Category Archives: Student life

The Tutorial

posted by Simon Kemp

One thing we’re very proud of at Oxford is the tutorial teaching system. In most weeks of the undergraduate course you’ll write an essay on a topic to do with literature, linguistics, film or some other part of your course. You’ll hand it in for your tutor to read, and then you’ll have an hour, in a pair or trio, or occasionally just you, to talk through the topic with the tutor, exploring it from all angles, clearing up any questions or misunderstandings arising from the essay, and testing out your views. It’s a great way to really get to grips with a subject, and a chance to share ideas with a world expert in the topic. Here’s an example of a modern languages tutorial in action:

Modern Languages beyond the undergraduate degree

This week, doctoral student Philippe Panizzon tells us a little about what it’s like to study modern languages at Oxford at post-graduate degree level.

During my undergraduate studies at the University of Oxford I opted to study Francophone Literatures whilst also specializing in the works of André Gide and Marguerite Duras whose literary output engages with French colonialism. In my Master of Studies at the University of Oxford I pursued my interest in Francophone Literatures further, focusing on canonical authors from North Africa such as Kateb Yacine and Assia Djebar. During my Master of Studies I also familiarised myself with relevant literary theory and criticism, such as feminist and queer theory, which also acted as preparation for my D.Phil. The good thing about the University of Oxford is that as a graduate student you can discuss your research interests with both established academics and among other graduate students. Thinking through my project with members of the French sub-faculty provided varying perspectives on the subject and stimulated further thinking on the topic. Furthermore, the French sub-faculty, with its close links to the Maison Française in Oxford, regularly welcomes scholars in French from other universities (either from UK or abroad). This provides the opportunity to get acquainted with other academic traditions beyond UK and engage with and follow the latest cultural and political trends in France and the Francophonie.

My D.Phil. project, which is fully funded by the St Anne’s College – Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages scholarship, analyses the discourse of homosexuality which takes shape during North Africa’s decolonization and independence, with particular reference to the works of North African authors Jean Sénac, Abdellah Taïa and Rachid O.. I aim to discover to what extent these authors respond to French metropolitan queer writers, whose implicit involvement with the colonialist project inflects their work with imperialism and racism.  To what extent are these authors more ambiguous or critical of French neo-colonial rule? Does Western queer theory do justice to writings by North African authors embedded within Arab/Muslim cultures? I benefit from being supervised by Professor Jane Hiddleston whose work and research specialises in Francophone Literatures, Postcolonial theory and Deconstruction. Thanks to these regular interactions with my supervisor my project has gained more precision and my thoughts are constantly pushed to the limits.

Despite having nearly 700 years of tradition, the University of Oxford has been open to my research interest in queer writers and queer theory. Oxford has an active research community studying feminist and queer studies and the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages has some great specialists in these areas.  While doing the D.Phil., we also get training for teaching undergraduates, while the countless courses offered by the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (Torch) have prepared me for the job-market. Graduate research becomes a well-rounded experience, rooted in scholarship but decidedly not walled off from the “real world”.

Unexpected skills gained on the year abroad

posted by Emma Beddall

Emma Beddall studies French and German at Somerville College. She is just returning for her final year from an exchange at a German university.

As my time spent abroad nears its end, I find myself thinking often of what I’ll bring back with me from my year abroad (and how I can possibly manage to get my possessions back to England, although that is another story…).  I am pretty sure that most students returning home will almost certainly bring back a range of physical things, from a collection of postcards with slogans in foreign languages – even the most banal of phrases sounds so much more sophisticated in another language – to photos of places they’ve visited and things they’ve done to all sorts of mementos and probably a fair few foreign-language books.

I know that next year, I’ll probably love having all these things in my university room as a reminder of my experiences that will allow me to reminisce nostalgically about my time abroad.  However, I think that perhaps most of the things I will bring back with me won’t be so easy to put on display. I’ll always treasure the memories, but the skills I picked up along the way might just be the most important and unanticipated benefit from my year abroad.  Some of the skills I’ve developed are big ones, some of them relatively irrelevant, but overall I suspect I’ll carry them with me throughout my life.

