Les présentations

1 Oct

How to give a research seminar in English to non-native speakers

I spend a lot of time with French people listening to other native English speakers give scientific presentations and lessons. I also give a few lessons and talks in English to French and Finnish students. With the advice of my friends and colleagues who are at the receiving end, and from my own experiences, here are ten tips for giving a talk in English.


1. Don’t worry about the chatter
This is hard, but important. You need to be prepared for people to murmur and even look like they’re exchanging notes in your presentation. This is because people’s English level varies, people tend to sit with their friends, and in general, they all want to keep up. At a recent London Grammar gig here in Dijon, I could hear people in the crowd translating bits of the between-song banter from the band for their friends. You should expect the same.

2. Speak more slowly
This is obvious. If you are one of those people who practices your talk and realises it’s a bit tight in terms of timing, be kind and lose some material. It is better that people understand a little of what you do than be overwhelmed by a lot. Don’t rely on nerves to push you forward in one long stream of consciousness, but reduce your material and give people a break.

3. Don’t stray from your slides
Even when accents, background noise and the speed of delivery are all in favour of your message being received, you need to think about the relationship between what you say and what is written on your slides. There should be a good match. You can’t afford to have a slide saying one thing and you saying another, because a non-native speaker tends to make more reference to the slides than other groups. Don’t skip over slides, either. People may not catch why you’ve skipped over it, or they may think that they were expected to have read it. If you’ve got something to say unrelated to your slides, or that doesn’t need a slide, don’t linger unnecessarily on a ‘wrong’ slide. Why not have a blank slide? I can’t believe how few people do this.

4. Don’t patronize
English is not only the language of Science but of CSI Crime Scene Investigations and The Beatles. Unless you’ve experience of living and working in a second language, people’s English is going to be better than your mastery of whatever your second language is. It’s going to be much, much better in fact, and people’s level of English as listened to, is going to be far better than you can judge by a conversation with them too. No need to repeatedly stop and say ‘did you follow that?’ Although you may wish to check understanding once or twice, but not more so than you’d do usually. No need either, to pose silly questions like ‘do you have SPSS/the internet/The Walking Dead in your country?’ Or ‘Have you heard of Bill Clinton?’ Most importantly, things you might think are difficult usually, for example with first year students or lay audiences, might actually be easy. These people aren’t stupid. My experience is that most technical terms are either well known by non-native speakers, or are exactly the same as in English. The idea is not to dumb-down but make a shift in your style and delivery.

5. Do not read from your slides
Ever. For any audience. And for any language group. But you might like to pause and suggest that the listeners read it for themselves. Students and researchers will usually be even more comfortable with reading English than listening.

6. Point to graphs.
Numbers are difficult, and referring to blue bars and red bars places an unnecessary load on working memory; the need to hold in mind the red and blue bars whilst going through the act of deciphering what the results mean. Point to the bar you are talking about and show the differences. Likewise for numbers. Quick fire delivery of complex scientific numbers, such as, ‘59.4% of people in the audience are not listening to you, but two thirds of them are looking at the slides’ is difficult to follow. If the numbers are important, write them down. While we’re at it, a picture paints a thousand words, and in most languages all at once. So, go to town on the illustration.

7. Use animation sensibly
Animation can be your friend, because you can make it clear what part of a graph, figure or experimental plan you are talking about. You can also prevent overloading the listener with information which my interfere with what you’re currently saying.

8. Speak plain English
We all like to look clever. But sometimes it is more important to be understood than to appear to be clever. The use of plain English, like that which might be found in a scientific article, is better than a chatty style or the proof that you swallowed a dictionary. That said, you may like to load your speech with synonyms. Multiple words for the same thing is always helpful to the listener, when delivered with precision and at a reasonable pace. In short, avoid jargon, long words and slang.

9. Don’t make jokes
This is my personal bête noir. I can’t resist making jokes, and there really is little point. Jokes can alienate your listener and divide your audience into linguistic haves and have nots. They can also fall flat. Mine usually do. If you are used to being the life and soul of the conference, the fact that your joke doesn’t work may put you out of your stride. If you must make jokes, slow down, and make it clear in your delivery that what is coming is, in fact, a joke. Witty asides and ironic comments are not helpful. That said, you can fall back on a Far Side cartoon or a visual joke (mine was a golfer with Tim perfect’s head superimposed). Whatever you do, don’t dig yourself in deeper by explaining your joke. Move on.

10. Learn a few words
If you can say thank you in the host institutions language, it’s going to be well received.
Merci pour votre attention.


22 Sep

I have faced a slowdown in the production of this blog, troubled by the increasing demands of my job, after the honeymoon period, and also, as I travel around France and integrate (or not) into the system, I have had to reflect on what is common to all of France and what is peculiar to my lab. And I want this blog to be about Academic Life more generally in France, not just about where I work. Here I outline something which represents a fundamental difference between France and the UK: the process of student progression and assessment. It’s early selection versus late rejection*.

When I first arrived in France I was happy to be in a more egalitarian and open system, where student fees were not such a barrier to entry into higher education. I managed to leave the UK just before he full nine grand fees came in at my institution, and I thought this was the great escape. In France, so long as you have a certain level of proficiency as judged by your baccalauréat, you are entitled to study at university. There is no market for who or where takes you to do your degree, and institutions do not set their own entry requirements, aside of Universities privileging people from within the region that helps fund them. To do select on the basis of aptitude, would be against the Spirit of France. It would be, I am told, Elitist.

Not that French universities don’t have caps on student numbers. There are decent rules about the class sizes of practical classes, and from these you can produce an unsophisticated extrapolation of student numbers based on your staff, their contracted hours, the size of your rooms, and the number of repeat teaching sessions you are able to tolerate. The ‘fair’ French system is to allocate places to students on oversubscribed courses by a lottery.

I’ll just type that again so it is clear. Students are selected by random if there are too many for a given course. I am told that randomly allocating degree places to applicants is fair. When administrators talk about the process they describe a sort of ‘computer-says-no’ machine with complex internal algorithms.

