Monday, October 18, 2010

Adjustment in higher education

French school is hard.

Into my third week as a Master's student and I am trying to adapt to an educational system that is in many ways very different from the American one I'm used to. The French have their own system of learning. I found this out last year, as an assistant in the elementary schools, where it all starts. The four-color note-taking is one example:

blue/black for writing (I see more blue)
red for titles,
headers and underlining
green for correcting

I guess I didn't think it would be so identical in college, 15+ years after they learned it. I don't write at all like I did when I was a kid. Americans kids, in my experience, are much more eager to have their own handwriting than French kids. And so in short, an 11-year-old essentially writes the same as a 23-year-old. The older ones have just learned how to write faster. They take clean, beautiful notes, and quickly. I sit behind them as I scribble the most illegible, ugly notes, with half the information in twice the time.

Them (well, a 5th grader them)


vs. my chicken scratch:

Other differences, if you're wondering:
--underline with rulers
--use squared paper, often one giant sheet folded in half, making it a paper folder. Usually they take notes on loose-leaf paper and not in notebooks
--everyone dresses nicely, even at 9am.
--hardly anyone asks questions. Not at all the same atmosphere as in US.
--one professor told us to explicitly not e-mail her; she's got too much other stuff to do (she said that) and can't respond to our questions
--no homework, just a giant test at the end of the semester. Some smaller classes have one presentation during the semester.

Oh, and if you're wondering, a lot of people do use laptops or netbooks to take notes. I'm glad they've adapted to new technology, but can I just say that:
I am a way faster typer than most of them. They have perfected the art of "pecking" so much that it almost looks like they learned how to type instead of figuring it out on their own. (I have to take my small victories where I can get them.)

Why do they have to be such good note-takers? Because classes rely almost fully on note-taking and are light on using actual textbooks. It's really hard for me because I'm a very visual learner. I have trouble just listening to a person talk for two hours and just take notes non-stop. Only one (!) of my professors uses a visual aid--this one, PowerPoint. Added to that that it's not my native language, I definitely feel frustrated at the end of class. It's not that I don't understand the language. But I have trouble writing and listening at the same time, in French. It's like my brain can't keep a sentence in my head very well (in French), so I forget what I wanted to write, or I only get pieces of it. Which distracts me continually throughout the class, because I'm not really comprehending the material, I'm just writing down words. I don't have time to think about it. I think it's a really inefficient method of teaching, but my classmates seem to eat it up.

So of course, I've done the obvious and gotten a voice recorder, which in this day and age means that I've downloaded an app on my iphone called iTalk. It's actually pretty cool. I was trying to avoid doing having to record all my lectures--thinking I 'had' it--which clearly, I don't. I don't really have extra time in my day to go back and listen to all my lectures, but without it, I am destined to make a fool of myself when I show up for finals in January. It takes me more than twice the time to go back and listen--I have to stop it, rewind it, make sure I got everything. It's. A. Lot. Of. Work.

Add to this a lot of backwork in communication theory (since my degree was in journalism) plus a thesis that isn't writing itself, and I've got my work cut out for me. Can't forget the jobs and the eventual internship..

I'm taking it à la légère, more like a study abroad year than 'I must finish my Master's or my life will be over.' I will try my hardest this year to emulate a model French student, but if after this year, I really do not enjoy it, I may reconsider my options. I chose this program because it's more marketable than a degree in Linguistics or German, but I find myself straying from the communication aisles in the library to language book and language acquisition section a few aisles down. If I'm going to spend hours highlighting books (ones I've bought since there aren't text books..), I'd at least like it to be in something more interesting than a theory about society in the 1950s!

All in all, though, I do like being in class again, even if it is hard. I like the student atmosphere, the slangy speech, the cheap espressos and the flyers littering the walls and floors. Since France is going on it's sixth or seventh day of a national strike, every time I walk into a building, someone is handing me some notice about a future manif' at so-and-so hour, on so-and-so day. Oh, France, you amuse me.

Vacation starts after this week, so I'll have 10 days to recuperate a little, and get started on that dreaded thesis. Wish I could visit some friends over this break, but I won't have been paid yet so I guess maybe in December or January I'll have the chance. My American-married-Swiss friend from college, Brittany, came to visit last weekend and much fun was had. I'd love to go see Bern again before the year is up..we'll see. I love traveling, but my schedule this year is not as forgiving as last year's. On the flip side, I don't have to spend 3 hours a day on public transport. Even if I do miss the time off for the holidays!

Back to highlighting my communications books. All that French student emulation or something..