 

Language skills

It is undeniable that spending an extended period in Germany has definitely improved my German, and alongside it my confidence in using the language.  When you’re living in a foreign country, there really is no way to avoid being submersed in the language, and sooner or later you’ll probably find that you even talk to yourself in the foreign language.  After a while abroad, you will most likely possess a comprehensive vocabulary of words that really should exist in your native tongue and a tendency to confusion as to the grammar and spelling rules in your own languages.

While in a classroom setting, you always have the fall-back option of being able to swap to your native tongue when you just don’t know that word you need (or being able to look it up in a dictionary); in a real-life conversation, you generally can’t.  As a result, I have had to substantially increase my skills at playing the equivalent of Taboo mixed with Charades, in order to get across what I want to say without that vital word!

 

Packing skills

Given the tendency to accumulate all those physical souvenirs of your adventures abroad I mentioned earlier, you will also be highly likely to end up with more stuff than you started with.  As a result of this, you have two options a) decide upon a very minimalist approach and discard as many material possessions as possible at the end of the year, or b) get very good at packing.  I have gone for option B.

I am still not keen at packing, but I have become decidedly more skilled and logical at doing so.  I can now cram a ridiculous amount of things into hand luggage (most notably this once included a 24-volume lexicon that aroused the suspicion of Security) and have learnt all sorts of tricks, such as channelling my inner Hermione by carrying my heaviest hardback books as a little ‘light reading’ for the plane!

 

Life skills

Using a different currency also provides its own challenges, and constantly converting euro prices into pounds sterling is definitely a way to practise those rusty mental maths skills.  This is made more complicated by fluctuations in the exchange rate.  An alternative is to find something in your new country and base all prices on that, for example a scoop of ice cream costing a euro, but this doesn’t work so well when they then increase the price of ice cream (which now sadly costs me 1 and a half ‘ice creams’).

A year abroad is definitely a step up from university, where your family are potentially nearby and you are surrounded by staff and other students, and in addition to this, you have to communicate in a foreign language.  If you have issues while abroad (and it is pretty much inevitable that at some point you will end up in the wrong place), you are generally the one who will have to sort them out.  As a result, I’ve definitely become far more independent and more confident in my own ability to deal with situations, and this is something that has also happened to a lot of my friends who have spent time abroad.

As well as developing problem-solving skills, year abroad students seem to gain a talent for spontaneous trip organisation.  This ideally involves a really long coach journey, potentially to an unusual destination.  If you’re living in continental Europe, everywhere is basically now on your doorstep and it is a great opportunity to travel and try new things!

 

 

 

 

Oxford Types

What’s Oxford like? And, more particularly, what’s an Oxford student like?

Wonder no more. Here, in one minute five seconds, is the answer:

Someone a bit like you, perhaps? Take a look at our ‘student life’ and ‘applying to study modern languages’ categories on the left if you’d like to find out more.

Vloggers

OxVlog

posted by Simon Kemp

If you’re thinking about becoming a student at Oxford, one of the best ways to find out what you’ll be letting yourself in for is the Oxvlog project on Youtube. It’s a student-led project to try and let people know what it’s like to apply here and to live and study in Oxford. There are a huge number of videos online, covering all aspects of the Oxford experience, including useful tips for people thinking of applying to study here. They’re also good at giving you the complete, unvarnished truth in a way you probably won’t find in official brochures and university websites (as you’ll quickly see if you click on the videos below…). We’ll be linking to vlog posts by modern linguists from time to time. A couple of the modern languages students on Oxvlog are from my own college, Somerville: Miriam studies philosophy and Spanish and Connor studies German. Here’s a sample post from each of them:

You can find the Youtube channel here, where you can browse for videos that look interesting, or subscribe to a particular vlogger who’s studying on a course that you might be considering.