There is not the flexibility of the admissions system that exists in UK universities. Of course, government funding follows the student, but the French University is not at liberty to generate new posts, or adapt its staff recruitment to its student numbers, since academics are government employees, fonctionnaires. I’m told all this is changing. For a start, Universities are receiving a reduction in funds, but cannot reduce their class sizes. More importantly, they also being told that they can become more financially independent. But the reality is that there’s is not a direct link between student numbers and finances. So, whereas in the UK you might welcome an extra ten undergraduates to pay for an overseas hotshot professor, such a trick is not possible in France. Of course, sometimes, the restriction of growth is a sensible long-term form of conservatism. At other times, this conservative approach stifles competition, counters excellence and blocks the emergence of new centers of achievement and efficiency.

The arrival of so many first year undergraduates, let’s say 500, in any one department, let’s say psychology, in any one of France’s many large and powerful universities, creates a particular problem. We cannot effectively train 500 students to masters level, nor can we assume a certain level of competence before arrival. More critically, the Republique, which so generously funds each student (the yearly fee is around €300) does not need each of its universities to train and award professional degrees to 500 wannabe psychologists.

We arrive at the fundamental difference between the French and British systems, which underpins teaching methods, quality assurance, student morale, the whole ethic of education: the role of failure in the system. Each year a little less than a half of the class does not make it through to the next year.

Whereas I would saw that the British system is based on careful tutelage of students (the root of this word is shared in French, where it is also used to describe the supporting of a growing plant with a stake), the French system is based on filtration. In the British system, a competition, based on entry requirements and the dissemination of expectations through open days and the specifying which previous subjects are relevant and useful for your later degree, means that you can make safe assumptions about the aptitude and enthusiasm of your student. In France, there is no real filter, and the funding model dictates that you jettison about half of your students at the end of each year of your degree. There is a certain amount of recycling, and students are much more free to retake years of the degree in France. This is just as well, because there is no mitigation system or special circumstances committees. In Medicine, it is pretty much the norm that you have to take the first year twice. Only by repeating the first year will you gain the knowledge to proceed into the second. Or, at least, it takes two years to pass through the University’s bottleneck into your chosen degree.

There are very obvious differences in the two systems, and I was, as with most things, completely naive before I arrived in France. If someone had sat me down in my first week and explained how the wilful removal of students from my lecture courses, year on year, was the fulcrum of my activities, I would have adjusted my activities and attitude accordingly, or more probably I would have stayed in rented accommodation, have logged into jobs.ac.uk, finished a happy sabbatical in France and gone back to a system, which although had become corrupted by modern day elitism and get-rich plans of successive governments was at least, at heart, based on reward and encouragement, at least from my end of the operation.

There are all kinds of repercussions of this system, some obvious, others not so. For instance, it is clear that we mustn’t give our students marks that are too high, since that will impede our ability to fire them from the course. The emphasis on filtering and failing our students, I believe, effects quality. Firstly, there is the implicit idea that each course and each lecture and each exam is a test. If you make the test harder, by making your materials difficult or uninteresting, that is, in fact, helpful. If failure is the default position, it might be reasonable that the test begins by finding the lecture slides hidden somewhere on the web, rather than having them spoon-fed. There’s no real need to make it too easy for people. (On a good day, I thought my job satisfaction came from making a difficult concept easy to understand.) Second, there is a sort of floor effect. When each course is designed to have the majority of students perform poorly, how can we be sure we effected any change, or delivered any information? In the UK a pass rate is informative: you have agreed targets and objectives before the course. The fact that these are met at the end of the course tells you that you have done your job, and that the students have done theirs.

It is also demoralizing to teach a massive class of French students knowing that only 50% of them will continue next year and perhaps only a handful of committed brilliant students will be left with you in their masters. I also think it is a complete waste of public money, but that’s an interesting debate to be had. It is like the first rounds of the x-factor.

The effect of failure is also clear in the attitude of students, from the untouchable top students, to the bow-beaten and timid less able students who have had lucky scrapes and demoralizing marks for all of their formative years. A good portion of my students have a kind of learned helplessness. Nearly all of them have a conservative approach bred from fear of failure and the need to pass, not the challenge to excel UK students are handed. It’s the old carrot and stick issue.

I too have become demoralized. No amount of enthusiasm can offset the oppressive fear of failure, and the possibility of going home with nothing. At least it’s not far. Most students go to university in their home town in France. What is particularly demoralizing is that whereas I may be ploughing extra time and effort into my keen but weaker students, they will come unstuck on my colleague’s course in any case. Passing is the lowest common denominator in the UK. If you put work into a student on your course, you can be sure that your colleague down the corridor, no matter how different their approach, their CV or their subject matter, will be also working towards the student’s success. Because in the UK we can be pretty sure that students come in at a certain level, we can be pretty sure of how they should fare on our course, if they make the effort, and we do too. Questions would be asked of a department who took on students and failed to develop them.

It has become, in the UK, very much our fault if one of our students fails. In France, my colleagues need to assertively remind me that it is not a measure of my intellect the mark that my project students receive: it’s not me who is being tested, it’s them. Really, my philosophy is that it is US who should be tested, the student-teacher partnership. You may detect my distaste and bewilderment with the French system, but before I sum up, I should add that the ‘pay for your degree’ and student -as-consumer and complaints culture were beginning to reduce the extent to which we could mark-down and challenge our students. For those of my UK colleagues who used to complain that the number of firsts were growing and that failing a degree was an impossibility, they should come to France.

My French colleagues think that the English system is skewed the way it is only because of fees, and commercialization. But in my time (I received a full grant of fees and a bursary as an Undergraduate) it was never any different. The French may look down their noses at the British commercialised higher education sector, but never did we have this blanket entitlement to study combined with the obligation to boot out the majority of those who arrive. I see it as a complete waste of public money too, to knowingly take on students who cannot continue through the system. To be clear: it doesn’t matter the global aptitude of the students, or the skill of your professors: you would still have to clear out about half your class each year.

