The diary of an old student 2005-2006


When I retired in Oct. 2005, I decided to start a new life and part of this life would be to study History at the Sorbonne. This page is the record of my new life as a student. For more information on the French educational system, please visit my page on Education on my intercultural site.

Philippe Rochefort

 Here are my comments about year 2005-2006:

...and about years 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 and writing my PhD dissertation

 Going back to school....    The courses and the professors...

 Being admitted to the Sorbonne...

  • May 2005 : I decide to go back to school when I retire in October and study History. I choose the Sorbonne (Université Paris IV).
    There is no selection in France to be admitted in first year of college but since I already have a few diplomas (see my resume), I need to have them validated by a Committee of Validation. I want to be admitted at a level where I would not waste my time but I would learn the basis. So I apply for the third year of Licence d'Histoire (L3).  
  • The file is not too difficult to constitute and everything goes well : in July I receive a favourable answer. In September I'll have to go to the Sorbonne and sign in.
  • September : I receive a very nice letter specifying that being a "validated student" I'll have a special treatment and I have to fix an appointment to sign in. I am very proud and impressed.
  • September : I try to figure out what people learn in L3. This is a reasonable question a young or even an old student might legitimately consider. Nobody knows, no information on the Web Site. It will be posted later. Strange...
  • September 15 : I go for my appointement and end up in a total zoo. Panicked students everywhere, no line, no information, nothing. The first human being I talk too confirms only one thing : appointements do not mean anything and people with an appointment have to queue with the rest of the applicants. No problem, since there is nothing that looks like a queue. After more than an hour, I meet a young clerk (a student), very charming and impressed by my seniority. He establishes my file in a few minutes, I pay the tuition and other fees (160 Euros in all : very affordable, isn't it ? ) and in a flash I receive my first student card (since 1970!). I am very happy and I show it to my family.
  • Septembre 21 : my son David and Rachel glance at it and say :"Why did you sign in first year" (L1) ? The charming young clerk screwed up everything. I am very depressed.

 My choice of courses :

The choice is very difficult, among hundreds of courses !

  • In Licence (L3) you must choose 3 courses "Fondamentaux", one for each of 3 out of four periods. I picked out :
    • Medieval : "Histoire sociale et politique (fin du Moyen-Age) - Vivre, aimer et mourir à la fin du Moyen-Age. Conjonctures : pestes et crises" (Social and Political history - late Middle-Age)
    • Modern : "L'Amérique du Nord des origines au milieu de XVIIIème siècle - développement de la pêche à la morue, contacts avec les Indiens et les sociétés indiennes" (North-America from the origins to Mid-XVIIIth C., French and English colonizations)
    • Contemporary : "Medias, information et télé - communications en France et aux Etats-Unis - developpement des télé - communications et naissance des grands médias en France et aux Etats-Unis du milieu du XIXème siècle à la Second Guerre Mondiale" (Media, information and tele - communication - France and USA)
  • The courses "Fonctionnels" include a course on the period you did NOT choose above, plus one language and one cours "Sciences et Techniques Annexes- STA". I picked out :
    • Ancient : "Histoire de l'Egypte Ancienne - Art de l'Ancien Empire + Littérature et Politique dans l'Egypte du Moyen / Nouvel Empire" (History and Art of Ancient Egypt)
    • Language : English (I am not a masochist...)
    • Sciences & Techniques Annexes STA : "Constitution et exploitation d'une documentation complexe" (looks boring : I already like it)
  • Optional : "Analyse géopolitique du monde actuel - International Affairs and Geopolitics : the United States" (a course in English by a French professor!).
  • Each course is associated to a certain number of hours of "Travaux Dirigés-TD" (small classes). In all, if I did not understand it wrong, my time-table includes 9 hours weekly of lectures and 8 hours of TD, not including English (nobody seems to know when and where it takes place...). They are spread randomly along the days of the week. That is why students spend a lot of time in "bistrots".
  • Oct. 7 : An hour of difficult investigation to find out where the various courses take place. It turns out that one course is given outside the Sorbonne (a mere 20-minute metro ride) and one in a class-room than nobody can locate. Everything is a mess and everybody is nice, helpful and incompetent. The students are used to it and tolerate the ordeal. A graduate of the Grandes Ecoles system (read about it) where everything works well and is organized and predictable, I am appalled. I understand now that after a few years of the university system, students who could survive it have developed the French virtues of indiscipline, aggressiveness and creativity.

