Education theater, old school style. (Really old school!)

C’est ca, mes amis!

From Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French:  The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2012), pp. 41-42, a description of the some of the experiences of women in the Smith College junior year abroad program, ca. 1949-50:

At the Sorbonne itself, the experience of sitting in the “Grand amphi” set the tone.  It was an auditorium complete with balconies and seats for a thousand students.  The professor sat on a high stage, with statues and an enormous neoclassical mural as his backdrop.  This was the ultimate theater of learning, grandiose and also slightly ridiculous, from the moment the professor walked onto his stage, accompanied by the traditional Sorbonne appariteur, a kind of classroom concierge in a dark suit, whose job was to announce the master and keep the blackboard wiped clean.  The professor sat in a chair and read his lecture, rarely departing from the text.  For anyone who skipped class, or simply couldn’t bear the monotony of the hour-long recitation, lectures were available for purchase in polycopiésin a bookstore on the Place de la Sorbonne, lending themselves to the word-for-word, comma-for-comma memorization that was expected for success on the exams at the end of the term.  For foreign students, the polycopiés were a godsend for figuring out how to spell the many words and phrases they couldn’t quite make out–especially proper names.  (Imagine names like Eisenhower or Manhattan pronounced in French.)  Far less satisfying than the intimate seminars they were used to, these big lectures nonetheless let the students in on the part of French education that was as ritualistic as Catholic mass.  They were by turns excruciatingly boring, highly entertaining, and deeply foreign, and the students never forgot them.

The students in this program–and JBK was one of them–spoke only in French, even amongst themselves.  They boarded with French aristocrats whom the war had left apartment-rich but cash poor. (In other words, this was no “semester at sea” scam, but a real challenge.)

I’m trying to decide if I would sound smarter or more interesting with “an enormous neoclassical mural” as my backdrop, and preceded by an appariteur, or even just a grad student, to introduce me and clean up afterwards.  What do you think?

26 thoughts on “Education theater, old school style. (Really old school!)

  1. Frankly, having attended such cours magistraux in the days of my youth, at The Sorbonne, I have to say that they were deadly. And yes, it was much like that: a professor, reading his book, word for word, for an hour and students taking notes (those who could not afford to buy the book). Sorry, but that ain’t teaching and that ain’t learning. Occasionally, if lucky, you might have a slightly more entertaining professor, but those were few. Not everyone can be Foucault 🙂


  2. I’m thinking that keeping a chalkboard clean while wearing a dark suit would be quite a challenge (at least if the goal was to keep the black suit clean as well, and I’m sure it was).

    The book sounds fascinating, especially since my late mother studied at the Sorbonne as an M.A. student a few years later, and I’m thinking of looking up one of her friends from that era over Christmas break. Thanks for alerting me to its existence!


  3. But I also agree with SocProf: there are better pedagogical methods, and if this is what various “disruptionists” mean when they refer abolishing “the sage on the stage,” I agree with them. However, I’ve never seen anybody lecture with that little interaction, let alone inflection, even in my own college days, and it’s my understanding that large lectures are moving more and more in the direction of doing at least something to break up the information transfer and give students a chance to engage — with the professor, their peers, or at least their own thoughts).


  4. CC–I’m enjoying the book so far. It’s not terribly deep, but the author (a French Proffie at Yale) is an evocative writer. (I’m only towards the end of the JBK section, and I expect the Sontag and the Davis chapters to be even more fascinating.)

    I feel as though I can smell and taste postwar Paris, tagging along in my mind behind the gaggle of Smithies that Kaplan describes. (That, and having stayed right around the corner from the Sorbonne when I was last in Paris, puts my imagination in the midst of it. I think it helps if you’ve visited Paris before you read this book.)

    This kind of pedagogy is not in fact my style–I just thought it was funny when I found this description in the book! It’s interesting that the kind of education that Kaplan alludes to at Smith is more akin to what I see and hear of humanities education now throughout the U.S. (at least if it’s not online.)


  5. I wouldn’t mind doing a job-exchange and being an appariteur for a semester (or two) if I could get a garret to sleep in free, and three afternoons a week off to hoof across the river (slipping past Notre Dame) to “work” at the A.N. at the Hotel de Soubise. I just Street-Viewed (TM) it, and it verily looks scrumptious. I had a graduate class in a room a hundred times smaller than the Grande Salon in the picture above–only two rows of chairs, bolted to the floor in old school fashion–that much later got made into a cushy seminar room. And the prof., a giant-ancien in his field and a past president of the national organization, essentially read us a manuscript-in-preparation or maybe even halfway into print, that came out in book form a year later. Then he took sick halfway through the course and they brought in a substitute from a nearby SLAC who you later studied with too, Historiann, and the pace picked up a good bit. Not that it ever reached shock-jock levels of pedagogical street theatre or anything like that. I’m flashing on it now, though.


  6. I doubt that boarding with French aristocrats in the 1960s was especially challenging. I’m guessing most places had indoor plumbing, though maybe not central heating or hot water. Still, indoor plumbing!

    (I recognize that France was still recovering from WWII, but it doesn’t sound like an especially challenging living situation.)