This is where I came unstuck in my class last year, setting objective targets and marking criteria and communicating them to my students; the fair system I have used habitually since I started this job. My resultant marks were too high, and I was soundly chastised by a member of the University’s senior management team. I found you can’t just leave your students to it and expect them to graciously fall on their swords, you have to really put them through their paces. But what is most upsetting is not my personal bêtises, or the misuse of public money, but that young people can waste up to four or five years of their life studying only to have nothing to show for it. (I am told–by my students–that a license, achieved after 3 years of study is essentially worthless apart from to gain you access to a masters course. I am not sure how true this is.)

I don’t doubt that each society, each culture and each government endeavors to give its people the higher education system that it needs and deserves. It has become almost impossible to compare the calcium-Camembert differences between UK and French universities. It is also a real joy to work with the successes of the French system, who are students who really, really know their stuff. The top students who graduate from French universities really are the crème-de-la crème. But I have wondered how the more creative and confident of my colleagues, and the good many lecturers who are not despised, negotiated this system.

How can we produce teaching which at the same time dismisses a good half of the cohort whilst somehow developing the others? That really is the challenge of my career so far: to filter out at the same time as nurturing on. It requires a massive shift in how I organise my teaching and almost every class needs material which is at the very limit of the capabilities of the class. One or two may understand this stuff. Then I think, who am I teaching for? Have I become elitist?

* I am aware of a good many arguments against selection, not least the sensible comments on thresholds and marks given in Malcolm Gladwell’s outliers. I continue to believe that everyone should have the right to education, and that there are many imperfections in how exam places are shared according to SAT tests and A-levels. I’m just suggesting that if students are handed a survival-of-the-fittest test based on an inevitable reduction of the cohort, it might be kinder not to set them up to fail.


La Rentrée

2 Sep


When I arrived here in France, I found the office uncomfortably hot, in September. Why don’t we have air conditioning here? I asked my colleague. The hottest months of the year are July and August, he said, and there’s not enough people around to bother. Today is la rentrée, which means in the University, academics, administrators and students alike leave their summer behind, shave their beards, set their alarms and press their clothes, and come back to work. Everybody comes back en masse, meaning that the University is chaotic, with all systems rebooting at the same time. Today, stepping off the tram into the campus, I felt like one of the workers streaming back to the mill once the gates were open and the whistle blown. I’d forgotten that there could be that many people, walking abreast, with purpose.

The reason that the French take such long holidays for August is to prepare themselves for the horror of returning back. Nothing gets done for a month. The administrative offices close, departmental secretaries all leave together. Buildings are locked and powered down, and offices go uncleaned. For the weeks in August when we come into work, there is only temporary emergency lighting in the windowless corridors. If you leave your office for too long, you have to feel your way back along the corridor. Even the sun-bleached grass outside the buildings reaches post-apocalyptic length.

Sending out such a strong signal to take a break is a good thing. I know in the UK that I took solace in the fact that the university buildings were locked on bank holidays and for about ten days over Christmas. It meant that I really didn’t need to worry about work for a bit. I don’t think France has got this wrong. I do worry though that it doesn’t really work in the modern world. While France puts its feet up for August, much of the rest of the world continues, as I do. It’s early in my integration into the system here and as much as I want to take the five or six weeks that all my colleagues seem to take, I can’t just yet. I can’t because I work with academics and students in countries who do not take such all-encompassing and well-delimited holidays. Amongst my colleagues, I expect I am as despised for my stance on my holidays as I am for my quick little Anglo-Saxon lunch breaks. (It’s just I prefer a forty minute lunch break and some time with my children at the end of the day.) As a result, it feels like I am as secretive here about doing work as I was secretive about not doing work back in the UK.

Possibly the most stressful issue in my university life is that we leave it until now to get a good idea of student numbers, since registration only begins now. As happened to me last year, it means that you can have a whole new set of teaching thrust upon you only days before it begins, and your timetable cannot be finalised up until the week the teaching starts. On the other hand, back in the UK I always had sympathy for my colleagues in Admissions roles, a time of high stress in August. If you had kids, that was a particularly nasty way for your employer to constrain your holiday plans. I like teamwork, so I like the idea of cover. So that the organization continues, with more or less people plugged into it, with an allocation and sharing of the holiday around the year. It seems like more stress for all of us, if nothing is done for so long; no expense claims processed, no grants costed, no teaching planned, etc. There’s a sort of football transfer deadline day excitement to what goes on when we all get back.

The dust is settling on everything everywhere we turn. This return to work, all-hands-on-the-pump thing is not peculiar to higher education. The back-to-school mentality is everywhere in the private and public sectors, and obviously in schools, where the teachers come back just one day before the pupils to some last minute decisions about who goes where. Paid holiday is generous here, and many public sector workers can easily take the whole of August as holiday. Because everyone takes holiday all at once, there’s something of a party atmosphere when everyone gets back, and one spends the whole day swinging between frenzied fire fighting of slow burning problems that have not been attended to, and just catching up with colleagues.

Children, incidentally, are off school for eight weeks over the summer. They set the tone for everyone else. Interestingly, at other times of the year there is some pretty innovative and sensible allocation of school holidays. France is divided into zones, and each zone has a staggered half term break, so that apart from August and Christmas, the country does not grind to a halt. It makes holiday traffic better, too. The downside is that if you want to organise a trip away in February with a colleague in another zone, you may have a block of three weeks that neither of you can do.

La rentrée is a commercial festival too, and whereas Christmas may be more low key in France than the UK, the reverse is true of this back-to-school time. This is a good time to buy a new fridge, apparently, get a new wardrobe, a haircut, etc., as well as buying a scientific calculator and a French-English dictionary. The pharmacies are at it too, not pushing anxiolytics, but nit lotion. This is the time when our children will have their highest level of invertebrate infestation, and the chemists celebrate by sticking jolly cartoon head lice to their windows and making eye-catching displays of shampoos, combs and sprays. We can also expect all our favourite shops to be open again. It is usual for your regular butcher or baker to close for at least two weeks. It’s not that I think this is at all bad, I just don’t think the British shopkeepers would dare: the customer is always right there. It seems the more high class the establishment, the longer the holidays. There’s probably a type of elasticity at play there: the really good places know you won’t find someone better to patronize in the month that they are shut.

