Contrary to American universities, where paper topics are often assigned, French professors generally allow students to come up with their own research topics beginning in university.
This means that your professor will likely give you a bibliography or reading list at the beginning of the semester with “recommended” reading, and not talk about the paper again until you submit it a few months later. While some professors give a bit of guidance on topics and are open to questions, you”ll typically have to do the work of coming up with a good topic and writing a decent paper by yourself.
If you’re not used to doing assignments in the French school system, this can of course be a bit of a challenge.
In this situation, the best thing to do is to start early. French students will have a slight advantage on you because they know the system, and have older siblings and friends who have been through the same programs. You’ll just have to do a bit of extra work to make up the difference.
Here are 8 steps to writing a kick-ass paper for your graduate class in France and getting a good grade:
1) Scan the bibliography for topics that interest you.
Because you have so much freedom in selecting your paper topic, you might as well choose something you like. When the bibliography is distributed in class, the professor will usually go over it and talk a bit about some of the main authors and ideas you’ll be studying during the semester.
Pay attention during this part and put a little star next to some of the works that sound interesting, so you can use the bibliography to come up with potential topics later.
2) Look up the authors and their works on Amazon and Wikipedia to narrow down your options.
Once you’ve identified a few authors or ideas you’d be interested in working on, look them up on Wikipedia to get a short biography, and check out their books on Amazon.fr to get an idea of what they’re all about. From the article and the comments, you should be able to get an idea of whether their work will be appealing to you or whether it will be really boring.
3) Go to the bookstore!
Once you’ve used Wikipedia and Amazon to narrow your choices down to 2-3 options, go to the bookstore and skim through some of the books. Read at least 5 pages, plus the table of contents, to see if you understand what the author’s saying and what his main ideas are.
4) Choose a topic that interests you and relates to your thesis.
Part of the appeal of graduate school is that you get to study a topic in-depth, and do research on subjects that appeal to you. Using the freedom you have in your master’s classes, you can also choose to write about topics that relate – concretely or tangentially – to your thesis topic or main field of study.
If there’s something in the bibliography that relates to your topic and is interesting to you, work on that book. If not, but there’s another work you’re using for your thesis that relates to the class’s topic, ask the professor if you can work on your own topic instead.
The worst she can do is say no.
For one of my graduate classes on the patrimony of childhood, I chose to work on a volume of backwards fairy tales that I had translated into English for another research project a few years earlier. It was much more interesting to me than some of the other topics that were available – comic books and baby dolls, for example.
5) Approach your paper by coming up with a thematic question and showing how the author answers it.
The point of your graduate paper, in most cases, is to show something about the work or works you’ve decided to study. That means that you’re learning what this particular author thinks about such and such topic, NOT challenging the author’s ideas.
One of my beefs with the French school system is that they rely a lot on regurgitation of ideas rather than analysis and interpretation – basically at any level below the doctorate.
While that can be annoying for students used to critiquing ideas and challenging one author with another (like we often do in American universities), this method is generally frowned upon by French professors, who don’t think you’re smart enough or that you know enough to disagree with some famous, published author. So play by the rules.
6) Follow a point – counterpoint – counter counterpoint structure and show why the author thinks what he does.
Rather than calling the author’s conclusions into question, use a point / counterpoint / counter counterpoint structure in your writing to show how the author makes his point and what the big thematic conclusions of his work are.
Generally speaking, the professor isn’t interested in what YOU think, but in what the author thinks the counterarguments to his oeuvre are. Because of the French style of writing, it’s rare for an author NOT to identify objections to his work and how he overcomes them, so when you synthesize the work, the answer will already be there.
7) Avoid incorporating too much outside research into your paper or going off topic.
Unless you’re assigned a research paper – like your thesis – your professor usually wants you to understand one work thoroughly on its own terms, rather than analyze and compare it to other research.
