From Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), pp. 41-42, a description of the some of the experiences of women in the Smith College junior year abroad program, ca. 1949-50:
At the Sorbonne itself, the experience of sitting in the “Grand amphi” set the tone. It was an auditorium complete with balconies and seats for a thousand students. The professor sat on a high stage, with statues and an enormous neoclassical mural as his backdrop. This was the ultimate theater of learning, grandiose and also slightly ridiculous, from the moment the professor walked onto his stage, accompanied by the traditional Sorbonne appariteur, a kind of classroom concierge in a dark suit, whose job was to announce the master and keep the blackboard wiped clean. The professor sat in a chair and read his lecture, rarely departing from the text. For anyone who skipped class, or simply couldn’t bear the monotony of the hour-long recitation, lectures were available for purchase in polycopiésin a bookstore on the Place de la Sorbonne, lending themselves to the word-for-word, comma-for-comma memorization that was expected for success on the exams at the end of the term. For foreign students, the polycopiés were a godsend for figuring out how to spell the many words and phrases they couldn’t quite make out–especially proper names. (Imagine names like Eisenhower or Manhattan pronounced in French.) Far less satisfying than the intimate seminars they were used to, these big lectures nonetheless let the students in on the part of French education that was as ritualistic as Catholic mass. They were by turns excruciatingly boring, highly entertaining, and deeply foreign, and the students never forgot them.
The students in this program–and JBK was one of them–spoke only in French, even amongst themselves. They boarded with French aristocrats whom the war had left apartment-rich but cash poor. (In other words, this was no “semester at sea” scam, but a real challenge.)
I’m trying to decide if I would sound smarter or more interesting with “an enormous neoclassical mural” as my backdrop, and preceded by an appariteur, or even just a grad student, to introduce me and clean up afterwards. What do you think?
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