So, I’m not against the generous holiday, it’s the fact that everyone all goes at once. June and the exam meetings seem a long time ago; what was it we said we’d do? I miss the ever-present PhD students and the year-round masters students of the UK. The summer was always a time for quality interactions with such people. In France, the PhD students and masters students leave just as everyone else does. The place really is deserted for the holidays.

For me, the most amazing thing is that new staff, who can only arrive in September in the French system, arrive back the same time as the people who are sorting out the payroll, the room allocations and the email addresses. We arrive back straight into the conference season, with a million requests of our secretaries responsible for our travel plans. They’re busy enough as it is, so it is a really delicate issue to ask for a big chunk of their time. Happily, we can usually soften the blow by giving a little gift from our own holidays. The upside of all this is that the is no end of little packets of biscuits and sweets left in the staff room. There is often a ‘pot’ too; an informal works gathering with wine and nibbles and a few words of welcome from the boss. It’s a celebration of returning to work, or a reward for having stuck out the holidays so long.


16 Sep

Teaching English has been my greatest unexpected thrill in working in France. To be honest, when I was first asked to do it, I thought it a little patronizing to be asked, even though I was pleased that it would reduce the amount of teaching I would do in French. Of course, I haven’t mastered French yet, but the extent to which I have, at all, is probably due to teaching English, where I found I was expected to know things in both languages, where I learned almost as quickly from the students as they did from me. Sometimes I even felt bad about how much they were helping me.

I arrogantly started my course, last year, by stating that I would be the best English teacher the students had had. This, I explained, was not due to the fact that I could speak English so well, but rather because I could only speak French so badly. It would be an exchange. I doubt in the end I was that good as an English teacher, but I made up for a lack of any qualification with enthusiasm. I found out that there is low bar when it comes to teaching English. In France, English teachers take up the kind of position in the teaching eco-system that P.E. teachers occupy in the UK. In schools, they are disproportionately hated by their pupils. This was not great news to take into the class with me. I was nervous enough about being English.

In the corridors, and occasionally in my office, colleagues ask me how they may know when to use the past perfect and the past imperfect. Other times they ask me whether one should say ‘the group were’ or ‘the group was’. These questions usually leave me perfectly baffled. I have no more knowledge of how English works than a TV critic understands the electronics of a TV. I can correct common imperfections like knowing that it should be ‘the group was’ and correct ‘less’ for ‘fewer’ but the details, nomenclature and syntax of my own language, are honestly, completely unknown to me. When I explain to my colleagues that it doesn’t matter whether they use ‘the group were’ or ‘the group was’, unless its in writing an article, they look at me like I’m mad. I may as well be telling them that the word for a favorable scientific opinion is a ‘shag’. That way, they may write to the editor of a journal to submit a rapid communication and ask for a ‘quick shag’. When I respond to their grimace by explaining that no-one will know or care whether its was or were, it is like I am betraying my whole language, a traitor. And I love languages and English too, and so I come to blame my education for not teaching me what an infinitive is and how not to split it. If it wasn’t for Bill Bryson I might understand nothing of English at all. Or is it ‘may understand nothing … ‘ ?

But then again I have become proud of English and its graceful degradation. It falls apart so elegantly and is so robust and accommodating. In England I am very aware of how class and culture separates linguistic haves and have-nots, but in a meeting with a Portuguese and Italian postgraduates I see how well English serves many masters. That is the type of English that I will be teaching. It is the English which has value in an international world. (I should also add that 95% of all scientific articles, if Wikipedia is to be believed, are written in English.) It is more fun to teach people to communicate than to conjugate.

French school education is superb, as far as I have encountered it with my boys. The capacity for hard work and the thoughtful precision of my University students in France is also inspiring. It then is a surprise that no-one excels or enjoys English, especially as so many of the population are taught it and for so long. The problem, it seems comes from how the English is being taught. It is being taught precisely, word by word, in lecture theatres and in classrooms. My brother, who needed to hastily learn some French for a postdoc in Geneva, studied English French for four weeks, with hardly a word spoken, and no conversation in Dijon. This is, on the whole, how language learning is undertaken in France. For my brother, with two years’ work as a TEFL teacher, this was strange. Teaching French like that is fair enough, perhaps, as it’s a precise, closely-guarded work of art, and to me, it seems like an intellectual’s language. But teaching English like that is like eating Fish and Chips with chopsticks, or serving PG-Tips weak, with no milk, made with lukewarm water. Its appeal is in its mass appeal, its faults are its strong points.

So tomorrow I start again with my English course, and nervous as I always am before the start of a new course, I am looking forward to it. It’s a real challenge sometimes, having to explain things that have never been explained to me. And it can be frustrating and humiliating for all concerned: Mastering a second language is a really difficult, tiring and frequently humbling experience, I now know.

I fear I’m really not that good. For instance, how can I correct this European failing with the definitive article? (If anyone out there can point me to a resource, I’ll be very grateful.). I often have to correct the sentences where a definitive article is there when it shouldn’t be, but later in same phrase, it’s not there when it should be. What should I say to explain that, rather than just correct it?

I am looking forward to it, also because I am grateful for all the previous excellent work by teachers far more qualified but distinctly less enthusiastic than me. The students have already had most of the basics drilled into them, and could fare better on formal tests of French or English grammar than me. I am grateful too, then, for the earnest hard work that the students have previously put in – it seems sometimes like they can just turn up and start to enjoy it. Teaching English in France really seems a case of making the French aware of what they already know, giving them confidence, and showing them the inherent and beautiful variability in spoken English.

If you wonder why the French person on the street speaks so little English, I should think it may well be because some teacher in the past told them that they can’t.

A year in the mustard

1 Sep

Today I celebrate a year of living in France, and it is seems appropriate to post a review of the year. Sadly, in this last year, many blog postings have gone unposted. Most are written, but some are unpolished, and others are too acidic. More still, like advice on how to integrate into a French research unit, are unwritten. First point then, in reviewing the year, is that I have not posted nearly enough here.