Bidules, machins, and trucs from a year abroad: why I love my degree

eiffel

posted by Madeleine Chalmers

I’ve often been asked why I chose to do a degree in French. My answer is, because it constantly surprises me. The novels, poems, and plays I read for my course at Oxford make me laugh, cry, and think. They might puzzle me occasionally, and always challenge me, but they never leave me indifferent.

Literature, which we read in the original French, forms the backbone of the French course at Oxford. This might sound absolutely terrifying, and not very appealing. Reading in French is a long hard slog, but if you stick with it, it will reward you in ways you couldn’t imagine. I read my first French novels at school with a dictionary balanced on my knees, impatiently deciphering every other word. It was tiring, frustrating, and extremely slow, but absolutely addictive. Reading in English, my eye would skip easily across the page. In French, it felt like I was having to fight for every word, and so, strangely, each word really seemed to matter.

I’ll always remember the rush of joy and pride I felt when I finished my first French book without a dictionary. All of a sudden, I felt as though I had gained access to a whole passionate countryful of new stories, feelings, and ideas – a country I no longer wanted to leave. Reading is an intensely personal experience. Your mind and your feelings come into contact with the mind and feelings of an author who may have lived and died centuries before you were born. He or she offers you his or her vulnerabilities, sense of humour, and ideas about the world – and they collide with yours. The more you read in French, the more fluent you become and the easier it gets, but I promise that you’ll never lose that original thrill of recognition, when, across time and language, an author’s message comes through loud and clear, and it feels as though they were speaking only for you.

A French degree is the experience of other voices and other perspectives. As such, it’s incredibly varied. ‘French literature’ at Oxford encompasses everything written in French – from the earliest Medieval writings to books published last year, from mainland France to French-speaking countries across the world. Options in film, philosophy, and art allow you to get to grips with French culture through approaches which you may not have studied before, while translation and linguistics will make you see language in a whole new light.

One of the distinctive features of a language degree is the year abroad (the 3rd year of the 4 year course). For me, it’s felt like a chance to bring everything together: the French language and culture I’ve studied at Oxford, and French language and culture as they are spoken and lived in France today. It’s the year when a country that has seemed foreign really becomes home.

I’ve always been fascinated by France at the turn of the twentieth century – a period when certain districts of Paris became hubs for innovation by bold new artists, writers, and all-round eccentrics. My year abroad has given me the chance to see exhibitions and museums which celebrate these revolutionaries, and I’ve been able to visit their old haunts and homes. These are moments when the literature, music, art, and atmosphere of a whole time and place slide into focus – and they make all those hours flicking through dictionaries worth the effort. Over the next few months of my year abroad, I’ll try to pinpoint some of those moments – the reasons why I love my degree. First stop (in next week’s post): Montmartre!

Madeleine Chalmers – I’m a 3rd year French student at St John’s, currently on an Erasmus study exchange at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

My Internship at the Digital Humanities Project

cesr (2)

posted by Jessica Allen

When looking for an internship for your Year Abroad, definitely think outside the box and never be afraid to approach a company or organisation you might like to work for on the off chance they might be able to take you. As my time at Montaigne’s Château drew to a close last summer, my thoughts turned to the two month long Easter Vacation I would have from my German university. I knew I wanted to spend this in France but at that point, I was starting to doubt whether anywhere would take me for that amount of time.

 

However my fears were left unfounded and I quickly managed to secure the internship of my dreams. I mentioned to my boss at the château that I needed to find another placement and she knew that I’d spend much of my free time whilst I was there enjoying the books about Montaigne. One of my favourites focuses on the famous beams in Montaigne’s library, known for their Latin and Greek inscriptions. My boss then suggested that I contact Alain Legros, a frequent visitor to the château and the author of the book. So I quickly translated my CV into French and wrote a letter outlining my interests in 16th Century French literature, my future career plans, and my need for an internship. Within two days I had a reply. He couldn’t offer me anything himself, but he is an associate researcher at the CESR (Centre d’Etudes Supérieures de la Renaissance – the Centre for Renaissance Studies) attached to the University of Tours, so he passed my CV onto someone who could: Marie-Luce Demonet, a Professor of Renaissance French Literature and director of the BVH, the project on which I worked. Within three days, I had a positive response and everything was confirmed after a brief meeting in Oxford in September to discuss practicalities: I had a seven week internship in Digital Humanities in Tours!

