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:
|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…