 Understanding the whole thing....

  • October 3 : I do not try to get an appointment and go back straight to the zoo. After only an hour and a half of hazardous struggles in unpredictable queues, in two seconds flat I get a new student card for L3. Now the challenging part of the process begins : the "inscription pédagogique". It is choosing the courses and the associated "travaux dirigés" (in small classes).
    • First job : finding WHERE it takes place. One would expect it to be in the Department of History (once you find it) but it is more complicated than that. It is important to know that in the Sorbonne there is no clear indication about anything posted on the walls, or at least nothing that makes sense. For instance after about twenty minutes of exploration of the Sorbonne and its (beautiful) staircases I finally reach an office marked "Licence d'Histoire / inscriptions pédagogiques". Wow! There is a vague line of no more than fifty students. I am relieved. When it's my turn, a ferocious old lady (10 year younger than me but still...) kicks me out of the office which treats the whole Licence d'Histoire EXCEPT the Third Year. I should know it : it is written (true : on a metro-ticket-size label twenty centimeters above floor level). I remember the last time I was spoken to this way : it was in the 1950s, when I tried to enter a movie theater to watch X-rated films which were for much older people... I pull back, humbly.
    • Second job : understanding HOW TO CHOOSE my courses. Some courses are "fondamentaux" (you must choose 3), others "fonctionnels" (3, including one about a subject you absolutely did NOT want to study) and others "optionnels" (which are mandatory, which is strange from a semantic point of view). The choice is among a few hundred courses at different times and in different places. The whole list is posted on a wall of small office (20 sq meters) where 30 students are happily piled up. Only an hour later, I have made my choice. The courses I chose are not at the same time. I have the adequate mix and, unexpectedly, they correspond, roughly to the subject I am interested in studying. I cannot believe it : it is too good. There must be something wrong. But no : the whole thing is duly entered in the computer. I am now a real student.
  • First impressions : there is no doubt : all the professors are very good !
    • Egyptology (Mme Bonhême) : fascinating. I have everything to learn....
    • Egyptian Art (M.Pfirsh) and Egyptian literature (D.Valbelle) : fabulous !
    • Geopolitics (G.Soutou) : very interesting too (given in English by a professor whose accent is even heavier than mine)
    • Middle-Age (Mme Crouzet-Pavan) : sometimes a little boring but it is my favourite subject
    • Historical sources (F.Hinard) : brilliant ; too bad my Latin is somehow rusty...
    • History of Early America (E.Broglin and JP.Poussou) : excellent ; E.B. is the only professor who took time to explain the course, the program, the method and what he expects from students ; all the others just started giving their lecture...
    • English (Mme Sabatier) : in fact, it is history with a very English-English accent
    • Compared history of medias (France/USA) (P.Griset) : fascinating too...