Scientifically, this seems like a strong year, at least in numbers and in publications. It felt like for large parts of the year I was able to sit and write unfettered in my office, and bring to publication a long list of articles. This was a large part of why we came to France – being able to more quickly comment on a draft that a junior colleague wanted to send ASAP, and being able to more fully critique and contribute to a difficult introduction and discussion. There was time to take my time, and still to turn things around more quickly. To be clear, I have published no data from Dijon yet, but this period since I arrived will be the most productive – in terms of outputs – in my career by a large margin. It is like having a sabbatical year (I can imagine), and that makes me realize that the sabbatical system is probably a real bonus to science, and more importantly, the scientist.

Careful what you wish for. All this extra time for research, compared to the UK, is very difficult to manage, and by July I had burn-out. Especially once the students have gone, and the other little concerns have evaporated, it is difficult to know what to do next. I got so used to squeezing research time into other more apparent concerns in the UK: A four-star research article won’t knock on your door, in tears, without an appointment and ask to be written. This was part of the management attitude I detested in the UK: the Head of Department telling you that, like him, you should be writing your articles at the weekend. By about May, I began to miss the wax and wane of term time and research time inherent in the UK system, and most definitely began to miss the little distractions that can punctuate and bring meaning to the day. My open door policy in previous institutions actually made me constantly feel valued and like I was earning my keep.

I fell in love with teaching again. I am not so sure it is cool to admit this. Perhaps now in the UK, with student fees, we can come to terms with it. But it is definitely not cool in France, where one is more detached and sits in judgement of ones students. There’s probably a financial model, like the old RAE system which means that this is a justifiable way of interacting with students. But I haven’t got to grips with how money is allocated to departments, in any detail. I am not supposed to worry myself with such things. But having had so much time for research, I value teaching more. And doing it in a foreign language sharpens what it good in my lecturing, and what is just talking too much.

To work in France is a great experiment in Time Travel. So much of the system reminds me of what I have heard about the opportunities and resources available to academics twenty years my senior. Many of the changes that I experienced in the UK, like the grotesque shift of education towards a consumer culture service industry, have not happened. As such it is a joy to work in France. It can be frustrating, too, because I want people to celebrate the opportunities and resources they have. But at least research no longer feels like a hobby anymore. That so, I am enjoying it again as if it was.

But having worked in the UK, and at quite a high level, I adopted philosophies and habits, born of the system that I was in. I hadn’t really reflected on some of these things too much. But to come to a place where there are not such apparent student evaluations, no one-to-one tutorials, no second marking, no external examining, where everyone calls you Monsieur, no accessible student handbooks, no clear aims and objectives, little or no feedback, no concrete deadlines, etc., you begin to realize which are good and kind and which are time-consuming and pompous. Good teaching is good teaching, so these things all go on, informally. But there is not the rigid architecture of quality control that one gets cornered in, in the UK. Here you are expected to be a professional, and take charge. If you are not, bof. But I have a clearer view on my values and expectations of students and colleagues.

It has not been the language that was so hard to adjust to. It is the culture. People have suggested to me that I work too hard, or that I am too open about it. I think they see me as an experiment – can we break him? Certainly, there’s not too many foreigners about, and none if you discount Belgians and other Francophones. The worst part of the year was having had constant set-backs based on a misunderstanding of the French system, or least not being able to ‘play’ it. These are minor issues, like being late with something I didn’t know I had to do, and major issues, like failing to get a PhD studentship for a student who was, in my view, the most worthy of my career so far. When these things happen, and when one is disappointed or frustrated, my colleagues like to tell me how easy everything was for me in the UK. This is the worst insult.

It comes, I think, from two general perceptions. A lesser one is that In England, you do not need to master English to go about your work, or so the French think. My students were as likely to be from overseas as from the UK, so this is not necessarily true. UK departments tend to have a healthy contingent of non native English speakers. But true enough, coming to France, I have realized what an advantage it is for a scientific career to be able to read and write well in English.

The big misconception is that British researchers have very light teaching loads. The French system means that it is usual to have 200 contact hours per year. This is a lot compared to UK timetables. (The depth of knowledge shown by French students is clearly the product of this superb contact time.). I would say that the load is in fact far far higher in the UK. My most recent workload was 654 hours on teaching activity. When I tell my colleagues this, they complain that it is not possible. But it is. Obviously its not 654 contact hours, but it begins to articulate in time, the effort put into teaching in the UK, compared to France. Here is what goes into this sum which doesn’t go into the French sum:

Supervision of 3rd year projects: does not exist in France
Second Marking: Does not exist in France
Marking tutorial essays: Does not exist in France
Tutorials: Do not exist in France

Then there’s other nebulous differences, like a reliance on exam-based assessment here, and also much less emphasis on writing lengthy feedback, if any. There are fewer meetings, no tutorials, and if a student gets close enough to you to see the lines on your face and the bags under your eyes, they almost faint – and not because you’ve been drinking strong coffee and eating garlic all week. On the plus side, the students are very much more independent, and are completely unlikely to call your office phone to ask where Tuesday’s lecture is. I won’t put preparation time into these figures, because for me, it is obviously massive, for the moment. I would say two days for each hour of material I present.

It’s not easy here, and it’s not easy in the UK either. No job is too easy if you do it properly, to the best of your abilities.

The highlights of the year:

– visits from 4 current or previous PhD students
– a keynote talk to 80 medics – in French – in Toulouse
– the finishing of, and publication of, our special issue of Cortex
– my adoption of twitter
– a mobile phone which calls UK landlines for free at any time
– the support of colleagues and students in learning French
– my Club d’Anglais
– the Christmas Party
– my wife’s HDR
– countless good interactions with local neurologists and neuropsychologists
– we bought a house and our boys are incredibly happy with school (family life is far better here (at least for us), and goes un-mentioned in this blog)

My career continues apace, and I still love it. I think though, here, I am seen as having started again. My wife’s review of her activities provided by her boss summarized her year thus: ‘She has made a success of herself in in the Anglo-Saxon system; we now wait to see if she will have such a success here.’ Nothing sums up our year better.

Remembering Maggie Thatcher

9 Apr

Someone as striking as Maggie Thatcher, especially to someone born to liberal/left wing parents in 1973, is likely to act as some kind of beacon by which to organise our own efforts and life events.  This is an account of my memories of Thatcher and how my own life interacted with hers.  

