An American in Paris

More students are venturing abroad, for term or summer study or other experiences, with the College’s encouragement. The first of two reports on such experiences in the “Old Europe,” by current undergraduates, appears here. The second, "Sommersemester," appears on the next page.  

~The Editors


My first encounter with the French, this year, was not a pleasant one. Late in the fall, I had decided to spend the spring semester studying in Paris, and this decision eventually led me to squander the first day of winter reading period trying to get a visa. The clerk at the consulate window in Boston had just turned away one applicant and started shouting in French at another. When he called my number, I shoved my stack of documents under the glass between us and sported my most amiable smile. That became my first mistake. The clerk glanced up and curled his lip. “You have everything in duplicate?” he said in English, as though the French language were visibly a lost cause with me. He had his shirt unbuttoned to a very un-American point and periodically gave the phlegmy, nervous sniff of an unpacified smoker. Still frowning, he picked up my application and glanced at it. His eyes narrowed. “Is this a joke?” he said.

Now, my handwriting is possibly unbeautiful, but most people politely bear with its unsightliness. The French visa clerk did not. “I cannot read this,” he cried, flinging my forms back under the window and marching away, probably to smoke. I walked the gauntlet of stares back to my seat. Memories of the first-grade teacher who made me recopy my spelling words because of a few “smears” (a bad eraser) flooded out of repression, and I began to wonder whether I had made the right choice in going abroad. How would I survive a semester in a country filled with people like this?

The uncertainty was familiar by that time, because deciding to study abroad had not been easy. I would never have considered the possibility if my blockmates at Harvard, many of them European, hadn’t decided to take a term abroad and urged me to do the same. I did not like the idea of losing a whole semester of my rapidly diminishing time at the College. I was also afraid of what might happen if I let go of the extracurricular activities and jobs I’d been pouring time and energy into since freshman year, even for a semester. The undergraduate experience at Harvard is set up to reward momentum gained, not diversity of experience.

I hedged until the study-abroad deadline passed that fall, thinking that this would solve my problem very neatly. “Oh,” I told my blockmates. “Oh, I was so busy and I guess it’s too late now.” But they persisted. And, shortly after the deadline passed, I found myself sitting at my desk in my Currier House room—which looked exactly like the room I’d had the previous year, except that the window overlooked different trees—and thinking about how wonderfully different it would be to overlook a Haussmannized boulevard instead. Soon I’d arranged a meeting with the Office of International Programs. I started telling people that I was “thinking of going to Paris” in the spring.

It wasn’t until I returned to Cambridge for reading period that I was willing to acknowledge that I had made a decision—and by that time my flight to Paris loomed days away. I threw myself into the terrifying business of finishing four term papers while packing up the contents of my room. I was sorting possessions and stuffing boxes until minutes before I had to leave: a friend phoned a taxi to the airport while I returned two bags full of library books. “I didn’t realize this was so touch-and-go,” she smirked as I tripped out the door with my suitcases. “What do you mean?” I asked indignantly, praying that I had remembered my passport.


Not long after I arrived in Paris, the independent program facilitating my study abroad offered a seminar led by a “culture-shock consultant” who specialized in Franco-American relations. (She, a Frenchwoman, had apparently become interested in this branch of psychology after spending time in the American Midwest.) She told the group of assembled American students about something called the “iceberg de culture” and, to show its effects, pulled out a sinusoidal chart that could have been flagging the vital functions of some hospital patient. This graph, she explained, would predict the ebbs and flows of our feelings toward French culture over the next five months. If we were lucky, we would be able to remain “positive” and “resilient.” If we were unlucky, we could end up “deciding to stay,” but “permanently hating the country and its people.” By the time the presentation ended, I was convinced I should go into therapy.

Looking back over the “symptoms” of culture shock she mentioned, however, I find that I’ve encountered relatively few of them. I suspect that this is partly because I came to Paris expecting to be shocked—and I was. Many of the most striking surprises came from being plunged into a foreign education system. To study abroad, particularly in a country as self-consciously intellectual as France, is not simply to take classes at another university. It is to be thrown into the highest levels of a model of education that native students have been following since kindergarten. The knowledge base is different, and so is the method.

A case in point is what you might call The Problem of the Problem. As every Harvard student could tell you in his or her sleep, academic papers and lectures in the United States are based on the idea of the thesis. The thesis advances an original idea and shows how this idea can be used to explain the obvious and unobvious aspects of a particular topic. The French, on the other hand, do not seem to trust anything that comes to a conclusion. They favor something called the problématique, which identifies the problems at stake and elaborates them until no explanation is in sight. (In a French paper, that is where you put the ending.) Where the thesis is an answer, the problématique is a question. A thesis brings some sort of order to apparent chaos, while a problématique suggests why a given problem is much, much more complicated than it looks and, actually, probably impossible to solve at all. Anyone who has tried to have something repaired in France knows that this outlook is the national modus vivendi in more than academics.

This is not to say that French scholarship is disorderly. In fact, function follows form for much of the work done in French universities. The education system is collectively obsessed with what it calls la méthodologie, a term that operates like a proper noun within the university gates. According to most French scholars, attempting to get any work done without The Methodology makes about as much sense as trying to drive a car with your legs hanging out the window. It is France’s common pedagogical currency. The Methodology consists of five or six general forms for written work and oral presentations, and each form is based on a strict, often explicit, outline. This may seem to be at odds with the problématique’s impulse toward breadth and elaboration—and it is. Several of my professors regularly paused in the middle of a complicated explanation of some fairly tangential point to announce the start of “little Roman numeral three.” Glancing at the notes of a nearby student to figure out what little Roman numeral two had been, or whether it had existed at all, I’d decide that some part of the French intellect remains impossibly strung between an Enlightenment-like predilection for scientific order and a flair for Montaignean wandering. The prickly visa clerk started making sense.

