evaluate academic credentials in hiring, relative to how it is done in the U.S.

    I certainly agree that cultures and values influence the incentive structure adopted by institutions, especially government funded institutions. This does deserve analysis, as does the origin of the cultures and values.

    Part of the difference in pedagogy between the U.S. and France is because the current set of profs and students in each country have a taste for different pedagogy.

    Government policy (and private organizations like ratemyprofessor or U.S. News & World Report) can act fairly directly on the incentives faced by profs/departments/universities. So it seems to me that understanding what the incentives are and what would change them is vital.

  6. the article said ‘american’ professor, not american ‘professor’– which i wouldnt particularly care to correct, except inasmuch as it relates to what struck me most about the excerpt, which is that in both cases professor-student relations are nil (i.e. final row of your chart), which means that the social structure is reinforced, if from different directions.

    …and so what struck me was that the (american) professor was the one who was more structurally distant, and tried to be less so. and the (french) graduate student was structurally closer to the students (in that she was a student too, unless doctoral candidate has a different significance in france, which sounds vaguely familiar…), and asserted herself as less so.

    and more than that what struck me was that both cases the structure of the school remains one of educator vs educatees. and it doesnt seem like that has changed so much (the two things that would maybe breach the gap would be in the genre of course evals (m.bishop inspired) and in student-organized classes (which in the states are a rare occurrence, yes? and seem to spring up mostly in small “hippie” schools) or open uni sort of movement (maybe).)

    in any (other) cases (particularly in france) is this different/challenged? the first thing that comes to mind is protests, which would be emblematic of the administrators vs administratees categories (where administratees = professors + students). but does it go beyond that, or outside of that?

    [tangent, obvious] and then if you want to convert it into a factory, which you can if you maybe oversimplify things and think about how a lot of professors go into administration, thus making professoring a sort of middle-management, you have… euh, well, a lot of fun images to play with and even more fun tangents to weave together, but for the sake of (relative) brevity i’ll leave this as you also having, perhaps, even more reason to want to challenge the structure…

    what font is this?

  7. Hey Eli,
    A propos evaluations, they didn’t have them at Paris 3 where I taught but they DID have them at Sciences Po and the EHESS/ENS: at Sciences Po the evaluation was a more formal pre-done sheet like we see in the US and at the EHESS it was more the profs saying, please take a piece of paper and tell us how you liked the course (but certainly not in all of them.)

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