Friday, October 31, 2008

The Exposé

The exposé is my least favourite thing about Sciences Po. It is an extreme mixture between the French, Cartesian methodology and Sciences Po’s own private way of doing things. Basically, the concept is simple: talk, in front of the class, for 10-15 minutes about a topic that is assigned to you. The reality is much more complex.

To start with, the exposé is worth about a third of your grade. The other third is usually a fiche technique, fiche de lecture, or presentation du texte, all things I will probably write about at a later date. The last third is class participation. At this point, Hampshire students are thinking, ‘Wait a minute, what is she complaining about? I had to write 50 pages in total for my last class. This French stuff sounds easy.’ These Hampshire students are largely misinterpreting the fine points of the exposé.

The exposé is divided into two parts. To understand the difference between Sciences Po and Cartesian methodology, make every time I say two into three. These two parts are divided into two sub-parts. There also happens to be an introduction and a conclusion. Depending on the severity of your professor, the 10-15 minute exposé could be a 25 minute experience, such as in my ‘Questions of Ethics? Questions of Literature’ course, which is excellent by the way. So far, so good, right? But then comes the hard part. Every exposé has a subject, assigned by the professor. It is your duty to take apart the subject, play with the wording, and understand the main themes enough to create a question, or problématique, from the subject. When I was in my welcome program methodology course, we did a lot of just trying to find the proper problématique. An example was the subject: The Polish plumber and the Indian engineer. To be able to find the question from this subject, you have to understand that the “Polish plumber” was a stereotype used several years ago when the EU was expanding to include Eastern Europe. People in Western Europe were genuinely worried that the Eastern Europeans would make a mass exodus to Western Europe where they would take all the working class jobs because they would work for less. You also have to understand that the “Indian engineer” is another stereotype used to describe the idea of ‘guest workers,’ especially in Germany, who are white collar workers that are welcomed in Western Europe because of a lack of engineers, doctors, and so on who are well qualified. They tend to come to Europe, work for less than 10 years, working for less than the white collar workers in Western Europe, and then move back home, mostly. You also have to take into account that the class we were pretending to be in was “l’Espace Mondial.” So our problématique had something to do with migratory fluxes and the benefits of opening borders to certain migrants, or something.

One also has to take into account when doing an exposé, that 10 minutes is not a long time. The introduction and conclusion should take 2-3 minutes combined, which leaves approximately 4 minutes per part, 2 minutes per sub-part. The professor will stop you if you go over time. And he or she will wait before speaking, staring at you, if you stop under time. This is all in French. One could take English classes at Sciences Po, and I take two of them, but why go to Paris to study in English, right? The French students’ exposés that I’ve heard have been unintelligible for me, personally, and for some other foreign students because they talk really fast. Somehow, they are able to cram the entire history of the Middle East (for example) into 10 minutes. What?! Don’t ask me how it’s possible because I have no idea.

After your fun 10 minute presentation, you get to be criticized (or complimented) by the class and the professor for another 15 or so minutes. It’s great fun.

Why am I writing about this today? Well, my dear readers, it’s because I just did my first exposé in French in my class on the Modern Arab World on Tuesday. This was the subject: Islamisme et Nationalisme- le cas Palestinien. You may have noticed some trigger words in this subject- Islamism, Nationalism, and Palestinian, to start with. These are already very delicate subjects when split up, but all together they are really difficult to talk about, in 10 minutes, in French, in front of the whole class, when I’m not an expert on Palestine. So I kept putting it off, saying, “Oh that’s scary; I’ll tackle it tomorrow.” This is not a tactic I recommend. Then it was Monday. I got my books out of the library (someday, I may write about the fun, little, underground book trains at the library here…) and headed home to work. My problématique became: How did the process of Islamism affect Arab nationalism especially in the nation of Palestine? Not too intellectual sounding, I know, but it’s in French, so cut me a little slack. I wrote out my entire presentation, word by word, because I was terrified of messing up, and drank 5 cups of espresso. I made a PowerPoint presentation, which was fun because I got to use a quote from Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (which is a GREAT book that everyone who’s interested in the themes should read.) And, at 9am, I headed to class.

Apparently, according to Michelle, my Hungarian-American friend who also takes French with me here, my presentation was actually pretty good. But, you know, she’s a friend and a foreigner, too, so she’s going to be easy on me. I got really annoyed with myself because immediately after the presentation part, the professor asked me to expand upon the tensions between Hamas and Fatah after the Oslo accords, and I totally choked and said I didn’t know because I had concentrated more on the general history of the Middle East. My response was ridiculous because as soon as she got up to start teaching class and mentioned the Oslo accords, a complete, coherent, and detailed answer to her question formed in my mind, but then again, I was nervous, had stayed up all night, and had 5 espressos in my system.