I am not an outliner (I generally plan academic papers with a few scribbles on the back of an envelope), so The Methodology’s exigencies required me to step out of the intellectual shoes I’d been wearing for several years. Relearning what to think about and how to talk about my thoughts sometimes felt inhibiting and frustratingly slow. Possibly, the skills I developed in France will be shoved to a corner of my intellectual toolbox, never to be used again. Yet this is unlikely. As archaic and silly as The Methodology sometimes seemed, it has left its unique imprint on the way I think—and it’s a mark I could never have gotten at Harvard. Even with all of its resources, Harvard cannot offer the learning that comes from breaking an intellectual routine. Simply seeing that other routines exist broadens one’s way of thinking in ways to which students spending four years in Cambridge might remain impervious.

Realizing this made the idiosyncrasies of French education tolerable. I was ostensibly in three different sorts of classes in Paris—lectures, smaller sections, and seminars—but, in reality, all were lecture courses. That is because French education has a different conception of the student’s role in a university: it is to listen and learn, rather than to participate and challenge. Many French professors make it very clear that they owe their students exactly nothing. One of mine regularly arrived for class 20 to 40 minutes late and sometimes not at all. None of the other students seemed to mind, even though some had endured a lengthy commute to get to school on time. Many university students in Paris live with their families and ride public transportation to class, which means that the campus culture that flourishes outside the classroom at most American universities—extracurricular activities, arts and athletic events, weekend parties—is virtually nonexistent.

This was not too much of a problem for me, though. My extracurricular activity of choice soon became the city of Paris.

True to plan, I spent innumerable evenings watching black-and-white films in the tiny cinemas scattered all over town, never quite deciding whether the screen or the audience fascinated me more. I passed afternoons crossing the city on foot or reading over tiny cups of inky-black coffee, ignoring the resentful stares with which French waiters like to greet their patrons. I did some research in the French National Library, a vault-like building that seemed unable to decide whether it wanted to be a dusty archive or a state-of-the-art spy headquarters. (It took four interviews to get clearance for a library card.) I became something of a flâneur—a very French pastime—occasionally using free time simply to sit in a public garden and watch people stroll by. It’s something I never would have dared at Harvard—and that’s what was turning my time abroad into an education.


The value of studying abroad has been a popular topic at Harvard over the past few years among students and administrators alike. Some departments are notoriously cool to the idea; others encourage it. In 2002, Harvard set up an Office of International Programs in the basement of University Hall to help facilitate study-abroad opportunities, and, since its founding, the number of undergraduates studying abroad has more than doubled. Still, fewer than 400 students went abroad for credit this past year. That’s partly why the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Committee on Education Abroad surprised some people in April, when it claimed a goal of sending every Harvard undergraduate abroad (see "Curriculum Queries"). The committee issued a report recommending that Harvard increase financial aid for students going abroad and offer them new outlets for advising and departmental support. Its objective was to make Harvard, as an institution, more prepared than ever for study abroad. But are its students ready?

If I, a student concentrating in French and American history and literature, had such a hard time deciding whether to study in Paris, it’s not surprising that someone studying physics might find foreign coursework unattractive. Harvard has one of the finest physics faculties in the world; no university in Paris could hope to match it. And undergraduate physics, unlike most disciplines in the humanities, is virtually mono-paradigmatic: everyone currently doing important work in the field shares a precise base of knowledge and skills. This means that to study physics in France isn’t necessarily to grow intellectually by getting new paradigms under your belt; rather, it’s probably to pursue a weaker version of the Harvard curriculum. I suspect that the more general, non-physics learning that happens abroad would still make the experience worthwhile for budding Harvard scientists. But a strong argument could be made to the contrary. That’s probably why the number of science students who study abroad has always been markedly lower than those from other disciplines.

The greatest obstacle to spending time abroad, in fact, may now be the success-track instincts of Harvard undergraduates themselves. I was granted a gracious leave by fellow students from the extracurricular activities I had been involved in—but this was by no means to be expected. Harvard’s academic highway now has an easy off-ramp to studying abroad, but ducking away from life outside the classroom, even for only a semester, still requires a bumpy ride over unpaved terrain. Many Harvard students are justifiably loath to launch themselves into such territory without something (a pat extracurricular position, a diploma) to cling to.

Even so, I was able to manage just fine by clinging to what was new and uniquely French. One of my classes was on phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, a cornerstone of contemporary thought whom no one at Harvard teaches in depth. I became familiar with the work of European and East Asian filmmakers I barely knew existed. From a bridge on the Seine, I discovered how to watch the sun set over the low Paris skyline.

And, rather unexpectedly, I learned to miss Harvard. I had pangs of longing for bleary-eyed Friday afternoons in the fall, trying to read over a huge paper cup of weak, heavily creamed coffee. I remembered the coziness of watching professors with silk scarves and glasses halfway down their noses chat before the start of some academic conference. I was nostalgic for my frenetic, reading-period raids on the Widener stacks. I missed the people most of all. Fortunately, many more months of Harvard await me still.

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow Nathan Heller ’06 supports the selling of books along the Charles.

Read more articles by: Nathan Heller
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