Learning, the French Way

After I’ve spent a month telling you about sales and trips to beautiful cities, it is finally time to talk about the actual reason I’m here – classes, and all the ways in which they are completely different from what we’re used to in the States. So buckle up and get ready to learn.  

I never thought I would say this as I struggled to pull together four 10-20 page final papers in early December, but I miss take-home writing assignments. This semester, I won’t have the opportunity to flaunt my superior bullshitting skills by restating the same argument in six different ways without the professor realizing that I’ve only introduced one semi-original idea in the whole paper. Because the concept of excessively long research papers doesn’t seem to exist in the French university system.

Peter Gumbel, the author of an (apparently) controversial book about the French education system, describes the French teaching style as “sit down and shut up.” Although his analysis focuses primarily on the secondary education system, it’s not totally inaccurate when it comes to university. I am enrolled in seven courses here: two conférences de méthode (seminars), three cours magistraux (large lectures of 40-100 students depending on the course level), a French class, and a history class. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll ignore the history class because it takes place in a public university unrelated to Sciences Po and operates according to different rules.

Handy summary chart for those who don’t feel like reading all the words below.

Course structure

In a cours magistral, you arrive in a large auditorium, sit down, and listen to the professor profess (pardon the pun) his wisdom for 1.5 hours while struggling to take down his/her every word. And I mean every word because I’ve gotten my hands on last year’s notes for one of my classes, and they read like a script. It’s tempting not to even show up to lecture now because even though a year has passed, I feel like the professor is reading over my shoulder as he delivers the exact same lecture, word for word. There is zero student engagement–unless you’re asking the professor to PLEASE speak into the microphone–and, I won’t lie to you, it gets boring often.

A conférence de méthode is more or less the equivalent of an American seminar. There are student presentations, discussions, or, as in my stats class, a group struggle over Excel functions. There is, however, a much greater emphasis on oral expression. And I don’t mean the raise-your-hand-and-spout-some-nonsense-to-pretend-you-did-the-reading-and-get-participation-points kind of oral expression. All Sciences Po students must pass an examination called the Grand Oral to obtain their Master’s diploma (all SP programs are 4+1, resulting in a Bachelor’s in Political Sciences + Master’s in a chosen subfield), which requires them to deliver a thoughtful, carefully structured oral presentation on a completely random topic before a panel of judges. As a result, many assignments here are centered around individual and group oral presentations. I’ve already had the pleasure to participate in one such presentation, and as someone with a seeeeerious public speaking phobia, I’d have preferred to get hit by a bus.


Most professors here give you a suggested reading list at the beginning of the semester, but it’s been indicated to me by numerous French students that you can succeed & thrive without ever opening one book from said list. In the U.S., while many students may interpret the weekly readings as merely suggested, we all know that when finals come, you’ll be cramming five books simultaneously in the depths of the library and wishing for a caffeine IV. I do find, however, that having a professor summarize the main arguments from relevant literature as part of the lecture spares you hours upon hours of powering through dense academic texts, a routine practice in American liberal arts colleges. In fact, I don’t have much homework here, but don’t be fooled: this is due largely to my status as an international student, as I see plenty of French students studying with the all-too-familiar mixture of stress and despair in their eyes.


To start off, let’s talk finals. There’s no going home early to finish your three research papers here. All written exams are completed on a set exam date in a set time period (Georgetown, think the IR and CPS finals). And then you have the oral exams, which go something like this: you show up to your final, you receive a piece of paper with the topic on it, you get a short preparation period, and then you just…speak before the professor. Think of it like writing an essay, but in verbal form. Russian universities operate on the same principle, so I’ve heard all about the sublime experience of forgetting everything you knew as the professor stares you down from my parents and friends. Boy, am I glad that foreign students only have to take written exams. The upside of such assessments is that you master the art of bullshitting confidently very quickly.

Now, this is where it gets interesting. Sciences Po practices what it calls the contrôle continu, which is essentially the French version of giving midterm exams. Except the midterm is on a Saturday morning. And it lasts four hours. And you have to write a coherent essay adhering to a very particular structure on a completely random topic. I will have the pleasure of taking such an exam this Saturday, so stay tuned for what I am sure will be a glowing review.

Speaking of a very particular structure, you are in for a treat when writing a French dissertation. Forget creativity because there is a format, and you better stick to it if you want to pass. Without going into overwhelming specifics, everything in a French essay must be carefully calibrated to present a balanced perspective that gives equal weight to both sides of any issue without giving greater weight to the argument you find most persuasive. The only way to indicate to your reader where your views lie on a particular issue (e.g. “masculine domination,” a topic I had to discuss a few weeks ago) is to organize your essay in a way that the point of view you favor appears as the last part/paragraph before the conclusion. There are guidelines on what exactly must go into your introduction & conclusion and IN WHAT ORDER. There is a very particular type of outline with 2-3 main parts and an equal number of sub-parts per main part containing specific examples. Unless you’re planning to study in a French university (or take Professor Webel’s French class at Georgetown), do not even bother to comprehend all of the above. Just know this : the French love their structure, and neutrality is paramount. So, the part of your essay where you call an author out on his problematic, poorly argued position? Forget about it.

Who won? You decide.

So, should you drop everything and transfer to a French university? Quite frankly, it depends on you and your learning style. As an aspiring writer with a fear of public speaking, I much prefer to hole up in my room with a pile of books and crank out a 10-page paper. I also do find that upper-level courses at Georgetown tend to be a lot more interesting (sorry, French friends), perhaps because they are more engaging. After all, there is nothing quite like calling out that guy you don’t like for completely misinterpreting a book he probably didn’t read. Or, you know, having a thoughtful and respectful discussion. The strongest argument in favor of French universities is, unsurprisingly, their cost (more on that in my next post). And there is also something to be said about systematically learning to consider two opposing perspectives and to understand the inner logic of each position. In our modern era of extreme polarization, I think we Americans often forget to put ourselves in our opponent’s shoes and to try to look at the world from their point of view. So we certainly have a lot to learn from the French intellectual exercise of delivering a balanced overview of any issue.

To avoid writing a book about education here, I’m splitting up my post into two parts, so stay tuned for what will inevitably be a lengthy rant about education costs in part 2, coming soon. Sneak peek: American education is absurdly expensive. Duh.


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