Having taught in the last three years at the University of Paris 8, the University of Maryland, and now the University of Nottingham, many things strike me about teaching in these different places. Despite globalization, students are not same everywhere. First year students at the University of Nottingham have minds like third year students at the University of Maryland. My twelve tutees here (all first years) do the kind of bibliographical research for their English papers that third years in English might do in America. This is because one only begins to specialize in one's third year in America, whereas first years here have already spent two years with 'A' levels concentrating on English. The maturity in undergraduates here means that lecturers need not retreat into the upper level modules to teach bright students. This is not the case in America where professors keep retreating from undergraduates. Here I can assign secondary readings from day one to undergraduates on my module and expect them to do the reading. (Whether they do or not is another matter, but laziness is not an American invention.) Why? Undergraduates here are expected to be researchers from the outset, but they are also expected to learn very quickly about not plagiarizing. First years in America often spend an entire semester learning how to write essays without plagiarizing. Here, my tutees are expected to master this ability in just three short meetings with me in their first term. But the assumption that students here are fast learners comes at a price: the tutor system with all its apparent "hand-holding." Indeed, first years here seem "mature" enough to do demanding courses even if they are not "mature students" according to the university's lingo.
As for the University of Paris 8, things are different for English students. When you do not know what to do at university in France you do English. Why? It will be useful later in life no matter what happens and it is a user-friendly subject demanding little effort. These are the assumptions but they have consequences. Students doing English are not always motivated or interested in what they are doing. What they actually do is another matter since assigning textbooks can be discouraged. While students may have money for mobile phones and clothes, they cannot be asked to pay money for textbooks. The alternative? Teach from flimsy photocopies that demand all kinds of pedagogical creativity from teachers. This resource inequality means that in France students handwrite papers and in America they present them on the web. Administratively, other issues arise. French students can register for a module on the Minitel computer system, which does not know if they have the prerequisites or the marks needed to take the module. So the first class is spent playing policeman in the classroom, verifying paperwork and deciding who stays in the module and who does not. The module sign-up sheets in the hallways here would not last one hour in France, where competition at registration can be fierce. In America the lists would get stolen every night so computers deal with registration and let teachers do what they do best: teach.
Putting the cart before the horse is common at Paris 8. Classrooms hold only 25 students but rosters hold 40 names. And when students enrol, conflicts between the modules on offer in the timetable and the required modules students need for degrees take on incredible proportions. This is because module supply is limited but module demand is not. Why? No one knows ahead of time what numbers to expect or what demands will be. Such is the case when students walk onto campus in October and enrol on the spot at the university. But when elitism is synonymous with selectivity in France, de jure selection in admissions to harmonize staff and student numbers in summer and not autumn simply cannot happen. Chaotic registration, overcrowded classrooms, impossible timetables, and rigid requirements mean, however, that de facto selection occurs. By February the numbers work out, but months of turmoil in between are the price the French pay for selecting students with an invisible hand. Maryland fretted over retention rates but they simply did not exist at Paris 8, where only the most dedicated would get educated.
As for postgraduates, France and England agree that the PhD is a research degree, while America sees it as a taught degree. Student autonomy is assumed on this side of the Atlantic (e.g., one "reads" English here and is not taught it), but not on the other side. The exception: the teaching that all American PhD students do to survive and cover their tuition bills. American postgraduates have some autonomy over what they teach but not over what they learn. What does that mean? To be a "candidate" for the PhD, I first had to take ten seminars in two years and write ten seminar papers on medieval literature, renaissance literature, 18th century literature, 19th century literature, 20th century literature, American literature before 1865, American literature since 1865, drama, rhetoric, and theory. When added to the teaching load (at least one class a semester, most likely composition), the thesis research (on Auden), and the comprehensive exams that follow the seminar work (akin to "beaming up" over here), what are the results? Professionalized PhDs over 30 who have at least five solid years of teaching and research experience behind them. Or, to put it bluntly, the kind of PhD that RAE-conscious departments over here like. Indeed, whither the British PhD?
As for teacher training, our different systems mean that the two-year training program for new lecturers here at Nottingham (the PGCAP), which you can apparently get out of if you pay 75 pounds per year to join the Institute for Learning and Teaching, is redundant for many Americans. We do that training already as part of our degree. American departments no doubt ask us to teach so much because we are cheap. The salary of one professor in a major American English department can easily cover around six teaching assistant salaries. However, postgraduate students with AHRB funds here may worry less about whether or not they are being exploited as cheap labour. On this point, the British system is more ethical than the American one. That said, QAA or Transparency Review probably have no analogues in France or America. Here, accountability breathes down your neck from day one. For unbridled autonomy in the university classroom, teachers may be better off going to France.
France, again, is different when it comes to teaching. Getting a short-term teaching job as an ATER (attaché d'enseignement et de recherche) while doing the PhD is vital for one's career. However, competition for these scarce jobs is widely viewed as unfair. Most ATERs in English at Paris 8 were doing PhDs at the Sorbonne, but not vice versa. Nobody asked why. The ills of higher education in France were spelled out last year by Jean-Fabien Spitz of the University of Caen in an infamous article in Débat (January 2000). I will not rehearse his argument here. Suffice it to say that one of the charms of France not advertised in travel magazines is that 5% of its higher education students (those in the grandes écoles) get nearly one-third of the federal budget for higher education. And this for attending institutions that do not grant degrees but only train students to pass state exams. When a student "double dips" by going to a grande école and a university (to get a degree), the state pays twice to educate someone once.
To conclude, overgeneralizing from the specific institutions mentioned here might not be fair. The Universities of Maryland, Nottingham, and Paris 8 are all atypical in some way. The THES just last week reported that Paris 8 had the lowest graduation rate in France for students on the two-year DEUG course. Maryland is right outside Washington DC and has a larger and more diverse student body than does Nottingham. Maryland is about 150 years old, Nottingham is about 50 years old, and Paris 8 is about 30 years old. (If institutions evolve over time, they can get better with age although Maryland might do with some of Nottingham's bright undergraduates in English.) Having said that, leaping over the Atlantic or over the Channel means facing some hurdles with the change in jobs. The biggest one is working in a different academic culture. Doubling your salary in America is nice, but doing so at the cost of overworked and underpaid teaching assistants in your department is not so nice. However, seeing how different places function is not only intriguing, it is downright useful. Now I can relate easily here to junior-year abroad students from America and ERASMUS students from France. I have a sense of where they come from, how they learn and are taught, and what may perplex them here on campus. Things over all are better for students here than they may be in America or France, which means teaching here is more rewarding than dispiriting. That said, there is something others can learn from teaching on this side of the Atlantic and of the Channel. The proposed work exchange scheme will work wonders, even if limited to England, because teaching elsewhere can help you teach later on back on your own campus. Perhaps all lecturers here then should do a year "abroad."