The hardest thing about the exposé, for me, is the idea that it’s worth a third of my grade. It’s 10 minutes, and if you choke, that’s the end. It’s scary, especially the first one. Luckily, the rest of the exposés I have to do are in groups until the fifth of January when I have to talk for 25 minutes about a text that questions the ethics of terrorism. And now, I know that waiting to start working the day before is completely counter-productive. I envision great things for my exposés to come. And if any of you ever have to write one, feel free to write to me for help.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Language, Accents, and Culture

This is this issue of the Climax's "Postcard from Abroad," Eric asked me to write it, so I did:

Language and culture are so intertwined that oftentimes we have trouble distinguishing if culture begets language or vice versa. One classic example is of the French habit of posing questions in the negative: instead of asking, “Do you want this sandwich?” a Frenchman, or woman, will say, “You don’t want this sandwich?” This, in the French culture, allows one to say, “No,” without being rude. Another example in the French language is the use of the neutral pronoun “on” or “one.” This neutral pronoun allows one to displace blame, “I’m sorry that you had to wait in line so long, but one has to carefully go over all the paperwork,” not “I” not “we” or “he” or “she” but “one.” While I could explore the historical and societal reasons for the need to be able to say, “No,” without being rude or to displace blame in France, I will save it for another essay. Instead, I want to write about the impact that language has on an individual’s personal cultural identity. In this case because this is a “postcard from abroad,” I’m going to write about how my language affects my personal cultural identity during my experiences on Hampshire’s direct exchange with Sciences Po in Paris, France.

For the majority of people, their country of origin is reflected by their mother tongue. An individual from Hungary will most likely use Hungarian as their principle language. A few exceptions to this rule are people descended from immigrants and people who grow up in certain regions of certain countries (an example would be a friend of mine from Alto Adige, a German-speaking part of Italy). I was born in the United States, but the first language I learned was Italian. This does not mean that I am more comfortable in Italian than I am in English as I did the majority of my schooling in the States, and my dad only speaks English. I am, however, an Italian citizen as well as an American citizen and have actually only ever voted in Italian elections. Most of the time, I can pass under the radar as an Italian-American, so it rarely becomes a public issue. Lately, my ability to pass under the radar unchallenged has begun to change.

It started with an innocent question on the first day of Sciences Po’s Welcome Program for foreigners: “Where are you from?” I had to make a quick decision, so I said, “I’m Italian and American.” I was the only one in the class to say something less cut and dry than China or Germany. As the Welcome Program progressed, and as my classmates and I became better friends, things only got more complicated. In the States, I rarely have a problem with English, but when I live abroad for extended periods of time, my Northwestern American accent becomes a hybrid of whatever accents are around me, and my vocabulary begins to disappear. The same happens with my Italian. In the amazing international setting of Sciences Po (where 44% of students this year are international), the language part of my brain becomes completely fried. One night, I met an Italian who was speaking Spanish to some people from Mexico. That night, I was switching between Spanish, Italian, English, French, and the miniscule amount of German I know. I began speaking Italian to the Hungarians, French to the Germans, Spanish to the Italians, and any other combination of languages and nationalities imaginable.

When I get confused with my languages and accents, most people just gently correct me, tease me, and then tell me that it’s understandable. My class from the Welcome Program has really gelled into a cohesive group. We’re friends now, not just classmates. So they have no qualms about calling me on my language faults, in any language. The latest occurrence was at our last reunion dinner. When I get tired, my accent in English really falls apart, and I haven’t been in the States since June. We have an Irishman in our class, and the majority of people in the class speak English with a British accent. This combination of factors resulted in me speaking British/Canadian/American/Irish English. Someone looked at me and asked, “Where are you from?” I could only respond that I didn’t know. I self-identify as Italian and American, and when people are really interested, I go into an explanation of why and how I actually feel more European and American than anything else, but that doesn’t mean that people perceive me as Italian and American, or solely one or the other.

Language swiftly becomes a definition of who someone is. An accent can tell society about which country or part of the country you come from, which social class you belong to or educational background you have, or what other languages you speak, among other things. Our world today, however, is changing faster than our accents. The perceptions people have based on how or which languages one speaks are becoming more and more skewed. Unfortunately, though these perceptions may be wrong, they still have a huge impact on how one is viewed in a group or in society, how one is expected to act, and indeed, who people believe one is.

