University in France

Hello world! I’m sorry I disappeared for a while. I went back to the states for the holidays, and when I came back to France it was time to gear up for exams. I’ve just emerged from the madness and I’m back to my adventures around Paris and posting about them. It’s been very (very very) cold in the last couple of weeks, and we’ve even had some light snow. But in spite of the awful weather, I have soldiered on and done some sightseeing (mostly indoors). I should have lots of new material up here in the coming weeks, so enjoy.

Now that I’ve got a full semester under my belt, I wanted to do a post about school. First, some background. I am a law student. In the US, this means that I already graduated from a 4 year university with a bachelor’s degree and I’ve now almost completed my 3 year legal education. In France, however, it’s completely different.

French students take the Baccalaureate exam when they’re 17. Anyone who passes the “Bac” has the legal right to a university education. Practically all of the universities in France are public (There are a handful of private universities, but until recently they were considered to be of a much lower quality. Apparently that’s starting to change.). So the state provides an education to anyone who has passed the bac. Students who want to enter the grandes-écoles (the most famous and competitive schools) have to take another exam. Once students are admitted into a university, they start their legal education right away. They spend their first 3 years of university doing their License in law. After they’ve finished the License they spend one year doing the Master 1. That’s what I’m doing right now, my Master 1. There are many many students in the program, and they are all competing to get into a Master 2 program, which is the next year-long program. More on that later. After the Master 2, students can apply for a doctorate-level degree, which I believe takes 3 years. Anyone who has at least a Master 1 can become a lawyer (either a juriste or an avocat, a distinction we don’t have in the states).

So the program I am in right now is the Master 1. It’s a 2 semester program, and in a lot of ways I feel like I’ve gone back to college. The classes are huge. There are hundreds of people in each class, and they’re held in big amphitheaters where the professors sit at a desk on the stage and talk at the students for an hour and a half twice a week. Because France uses a civil law (codified) system, there isn’t much explanation or analysis or interpretation or discussion. They just tell us what the law is and we take notes (the French students type practically every word the professor says in paragraph form; they think that the way I take notes is crazy). The professors give their lectures in outline form (they will literally say “Second part, chapter 1, paragraph 1″ and the title of that paragraph before launching into the lecture). For the exam, we memorize everything in our notes, and we regurgitate all of that information for the test. That’s it. There is  no analysis because none is needed. Whatever is in the code is the law. That’s all they need to know. There is no binding case law (although case law is provided as an example and you get bonus points if you can memorize some cases the professor mentions). Supreme Court (Cour de Cassation) judgments are usually about three paragraphs long. Sometimes less. Overall, it’s a much simpler system to learn, so studying it is less, well, less involved than studying US law. You just memorize laws from the code. You must have a good memory though; there’s a lot more information to memorize than in the US.

There’s also something called travaux dirigés (“TD”) which is exactly like those weekly section meetings in undergrad with a TA who is a doctorate student. They assign extra reading related to the lecture topics and give exams and things. I’m not doing TD because I’m very fortunate and got an exception because of other academic activities. My friends all have to take TD and it stresses them out.

One thing that I find amusing is the students who take handwritten notes. I would say that about 1/3 of the students take their notes by hand, and it’s crazy to watch. First, all French students have the same handwriting because they worked so hard on it in school. At first, it was hard for me to read because it’s all in cursive and it’s slightly different from how most people in the US write, but once you get used to it you can read almost anyone’s writing, because as I said they all write the same. They use booklets of crazy lined paper called Seyès Ruling paper that teaches children how to make even, proportionate letters when they’re learning how to write. The paper looks like graph paper, except there are many more horizontal lines and the vertical lines are not evenly spaced. The students are taught as children where on this “grid” each letter starts, stops, and connects, so that they write uniformly. They still all use it here at the university, and it comes in folded feuilles, so the students start with a stack of them and fill them up over the course of a lecture. Then they put them in a binder and keep adding to it all semester with new booklets of notes.