My first memory that I can summon up about Maggie Thatcher would be a confusion I had in the kitchen of our house at the age of 11, trying to keep up with the solemn and respectful conversation that my mum and dad were having.  This would have been October, 1984 and the assassination of Indira Ghandi, and I may well remember it so well because of the shock I felt on hearing my mum and dad talk so reverently about what I understood to be Maggie Thatcher.  It was my mum’s description of this ‘great woman’ which made me think it was Thatcher who had been killed.  It was the ‘woman’ part of this construction and not the ‘great’ part that lead me to this conclusion.  I could not reconcile the positive view they now had of Thatcher and how they had talked of her previously.  I must have asked who had died, because my error was resolved, and I learned (but did not retain) a tiny bit about Indian politics too.  I don’t know how my parents might have learned this news, or how quickly after the event.  Certainly there was no internet, day time TV was abhorrent to middle class families, and I only remember the radio on when it was actually being listened to, mostly the Archers.  Perhaps dad had heard something in the car and come into the kitchen from the driveway to relay the news.  Anyway, Maggie Thatcher wasn’t dead, she had already survived her own assassination attempt in the same month. Perhaps I was primed to think of her death by the earlier event.
There were other intersections with my life, which I couldn’t have known because I wasn’t ready for them.  But a major part of my development was being responsible and well-behaved enough to the milk monitor at primary school.  I could have been meaninglessly regurgitating the delightful and childish “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”, as I distributed the half-bottles of milk to my classmates.  
The next I remember, specifically, as a definite event, may as well be her resignation.  I have a series of images of the miner’s strike, school elections, and a good bank of knowledge about her policies and politics, although all of it is coloured by the personal perspective of those who shared with me the information, and who invariably hated Thatcher.  Mine was a family of full of people in education, and we could have only had more antipathy towards Thatcher if we had been miners, or Argentinians.  Although we were quietly sensible and not at all militant.  I do remember asking mum and dad aggressively if they had voted conservative. Ever.
By the time Thatcher resigned, I was 17 and becoming something of the person that I am now.   I lived through three Thatcher governments, and when she resigned she was all I knew of leadership and government.  It was enough of an important event for me that I can remember it well. I was in the sixth form.  I had a brilliant Economics A-Level teacher, Mr Harlow, who was irascible, but creative and a rare intellectual at our comprehensive school.  He was an Oxbridge graduate who had been in the civil service, but had moved into teaching following (rumour had it) a nervous breakdown.  The government’s loss was our gain.  The way he taught Keynes, it was as if he had known him personally.  
Mr Harlow was one of the influential anti-Thatcher thinkers in my life, and I thought of him (and my union-rep teacher uncle) as soon as I heard she had died.  I had had him as a teacher on and off since I was 11 years old. He had started an Oxfam lunch at our school and used to spend one day a week personally preparing soup and rolls to sell in order to donate the proceeds to Oxfam.  He probably thought I was an idiot, but I was popular (more so than him) and I did some PR in school assemblies for the Oxfam lunch.  I hope that sort of made up for the lack of effort I put into his Economics class, and the readiness I had to parody him.
One early afternoon, I imagine that an apocalyptic calm came over our school, as most of the teachers failed to return from their smokey hovels (where they were glued to the radio) into their classrooms.  The pupils returned to class, but the teachers stayed away as if snatched from us.  I turned up for my Economics class, but the usually punctual and dour Mr Harlow was late, and when he did arrive he was jubilant, smiling even.  I thought his face might crack.  He grinned his coffee-stained teeth in our direction and told us ‘She’s resigned, she’s resigned!’  He took a bit of time to explain the ramifications, and the process that would now be followed.  I can remember thinking that Michael Heseltine would be the second Prime Minster I had even known.  I was going to be wrong.  Of course, I hadn’t heard of John Major then.  
I can tell you who I was sat with (the class was only 7 people) and I can also tell you that Economics at A-level attracts a disproportionate number of people with acne and right-wing parents.  I can visual the classroom perfectly, and I know that a couple of boys taunted me with the fact that now Thatcher was gone, there would be a new brilliant Conservative party and that Labour would never get in.  
Her resignation was one of those rare times when public events spilled over into the life of the school.  I honestly don’t remember any other such events becoming public at school, even though as I can remember the Dutch Ferry disaster, and the Football disasters (a sad cluster of the Fire at Bradford, the Heysel ‘hooligans’, and Hillsborough).  I suppose none of these happened during school hours.  In 1981, the whole school gathered around the TV to watch the first shuttle take off, but that was planned.
But then again, Thatcher had turned schools into a sort of battleground, so the news seemed to be ‘about’ school life. Recall that Thatcher was Minister for Education (and science) , and you will see the special interest that teachers had in her rise and fall.  My teachers – at least the good ones – had spent most of my secondary school education to that point on and off strike, pretty regularly.  I liked the teachers who participated, and without even knowing what we were saying, we liked calling the teachers who stayed in to teach, scabs.  Thatcher brought politics and social hatred to a new younger generation, and politicised schools.  We repeated the taunts and arguments we had learned from the incessant footage of the miners strike.  I remember riots.  The country seemed at boiling point all the time, and you sensed the sad inevitability of the decline of the public sector as transmitted in the eyes of the teachers, half of whom didn’t want to be teaching anyway.  In chemistry, in geography and later, in economics, we learned about the UK’s North Sea Oil.  This was the real story.  This was the only success of that era, and the wealth generated by oil made Thatcher look good.  They didn’t teach us that.
I moved into higher education.  I was the last generation of students to benefit from a (frozen) grant for my studies.  By the third year I had a meagre, easily repaid loan to subsidise my drinking and travelling.  In the first year I met another mercurial figure who would shape my future life, at least my education and professional abilities.  He ran a piece of research during his cognitive psychology class.  Ever since I have been interested in using public events to measure memory. In one lecture he asked us to retrieve the specifics of hearing about the resignation of Maggie Thatcher, and we filled in the questionnaire, and returned it to him at the front of the lecture theatre.   I was one of those students who sat at the back.  When I got to the front I was the closest I had ever been to a University lecturer, and I was also one step closer to my ultimate career.  I vividly remember his face, his teeth, the detail I missed from the back, and he looked older close-up.  For the research, I regurgitated detail from Mr Harlow telling me about Thatcher.  
A resultant research paper is available here, but I am not a small datapoint in that study, because it uses people tested closer to the time of the event.  By the time the paper was out I was about to be a PhD student, and I had followed the flash-bulb-memory-researching lecturer down to the University of Bristol.  I was living under John Major’s government, again on a grant.  A PhD grant that would rise seemingly overnight about threefold under Tony Blair, a piece of good policy I was a little too late to benefit from.
In my student years, under Thatcher at first, in Bristol, and then under Major, in Lancaster, I turned out to demonstrate against the Poll Tax.  I didn’t get into the news, but for the first time I felt I was part of the groundswell against Thatcher.  It was good to feel part of something.  It brought me closer to my more politically savvy sister, too.  At Lancaster, where as students we had to pay the Poll tax, we all left it until the last reminder to pay. Then, in typical student fashion, we paid by cheque.  But we underpaid the amount by one penny, in order to all be technically guilty of not paying.  It would cost the council a lot of money to recoup this shortfall multiplied across the student body at Lancaster.  I don’t recall how that was resolved, but it may well be I still owe Lancaster City Council £0.01.  I certainly remember delivering my check by hand to the City Hall in order to avoid the price of a stamp.  I had friends who received summons for not paying.  I feel like it was the end of students behaving politically like that.  
I fell into a career in academia, after some moderate successes in my Psychology degree.  I learned most of the political history of British academia in the staff room at Bristol.  We took coffee every day at eleven and a few older academics described the climate from before Thatcher, and the changes that she brought in as minister and then as PM.  I learned of a golden age of British academia, and of the perceived hatred Thatcher had for intellectuals and those who allegedly wasted the public purse.  But I also saw a lot of people from that generation who had done very little with their genius and freedom, and I wondered whether Thatcher wasn’t right to put financial pressures on Universities such that they might run down their wine cellars and subsidised bun-fights.  Even so, I came to see the way her politics skewed the important work of the University sector, and I don’t view her at all positively.  But I think the final blame for the ruin of the Higher Education is not hers.  She did start this nonsense of measuring everything, even if it might not be measurable in order to support the movement of money due to competition.  I remain opposed to the idea that competition is always good for performance.
I loved it when the old boys – a Fellow of the Royal Society among them – talked about the old days.  Now I realise that the constant change of the public sector and the introspectionist and ego-centric nature of academics means that wherever they are gathered they will reminisce about better times, and the worse times have always been down to some political move or other.  I believe I have moved to France because of the depressing changes in the UK University sector I have experienced during my time.
From that staff room, I have one last vivid image of Thatcher, the first time I saw the Thatcher illusion.  I was introduced to this illusion by Tom Troscianko, who by a great cosmic injustice, did not live to see Thatcher’s death.  It is an illusion which was constructed to show how the relationship between global configurations and individual features make up the business of face perception, and it produces a demonic but recognisable picture of Thatcher by turning her eyes and mouth upside down.  She looks ghastly the right way up, but the individually inverted features look fine when she is upside down.  It was at once scientifically interesting, but also intensified with the sort of satire and lightness that scientific papers – on a good day – can use to engage the reader.  A paper in a similar vein which is a clear favourite of mine is an account of George Bush’s memory of September 11th 2001.  You can use his public records to see how he constructed a false memory of the event.  We don’t need to use George Bush to illustrate this point, just as we don’t need to morph Thatcher’s face into ever uglier caricatures to advance science, but it can’t hurt.  When the Thatcher illusion turned up on QI, I felt one of my favourite TV shows had paid tribute to one of the minor details which made my world interesting, a sort of recognition.
And so we organise our own reminiscences by these shared public events, of death and disaster.   They burn into our minds as vividly as other more personal and idiosyncratic events.  Then we can shape and structure our lives by these things and feel that we are intersecting with a meaningful past.  It very much means that I am of the Thatcher generation, and I can draw on a handful of vivid memories which help me understand how I got from there to where I am now, and I can gauge who people are and how they feel by the things that they can and cannot remember and their own perspective when we talk about shared events. 
A final flashbulb memory, will be my colleague, telling me, yesterday, at the end of a long and emotional day dealing with office politics and student research projects, that Maggie Thatcher had died.  He lapsed into perfect English to tell me and I am afraid I did not show decorum or respect in responding to him.  Thatcher is a concept to me, and not a person, even as Facebook is already full of people telling us not to forget she was a mother and a person too.  Sure she was a person, and others must have been behind the ethos and policy decisions.  But she personified the change that I saw in my country during a time critical for the formation of my self and identity.  And if there was some good that came of that time, as I look at England now, I think it has died with her.


