A literary retreat in Ayn

Graham Bishop, ETA in Perpignan

This May, I had the opportunity to assist Floriane Cardon, a French Fulbright alumna, in preparing her International Option Baccalaureate (OIB) students for their oral presentations. These students had chosen to specialize in literature written in English; in order to receive their diplomas, they would need to prove their comprehension of certain texts to a pair of examiners through a 15-minute oral presentation, followed by 15 minutes of answering questions. The students attended a lycée in Chambéry, a beautiful mid-sized town in the Rhône-Alpes region, but my experience with them took the form of an intensive, English-only 2-day retreat in the nearby mountain village of Ayn.

As someone who majored in English as an undergraduate and is preparing to begin a doctoral program in comparative literature this fall, I was thrilled to direct the knowledge I had acquired over the last several years toward helping students achieve a very important goal. I admit, of course, that I had certain insecurities in the days leading up to our retreat: Did I know the texts well enough to avoid sounding stupid? Or perhaps I’d come across as pedantic and condescending? And what, most worryingly of all, was I going to do about that tendency I’ve been known to have when discussing my ideas to ramble on and on, jumping between loosely related points without ever getting to any kind of central argument, until everybody listening to me is bored and convinced I have no idea what I’m talking about?

Not only did these insecurities prove unfounded, but the students found my advice helpful in ways that I did not anticipate. For all the focus that French education puts on structure, I would have thought that the very first thing these students did when drafting presentation outlines would be to identify the central idea or theme that they wanted to explore. But as it turned out, they acted like I was singlehandedly saving their chances of graduating when I suggested that they might want to identify their most important observation, put it at the very beginning, and then draft a presentation centered on that one subject. The quality of their presentations improved vastly, and I was quite surprised to realize just how novel this approach to organizing ideas apparently was for these students.

Hearing the students tell me how useful my advice had been was very gratifying, but it was also a bit confusing given that they often pointed to how “clear” my observations were. I will give myself some credit in thinking that perhaps four years of scribbled comments from professors like “Unpack this idea” and “Huh???” on undergraduate essays have indeed driven me to make my writing clearer, but I still could come up with several qualities that more accurately describe my strengths as a writer than “clarity.” What this demonstrates most of all, I believe, is a fundamental difference between the American and French educational systems. The risks of generalizing aside, I think most familiar with the two systems would agree that where American institutions encourage concise and forceful argumentation, their French counterparts actually reward expansiveness and the ability to consider multiple opposing ideas. The importance of the “problématique” in academic French writing exemplifies this: Whereas students in the United States must begin their analyses with an affirmative declaration in the form of a thesis statement, the French open with a question that, often, they will not even have answered with any resoluteness by the end of their analysis.

By no means would I say that the American approach to argumentation is “better” than the French one. These were, in fact, some truly impressive students, able to understand both Shakespearean English and postcolonial theory at a level that would not have been below average in one of my upper level English classes during undergrad. And it was not as though they were going to be tested according to any standards other than those of the French educational system. But when it came to expressing themselves clearly in a second language, these students needed a way of conceiving their arguments that diverged from their normal way of analyzing a text. The experience was thus massively rewarding because of the opportunities it gave me not only to practice teaching, but also to observe firsthand how teaching a language requires teaching new ways of interpreting and presenting information.

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