They almost all use fountain pens (which are very common here and can be found in any price range from super cheap to super expensive and everything in between). And they use different colored pens to make certain parts of the notes stand out. It’s impressive, because at the same time they’ll all put down their main pen, pick up the colored pen, write whatever they needed to write in the new colored ink, then put down the colored pen and pick back up the main pen to continue writing in one smooth motion. It all happens very quickly. Even more impressive is when they highlight. They usually have 2 different colored highlighters, and whenever they highlight anything they use a small ruler so that the line is straight. When this happens, they go through the whole process I just mentioned but add the ruler into it as well. It’s a well-choreographed process so that they don’t miss anything the professor says. I find it amusing, but they are also amused by the way I take notes, so we’re even.

Anyway, the academic environment means that the Master 1 is a lot like college in the states. Half the students never go to class. If you can buy notes (or get them from a friend), you don’t need to go, so they don’t bother. The students that do go are divided into two groups: the workers and the slackers. In the front of the classroom sit the students who are competing hard to get into a Master 2 program. They diligently type every word the professor says and they never miss a class. They work very hard all week every week. They take their studies very seriously and they read treatises about the subjects they’re studying. The slackers mystify me. They come to class, but they sit in the back and talk LOUDLY to their friends and graffiti on the desks with white out pens and generally just hang out. I do not understand why they come to class at all. I mean, if you’re not going to get anything out if it, you might as well do something fun instead and just skip it. It’s not like you get credit for being there. Once, my friend said that a girl was having a full-volume conversation on her cell phone in the middle of class….and the phone was on speaker. Crazy. They should just ditch.

The semester continues on like that for weeks and weeks. Lectures, note-taking, and TD if you have it. Then we get a week off to study for exams. Exams are given either written or orally. There is a minimum required amount of each form of exam that each student has to take, so you can’t take them all written or all oral. At first, I was terrified about the prospect of oral exams since they’re in French. They’re not actually so bad. The professor gives you a topic and you tell them everything you know about that topic. Then they thank you and you leave. The whole thing is done in 10 minutes. The written tests are much shorter than my law school exams in the states: only 2 hours. They are all hand-written and during most of them you’re allowed to use the code, so students are flipping furiously through their copies of the code.

That’s been my experience so far. Not very academically fulfilling, but fortunately I have friends in the Master 2, which is what I’ll be taking next year. Their very positive experiences in the Master 2 give me hope. The Master 2 is very selective, so there are only about 20 students in each program. This means that the classes are very small and much more student-driven. The students read articles by legal scholars and then the scholars will come and have a discussion with the students. They go on field trips to conferences. The students give presentations. They all know each other and all of the professors well. It sounds great.

So that’s school. At least, that’s my experience so far. I’ll be back to posting about cool things around Paris later this week. It’s good to be back!

2 Responses to University in France

  1. Alex Diaz-Ferguson

    Hi Miss Joy!
    Can I just say that this post took me back to my childhood and the better part of my adolescence. I grew up in the French education system so I remember buying and using the graph-looking paper and diligently trying to get all letters to fit in the squares.

    The best part of the post was the note-taking part. I used to take notes like that until I got to college and I stopped giving a damn about my notes. I remember having the Bic blue pens that have multiple colors all in one pen. Can you imagine taking notes like that in law school here in the US??? I would die.

    Anyway, I’m loving the blog and I am glad to hear you’re doing well. Me and a group of law revuers are gonna see the maestro perform this Saturday in Arlington so we’re very excited about that! Will you be here for graduation? It would be amazing to see you!

    • Hi Alex! Thanks for the comment. I think it’s hilarious that you had to buy the weird graph paper even though you didn’t go to school in France. Talk about a strictly standardized system.

      Enjoy the concert Sunday for me, I really wish I could make it. I don’t think I’ll be able to be in DC for graduation either, but I will be there the whole summer studying for the bar with everyone. Will you be there? Talk to you soon. Good luck in the final stretch!

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