Thursday, March 25, 2010

Esoteric Intellectualism

The class taught by aging Algerian writer Assia Djebar that I had last semester has been replaced this semester with a course by another writer/professor, X. X is more on the ball than Djebar was, although I've had an unusually hard time getting a feel for X as a teacher, much less as a person.

Like one of my other professors, X is a graduate of École Normale Supérieure (ENS), one of the "Grandes Écoles", which is about the closest France comes to having "Ivy League" schools. However, there is a definite difference between the two. While financial/educational resources or a lack thereof definitely keep the Ivies pretty WASPy, there's a general understanding that if a student has competitive enough test scores, GPA and drive, she can get accepted at an Ivy. This is particularly true for graduate school when undergraduate performance and full fellowships tend to even the playing field a bit. In France, however, you're groomed to go to a Grande École from a young age and generally only if your social status fits the mold. Another difference is public perception of the degree. In the States, a degree from Harvard Law or Yale is somewhat of a prerequisite for the rich and powerful--you need the degree to give you a credible base upon which to build the platform of opinions and experience that will earn you respect. In France, the degree itself commands respect and IS the power/wealth--it represents an instant "in" for pretty much any career. Case in point: the French are fairly blasé about the fact that I'm dating an English physicist until they hear that he's a student at the prestigious "École Polytechnique": "ooooh! C'est pas mal, ça." Similarly, each time one of us students questions the pedagogy of one of our ENS professors our concerns are immediately dismissed by the French NYU administrators: "well, he DID study and work at ENS...he must, of course, be right." To an Américaine it seems to be a small detail, but it's one that completely changes the direction of the conversation.

X's apparent genius as an ENS professor is enhanced by X's literary career, which I have to admit is pretty impressive (it includes several collections of poetry and a handful of novels, one of which won the prix Goncourt for first novel). I've now been to two extra-curricular presentations of X's newest novel which have been enlightening in terms of the mix of well-educated attendees and the panel of intellectuals (poets, artists, writers) that served as discussion leaders/moderators. It's cool to see that the novel-as-art is still valued in an age of cheap pulp fictions, and also that the centuries-old insular community of French intellectuals surrounding it is still intact.

And then there's X as a teacher. I'll give X this: X is a smart cookie. X speaks several languages, lapsing easily into English to find the idiom that better fits the situation (albeit in smug sort of way). X also, like me, is prone to make connections between our French texts and other works, especially English literature and old black-and-white movies (although I can rarely relate to the esoteric allusions X makes). With a paper due every week to be read aloud and picked apart in front of the class, the class pushes me to read more critically and write well, even as it terrifies me. And as was the case with Djebar, it's interesting to see how X's role as a writer influences X's author-centric approach to a text: X focuses on small passages to highlight style, word choice, voice, etc. and has us do the same in our "commentaire composée" assignments, making X's class seem almost like a creative writing workshop at times.

However, like Professor Slughorn from Harry Potter, there's something slightly guarded about X, and X's almost bipolar--swinging from an energetic high one week to a vengeful, scornful low the next in a pattern that I'm beginning to think correlates with the success X had (or didn't have) writing that morning. Like Slughorn, X's also interested in the "high flyer" students and creating X's own manner of elite slugclub. During the first few weeks of class X would hold us back two at a time to grill us about our ambition while obviously sizing us up, determining if we were worth interest. Those who aren't are overlooked during class, while those who might be have their essays picked apart more viciously.

I was running in Parc Montsouris a few weeks ago when I saw X, positioned in front of a forested backdrop and looking poetically into the distance as a camera crew went to work. I stopped, of course, and waited for the camera to stop rolling to approach. Out of context it took X a minute to place me, and once X did X was completely disinterested. "What are you doing here?" X demanded, as if I had followed. "Running," I replied, thinking "duh" as I indicated my clothes, my iPod, my red face. "I live right there." Eyes still angry, X suddenly broke into a wide smile, telling the camera crew that I was one of X's students and explaining that the arts channel was doing a special. "Well, see you next week!" X said.

I can tell when I'm not wanted. I put my ear buds back in, waved, then proceeded to take another route for the remainder of my run. I can't deny that I'm benefiting academically from X's genius, but I'll limit my X quality time to class time. I'm hard enough on myself without being made to feel like a Weasley.

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