Sunday, July 25, 2010

Reflections on Time Well Spent

Now that I'm back at Hopkins, I figure I should put everything I wrote in Paris into some sort of final perspective. Even though I liked the feel of my final post, and typically hate it when people add onto things that are theoretically finished, I've decided to break my own rule and continue this blog for one more post. Life isn't ever finished, and just because I'm no longer in Paris doesn't mean that all the French in my life has disappeared. You may have noticed that I changed the title of this blog to "Translating Paris" from "Natalie s'en va." It wasn't really a difficult change to make. "Natalie s'en va" was an inside joke that I'm sure no one understood. When I began the blog, I was reading the first novel of Colette, Claudine √† l'√©cole. In retrospect, it was an appropriate choice, considering it introduced me to the somewhat insane results of the French methodology. That novel is the first in a series of novels about this strong, semi-autobiographical character, of which the fourth is called "Claudine s'en va" or "Claudine goes away." That was how I stole the first title, but changing it was a good decision. The purpose of this blog was, in addition to letting people know I was alive and well in Paris and what I was up to, was to translate particularities of the French culture that I noticed to all who read the blog.

Since coming back to Hopkins, I've been trying to reformulate my entire plan of studies at Hopkins. I'm now adding a third major (French, of course) whereas before, I had only been toying with the idea of getting a minor in French literature. The reason behind this sudden change of action is that I want to study French literature at a higher level, and feel that a major in French is probably necessary to apply to such programs. The professor of the summer French literature course I'm currently taking told me to narrow down my field of interest (for the time being) from all of French literature to 19th century literary translation. To that end, I'm currently writing a paper that will probably be around twenty pages when finished on different translations of a Balzac short story, Le Colonel Chabert. This professor told me to email the head of the department (whose class I took the semester before leaving for Paris) and tell him about my plans to add French as a third major and apply to French grad schools. He emailed back and seems happy with the idea. I can't wait to talk to him - he is an expert on genetic criticism (basically, the study of how authors write books. He pores over drafts and letters that authors wrote and compares them to the final, published versions), one of the founders of the Flaubert Team at l'ENS, a friend of the professor I had for the Paris and Literature course at Paris 8, and also a friend of Jacques Roubaud! I'm sure he will be able to answer any question I have about this field. It's so great to be a student at a school like Hopkins!

As for the rest, the Hopkins campus has gotten more beautiful, at least, compared to Paris 8 and the Clignancourt site of La Sorbonne. It seems both bigger and smaller - it's a little city by itself, gigantic compared to the tiny square in the Latin Quarter that is l'ENS, but much more intimate and friendly when it comes to teachers and students interacting. The two courses I'm taking seem strange compared to what I did in Paris, yet I know they match my previous Hopkins courses exactly. We talk in class - students with the professor. We discuss and come to conclusions together. I have a new, somewhat ambivalent view about this. While, I didn't really like the courses at Paris 8, I did appreciate that the professors talked a lot more. They should talk more - they're the ones who have gone through intense concours to get to where they are. They're knowledgeable, and the students in the class are just that: students. When the professors in Paris tried to diverge from that methodology that Michel had told us would be rampant throughout our classes, the classes failed. M. Cornette, an intense, brilliant, famous French historian, found himself asking questions to a room full of students who didn't want to be there and cared nothing for the knowledge he could pass on through a solid lecture. The problem, as it always seemed to be at the Parisian universities, consisted of the quality of the students and their apparent lack of a work-ethic. In the philosophy class and the l'ENS class, where the students kept quiet, it was easy to be stunned by the breadth of knowledge these professors had. And then, when a student actually did ask a question, the question was well thought out, impeccably phrased, and thus merited a brilliant response.

Now return to Hopkins, where the students have much more incentive to care about the courses they're enrolled in - they are, after all, theoretically paying over $50,000 a year for the privilege of learning from these professors. The class discussions have their moments. When a professor directs them well, they can be incredibly beneficial, and when the student contributes in such a way that he furthers the discussion, he feels that he has learned more than by simply taking notes. However, the professors still have so much knowledge, and every moment they cede the floor to let a student direct the discussion is a moment that the educational experience isn't as strong as it could potentially be. I wish there were a happy medium, a strong marriage of the lecture and the discussion so that classes were as efficient as they could be. We're almost there in French class here, during which the professor will give an historical background about the author and the book we're going to discuss before the actual discussion. But even then, expecting that we have done research, asks us, the students, what he have found. This slows the class down, especially considering the length of time required for each student to answer in line - French is, after all, a foreign language here.

My French grades came in the mail and, even though they were translated into American grades, I think I've figured out almost exactly what they all were. That transcript, I suppose, marks the end of CUPA, and is supposed to be an accurate reflection on all I learned in Paris. But it isn't. No matter how elated I am by my good grades, I didn't learn half as much from the classes as I learned from the experience of being in a foreign country, of thinking in French every day, of constantly trying to look at everything from a different angle to combat the natural barriers of a new culture. I still believe that everyone should study abroad, but now, more than ever, I believe that if a student studies abroad, he should do it the right way. By this, I mean he should aim to be completely immersed in the foreign culture of his choosing, preferably one that speaks a language other than his own. This experience, an integral part of European education since the middle ages, should not be neglected merely because of its impracticalities. Due to the single language of the United States, this experience is even more necessary for an American student. The world is becoming smaller. More and more is possible every day. A knowledge of this world is necessary beyond the windows of our laptop screens.

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