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?

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