Friday, September 13, 2013

First Week of School? Check!

Vendredi, 13 septembre.

FIRST WEEK OF SCHOOL AT A FRENCH UNIVERSITY? DONE. And I didn't get lost once! (Well, okay, maybe once.) But seriously, I'm actually really excited to have survived the week and am feeling really good about the upcoming semester.

I know you probably have a million and one questions that I couldn't begin to answer here, so feel free to ask anything in the comments and I'll try to respond as best I can! In the meantime, I guess I'll just describe my classes (well, the classes I attended this week) and try to give you a little bit of insight into the French university nightmare system!

First things first -- first day of school picture! Here I am standing in front of the IEFE building. It's where we took our pre-session classes and even though I don't have classes there during the semester, there's a little room just for exchange students where we all feel very much at home!

Like William & Mary, UPV has an add/drop period. It lasts three weeks and during those three weeks, anything goes. Attendance isn't really required and students dart in and out of classes, spending thirty minutes in one before running to check out another. It's a little bit of a stressful time, but it also gives us foreign exchange students a wonderful opportunity to "try out" our classes before committing to them for the whole year. This week, I went to a total of eight classes and although I won't be keeping them all, I had a good time running around and testing them all out!

First up, the RI courses. As you might remember, these are courses created specifically for American students studying abroad at UPV. Although I'm not sure how my final schedule will look, this week I went to three RI classes: Contemporary French Civilization, French as a Foreign Language, and Phonetics.

French Civ sounds like it's going to be a really fun class! Each week of the semester (12 weeks total) is dedicated to a different aspect of contemporary French civilization -- for example, art/culture or the health care system. If that sounds like a lot of information to cram into one class, it's because it is. But I think it'll be an informative class and it doesn't sound like it will be too hard to do well: unlike most French classes where 100% of the grade is based on the final exam, this professor also gives grades for quizzes, midterms, and oral presentations. Which reminds me, Molly and I volunteered to do the first exposé of the semester! We'll be presenting on the French political system next Wednesday. (Eek!)

French as a Foreign Language is just what is sounds like: a class about French as a foreign language. We meet twice a week for about two hours and the class is divided into grammar (on Mondays) and methodology (on Thursdays). I'm not entirely sure what I think of the class yet, but it will prbably be helpful to keep.

I wasn't sold on the idea of Phonetics at first -- I've taken a linguistics class at W&M and phonetics was one of my least favorite aspects. (Do you remember this?) But this phonetics class is sort of the opposite of what I did: instead of studying phonetics itself, we're using phonetics to improve our spoken French. Definitely a class worth taking! I imagine that it's going to be one of my more frustrating classes -- phonetics is something you either completely understand or don't get at all -- but if I can improve my pronunciation even a little bit, it'll be worthwhile.

In addition to my RI classes, I went to several integrated classes this week. They were an interesting mix of subjects and levels, but they were all pretty enjoyable. In total, I went to four: Mythology and Literature, Modern Art History, Medieval Regional History of Languedoc, General Cultural History of Art. Oh, and German.

First up, Mythology and Literature. I don't have too much to say about this class because it's almost certainly going to be dropped from my schedule. Tant pis! The class was interesting enough -- it focuses on three of the Roman Empire's most infamous emperors and the myths that surround their reigns -- but it was a huge lecture class full of freshmen (I'll tell you more about what that implies another time) and it was only going to give me one transfer credit at W&M.

Modern Art History is ... intense. The course consists of two classes -- a big lecture classe called a cours magistral and a smaller travail dirigé. Unfortunately, because of our schedules, Molly and I were forced to choose the TD right after the CM, meaning that we begin our Tuesday mornings at 8:15 with 4 hours of modern (which, in Europe, refers to the Renaissance) art history. It sounds like it's going to be a tough course and I could see myself dropping it if the next two weeks don't go well, but the professor is very nice and promised to go easy on us. She also promised to pair each of us Americans with French students for our oral exposé, which would be an exciting way to make a friend or two!

I think I'm really going to like Medieval Regional History of Languedoc. The professor is adorable and although the class is pretty big and the back of the room (where I got stuck this week) was a little on the rowdy side, the course itself didn't seem too difficult. But we shall see!

Cultural General History of Art (or at least I think that's how the title translates) is a huge lecture class, full of students for whom art history is NOT a primary major. The course begins, conveniently, where my survey art history class left off last fall, and so far, is really interesting. The professor isn't the most organized woman in the world and her style of teaching left Molly (who signed up for the class as well) more than a little frustrated, but I really enjoyed the material! Even better, while I understand absolutely everything that was said during the first course, two French students had to ask about vocabulary words. (Psh, amateurs.)

