Exams at the ENS

Back in December, before my adventures in the British Isles, I had to “validate” my courses. Often in France, there are no mid-term exams or assignments throughout the semester. You only get one mark for the entire course and it is based on your performance for one task.

This system has some obvious pros and cons.
Pros:
- you only have one assignment/essay/exam/presentation to worry about per course
- you could not attend class all semester and just do the course validation
- you could equally do no work all semester aside from that validation

Cons:
- you don’t get to know your professor, what they expect from your work or the way that they mark
- you don’t get to choose what that validation will be (you could be terrible at oral presentations or exam taking)
- most of the validations happen in the same week
- if you didn’t attend class all semester and didn’t do any other work for the course, you will most likely not pass
- French professors are notorious for being hard markers

The French students at the ENS are also notorious for having an awe-inspiring work ethic. They are rarely assigned readings on a weekly basis; they direct their own homework based on what they think will be relevant. All of them also had the additional stress of preparing their Masters memoire (between 50-100 page assignment due in June) on top of their regular classes. I admire the autonomy these students have cultivated and wonder why there is such a difference between French students and Canadian students.

At home, I was used to my professors assigning us pages to read for the following class for whatever novel we happened to be studying at the time. In that way, I had become used to reading approximately 25 novels in French per school year in addition to my education classes and French linguistic classes without a problem. I read relevant articles when they were assigned by the prof for that week’s reading and I did extra research when I wrote my final essay or did a presentation.

In France, there was no syllabus at the beginning of the semester (maybe an outline of what each class session would focus on, if I was lucky), and the bibliography of recommended texts for the course was online, if the professor felt like giving one. Many times, I went into the class having no inkling of what we would be covering and no idea how to prepare for it. The course that was the best-prepared was a comparative literature class where half of the texts we read were in English, and the texts themselves ended up having no connection to my final presentation. In another course, we were essentially expected to read a novel a week, most of which were rare and all of which were supposedly found in the library. (I’ll be honest: I never checked to see if they were there).

My course validations consisted of the 20 minute oral presentation mentioned above, exploring the history of African diaspora in Canada through poetry; an essay discussing the presence of anachronism and spectrality in Anne H├ębert’s Kamouraska; a transcription of a 40 minute interview in French with a French student who had previously been on exchange and an analysis of her experience based on principles learned in class; a beginner Spanish exam; and an exam consisting of a commentary of a poem that compares and contrasts its poet with the other poets studied in class.

None of the professors gave an outline of what they expected for the assignement or of what would be on the exam and it seemed to be only the international students who went to them after class to clarify the parameters of the tasks. In any case, everything went quite well apart from one small incident.

Let me preface by briefly outlining the process for writing an exam at Brock University. Weeks before the exam, there are posters everywhere reminding us not to bring backpacks or purses or coats (if we can avoid them) to the exam if we can manage without them. Often students bring these things anyway, but they are required to tuck them under their chair or to hang them on the back of their seat until they have turned in the exam. All you are allowed are your writing utensils, your student card and occasionally a dictionary if the professor allows it. For literature exams or other long answer responses, students are giving standard booklets to write in. You are not to talk to anyone except the professor or teaching assistants during the exam period. It is usually held in a gymnasium or a classroom set aside during the exam period.

For my poem commentary exam, we had not been explicitly told where the exam would be held, so we verified and it was going to be held in our regular classroom. The professor also told us we would be allowed a dictionary of our choice (French-English or standard French dictionary, based on what we wanted to bring). I had to borrow mine from the library.. which is not normally allowed, but I promised the librarian I would bring it back immediately following the exam.

I brought my student card, my pencils and my pens to the exam in my coat pocket. I live right next to the building where my classes are held so I felt no need to bring a bag with me. When I arrived, I waited patiently for the professor to distribute the question sheets and the cahiers (as we call them in Canada) out to the students. The exam was meant to start at 9am. It started at 9:20am after all the students who had opted to do a different assignment in place of the exam handed their work in. The professor went around handing out the question sheet. She didn’t tell us when to begin so eventually I recognized that it was time to start (no formal announcement necessary). As I waited for her to hand out the work booklets, I started looking over the poem in question and making notes. After about 15 minutes, I glanced up and noticed she wasn’t distributing them yet. I glanced around and realized all of the other students were writing on their own paper.

I panicked. I hadn’t brought any paper with me, because why would I need any? I couldn’t talk to anyone to ask for some or I would get my exam taken away from me. The only thing I could think of was writing my entire commentary on the back side of the question sheet in miniscule handwriting. I was so shocked by my own cultural assumption that I was too humiliated to put my hand up and ask for help and so I sat there continuing to analyse the poem while desperately trying to think of a solution.

Luckily, the professor came around the class to take attendance. I tried to discreetly explain that I had never considered that I would need to bring paper with me to the exam. She looked concerned and asked me if I still hadn’t found any. As if I had been asking around to see if anyone would lend me some. Of course it would permitted to talk to your peers during exams…. what?!?! I could only blush and tell her no, that she had handed out the exam before I realized I would need any. She interrupted the class and explained to them that one of their colleagues didn’t have any paper and asked if anyone had extra. I stared a hole in my desk by the time she handed it to me and then turned redder because I didn’t know who to thank for having given it to me. All in all, it wasn’t the greatest start, but I had exactly the right amount of paper for my commentary and those eight pages ended up being worth my highest mark for the semester.

The moral of this story is that you should establish the expectations of your professor before you hand in an assignment, whether that be what font you should use for your assignment (I have one who required Arial 10) and whether it should be double-spaced or what materials you will need to bring to your exam. I highly recommend using specific questions such as “Will I need to bring my own paper to the exam?” or “Should I use subtitles in my paper?” because the professors are just as likely to have cultural assumptions about what is standard procedure as you do.

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