Thursday, May 17, 2012

A French Professor Looks at Harvard

Stéphanie Grousset-Charrière has wrriten a book based on her year as an assistant professor in Harvard's sociology department: La Face cachée de Harvard 
"A Harvard, on ne forme pas que les étudiants, on forme aussi leurs enseignants, les façonnant à l'image qu'ils se doivent de dégager. On n'a pas le droit d'être malade et, même avec 39 °C de fièvre, on assure ses cours ; on doit être bien habillé, souriant, avenant, et montrer l'exemple. Ponctualité, amabilité, serviabilité, compréhension, efficacité, disponibilité, compétences, performance, rigueur sont autant de qualités attribuées au personnage de l'enseignant."
This makes Harvard sound a bit like China. I put in my time across the street from the Sociology Department, at the Center for European Studies, where one does have the right to be sick and where work is less regimented than work at Foxconn. Dress ranges from slovenly (me) to elegant. There are frowns as well as smiles. Friendliness is valued but not required. I hope that Prof. Grousset-Charrière's work demonstrates the rigueur she acquired at Harvard, but the superficiality of these observations makes me less than confident.


Anonymous said...

Art, generally speaking, there's a sense that untenured profs (those mentioned here being "façonnés" hence still in their formative years) whether at Harvard or elsewhere, ought to be friendly with students and properly dressed. I doubt many assistant profs show up wearing jeans and sneakers and scowl at students. As for being exemplary, that sounds normal.
Coincidentally I've just had a report from a French sociologist on the state of a dept, and the most worrisome was how rampant sexual harassement is. Being helpful and friendly to students didn't factor in at all.

Anonymous said...

These all sound like eminently reasonable expectations, except for the part about no right to be sick -- that's absurd.

Whining about such expectations may be why some non-academic professionals are baffled by academics. Dressing smart, having a pleasant demeanor, presenting oneself well to those who need to look up to you: these should be par for the course, baseline expectations!

Anonymous said...

The article on Le Monde makes clear that she was not an assistant professor in the Sociology Department, but rather a teaching assistant or lecturer in Romanic Languages. That clears up what would have been most confusing otherwise: the preposterous suggestion that teaching evaluations (rather than research) have any influence on tenure decisions. Alas.

Anonymous said...

Her point of view is French and seeks to highlight big differences between France and the US, with Harvard as an example.
Whoever's taught in a first-year class in the US and in France would have similar reactions (no need to compare with Harvard, which would have to be compared to a prépa - the difference is there anyway).
If you want a funny take on France's university and teaching system, try reading: Sorbonne Confidential:
A friend of mine, who tried the same thing as the author (native English speaker who wants to teach English at the high school level) told me it was unfortunately very true, except you only find it funny when you read about it later. This may also explain why Ayrault being a teacher of German is met with the assumption he's brilliant and fluent, ideally suited to meet with Angela Merkel. My town's middle school's language teachers wouldn't get the vote of confidence, I'm afraid.

As far as I can tell, most of what we consider "baseline" expectations would be/have been met with principled indignation by some professors in France. The idea that their courses could be evaluated is anathema to some (even though it's been implemented, especially in the sciences.) That there should a dress code or a way to address the students would likely sound strange to them (does sound strange. The comment section is quite educational.)
To Anonymous above: even though research is the primary criterion at Harvard, consistently negative teaching evaluations would warrant some kind of intervention. I'm asking Art here, but I assume it's the same as elsewhere in the US: a professor who has no syllabus, considers questions as "interruptions" worthy of humiliating the questioning student, won't do a powerpoint, reads off a piece of paper without any clue (title, outline), gives exams on arcane parts of the course topics including parts not covered in class, fails to return papers within a month, considers that "flirting" with students is acceptable... would probably be in serious trouble.
(Not in France, where NONE of these things is considered a serious problem, even though it certainly is bad form and isn't recommended. I've actually heard several times "girls know what they're getting into when they go to office hours" or "they're of age" in cases of obvious sexual harassment.)
She notes that there's a semester-long workshop on teaching because it's unheard of in France. French academics do not receive any formal training (or informal) on the basics such as "how to teach/how to present your material/how to write an exam/how to ensure your material is understood"; then again, most secondary teachers don't, either (only some used to have training and for the past 2 or 3 years the entire training for middle school and high school teachers was cancelled.)
Indeed few lecturers (British term for professors) think of a course in terms of making it interesting to the students, hence her highlighting it. It would probably really alter your perception of what a class is supposed to be if you'd never thought of it in terms of the students, right?
Most French academics meet the idea of making the class interesting to the students, thinking of it based on how it'll be received, with either horror or bafflement; the basic assumption is that either students find it intrinsically interesting and they thus have a chance to pass, perhaps, or they don't, in which case "ils n'ont rien à faire ici".

Anonymous said...

I can help with the "même avec 39" thing: French people have "arrêt maladie". It's a sort of automatic sick days (unlimited I think), generally for 2 or 3 days, with full pay after the first day. Professors and teachers don't use it often but it's considered bad form to come teach if you've got a fever, as you might be contagious - coming in to teach indicates you haven't been to a doctor's, who'd have given you days off, and diagnosed what you have; plus you're a bad example, kind of like "un stakhanoviste" or a courtier to the hierarchy. The expected behavior if you've got a fever is to stay at home.
In the US, to the best of my knowledge, there are no automatic sick days with full pay (I don't know for Harvard) but the basic expectation is that you should go to work unless you've got something really serious. I remember seeing a commercial for a drug brand just before a big medical scandal where a man who'd hurt his back said he might get fired so he took two pills and off he went.
There's also that horrific testimony from the Hearings before the Obamacare laws, where hospitality workers explained they had to come work even with the flu or the stomach flu, and prepared our food.

Anonymous said...

The lecturer is French and presents what elements she noted as different from her previous work environment.
What she highlights is legitimate based on the way things are in French universities. What would be considered baseline expectations in the US is indeed quite novel here.

She highlights the semester-long workshop in basic teaching skills because in France, academics have zero training in that area. In fact, for the past couple years, even high school teachers (even teachers of 6th graders?! I've heard) no longer have any training.

I recommend this funny memoir for those who are interested in French universities' subculture, it's definitively worth the 5bucks (Kindle):
A friend who attempted the same thing as the author (native English speaker who wants to teach English in France) told me that it was pretty realistic, "exactement ça", but not as funny as in the book, especially when it happened for real.

Ellie said...

As Anonymous 9:32 notes, she wasn't an assistant prof of Sociology, but a lecturer in Romance Languages teaching French civ courses, i.e. an adjunct on a short-term, renewable contract. (She seems to have done this while researching her sociology thesis on the finals clubs and elite socialization.) Hence the perhaps heightened concern about appearance, etc.

But clicking through to the full Le Monde article, I didn't find much in the way of snark in her tone. She seemed rather admiring of the training new instructors got, even with all the normalization that went with it. I'm impressed, too--my TF's certainly didn't have that kind of preparation 20 years ago!