Digital books

But before I could get too excited, I had to find somewhere to stay. Finding accommodation in France can be tricky at the best of times due to the huge amount of bureaucracy, and for a two month stay, I didn’t fancy that. Admittedly I started panicking when the university accommodation   website was incredibly unhelpful and looked at Tripadvisor on a whim. I managed to find a studio in the centre of Tours, a ten minute walk from where I would be working and which cost only a fraction more than the university accommodation. I could hardly believe my luck and spent eight wonderful weeks living an almost surreal grown-up existence in the city centre.

Loches chateau (2)

My daily life in Tours was similarly exciting. As an undergraduate who hopes to have a career in academia, I got the chance to experience life at a research centre. I worked on the Digital Humanities project MONLOE < http://www.bvh.univ-tours.fr/Montaigne.asp> (MONtaigne à L’Œuvre), which aims to publish digital versions of the sixteenth century philosopher’s essays as well as the books which were once in his library or the sources of his essays. I spent most of my time learning how to edit transcripts and use TEI-XML coding, two transferable skills which were completely new for me, so it was a very intense and beneficial experience. I was trusted to work on a real project, the digitisation of this book, http://www.bvh.univ-tours.fr/Consult/index.asp?numfiche=1136&url=/resrecherche.asp?ordre=titre-motclef=theologie%20naturelle-bvh=BVH-epistemon=Epistemon, which, after further editing and several control checks by other members of the team, will eventually appear online as part of the virtual library. It was very rewarding knowing that what I was doing was actually useful and part of a real project, something which can be rare in the world of internships. I also had the opportunity to go to conferences held at the CESR, looks at rare books in the reserve, use the extensive library, and meet professors working on the things which interest me. The other members of the team were friendly, welcoming, and easy to talk to – it’s always good to work in an environment where there are others who share your interests.

Loches donjon

I worked five days a week from nine until six with an hour for lunch. On Fridays, we would go out for lunch as a team, but on the other days I would go and read by the Loire, try out the cafés around the centre, or browse the nearby shops: you can achieve a surprising amount in an hour. Staring at a computer screen all day and doing everything in French was quite tiring, so after work I often just spent the evening relaxing. When I had more energy, Tours was a great city to be in. The cinema, theatre, ice rink, swimming pool, and other attractions, were all within walking distance and every week the university holds events for people interested in languages, so it was easy to meet new people.

 

Located in the Centre region and in the Loire Valley, Tours was an ideal place for weekend excursions. With a Carte Jeune (the equivalent of a Young Person’s Railcard), I went to Paris three times, Versailles, Orléans, Angers, and also numerous chateaux all over the region, without ever paying more than fifteen euros for a train ticket. At times it felt like I really was in the Renaissance.

Chinon

Overall, this internship was thoroughly enjoyable, opened my mind to the possibilities offered by an academic career, and had relatively few disadvantages. Obviously an interest in the literature of the French Renaissance was essential and, having spent so many of my waking hours editing 16th Century French, I now often find myself spelling like a Renaissance person, although this is easily rectified. This kind of internship might not be suitable for someone who would prefer to be with lots of people their own age. I enjoy spending time with people older than me, so being the youngest in the office and the centre itself didn’t phase me, but it might not be for you if this would bother you. If there is somewhere you would really like to work but they don’t seem to offer internships, I would always suggest sending that speculative letter…you never know where that might take you!

But what’s it really like? The Modern Languages Course

posted by Simon Kemp

Recently, Oxford University decided to make short films about every single one of its undergraduate courses, featuring students and tutors talking about what the course is about, and what it’s like to study it. They give a much better sense of what the courses are really like than you can get from a prospectus. There’s one video on modern languages, and six more about the ‘joint schools’ combining modern languages with English, history, linguistics, philosophy, Classics, or a Middle-Eastern language. I’ll post each of them over the course of the next few months, but for starters, here’s the modern languages film:

 

The full playlist of videos for all our courses is here.

