Monday, November 7, 2011

Vigilance Rouge : severe storms with a chance of a heavy workload forecast for reading week.

This week saw the end of Toussaint, the French equivalent of October half term or reading week. This marks the beginning of the downward slope to the end of the first half of my year abroad – in six weeks I’ll have ‘done’ France and be heading home.

It also marks the first serious pieces of work I’ve been given to complete for the university: a commentary, an essay, three presentations to start planning – all of which count towards my final exams, which start in four weeks. Now is probably a good time to reflect on the first half of my actual studying time here.

European universities work with the scheme of ECTS (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System), in which students have to take 60 credits per academic year. The requirements of British universities when it comes to selecting modules abroad vary – I’ve met some people who are doing courses to the value of 12 ECTS for the semester, and others who are doing 30. 

UCL requires its pupils to take 23 to 30 ECTS for one semester, and to pass a minimum of 23. We also have to complete a personal project, to be examined orally on our return to university in September. Other universities may stipulate fewer modules, but convert the exam marks for your final grade for the year. It’s important to know exactly what your exams are going to count for before jumping in at the deep end with course choices. Most people from UCL have tried to take about 27, as we’ve discovered that 30 results in an insane timetable, but 23 may not cover you if something goes wrong – for example if you fail a module, or, as one friend found, a teacher changes your timetable halfway through the term.

And it is quite a blind jump. In Montpellier, we’ve found that you can take your pick from virtually any course, open to any year group, at the university. You can mix-and-match between departments. You can even study a few modules of another language, if you’re brave enough. The only real rule is that you can’t study any courses in or about English.

The choice of courses is a process of trial and error – many of us only finalised our timetable by the third week of lessons. Firstly, you have to establish what courses are available during your semester. Then you have to find out how many ECTS they’re worth. Taking our 23 – 30 ECTS requirement as the example, you then have to put together about 27 units worth of courses that look interesting and/or manageable. THEN you head to the noticeboards. This is where the fun really starts. Most departments (not all, because that would be too much like having one standard process throughout the university) put their timetables for the term on their noticeboards, so that, having sorted out what you think you want to do, you can see just how many of your classes clash, and head back to the drawing board.

When you’ve finally got a working timetable, you have to make sure you’re signed up for the classes that fill up really quickly, for example first year literature. It’s best to do this as soon as possible to ensure you get a place – you can always un-enrol later and exam enrolment is a completely different process, so if the class is too tough, it doesn’t matter that much. Enrolment does of course adhere to the usual method of every department having its own process – some you have to enrol online, some on paper, some both, some neither.

So when you’ve worked your entire timetable out, and enrolled for everything, you can start attending lessons – you’re not necessarily in the clear just yet, as some may simply prove too hard. Two weeks in, I sat through a second year class of Medieval History. I left at the break, without the first idea of what had been said, and needing to find myself another 5 credits.

However, you do work it out eventually – and teachers aren’t really bothered by people arriving two or three weeks in. Most seem very understanding about Erasmus students, and want to give you all the help they can.

So, I’ve ended up doing a selection of translation (easy to understand and great for language practice), literature (fine, the tutors are quite understanding to the plight of the Erasmus student), philosophy (hard but interesting), a course called ‘Origines et Diversit√© des langues’ (great, the tutor does a PowerPoint of all the notes, so you don’t miss any) and (perhaps foolishly) Occitan. 

Occitan is the regional language of parts of the south of France, and isn’t really used much, if at all, today. The culture lessons are taught by a typically bumbling history professor who goes off at tangents and potentially has never heard of ‘Erasmus students’. The language lessons are taught through the medium of poetry, song and dance. So I’d advise you to take Occitan only if you’re happy to be a little confused, and if you don’t mind looking like an idiot as you flap your arms to differentiate between a big bird and a little bird. That said, it is quite amusing.

Aside from the odd moments of confusion, though, it’s working out pretty well. Luckily, reading week also seemed to herald the beginning of monsoon season, as a week of constant storms ensued, Languedoc-Roussillon flooded, and we were put on ‘Vigilance Rouge’. We were advised not to go out unless we had to, and told to stock up on essentials and drinking water etc. Panic stations, essentially. I haven’t left my house properly in five days – but this might not be the worst thing, as it’s given me time to get on top of all my work. It’s hit me just how much there is to be done over the next few weeks, and kick-started the really serious bit of the Erasmus experience – studying French properly. So grudgingly, thank you Weather Gods. But not for the pool of water by my window.

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