I freely admit that, after five months, I still do not understand the French university system. I attend the Université de Nantes, but each section of the university runs completely separate from another part of the university. The dorm that I live in is not part of the university. This means that when I need something, I must go through many administrative hoops as there is no one central administration.
There is no such thing as a syllabus in France. This word is completely foreign to French students. Without a syllabus, I have no idea how my grades function, how many tests and projects I will have during a semester and I do not know their weight. Therefore, I have no idea how much these finals count towards my grade. My professors have been talking about them all semester, so they sound important, but I have no clue how important they actually are. All I can do is assume that all of my grades are vitally important and try to do my very best on all of them.
And is my very best the same in France and in the United States? Absolutely. Is it graded the same way? Nope. Not at all. I’ve thought about this for a long time. Why is it that in America I can get a 100 (out of 100) on a test, but in France only get a 17 (out of 20) on a test? Even when my answers are “correct,” my professor will still find some tiny error to deduct points or, worse, I’ve had a professor tell me that my work was “too perfect” and “too good” so she took off points! I think that it’s cultural. In America, we subscribe to the American Dream. We believe that if we work hard enough, we will be rewarded. Our school system reflects this. It is possible to get a 100 on a test if you work really hard. But in France? Students and faculty have accepted the fact that it is “impossible” to get a 20 (out of 20) on any assignment or test. The grading appears to be entirely subjective in France (as it is many times in the United States too). I have gotten a 19/20 from one professor while another professor takes half a point off for every mistake, every misplaced comma, every misspelling. So, I have to ask myself, what am I working towards? Am I working towards being a communicative being? Or a perfectionist in search of the unachievable, of a dream that cannot be?
All I’ve ever wanted to do was to learn. Yet, there’s a part of me that wants to do well. I want to get that 20 out of 20, even if they say it’s not possible. I guess that’s the Honors student in me. Yet, I am facing a system where I don’t know the rules, where I don’t know how to study.
There are four parts to my finals: written comprehension, oral comprehension, written expression and oral expression. Tomorrow, I take the first three exams in what can only be described as an academic marathon that starts at 8 AM and finishes at 4 PM. It’s a day crammed with exams…and I have no way of studying. The topics are given at random. They could be on anything. I will be expected to read, listen and write about virtually any topic in the universe. The only thing I know? It’ll be in French.
In many ways, I’ve been preparing for this since second grade. I’ve listened to French. I’ve spoken French. I’ve read French. I’ve written French. But at the same time…what if I have a bad day tomorrow? What if I fall upon a topic that I don’t know much about (I swear, if I get anything about France’s involvement with some scientific important thing, I’m going to have a rough time)? Only my oral exam is on another day. In addition, we are taking the tests in an amphitheater with all of the kids in the IRFFLE program. All of them. In one giant room. Our tests will be collected and graded at random. Remember that professor that gave me a 19/20 and the professor that takes half a point of for every potential error? Either could grade my test. Obviously, I’m hoping for someone who will grade on content, not on grammatical perfection/imperfection.
Nothing here is any harder than what I’ve been expected to do in the past. I had a teacher in high school who would make us pick speaking topics out of a hat and we’d had to give a minute speech right then and there. That’s essentially the same as the oral expression exam here, except that I have to build an argument and that argument will be fifteen minutes, with a question and answer period at the end (with three examples for two opposing arguments, preferably with quotes, facts, statistics, and these examples should demonstrate knowledge of French culture/history, although I’ve heard we get bonus points for making comparisons between French and our native cultures/histories). All of this is nothing new, it’s just a test in France.
At this point, either I know French…or I don’t. My days of studying were at Quidditch practice…my days of studying were in a kitchen learning to make chocolate mousse…my days of studying were at an Easter egg hunt…my days of studying were at the beach in Nice…
Fourteen years of studying, hundreds of experiences…
And one big exam day.