An Introduction to American 19th Century Literature, In France.

September 29, 2009

Today was my first official course at Sorbonne Paris IV, and it was, strangely enough, an English literature course!

There are many things about me that confuse the French. But one of the premier things (ignoring my problems with language) that no French person can understand is how I am studying and specializing in three distinctly different things. The French academic system begins to specialize in high school, and for university you pick one thing (French literature, economics, engineering, etc) and that is all. The fact that I am majoring in art history is easy for them to understand. But when I add that I am double minoring in French language and English literature…this does not even register. The educational system is so specialized in France that they cannot make sense of someone studying multiple things just because “I like all of them”, with no common ground or singular purpose.

But somehow today was one of those glorious days when my three areas of study combined! The class I am taking was basically made for me! It is a literature course, which during this semester will cover American literature from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The specific focus of the course is on images in the text, particularly pertaining to visual works of art in many cases, which goes into the realm of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is (loosely defined-the term has changed over the years) a written description or interaction with a visual work such as a painting. This is perfect for me because just last semester my end of the year research paper for my Contemporary Poetry course was on ekphrasis in poetry. Oh, and the final tie in is that while most of the course is in English, we will still occasionally speak and read critical texts in French. *happy sigh* This is why I love the world of academia!!!

My professor is lovely, lively, and very French (though it seems as if all the French are very French I suppose). She speaks British English with a French accent, which is very pretty, but not always easy for me to understand! The class is a masters level class, which means that it is not an undergraduate course. To return briefly to the French academic system, the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree is earned in the first 3 years at university. If you are a good enough student you are accepted into the first masters program, and after that an even smaller number of students continue on to their second masters. Because I (and the other 3 students from the JYF program in the same course) am an American, and I have spoken English and read English literature all of my life, this is the level of course deemed appropriate for me. This was a good choice because it is a much smaller class (only 15 students) sitting in a circle and discussing things, not just listening to a lecture. Though while I may have been in a somewhat familiar learning environment, it was very intimidating to sit in the class and introduce myself, especially because everyone else is a few years older than me! Introductions consisted of, “je m’appelle so-and-so, Je suis un etudiant(e) de premier/deuxieme masters, et je suis en train d’etudie la literature de such-and-such author”. Since I do not have a masters thesis or dissertation in the works, my introduction was “Je m’appelle Victoria, je suis une etudiante des Etats-Unis, et je viens de Michigan”. Less than profound, but it was the best that I (and the other JYF students) could do!

However, I would like to say, that in spite of my undergraduate and foreign student status I have already begun to establish myself in class, and the professor is starting to know my name! Thanks to homeschooling, Cranbrook, and my tiny women’s liberal arts college, I have always been encouraged to offer my opinion in academic situations. This is not a natural part of the French academic system, talking is not encouraged, and everyone told me that oral presentations and talking in class would be areas in which I, as an American, would excel in France. So while I have never discussed Edgar Allan Poe in an academic fashion, and while I was nervous to be surrounded by smarter and more educated French students, I still offered up answers to the questions she posed to the class. I was one of 2 students who spoke more than once, and my professor asked me to read aloud from the text! I am gloating a bit, I admit, but I am proud of myself for doing what I did. Though much of what she discussed was unfamiliar to me, I am looking very forward to the challenge, and I cannot wait to start learning even more!

As a side note, my social life is looking up! Tomorrow is sushi with Nathalie and Pierre, Thursday is medieval dancing and possibly dinner with France and her friends, Saturday is a party at Mme. Hervier’s and Nuit Blanche, and Sunday I might be going to see Giselle at the Palais Garnier Opera House!

As an additional side note, today after reviewing my account and the potential prices of the above mentioned outings I signed my name on the list of JYF babysitters! C’est la vie!

A bientôt!

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