A second Semester 2005-2006 at the Sorbonne

  • Shock ! My grades are better than anticipated ! Remember that, in France, grades do not go from A to F but from 0 (disaster) to 20 (unattainable paradise). Most grades range between 7 and 13. A grade of 14 is considered very good. To pass, you must get at least 10 on average (weighted by the coefficient of each subject). I got 14 in Contemporary History, 14 in Modern History, 11,5 in Medieval History and 9 in Ancient History (all of them with a coefficient of 5), 15 in Historical Sources (coeff.3) and 19 in English (!!) (coeff. 2) : therefore, whatever my grade in Geopolitics (I'll try to fix that soon with the professor), I'll pass easily. Great news ! Don't say anything nasty about the Sorbonne in front of me! (Final result : passed / average 12,5/20 in spite of 0 in the Geopolitics test in which I was AWOL!!)
 The life of a French student .... (First Semester)  
  • A feeling of Pure Knowledge (a chauvinist and sentimental comment)... An exam in the "Centre d'Egyptologie" of the Sorbonne, like the one I just had, gives you the feeling that you now belong to the long and glorious history of French Egyptology, from Champollion, Mariette and Maspéro to the professors I have, who are highly regarded and who direct prestigious archeological researches. Since Napoleon (!), French Egyptologists have played a leading role in archeological research and heritage management in Egypt. The exam takes place in a dark high-ceiling library and makes you feel that you are part of this long tradition ....
  • Oct.6 : My first class ! French universities are certainly not designed and organized to be as user-friendly as American universities. It took me a half hour to find the "amphithéatre" where my course on North-American history was to take place. Hundred of students were as lost as me and many of them asked me for direction, taking me for a professor. I wonder why.... The "amphithéatre" is very uncomfortable (no tables : only rows of wooden seats). The 80 students listen respectfully to a reasonably boring professor who wears a tie and seems to know what he is talking about. No questions are asked.
  • Oct.7 : First TD : only 3 students show up and the others were right : it is apparently a tradition that, although announced on the panel, the TDs never start the first week. Lesson : never trust an official annoucement on the panel.
  • Oct. 11 : Travaux Dirigés : compared history of medias France/USA : 40 students when the class room can accommodate 19 ! Young professor and American-style class. To give myself a challenge, I volunteer for a 25-minute exposé in 6 weeks from now on a theme I do not know anyrthing about (yet).
  • Oct. 14 : Quite different from an American university ! No collective activity (and no place for it), no cafeteria (isn't that incredible?), no feeling of belonging to the same class ; it is very difficult to meet a professor (but they all give their email address). Occasionally, an Oxfordian oasis in a Third - World environment, like this Library of Greek Studies I discovered as I was desperately looking for my class-room. The lack of money is amazing (France is the only country spending more money per student for high schools than for universities) : French universities, even the best ones, are very poor....
  • Oct. 17 : a moveable feast ! The Sorbonne is certainly not an American campus but still it is wonderful to be in the Latin Quarter : the whole city is a giant campus. In the adjoining blocks : the Musée de Cluny (XVth century), the Roman Baths (IInd Century), wonderful bookstores, the best movie theaters in Paris, not to mention countless cafés and a few million happy tourists !
  • Oct.20 : Students work hard ! Courses may start à 8 a.m. and end as late as 8 p.m. Between courses, they can only go the libraries (Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne or Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève), which are often crowded or to a nearby "bistrot". The bibliographies are huge : at least 20 books for each subject (for half of the course of American History -English colonization-, the number of books is 103!) ; each quarter, a student has one "exposé" (25-minute presentation) and one paper to write for each subject. No team work whatsoever, no discussion, no empty time....
  • Oct. 28 : now I know what I have to do between now and Christmas : three papers to write and one oral report ; the exams for the first "semester" begin January 16 and I come back from vacation in Mexico January 13 : arghhhh... (and the Mayas are not in my program...)
  • Oct. 31 : no human contact ! After one month here every day, I realize that NOBODY has ever talked to me (except to say :"Do you know where room # X is?" answer : "No idea"). I had decided not to talk first to these young people so as not to embarrass them. None of them ever adressed me. Do they hate or fear their parents that much ?
  • Nov. 9 : At the Sorbonne, the professors are really good ! This week, on two occasions, I said to myself : " Well, after listening to that guy, I would not mind spending the next twenty years working in his field ! ". One was the course on " Historical sources and Latin literature " and the other one was " The forming of the rules of monumental architecture in Egypt's Old Kingdom ". Indeed, this university is a mess, but it is good !
  • Nov. 27 : too much work! Before year-end, I have 5 papers to write (5 to 10 pages) : one on "Leprosy in Lausanne in 1376", one on "From New Amsterdam to New York", one on "Priests in Ancient Egypt", one on "prosopography" (you don't know what it is? I don't either) and one on "The 2005 State of the Union Speech" plus a 30-minute oral report on "RCA and early Radio Broadcasting". I'll be happy when Christmas comes...
  • Passive or stalinian ? Most French students are extremely lenient and tolerate the very difficult working conditions in the Sorbonne. They do not complain. Those who are not lenient are at the left of Trotsky and think that the only thing to do is just to abolish market economy and everything will become like in a dream. There is nothing between : read an anecdote about a "discussion" I had with a student.
  • Feb. 20 : a new semester begins and the work-to-do pile gets bigger : a paper on "Do European states wish more integration?" and three oral reports ("the annals of Thoutmosis III", "an analysis of the contract of marriage of the Dame de Roucy-1440" and "an analysis of the demography of the American colonies XVIIth C.").
  • A reminder : for American readers, the French University system made simple ! In France (like everywhere else in Europe), the university cursus covers 5 years ("L.M.D." format), before the Doctorate. The names (and the organization) are different in the two tracks : Université (where I study now) and Grandes Ecoles (where I went : see my resume). The first line is the univerity cursus, the second line the Grandes Ecoles'.