  7. Jacqueline Bouvier was in Paris in 1949-50, not the 1960s. The aristocrats she was boarding with had lots of space and a great neighborhood (the 16th), but she still had to carry a ration card, and the author writes about how cold the apartments were (certainly compared to U.S. central heating.)

    I haven’t read the chapters on Sontag or Davis yet, but I believe that Sontag was in Paris in 1958-59 and Davis in 1963-64.


  8. When I did a junior year in Oxford in the mid-70s, there were some “lectures” that consisted of people reading a manuscript for a book. It was VERY boring. Others were more interesting — it was a time of transition — but I do remember those and being smart enough to know I was hearing their new book.

    My sister did a Paris junior year in the early 70s, and even then the heating situation in Paris apartments was, well, challenging. Certainly a slight adjustment from the US, even from growing up in an NYC apartment.


  9. “That standing-in-front-of-a-room-and-bloviating lecture style” is still around though in less ornate room and less stuffy profs. Quality learning was always in discussion, exchanges and collaborative learning.

    I went to the Sorbonne too, many times. My hotel was next door on at least ten visits to Paris.


  10. Can you imagine being the prof, exposed on a pedestal, unable to move, facing hundreds of students about to pass out from boredom? No wonder the profs read verbatim from a book. They’re too flustered to do anything else.


  11. My parents got married in 1950 and went on the grand tour for their honeymoon (and, since they were still in college, they were escorted part of the way by an aunt and uncle). They saved a hotel receipt from the George V where they spent the night. It cost $20. Unlike many women of the time, my mom stayed in college, although she had to move out of the dorm lest she corrupt the other women. She saw my dad on weekends when she would take the train to the town where his college was.


  12. Um, this is the way most proffies teach at OPU. I cannot tell you how many students have, over the years, mentioned to me or SweetCliffie how different we are from the teaching norm. When we ask how, we are told that most profs. stand at the front of the room and read the assigned textbook aloud, straight through, for 50 or 80 minutes. There is a rampant culture of skipping classes here because of it: students figure if they do the reading, there is no reason at all to come in to class.


  13. Oh, my God!

    A colleague who taught like that in my department would be schooled, at least if they taught that way before tenure

    One of the things that makes it hard to teach the way you (and I) do is that in a culture in which it’s routine to skip classes, it’s difficult to get students to come to class without a battery of carrots and sticks. But, ya gotta do what you gotta do.


  14. Somehow I managed to avoid the cours magistraux myself, but there was always something kind of fantastical about the idea that you could walk in and hear Foucault, Derrida, or Kristeva in a “seminar” of 200+.

    @Indyanna, sadly the AN has abandoned the Hôtel de Soubise for good, so you’re not missing much scrumptiosity. Only the lucky early-modernists will be exempted from the schlep out to the ‘burbs at the very far end of the metro that will shortly await everyone else, thereby stripping archival research in Paris of one of its great appeals: lunch in the Marais! What toll will this take on French studies in the U.S., one can only guess, but it’s hard to imagine it won’t be insignificant.

    (And yes, we were spoiled before, but come on–check out that Street View!)


  15. They did this in London, where early Americanists who worked at Chancery Lane used to be able to snark at early Americanist colleagues who “only” worked out at Kew (and in the process disrupted some nice ecological connections fostered by temporal proximity between the Public Record Office and the British Library). They seem to have also done this at the National Archives in Washington, with the same potential severance between the NA and the Library of Congress. I guess that’s the deal now; make the scholars spend more time commuting, and less time executing. But where in France is the chronological break between early modern and modern?


  16. In history I took courses like that from Natalie Davis, Leon Litwack, and Tulio Halperin. They were stellar and used the lecture hall to great advantage. In philosophy Hans Sluga, with two-toned German shoes, gave amazing lectures in a lecture hall. And yes, we had Foucault et al although they had much smaller audiences in US. There were other amazing lecturers slightly less famous, in French Denis Hollier and Leo Bersani. I fail to see what is wrong with any of this. I gave a brilliant co-lecture yesterday, one person then the break then me, and we were all brilliant (last day of the team taught class, lecture riffing from student questions submitted ahead).


  17. P.S.

    “I’m trying to decide if I would sound smarter or more interesting with “an enormous neoclassical mural” as my backdrop, and preceded by an appariteur, or even just a grad student, to introduce me and clean up afterwards.”

    Maybe I am really old school. I had an assistant in a summer class and we did in fact project nice murals on one side of the room.


  18. I should clarify that few colleagues in my department of History follow this model; I have heard it identified chiefly as a model for large courses in the most of the sciences as well as certain social sciences (Psych, Soc, Com). However, because those are large majors at OPU, it tends to be a dominant form of experience among many undergrads.


  19. @ Indyanna: The divide is the French Rev in the National Archives split, although I’m not sure where they ended up cutting it exactly (1789? 1792?) for this purpose. In this case, the early modernists definitely got the long straw–they get to stay in the Marais, while the modernists have to schlep out to Saint Denis. To be fair, though, even that will be a big improvement for the post-’45 folks who will no longer have to take the one, expensive, o-dark-hundred train out to Fontainebleau. (That’s post-1945, the “history of the present time” in French parlance.)


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