Paris is an island in France made of a myriad of different cultures and nationalities. These people often live side by side; a street can separate a “bad” neighborhood from a “good” one. In such a cosmopolitan environment, people cannot help but recognize difference, whether it is represented by an accent, a style of dress, or the color of someone’s skin. What is important in such a place is how people react to differences. Reactions have caused the banlieue riots, the banning of headscarves in the public sphere, and Science Po’s addition of a special, separate entrance exam based on the zip code of applicants. Reactions have sparked debates on the universalism of humanity versus the individual and group concepts of culture, on who is French and who is foreign. There is no way to see the future of Paris, France, or the world, but people are beginning to look around themselves and change how they react, and that is the first step to creating any sense of a global community.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Le Marais and Paris by Velib

I know it's been awhile since I've updated y'all, but life is full of things to be doing, etc. I just wanted to put in a little description of why I love Paris:

The other day I was feeling a bit sad. I had no one to talk to coming out of class, so I was just standing outside the library, smoking a cigarrette and thinking that someone might just approach me out of the blue, and oh, wouldn't that be so cool? This did not happen, however I was soon on my way home, walking the full, sunny streets. I heard Italian, French, German, some Scandinavian language, and an African one. I saw singles, couples, families, workers, students, tourists, every type of person imaginable, and all in the space of a few minutes. I took a deep breath and told myself that I have time. I have time to chat and learn and soon enough, I'll be walking out of Sciences Po's big, impressive building on the Rue Saint Guillaume speaking in French to my classmates.

Later that week, I ran into a friend of mine from the Welcome Program. I was talking to him about how the lack of a real campus atmosphere is strange for me because I'm used to being able to open my door and have all of Hampshire College at my fingertips. As I spoke to him, I began to realize how silly it was, really, to feel rushed to meet people. Already that week, I had a fiche technique due, coffee with a friend from Mexico, a party/reunion dinner for my Welcome Program class, a movie with some more friends from Mexico, and all sorts of things to do and discover in Paris. Really what I have is a lack of patience to let friendships grow and let time take it's course.

Friday, I went to my friend Tamas' house for our class' reunion. Tamas is a beautiful boy from Hungary. He's very sharply dressed, speaks impectible English and French, dances Salsa, and has an amazing sense of humor. He's also a very good host. The group of 15 or so of us, from almost every corner of the world spent hours together, talking, laughing, and dancing. It was great craic, as an Irish friend of mine would say. When we all finally left, it was late, and the metro was closed. Theresa (from Germany), Luis (from Brasil), Nigel (from Ireland), and I decided to get some Velibs (the public bike system in Paris) and bike home. Which, after some initial setbacks (yes, I somehow caused an entire Velib station to shut down), we did. We got lost on the way to the Seine, but finally got there, passing by the Place de la Bastille. Crossing the Seine, we were on a roll. There were so few cars and people, that it almost felt as though the entire city were ours. The image of Notre Dame at five am will be forever ingrained in my head. The building rose up, dark against the backdrop of a light-polluted, orange-grey sky. It was sinister and breath-takingly beautiful all at once. The cool morning air rushing through my hair made me giddy. Paris by bicycle at 5am has become the best thing I've done, yet, followed by seeing the Eiffel Tour light up at night with Lucrezia and some friends from Mexico, and hearing street musicians play on a sunny afternoon on the steps of Montmartre. And hearing the Benedictine nuns of Sacre Coeur singing Vespers.

Lucrezia and I saw the new Woody Allen flick on Saturday night with Dulce and Niana. On Sunday, after contemplating a trip to Sacre Coeur to hear Vespers again, Theresa texted me to know if I wanted to explore the Marais with her. I jumped at the chance to see a neighborhood I haven't really spent a lot of time in. The Marais is the Jewish/Gay quarter of Paris and happened to be filled with people selling things for Sukkot. It has become my new favorite place in Paris because everything is open on Sunday. And they sell Challah. Delicious, amazing Challah. mmm... I'm so excited that I still have some left at home right now. Theresa and I also spent hours together chatting about our families, lives, and the relationship status of our classmates. I love that she is always smiling or laughing. Well, not always, but very frequently.

Today, I had lunch with my friend Justin from the Netherlands. Tamas (another one, this one we call- Tamas avec des lunettes- Tamas with glasses) and Theresa ran into us, and we had a very pleasant afternoon in the sun. I love that the cold hasn't quite begun as of yet...

Well, I think that about sums up my life for now...