Considering living and working in France? Read on for the lowdown on what makes Grenoble a great destination for expats.
by Karen Walhout
While sitting around a campfire somewhere in the Chartreuse with my boyfriend last spring, I suddenly had an urge to go back to school. As a fairly new inhabitant of the Grenoble area, and France itself, I was a little unsure of what the process might entail, but I was so taken by the idea that it became an obsession. There were many challenges involved, and as I soon discovered, many surprises as well. It’s been an interesting adventure which has not only helped improve my French and develop my career opportunities, but also to appreciate the French education system and all its happy advantages.
The first major challenge was collecting all the necessary documents for the application. Fortunately everything was well explained on the website – in French only. As my boyfriend patiently revealed to me as we huddled around the computer later that week, the dossier d’inscription for the Master program entailed a motivation letter, a thesis proposal, and a number of official documents, officially translated and stamped with approval by city hall. The first two items were fairly doable for me. It’s always the administration documents that really make my head spin. The due date approaching fast, I started to question my timing. Later I realized I was taking things a little too seriously.
Two days before the due date, I was ready with a killer thesis proposal, gratefully translated by a friend who’s got a translating fetish. However, I still hadn’t found the time and money to hire qualified translator to translate my diploma and transcript from Trent University in Canada, where I’d finished a bachelor degree in English literature two years earlier. Completely out of time, I reluctantly mailed the file with my personal, hand-written, unstamped translation of the diploma and transcripts.
After two months of expecting a just rejection of my very incomplete application, an acceptance letter came, along with the dates by when I was to finish the inscription process and start classes. Apparently my stamp of approval was just as legitimate as City Hall ‘s. In my North American experience, if you don’t have things exactly in order with administration requirements, Tant pis pour toi. Here in France, however, as I am still discovering even now, the university education system is pretty ‘chill’, considering my rather strict view of education.
I had a hard time finding course descriptions, for one thing. Eager to sign up for classes and organize my schedule, I revisited the website for information. I found nothing. Instead, I spent the first three weeks of the semester visiting different classes and making my decisions slowly and thoughtfully. Teachers and profs had me email them if I wanted to stay in the course officially. The day I actually finished the inscription – two weeks after classes had started – I was asked to pay for my student health insurance along with the tuition. The sum total came to less than 500 Euros. I ‘ve never been so happy to spend such a sum. One year of my bachelor degree in Canada was 9 times more expensive than what I payed here in France for one year of a Master, and half of it is medical insurance! I can see now why students here actively and regularly protest against the privatization of schools.
This is where I start to see a great difference in the mentality of students. The democratic availability of education creates a body of students who, at first appear to lack the motivation to do well, knowing they are not losing much economically if they fail. Students are content just to pass their course with a grade of 10 out of 20. However, the lack of stress caused by that fear of failure also results in the idea that the education itself is the reward. Students are motivated by knowledge, not by money, to succeed. In the US and Canada the chain of failure is directly connected to money. If you don’t succeed in your education, you lose money, a career, a future, and often have debt with no reward. And even if you do succeed, you still have debt. The lack of monetary value on the education of youth in France is quite utopic.
Another surprising aspect of University courses in France is the method teachers employ in the classroom. I assumed that the Masters here would be something like that of which I’ve heard of in Canada: a series of seminars where students have readings, both required and suggested, to discuss. However, I find that the verbal participation of students in the discussion is strangely low. I remember commenting on something a professor said one day, and feeling later that I had interrupted her train of thought, and that what I had to say was not relevant to her « study ». I was confused and disappointed to discover that seminars are not designed for the students to share interpretations and develop theories, but for the professors to provide the necessary terms and a complete, in-depth study of the subject. I feel that this inhibits students from critical thinking and doesn’t encourage the freedom of expression and interpretation as well as it could.
In fact, at the end of the day, the classes themselves don’t carry the same weight as they do in English speaking countries. At the beginning of the semester, students are given a bibliography, all the references that apply to the professor’s study and curriculum. There are students who rarely come to class, or those who are given special permission to be absent, who pass the exam after an independent study of the bibliography. This kind of independent study has merit, especially at the Master level, where research and analysis is a key skill which needs developing. On the contrary, if a passing grade can be given to someone who simply “regurgitates” the professor’s study, as one fellow student revealed to me, the challenges of critical analysis are lost.
I also find it interesting how much more formal classes in France are. Raising a hand to make a comment (however rare that might be) is appreciated more than simply jumping in. Slang is taboo when speaking to a professor. Literary and technical terms are abundant in lectures, as well as references to ancient philosophy and modern critics. For example, Rolland Barthes is a celebrity, mentioned in every literature and cultural studies class at least once. I had never heard of him before coming to France. My education in Canada now seems more corporal, and humanistic, talking about how things made me “feel” rather than producing technical terms to explain my theories.
Despite the inconsistencies with my previous experience as a student, I thoroughly enjoy my time at University here in Grenoble. With just 10 hours of class a week, manageable class sizes, and plenty of academic resources, there is no cause for complaint. The professors, as formal as they are, seem friendly and available, lively and passionate about their work, inspiring students to feel the same. The general ambiance is that education is life; it is as simple or as complicated as you want it to be.