29 October 2010

Observations on French vs American Universities Part 1: BATHROOM BEHAVIOR

I've been teaching for a few weeks now in the French university, and have noticed a marked difference between college students from France and from chez moi aux Etats-Unis. While I have never taught university level students in the States, it's not that long ago since I myself was one of them, which gives me the street cred needed to make this observation...

In America, where public restrooms are practically a constitutional right, university students enjoy the liberty of using the facilities at their own discretion... usually trying to slip out the door discretely, causing minimal distraction to classmates. It is generally not required to ask the professor's permission, except during tests or exams, of course... I even remember casually walking out of particularly dull lectures to purchase snacks from the vending machine or answer phone calls.

I had always assumed my students in France would follow suit in my class should ever nature call... Take last week, for example. I was in the midst of what I thought was a riveting lecture about affirmative action in the US with one of my masters classes. I was speaking passionately, even eloquently, and was proud of myself for having so thoroughly researched today's class. One student made eye contact with me as I spoke, his lips starting to mouth something. Convinced that he was moved by my dazzling teaching skills, I grew confident. I can do this! I am teaching and I am making a difference in these people's lives! He was raising his hand now, doubtlessly inspired enough by my lecture to contribute an idea! I nodded in his direction to indicate I was aware of his burning need to speak his mind on the subject I had so artfully presented, and finished my thought. Then I turned to him and said, "so what are your thoughts on the 14th Amendment, Mattis?"

"euhhh, actually, Madame, I must use... euhhh... les toilettes, s'il vous plaît?"

"Oh," I said, disappointed. "well, go ahead." Here I was expecting a brilliant response, and instead I get a half-hearted (and half-French) request to use the bathroom.

Since then, I have been inundated by bathroom requests. Today, in the midst of drawing a diagram (very artistically rendered, I might add) of the American court system on the board, I was again interrupted by the all-too familiar question. A beast inside of me raged, and I snapped.

"For goodness sake, if you have to use the restroom, just go! You are all adults, and I won't stop you! I know you have to ask permission in French schools, which I could understand if you were still in primary school, but you're in UNIVERSITY NOW! In my class, consider yourselves in America! PLEASE DON'T ASK! JUST GO!"

I punctuated my miniature rant with an exasperated sigh, and then noticed that I had quite possibly scared my class mute with my impassioned delivery. Thirty pairs of eyes stared back at me, and as I pondered how to soften what had already been said, in the back row, someone quipped "Yes we can!" A chorus of giggles resulted, and of course, I tried to keep a straight face, failing miserably, and eventually succumbing to laughter.

I must admit that as much as my students drive me crazy, they make me smile in equal quantity.

Next year, I am putting "freedom of bathroom use" in my class rules...

23 October 2010

Surviving my first week of teaching French University

Well, I survived my first day of university teaching, nearly intact. Although the first day of class is fairly simple, entailing distribution of texts, going over grading policies, and making introductions, I was all nerves; Nausea in the pit of my stomach nervous. My undergrad students range from 18 to 22 years old, and my Masters students range from mid twenties to forties. Since I’m close in age and sometimes younger than my students, respect is a serious concern. It didn’t help that each time I entered the classroom, the male students gawked at me, the females eyed my outfit up and down, staring disapprovingly at my scuffed ballerina flats, and a murmur of reaction filled the room... as if I couldn’t understand French!

“But she’s so young!”

“I thought it would be a guy... Jamie... isn’t that a boy’s name? Like Jamie Oliver?”

“No, silly, it’s like the tv show “Super Jaimie” (The French version of the Bionic Woman)

I smiled and introduced myself to the class, briefly outlined the goals of the class, and instructed them to interview the person sitting next to them, before ultimately presenting their partner to the class. I had them come up with their own questions, which were written on the board. To spice up the boring list of questions (What’s your name? How old are you? What are you studying? Where are you from?) I added my own question to the list: If you could be any animal, which animal would you be, and why? Of course this broke the ice and the response was generally laughter. Phew!

After the round of introductions, I let the students ask me questions... which included:

“What country are you from? Your accent is strange!”

“Aren’t you rather thin for an American?”

“Are you single?”

I used this exercise for all of my 14 classes... and it was the final class on Friday where it took a turn for the worst. During the introductions, a male student presented his partner.

“Zees is Jean-Claude, he eez twenty-two years old, and he would like to sleep with you zees night!” he said with a wicked gleam in his eye.

A hush of horror fell over my classroom, and I also struggled to believe what had just come out of his mouth. Jean-Claude, his partner, turned white, and shook his head vehemently, as if saying he had no part in what had just transpired.

A few long, terrifying what do I do? moment followed. Send him out of the room? Diffuse with quick-witted humor?

I always think of witty responses.... always a few minutes too late... The class was starting to murmur... I could not lose control of them. I’d better assert my authority!

“Excuse me? Would you like to repeat that?” I demanded. “This is your first and final warning. I will never tolerate this disrespect in my classroom, and if you behave this way again, you’re out of this room, and failing this class. Do you want to be in this class? Comprenez-vous? Est-ce que vous-voulez être dans ce cours?”

He bowed his head and mumbled an apology, but it was too late, the entire atmosphere of the class had been spoiled. The rest of the period, the whole dynamic had shifted, and I could not smile. I walked out, deflated. I could never imagine a student in an American university behaving this way.

I had been doing so well this week... what happened?

Interesting how one event can spoil a series of good ones. Off I go to drown my sorrows in a French pastry.

I can't help but recall my first day teaching elementary school last year in France. See my article, First official day of teaching... Epic Failure

This most recent experience is 100 times more devastating! What I wouldn't give to exchange the uninterested stares of young adults for the effortless love and enthusiasm of children. I miss those kids so damn much. French people start off so adorable and full of life as children... what turns them into the painfully thin, cigarette-dependent, indifferent fashion plates that now sit before me? I'm probably being unfair, I need to give them time to warm up to me, and me to them... I'm just going to have to work a lot harder than I ever had to with the kids.

I have to bear in mind that I am living in the south of France... in a gorgeous new city, and realizing a childhood dream... for the second year in a row! "This is my dream" is now written on a post-it on my wall. A mantra to be repeated in times of difficulty.

Let’s hope next week is better... at least now I know what I’m up against. Better start preparing my arsenal of ‘quick witted’ responses now!

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