Un été chez Montaigne

librairie

posted by Jessica Allen

 One of the key features of the modern languages degree is that the third year is usually spent abroad. At Oxford, we are exceptionally lucky in that we are able to spend this year however we want as long as our plans are approved by our tutors. With no work which counts towards our degree to complete, it’s therefore a year in which we are able to really focus on becoming fluent in our language(s) as well as exploring any particular interests we happen to have, whether these are academic, extra-curricular or related to career choices. I study both French and German, so this time last year I was faced with the enviable situation of having to split my fifteen months between two languages. Having long ago decided that I wanted to study at a German university, I was left with the task of slotting in France around the two four-month long semesters.

The first window I had was the summer vacation after my second year. Back in January a fellow Oxford linguist and one of my tutors mentioned on the same day that it was possible to undertake a stage (internship/work experience placement) at the Château de Montaigne, where the sixteenth Century Humanist Michel de Montaigne lived and composed the Essais, for which he is best known today. As a huge Montaigne fan I couldn’t believe it, so I sent a letter detailing my love to Montaigne to the address on the website. A few weeks later contracts were signed and I had a two month placement for the summer. The deal was very good: five days of work per week in exchange for free accommodation within the walls of the nineteenth century château itself, plus 70 euros a week and a gorgeous leather bound book.

tour
The tower from quite an unusual angle.

Life at the château was incredibly varied and fulfilling, which was a pleasant surprise, given its location in a tiny village with absolutely no services and with the nearest larger village a 50 minute country walk away. I woke up naturally every morning at about 7am when the sun began to shine through the crack between the shutters of my room, which was in a converted wing of the château where Montaigne’s own horses most probably lived. I then had a few hours for reading, writing and breakfast before my working day began at ten. The job itself consisted of selling tickets and merchandise in the gift shop and hosting wine tastings, as well as undertaking a few duties in the huge wine warehouse, which was certainly very enlightening for someone who knew little about wine beforehand. But the most exciting thing was the guided tours. Twice a day I collected the heavy key and walked from the reception area through the woods to the château and the attached fourteenth century tower, the only part of the building which was not destroyed by a fire in the nineteenth century. The guided tour, an account of Montaigne’s life and work, is based in and around the tower and lasts about forty five minutes. At first, the idea of doing this in French was daunting, however once the facts were clear in my mind I found myself really enjoying this linguistic exercise, and actually only gave a handful of tours in English or German. The best part of the job was definitely meeting so many fellow Montaigne fans who were always happy to exchange ideas, as well as introducing several people to his life and work who had never encountered it before.

accueil
The reception area for the attraction with our kitchen on the floor above

Our working day was over at six thirty. At this point, the three girls who worked permanently at the château would head home, leaving us four stagiaires (interns) to our own devices. We would cook together whilst watching the sun set over the vineyards. Despite being so isolated, there was always plenty to do, not least exploring some of the abandoned rooms of the chateau which no one seemed to have visited for hundreds of years. This isolation was also excellent for my language skills, for there was no chance of finding a big English-speaking group to socialise with, and between the seven of us we almost exclusively spoke French. It was a lovely environment because we were all girls aged between 20 and 24, and occasionally in the evenings we would have dinner parties or decamp to one of the many rustic soirées in the surrounding villages.

This immersion into French rural culture also forced me to develop a whole new set of practical skills, for example changing the gas, hand washing sheets and towels, and cleaning up petrol spills. On my days off I really wanted to see some of the picturesque Aquitaine region. Luckily, where there’s a will there’s a way, so with the aid of an ancient, gearless bicycle, I would leave the château when it was still dark, catch the once daily train out of the nearest village after a perilous bike ride through the vineyards and, by 8 or 9am, I would have reached my destination. I visited Bordeaux, Bergerac, Sarlat, and several of the surrounding villages, each of which had its own little quirks and was well worth the early start. The only train home was at 6pm, but at that point I was usually starting to miss the comforting air of the château anyway.