5 Apr
If you are unfortunate enough for a Frenchman to tell you that they like tea, be warned that what they really mean is that they intend to bore you for an hour or so with calcium levels, leaf shapes and water quality until you reach boiling point.  The sad fact is that they imagine that England is a country full of people as equally impressed by insipid beverages and who too love to exchange pretentious details on the correct temperature for serving and brewing tea.  I maintain that French tea is tea for people who don’t like tea.  They find the idea of flavour so abhorrent that they sell a special tea kettle here which you can adjust the temperature of so that it does not boil; because apparently boiled water spoils the delicate flavour of tea.  In my experience, if the water doesn’t boil, the tea tastes of nothing, i.e. water.  Perhaps this is why they are obsessed with the type of water:  French tea tastes of water.
If you do serve a Frenchman English tea he will jump around like a teenager who has just had a half a glass of shandy under the impression it was strong beer. I brought my colleague back a box of Yorkshire tea and he says it is too strong to drink after lunchtime, because he won’t sleep – but the thick black acidic French filter coffee is fine.  He talks of our tea in exactly the same exaggerated way that we talk about the mythical qualities of strong coffee.
French tea is so awful it invariably comes in a wooden presentation case, like the kind of box duelling pistols used to be kept in.  There’s one in our staff room, in all hotels, but also in cafés and kitchens.  This box is sub-divided so that the jasmin and cassis can be separated from the framboise and Earl Grey, but in truth all the tea in there has been there so long it is dusty and dry and has all taken on the same indeterminate flavour.  The case has a lid and a lock so that the tea can be kept out of harm’s way.
A French tea bag is a thing of industrial wonder, which at the very least comes sealed in its own sachet, and always has a string and a tag stapled to it.  Sometimes, they are not even paper but some sexy fishnet silk affair, which is shiny and frankly too good to be squeezed out and thrown in the bin.  I think that some of my colleagues sense that such bags, envelopes and staples are wasteful and so they grab a small pinch of tea in a spring loaded perforated tea-trap and then leave this funny torture device in their cup while the tea infuses into the water around it.  They fill the thing with delicate awe like an old man filling his pipe.  These devices are not terribly efficacious in my experience, and the only colour to leach into your cup from them is from the brown stain of continuous use rather than the delicate dry leaf trapped on the inside.
There is probably a market for genuine English tea here, and it would be great to start an English tea room.  The French consider our tea to be somewhat less strong than cocaine, but more palatable, and they are prepared to discuss it endlessly and pay through the nose for it, which is not the same for cocaine, which you pay to put through your nose.  French tea is the It’s the emperor’s new clothes of degustation. The more delicate the flavour, the better the tea, the more insipid the brew the higher the quality.

