Navigating the higher education system in France has been a significant part of my study abroad experience and one that has given me an insightful perspective on the French students’ relation with education. Coming from Brandeis University, I can say I was immersed in a pretty standard Northeastern Liberal Arts college culture. One that focuses on campus activities, feels somewhat bubble-esque and a home away from home. At the same time, I know there are experiences going to a public university, commuter school, inner city school or highly elite university that I simply do not have but could only really ever guess from mutual friends. Going into a French university setting, therefore, was an experience I truly could not really attempt imagining.
My decision to go to the University of Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis has been one I continue to be satisfied by. The campus culture is one I had originally sought for even when applying to Brandeis University. I see students constantly passing out flyers, stickers and setting up stations for social justice protests, upcoming political votes and events and for the participating and support of various socio-political organizations. Joining one, attending organization meetings and becoming a part of a movement’s activity is readily accessible by week. There is graffiti and student artwork from the outside of the university entrance to the insides of seats. Bathrooms are filled with ACAB signs and political slogans in which both girls and guys frequently use together.
More so, the materials discussed in my political classes are so inherently leftist, it came as a shock to me at first. Discussing communism and socialism, and dismantling capitalism for being a vehicle for neo-colonialism seems as if a tenet of our collective basic understanding. It feels as if students run the university and the university culture. Orientation week consisted of tables on the university lawn for both beer pong and SOS Racism, at the same time. Ultimately, it’s been an excellent atmosphere to foster political thought and research without the looming feeling of university requirements.
Students range from fully sleeping in class, to engaging in full-on conversations with professors about ongoing political phenomena in the U.S. and abroad. They are all three hour long lectures, but the 15 minute break in the middle really does a number to allow you to pull through the latter half. Most students go outside to smoke cigarettes during this break, buy coffee or paninis or engage in some one-on-one time with the professor. Professors seem more than happy to engage with students during these breaks in a much more of an informal setting and informal dynamic, sometimes even smoking with them. What I have seen from this is a deep attempt on behalf of professors to open themselves up to the position of mentors themselves. The younger teachers especially frequently recommend internship and job opportunities as well as professional career-related advice.
Most students, like at American institutions, cheat a lot or complete assignments as entire classes. Simultaneously most work other jobs, are involved in internships, or vocational type programs. The overall sentiment is one of focusing heavily on the specialization of your own field of study and presumptive career. Contrasting to the American university system, the venture of studying other domains or the requirement to do so does not exist. Homework is very rare and is only ever really just readings, in which lectures tend to be solely in depth analyses of these readings. Grades are based on 1-3 major exams, projects or essays at the middle and end of the semester. This makes it so it is very easy for students to just skate by school and not engage in constant educational stimulation, but makes it very hard to pass the class if you truly did not soak in any information. Consequently, students are consistently reading and do a very large amount of work for these larger projects, in which I would say they even have a better command of group work and presentation of analysis skills. Ultimately, while the slowness and disorganization of the overall university hierarchy seems to be absolutely neurotic, the overwhelming progressiveness and youth-focused culture of the university has opened me up to exploring the same political theories and phenomena I studied in Brandeis but under a whole new lens and for a whole new purpose of truly deeply understanding it.