Before coming to France and during the orientation that took place during my first week here, my program directors emphasized the possible differences between French and American academic culture. Though they explained that this was not always the case, French professors often maintain a high level of distance with students, are strict, discourage participation and read grades out loud. I was nervous to start my classes because of having heard all this. However, once classes got going, I realized that, at least for me, this was largely untrue. Yes, there are differences. However, some of them are less pronounced than I originally expected.
My classes are at the French as a foreign language center (CIREFE), so I can’t speak on what university classes with other French students are like. This semester, all of my classes except for one are online. My classes tend to have more people in them than my classes at Wofford. But, they are similar in many ways. Most of my professors encourage participation and ask lots of questions in class. They types of subjects that we discuss are similar to the topics addressed in my French classes at Wofford. There are, however, some significant differences. Professors at CIREFE typically do not get to know students. At Wofford, forming relationships with professors in your department is common. At my university in France, that doesn’t really happen. Professors are generally nice, but they stick to discussing class material. Another major difference is the workload. My workload here is much, much lower. Professors typically give a weekly homework assignment, if that, and exams take place twice a semester, as opposed to the continuous assessment method that is typical of classes at Wofford. It may be surprising, but this has actually been the hardest part of the experience for me academically. I’m accustomed to completing a large amount of assignments, papers, and homework outside of class and getting feedback on my work. At first, the prospect of having less work seemed great, but then I realized that having feedback and being graded largely on only two big exams was extremely stressful. It’s manageable, but it’s definitely not something that I will miss about the academic culture here!
Another thing that struck me about my classes here was that some of my classmates didn’t seem to care at all. At Wofford, most people tended to be interested and engaged in class. At first, I did not understand why this was. Of course, some students were engaged just like I expected, but others were markedly not so. It wasn’t until a discussion with one of my friends from class that I realized why this was. Save for a difference in motivation that is present in any academic environment, much of this is due to the fact that some of the students at CIREFE come from vastly different life circumstances than I do. Some of them are refugees, parents, or in other positions where they have concerns that come before classwork. Thinking about this helped put things in perspective for me.
This is my last semester of undergrad, but during my time at Wofford I double majored in Sociology/Anthropology and French. I finished up my Sociology/Anthropology major last Fall, and now I’m focusing on finishing my French major. My study abroad hasn’t been without challenges, especially during these Covid times, but it has been an excellent capstone to my time as a French major. I’ve been able to hone my French skills in a way that I was not able to do without an experience of immersion. Even though I’m not taking sociology or anthropology courses here, my time in the department at Wofford has actually allowed me to be more observant and open to the culture and customs that I experience here in France, and that outlook has been invaluable to me.
Overall, I prefer the academic culture in America. Part of the reason I chose Wofford was for the advantages that a small, community-oriented college provides, and I can’t say that I do not miss that culture here in France. However, being exposed to this new way of doing things has been a learning experience and for that I am thankful.