So ... German. This one's a little tricky because I've had to figure out how my German level at William & Mary compares to the levels of courses offered at UPV. I tried out a class yesterday, hoping that maybe a second year German class might work for me. Unfortunately for me, what I didn't realize was that the class I stepped into was a Level B1/B2 German class! For a little bit of clarification, I was just rated a B2+ in French and I've been taking the language for seven or eight years ... whereas I've only taken ONE YEAR of German. Granted, one year of German at W&M (where classes meet five times a week) is much more intense than the same amount of time learning German at UPV (where classes meet once a week), but I was still definitely out of place. I went to talk to the head of the German department today and explained that although I think I could survive in an advanced class, I don't want to spend all my time in France studying German. She was very nice and helped me figure out a couple of better options for me, so next week, I'll hopefully be able to try out a few more courses and figure out something that works a little better! In the meantime, I can just sit back and laugh at how funny my face must have looked with the German professor started going off in rapid-fire German!

That's all for the classes I took this week! All in all, I feel really good about them. Although it's easy to zone out and lose focus when the professors are speaking rapid-fire French, for the most part, I was able to understand just about everything that was said and the material itself didn't seem too difficult! Yay!

Moving on ... here's for a quick look at the university system as a whole! Basically, it's a nightmare. The complex bureacracy and utter lack of organization that permeates the French university system is insanely contradictory and frustratingly confusing. I don't want to exaggerate or anything, so let me just say that had it existed when Dante wrote The Divine Comedy, there would have had to have been an additional circle of hell added to The Inferno.

At the Universite Paul-Valery alone, there are five UFRs (Unités de Formation et de Recherche). The UFRs are divided along subject lines: for example, UFR3 deals with humanities and environmental science while UFR4 tackles economics, math, and socal sciences. Each UFR has a completely different website and, within each of these sites, each individual department (within UFR3: history, art history, geography, etc) has its own pages. Each of these departments have their own methods of registration: some require you to sign up online, some require a visit to the department secretary, and some just require you to show up on the first day!

This isn't such a big deal for French students, because once they choose their major, they rarely take classes outside of their UFR. A student majoring in art history, for example, would almost never take anything outside of UFR3 and would never EVER take any of the science or other classes offered at the other two universities. Because we're foreign exchange students, however, we're considered pluridisciplinaire. We're not degree-seeking and can therefore take any classes we want! It's great for us, but also sort of a nightmare. It's hard enough to find classes and figure out how to register, but on top of that, a lot of professors don't really understand who we are and what we're doing in their classes! Still, most that I've talked to have been more than accomodating and several have assured me that they're very understanding when grading exchange students' work.

Another exciting layer to the cake (although cake is much too positive of a metaphor for this situation) is the process of transferring credits. The idea of "credits" is strangely difficult to explain to the French -- when they go to university, they have a set schedule of classes that they take each semester until graduation. There's no double-majoring and no mixing concentrations, so there's no need to get creative when picking classes! This would be an absolute nightmare for transferring credits back to the States if it weren't for ECTS. ECTS, which stands for European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, is a way of measuring credit hours at European universities that can then be "translated" into credit hours at American universities. Every school has a different way of translating these credits: some of the other American students get 1 credit for every ECTS, some get .75 or even 1.5. But, naturally, W&M isn't like other universities. At W&M, 1 W&M transfer credit is equal to 2 ECTS.

Do you sense how there could be a problem here? I will explain.

While most of the students we went through the pre-stage with are planning to take four or five classes during the semester for a "full load" at their home universities, I currently have EIGHT classes for the equivalent of 15 W&M transfer credits. So ... yeah. But no need to worry -- I'm in the midst of finalizing my schedule and I'm sure that everything will work out just fine, even if I do end up taking a few more classes than usual!


  1. So interesting! I'm very proud of your efforts to keep us all 'in the loop'. God bless you!

  2. Would a French cooking class be offered? haha! But really!

  3. I think you deserve many ECTS just for figuring out all these fine points. I usually say take a class for fun but in your case, these are all fun. You are amazing.

  4. Je commence a me demander si tu es vraiment dans une famille ou si tu vis a l'universite?;-) Tu as du etre bien fatiguee apres cette semaine...Je suis fatiguee en y pensant.
    As tu eu une "bonne fin de semaine"?(weekend en francais quebecois)

    Quelle fille tu es!