 DEUG 1  DEUG 2  Licence



 Master: DEA or DESS (M2)  Doctorat...

 Year 1

 Year 2

 Year 3

 Year 4

 Year 5
 Classe préparatoire 1 (hypo-taupe)  Classe préparatoire 2 (taupe)  First Year  Second Year  Third Year  Doctorat...

  • First strike ! You can't be a real student in France unless you've been involved in strikes or demonstrations. On March 8, as I went to my class, I found out that the university was closed and most students were on strike demonstrating in the streets, in Paris as everywhere in the country. Why ? Because a new work contract (aimed at facilitating the hiring of young people !) had just been adopted by the Parliament. Read about this C.P.E. and read a tentative explanation of this typically French social crisis and a comment by Harriet Welty about the conservatism of the French and the autism of their government. I thought it was absurd to go on strike but it seems I was the only one in the whole Sorbonne.... Three weeks later (March 31), after having been occupied a few days by striking students who were expelled by anti-riot forces, the Sorbonne is still closed and the movement is spreading to more universities (but not to "Grandes Ecoles", whose graduates have no problem finding jobs).
  • April 10 : after several weeks without courses, what will happen ? As time goes by, it becomes more and more unlikely that the exams will take place normally in May/June. They might be postponed till September. For me, it is just irritating but for many students who need to work in the Summer, it is a disaster and they might waste their whole year.
  • April 24 : back to school ! Nobody knows exactly how and when the final exams will take place, most likely two or three weeks later than usual. Additional courses are organized on Saturday mornings and additional papers must be written : two busy months in May and June ! I have to write the following papers : "Prosecution against Roman senators in the late Republic", "the measures of TV audience in France", "Do European countries wish more integration?" and give the following oral presentations "Thoutmosis III and the battle of Megiddo", "the dower of Jeanne de Roucy 1440". Among the Euro 300,000-worth damages and theft resulting from the occupation of the Sorbonne by the strikers, there is the slide projector of the amphitheatre of Egyptology, which means that, till the en of the year, we'll have to imagine what the professor is talking about....
  • May 9 : in a bathroom of the university, I found a big graffiti which can compete for "the-most-stupid-slogan-of-the-year" contest. It read : "Les patrons hors de France" ("Bosses out of France") ; it is fair to say that someone wrote "Whos is going to give you a job, creep" !
  • May 2006 : probably traumatized by two months of strikes and demonstrations, the President of the University (Jean-Robert Pitte) published a book to express his views, which are not at all politically correct in the French context. Here it goes :
    - The situation of French universities is a disaster : too many students, too little money, no connexion with the job market ; it cannot last any longer
    - His suggestions : 1. set up a selection process in universities to reduce dramatically the number of students in the cursus which lead nowhere, 2. increase the tuition fee from 150 Euros to at least 1000 or 1500 Euros/year, 3. re-orient many more students toward shorter cursus more adapted to the labor market, 4. force Universities and Grandes Ecoles to work together and share their resources and their research capacity.My guess : nobody will discuss it and if by any chance someone did, the Left would strongly oppose items # 1,2 and 3 and the Right would oppose # 4.
