Rishabh Kewalramani: An open letter to the French Department

Monday, March 19, 2018 - 5:00pm

I'm writing today because I am a good student, but I am scared. I'm writing today because in all my time at the University of Michigan, I have believed that my classes follow the tenets of an effective meritocracy where one can be successful if he or she puts in the work. However, that is not the case for one program here. Every day when the clock turns to 4 p.m., I transform from a student who thrives to a student who struggles to survive. I don't think it would come as any surprise to you that French 231 is my 4 p.m. class. Last week, my classmates and I got the opportunity to do a midterm course evaluation, and we relished the opportunity because so many of us honestly dread walking into that classroom on a daily basis. However, when our lecturer recapped the review, it quickly became clear that nothing would change when it came to the terrifying structure of the French language program at this University. However, it is important to note that the lecturers have very little autonomy when it comes to the curriculum. Thus, they do not bear the brunt of the responsibility for these shortcomings. Nevertheless, here are just a few of the grievances my classmates and I described:

1. Workload: We were told at the beginning of the semester to expect to spend two hours outside of class for every hour in class, which brings us to an expected eight hours a week of just French outside of the classroom. On most days, my classes go from 8:30 or 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. With the amount of French work allotted, that would mean my day does not effectively start until 7 p.m. At a university that aims to create a well-rounded student and person after college, this leaves little precious time to do those things that would enrich my education. Not to mention that if every four-credit class had the same amount of coursework, that would be 32 hours of outside work, or almost a full-time job.

2. Flipped Classroom: A flipped classroom can be described as an inverse of traditional learning environments, where students learn through hands-on activities at home instead of through lecture. I understand that there are teaching theories that say that a flipped classroom is better for learning. However, they are without a doubt inherently unequal when grades are involved. Just like in economic terms where the rich can get richer because they can invest their wealth, students who are "better" at French going into the course get more out of a flipped classroom, because a flipped classroom puts the onus on the students to learn the language themselves. I have no doubt in my mind that if you were to give a test on the first day of class and one on the last day of class, the distribution of scores would remain the same, meaning the highest achiever on the first day would most likely be the highest achiever on the last day. When you take grades into account, you could tell who was going to get an A based on the first day of class.

3. Harsh Grading: When compared to other University courses and other language courses at the University, the French grading system comes across as truly draconian. In French 232 during the Winter Semester of 2015, 60 percent of students got a B or higher. That same number was 87 percent, 74 percent and 86 percent for the same level class in Italian, Spanish and Latin, respectively, and the comparison looks worse when looking at the number of As and A-s. From looking at this data, you could reach one of two conclusions: either French students are objectively worse students than their peers or the French program as a whole is too harsh. In fact, in that same semester, only 5 percent of students received an A, or one in 20. That means that fewer than one person per section got an A. It takes a special amount of arrogance on the part of a whole program to believe nobody in your class has earned an A. By requiring language courses, for students who wish to continue their study of French they started in high school, the University has essentially required me to get something less than an A.

I am a high-achieving student with big dreams. Just the other day, I sat in my academic adviser’s room discussing my law school plans where every 100th decimal place of my grade point average matters. I have found this University to be more than fair to me in almost every respect, except for the French program in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. That program stresses me out, causes me to panic and makes me honestly furious. I am generally a content person, but when someone needlessly messes with my future, I am inclined to speak out. So, this is me saying something: Stop being the reason for my stress, and make it fun to learn a language again. Finally, to students choosing which language they want to learn here, I strongly advise you to stay away from French until real changes are made. Though the language is beautiful, the program couldn’t be more ugly.

Rishabh Kewalramani can be reached at rkew@umich.edu.

 

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