La planche à voile

5 Feb
Today I was feeling pretty pleased with my French, which means I probably said a few sentences that surprised me, like someone had taken control of me.  Usually this feeling arises having used a few stuttering pronouns and negations too fluidly, but somehow, to my own amazement, correctly – je ne me suis pas lavé.  A sentence comes out so quickly, in an unguarded moment, that I think it must be wrong. I have to stop the conversation to ask if what I just said – by magic – was correct.  This must be awkward and strange, because I don’t have the French to then explain my sort of introspective wonder, and neither can I usually remember what I was saying, such is the level of distraction caused by actually saying something without planning it, three-days beforehand. 
Anyway, pride comes before a fall.  In Fnac, the sort of future-proof books/DVD/CD/software/hardware/hi-fi chain store that the UK business community was too witless to produce, I found a cheap, cool dictionary, which at the last minute I threw amongst our items and bought.  I bought it on the strength of having looked through one page, having liked the cover – a sort of ocean scene – and having found the French for ‘to kneel’, agenouiller, which amused me.  When I got home, I sat down with a cup of tea, looking forward to browsing my new lexicon.  I was amazed that having had such a great day for my French, I had actually bought, “Do you speak planche à voile?” A French-English windsurfing manual. It will remain a testament to the real level of my French.  ‘Planche à voile’, in letters one-inch high above a picture of a windsurfer, and my language abilities are so poor that I don’t even take the French in, but go with the general sense of what is there, and my perception of what I would like the book to be, more than what it actually is.  I was busy chasing our playful boys through the store and so my French wife paid for it at the till, without me.    But she was too good natured to ask what I would need of a windsurfing dictionary, or else she now believes me to be going through a sort of secret water-sports midlife crisis.

Merci bien

5 Nov

I received a very kind comment from étudiante anonyme mais enthousiaste about my first teaching in French.  It would make my mother weep with pride. To save my colleagues’ blushes I will not post it here – but it was very much appreciated.  It was in English too – which makes me feel very welcome and like we have set up a great exchange.

It has made me want to try even harder with my French.  And now I am writing tomorrow’s lecture on aging and society.

Merci bien – c’est trop gentil!


Vieillissement et maïs

5 Nov
One of the things I like to talk about, in French, is the difficulty I have with pronouncing certain words.  This helps me practice difficult sounds, and allows the person I am talking with to triangulate on my accent, or lack thereof.  Mostly, though, it is a way of making allowances for myself, confessing the fear I have in talking French.  I have two examples – from many – which I come back to time and time again: vieillissement (aging) and maïs (maize).  The former is notable because I teach a course on ageing, and I still cannot pronounce even the title of the course.  The latter is notable because it is typical of how even the smallest set of letters can cause a big problem.  Here’s really the frustrating thing about this: the French do not understand what it is to not be able to pronounce a word in English.  Today my friends shared with me that they hated the words environment and hypothesis; that these words were difficult to get their mouth around.  And they were.  They struggled.  But I knew which words it was that they found difficult.  When I gave them my words, they looked blankly at me, unable to understand what word it was I couldn’t pronounce. It was as if i was repeatedly making up sounds randomly, and in the end thats what you feel like you’re doing: varying the core sounds systematically until you hope you stumble on the right sound for the meaning.  Even in the context of telling them it was difficult to pronounce, they can’t hear the word from amongst the sounds.  Apparently, nothing which I said approximated to anything which was stored in their heads.
And this is the greatest frustration with French.  It is a very precise language; a thoroughbred, a pinnacle of human ingenuity and articulation.  It is a sensitive and insecure sports car that cannot ride over bumps, which will not start in the cold, which will career off the road in the wet.  English is some shambolic and rusty but reliable and lovable 4×4.  There are not too many countries that speak French – and no great variation in accents either, and this combined with its sophistication and elegance, are what sets it apart from English, the world’s second langauge.
The alternative to this view of the unforgiving precision of the French language, is what is more often said, that the French are arrogant and refuse to understand us when we try to speak their language; they do it out of spite.  I have no evidence that this is true, and certainly not in my professional life.  My own wife fails to understand words which I think I have pronounced perfectly, despite – to me – being imbedded in some key context.  She might even understand what I was saying more if I didn’t say it, if I just left a blank where the unpronounceable should be.  I don’t want to think it is in spite when she doesn’t understand me; in fact I can see from her kind and eager expression the sheer desperation she has in trying to understand me (for fear I may launch into a big ‘French is crap’ sulk). So it must be that the language doesn’t break apart meaningfully like English does.  And I will tell you if, in the next few years, I come across a poorly pronounced word in English which makes no sense at all.