Studying History in France: ten top tips
Amy Stone is studying French and History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and is spending her year abroad studying at Paul Valery Montpellier 3 University in France. She is blogging about her adventures, and here is her advice about studying History (or any essay-based subjects, really) in France...
We are all told when we apply for a History degree that is completely different from any kind of history that we’ve ever done before, and that couldn’t be more right. The same is true for studying history in France… I have absolutely loved my first few months of studying here in France but it has definitely been a rollercoaster!
1. Signing up for the courses. Round 1
After an evening of scouring the university website, I had a full list of all of the courses I wanted to take, plus some extras in case I couldn’t get onto my first choice. Armed with my drafted timetable and list of course options, I was ready to sign up for courses (s’inscrire in French). This is where things got complicated. Some UFRs (equivalent to faculties in England) had a system online which you can use to pick the TD (more on this later) that fits best with your timetable. Others you have to go directly to the departmental building and put your name down there, and the rest you just turn up and hope for the best.
TOP TIP ONE: Make sure you write down every single piece of information about the course (even if it seems excessive – you’ll thank me later!), including the CM time and place as well as all the possible TD. It’s also worth learning the difference between a CM and a TD because it is not as simple as the lecture and seminar style of uni in the UK. Google will help!
TOP TIP TWO: play the Erasmus card (part 1), often if you explain in your best French that you are an international student, you will be allowed onto the course even if it is full! There is no harm in asking!
2. Step Two: Surviving the first week of classes
My first class went very smoothly, I arrived at the right time in the right place and nobody questioned my being there… perfect! I then had to run across campus to a class that started at the precise moment that the first one finished (why France?! Why!?), only to find that the class of 200+ people had already started and the room was full. The rest of the week was a very mixed bag, some teachers were accommodating of the fact I’m foreign which was lovely… others were not.
TOP TIP THREE: Don’t choose back to back classes if you can help it, it’s not worth the stress!
TOP TIP FOUR: If a professor is not nice (being the butt of jokes in front of 50 French students is not fun – trust me!) or you think the class is going to be too difficult, by all means persevere but you absolutely do not have to struggle on! It is perfectly possible to change courses in the first couple of weeks, in fact you should expect to.
3. Step Three: Signing up for the courses. Round 2
After you have been refused entry to a few classes or have decided that some of them are not for you, you will probably find that you are a few ECTS short of the total required by your uni at home but don’t fret. Now is the time that you use your back up options and arm yourself with a computer and bombard all the relevant people (and probably some irrelevant people) with pleas to take you onto their course. If that fails (French tutors haven’t all quite made it into the 21st century yet) go and see the tutor directly… they might seem scary but, as long as you are polite, they are usually fairly willing to help! And then you’ve done the hard part… you are fully signed up for the courses that you will be taking for the next 3 months (and will be mentally ready to do it all over again for semester 2). Have a celebratory croissant and congratulate yourself on a job well done!
TOP TIP FIVE: Be persistent, if there is only one TD option that you can physically be in, tell the tutor and smile sweetly…you will most likely be allowed in.
TOP TIP SIX: For my uni, you had to also complete an ‘Inscription Pedagogique’ (Exam sign up) with the Erasmus office. So make sure that you complete this by any deadlines you are given. Without this you cannot sit the exams and get the grade to give to your home uni. Up until this point you can change classes as many times as you want/need to.
4. Step Four: Actually going to classes
As I said, this bit will actually feel quite easy once you’ve signed up for the courses but there are still some things that you should know.
First, French students do not really specialise during their undergraduate degree. It seems as though history students have to complete a wide range of courses that cover huge time spans across the three years of their licence. I personally think that this is a really good thing, especially for historians. You will come out of it with such a good general knowledge of what is going on in the world throughout history, even more so than you do after the first year of your degree in the UK. Just be prepared to study some things that aren’t necessarily your favourite topic/time period.
Another thing I have learned is to expect the unexpected! I arrived at a class expecting a short exam on Paleolithic Art and was greeted by a lecture on the first pharaohs of Egypt… it turns out that everyone had received an email but, as an Erasmus student I was not on the list!
TOP TIP SEVEN: Email. Make sure you’re on the mailing list and it is also worth emailing the teacher (or speaking to them after class) and getting them to explain exactly how you will be assessed!
I also found out, the hard way, that some courses (although they have different course codes and are never mentioned side by side in the course guide) run alongside each other.
TOP TIP EIGHT: Make sure there are no complementary courses, if there are take them!
TOP TIP NINE: play the Erasmus card (part 2). Do not be afraid to put “ERASMUS” on the top of every single piece of work you hand in, the teachers often take this into consideration when marking. Also, use this Erasmus card with yourself, meaning don’t be too hard on yourself. You are studying away from home in a foreign language, it is more than okay to find it tricky!
You may have noticed that I have not mentioned the French language at all here that is because, to be honest, it becomes the least of your worries. Yes, sometimes you will mishear things or not be able to note down everything that is said but you will find that this improves very quickly. The skills that you develop in the first month of your year abroad can only improve your history skills overall. Note taking improves, you hone your memorisation skills (the French love regurgitation), you get used to solo research (for when you didn’t catch what was said)…the list goes on!
TOP TIP TEN: Give yourself a chance. Take a dictaphone (or a smartphone) and record your lectures so you can listen to them back and pick up any vital information. Do the extra reading so you have context before you go to the class. Highlight key concepts in your notes as you go along to look up later. And ask when you are stuck!
5. And finally...
You can do it, your year abroad will be a rollercoaster but it will ultimately make you grateful for your university experience at home and arm you with the tools and resilience that you need to graduate with a French and/or History degree.