Bordeaux (1)
One of the days in Bordeaux

After two months I was sad to leave and still miss the opportunity to really engage with French language, literature and culture in a practical context on a daily basis. Maybe it seems odd that a twenty year old girl considers her best summer ever to be the one she spent living in an isolated château deep in the French countryside, but I’ll never forget the time I spent retracing Montaigne’s footsteps, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this experience to others looking for a rewarding, short-term work placement in France on their year abroad.

Etienne
La Boetie’s house in Sarlat….quite nice for a complete contrast (!)

Year Abroad Glossary

Posted By Rowan Lyster, in her third year at Somerville College reading French and Linguistics, and currently on her year abroad on a university exchange in Montpellier, France. This is an extract from rowanlyster.blogspot.fr

This is a brief guide to some new concepts and words I’ve been introduced to during my year abroad in France. I can’t guarantee the accuracy of my definitions; Google translate may be useful if you want to actually learn new words…

 

La grève: A spontaneous gathering where hundreds of students come together in peace and harmony to make avant-garde sound art using klaxons, megaphones and fire alarms. And occasionally bongos. Sometimes culminates in a fun-filled parade along the tramway, encouraging the bemused citizens of Montpellier to take life at a slower pace by stopping the entire transport system.

 

Erasmus: A magic word which gets you into classes you shouldn’t be going to, and out of work you should be doing. To be applied freely in all circumstances, especially in conjunction with a look of confusion and sadness.

 

Dessin d’ObservationAn ‘art’ class I attend which, going by the lessons so far, consists of tracing and colouring. Lessons incorporate an element of orienteering, due to the fact that the classroom changes most weeks.

 

Emploi du Temps (Timetable): An elusive, possibly mythical creature; sometimes you think you’ve got it pinned down but it inevitably uses the power of shapeshifting to escape your clutches. Not to be trusted under any circumstances.

 

8h30: A time with which I was not previously familiar, but at which I now have two 3-hour classes. Boo.

 
Certificat Médical: A document which is inexplicably required if you want to do any form of organised sport, up to and including ‘relaxing stretches’. I mean, seriously? Each sport must be individually specified on the certificate in order for it to be valid. At my doctor’s appointment to get this, I was asked about my entire medical history (including frankly VERY personal information), told I should have had every vaccination under the sun, and warned about the dangers of going out late at night. I was also asked to do 30 squats with my arms stuck out, before having literally every inch of my torso listened to with a stethoscope.

 

La Météo: A wildly inaccurate source of information about the weather. The only guarantee is that it will in no way correspond to what you can see out of the window. Fortunately it is usually pessimistic; last weekend’s “storms” were actually a few minutes of light drizzle. Speaking of which…

 
La Pluie: A distant memory.

 
L’Hiver: The time of year where you occasionally have to wear jeans and maybe even a jacket. Extremely distressing for those who grew up in the south of French.

 
Being ‘Englished’: When you speak to someone in your best French and they insist on replying in English, despite your obvious exasperation and refusal to go along with it. Happens less and less as time goes on, which is gratifying.

 
Cousine/CuisineTwo words I can’t seem to distinguish in French. This is a surprisingly big problem as my cousin is also here; often results in people wondering why I spend so much time with my kitchen.

 

Email: Apparently not really a thing in France, given the number of replies I have received to the hundreds of emails I’ve sent. May try carrier pigeon if this continues.

 
Dimanche: A weekly precursor of the apocalypse, during which everything closes and the streets become eerily empty. The only sound is the slamming of shutters and the rumbling of my tummy as I realise that I have, once again, forgotten to buy any food.

 

 

Apologies for the lack of pictures in this post, I’m feeling lazy . Here is an autumnal tree from the Botanical Gardens (or ‘Garden of Plants’ as they call it here) to make up for it.

 (Rowan’s previous post on Montpellier student life is here.)