Sunday, December 14, 2008

Suck it up at the Sorbonne

A few weeks ago I received an advance review copy of Sorbonne Confidential by Laurel Zuckerman from LibraryThing. Sorbonne Confidential is the story of an American woman in her mid-forties who finds herself laid off from a job in business in Paris, hits on the idea of teaching English as the perfect solution to her unemployment woes and duly signs up for the prestigious agrégation exam to secure entry into the state education system. She then discovers just what a difficult exam the agrégation is and just how French it is.

I did not like this book. I found the carping complaints about the whole system irritating, especially after the discovery that the candidate had failed the exam. I sympathise with a native English speaker who finds the competitive exam route to teaching in France élitist, fastidious and archaic, I really do. I am willing to accept, however, that it is a profoundly French institution respected by the vast majority of those who have taken and passed it and that if you want to be part of the system you have to accept that. Neither do I agree that as native English speakers we are all automatically qualified to do the job of teaching our language.

It's a little unsettling that Zuckerman give no reason for wanting to be a teacher other than the financial stability it would offer her. She seems to believe that her American origins and her voracious reading habits are qualification enough for the job. What she fails to recognize is that education is culture; that language teaching is deeply ideological; that loving to read is not the same as teaching literature. She also makes the wrong choice - the agrégation is a prestigious qualification requiring a robust literary or linguistic background — her background suited her for the more modest Capes. Had she been properly advised, she could have prepared for both, would probably have passed the Capes and ended up with the job security she craved.

I'm not sure about the trajectory this book followed to publication. It appeared in French last year (to mainly positive autocritical reviews) but won't be published in English until next year. Did the author write the original in French? I'm not sure, but some clumsier passages certainly ring like English badly translated from French and there are a few grammar mistakes that would make an agrég jury shudder (eg. "there are no less than six pharmacies") and a piece of jewellery is twice somewhat bizarrely referred to as a "broach".
And let's not get into the red-rag question of why "pigs trotters" is not some obscure term unknown to the entire English-speaking world.

I was curious about what Laurel Zuckerman had become since failing the agrégation and writing this book, so I googled her name. I have no idea what she is doing now, other than giving interviews, but I did discover that she is on
Facebook and listed as a fan of Valérie Pécresse the minister for higher education who is currently engaged in trying to scrap the concours system - to massive outcry from university teachers throughout France.


Ksam said...

What a bummer! I really liked her book, and having taught in the French school system, really identified with a lot of it (as have most of the other ex-English teachers I know). I read it in French a year or two back though.

She lives in Paris now and I'm not sure what she's up to now, but I know quite a few people who've met her and they all say she's lovely.

PS. The "broach" thing must be a typo - it's spelled 'brooch', at least in American English!

Ms Mac said...

How very interesting.

Le laquet said...

Seems strange that she writes a book bitching about the system when she fails yes?

Lesley said...

Ksam : I'm sure that she is a lovely person and that she welcomes constructive criticism!

Le laquet : the argument would certainly have been more powerful had she passed. Lots of native English speakers do.