  • Jan.16-20 : mid-year exams : Aargh..., I'm freaked out ! After a month of vacation (very ill-planned) I have only a few hours to work on each subject. Panic....
     The Webmaster preparing himself mentally before the exams...
    I had the following exams :
    • Contemporary History (written : 4 hours) : "Cinema in France and in the USA from the origins to 1920s" = OK so far !
    • Art and literature of Ancient Egypt (oral) : "The decoration of mastabas in the Old Kingdom" = not too bad, it could have been much worse !
    • Medieval History (written : 4 hours) : comment a text about "The Plague in Sicily in 1347" = not too good, not enough knowledge about Sicily...
    • Modern History (oral) : "Puritanism in New England" = probably the best grade I'll get !
    • English : a very small report on Civil Rights in the USA = OK
    • Historical sources : a small report on "Verism and the Vernacular : Late Roman republic Portraiture and Catullus" (at least I wrote something !) and an oral exam on "juridical sources in late Roman Republic" = pure luck : I knew something about it... (Update as of Jan.2007 : nobody in my class understood why I had to take this exam and nobody else did . No wonder : it was an administrative mistake and I was convoked as a 4th-year student, which I was not! Good thing I knew something about the subject... I just figured out the whole thing!)
    • Geopolitics : I was in the Yucatan, visiting Maya cities, when the test was given. I'll have a "zero" (F) unless they can arrange a special test for me !  
    • CONCLUSION : nothing is sure except that it could have been MUCH worse : I am rather optimistic !
  • June 3 to June 21rst : seven exams to take! Here are the subjects : "Toward a central-core federal Europe after the failure of the project of the European constitution ?" (Geopolitics, written, 2 hours), "History of the International Union of Telecommunications" (Contemporary, oral), "The New Labour and the Third Way" (English, written, 1,5 hour), "The foreign trade of the Thirteen Colonies in 1769" (Modern, written, 4 hours), "How many senators were ever prosecuted at the end of the Roman Republic?" (Historical sources, report), "The temple of Montouhotep II at Deir-el-Bahri" (Egypt, oral) and "Marriage : Love and Reason - XIVth-XVth c. France, Italy and England" (Medieval, written, 2 hours). Nothing catastophic : I am optimistic !


 Final results (July 5) (grades from O to 20)

  • Geopolitics (coeff 5) : 15
  • Contemporary (coeff 5) : 12,2
  • English (coeff 2) : 19
  • Modern (coeff 5) : 14
  • Sources (coeff 3) : 16
  • Egyptology (coeff 5) : 12
  • Medieval (coeff 5) : 14,5

Average : 14,5 Combined with the first Semester : mention Assez Bien (Cum Laude) = Licence d'Histoire passed !

  • And now, what's next ? This year was fun and I'll continue. Next year, I'll be doing my "Maitrise" (see above) and I'll focus on Contemporary History. The most important thing to do is to select (or be selected by, which is my case) a professor who assigns you the subject of the "mémoire" (master's thesis). Mine will be with Pr.Pascal Griset whose field is History of Science and Techniques and il will be about the history of regional planning or something like that, based on sources he wants to exploit (among which I might run into some papers I wrote 30 years ago or more....).
  • More in my 2006-2007 diary.
To related pages : next diary (2006-2007), to my Franco-American site and the page on education in France, etc...

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