As a result, try to limit your paper to information from the one work you’re studying. If you need more, look first at the author’s other works. And if you do decide to incorporate outside research, look to see what the author’s contemporaries thought of his work specifically and what they wrote in response to it. Avoid incorporating other ideas and researchers who don’t specifically mention the work in question.
Also avoid the “hors-sujet” (going off topic) and refuting someone far more famous than yourself, the cardinal sins of French university assignments.
8) Keep your paper to an equal number of points and subpoints.
When writing a French paper, you’ll typically want to be abundantly clear about the point you’re trying to make and how you’re going to make it.
In the introduction of your paper, you’ll want to identify the topic, work, and author, state your argument (or problématique), and then identify the two or three arguments you’re going to make.
Choose points and subpoints so that they are all roughly equal in length and they all have an equal number of subpoints. You can do two points with two subpoints each, three points with two subpoints each, or three points with three subpoints each. Any more than that is getting way too complicated.
And unless you’re writing a dissertation, you’ll want to clearly label each section of your paper so the professor knows you’ve moved on to the next argument.
Have you gotten good grades on assignments in your French university classes? Let us know what works for you in the comments!
Notes for Japanese-speaking learners of English
In English, it is important to write an essay logically and clearly. To do so, you must remember to:
• State clearly your argument (主張をはっきり書く)
• Support your argument by clearly stating your reasons ‘why’ (主張の根拠を述べる)
• Avoid vague expressions (あいまいな表現を避ける)
For example, in Japanese essay writing, even when expressing your argument, you might end your sentences with ～ではないだろうか/～でよいのだろうか which are similar to saying I wonder/I guess in English. If you do this, you are asking your readers to judge for themselves whether your argument holds true or not. Similarly, if you use ～ではないかと思う/～と思われる which is similar to saying I think that～/It is thought that～, in your English essay, even if you are confident in your argument, your argument cannot be seen as an argument, but just a thought. So, you should avoid these vague expressions when putting forward your argument.
Essay writing in French
There are several key differences between writing an essay in English and writing an essay in French. Often, lower marks are given to French students if they express their opinion in the Introduction of their essay, because the French convention is to leave opinions for the concluding sentence(s) of the whole essay. So, in many ways, the structure and organisation rather than the content and style are the most important aspects of a French essay.
In universities across France, students are often evaluated on their ability to write 1500-word dissertations, or what in English we might call the ‘argument driven essay’. These dissertations can be thematic (in which a given subject is analysed, such as “The Films of Audrey Tautou”); interrogative (in which a question is posed, and an argument developed, such as “What is Audrey Tautou’s best performance?”); or implicit (in which the student links two or more themes to each another, such as “Love and Sadness in the Films of Audrey Tautou”). Having received the subject of the essay – in the above case, Audrey Tautou, her films, and the themes in those films – the student then needs to do something quite different to what we do in English essays.
To start the essay in French, students are told to find the ‘problem’, or what the French call the problématique. This is a bit like the research question, the thesis statement, or the research topic, and will often involve a series of complicated, interlinked questions. Indeed, French students are often reminded of the great French ethnologist and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who stated that “Le savant n’est pas celui qui donne les bonnes réponses mais celui qui pose les bonnes questions” (“the scholar is not he who gives the right answers, but he who asks the right questions”). In other words French essays do not ask you to argue for one point of view over another; instead, the essay should elucidate and provide concrete examples of the various aspects of the problématique. This is not easy, and takes a lot of practice, but it is something all French students are expected to do, and to do well – argumentation, rhetoric, dialectical logic. Once the problématique has been identified, the rest of the essay will flow logically from this. Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi, in The Creative Vision, define this approach: “the critical ability which distinguished successful artists was not technical skill, but what the authors called problem-finding — the ability to envision, pose, formulate, or create a new problematic situation.”
On finding the problématique, the argument and the structure then develop. Usually, the dissertation will have three distinct parts, each consisting of one paragraph only, so that the final essay will contain five paragraphs (if we also add the introduction and conclusion). Each paragraph is then subdivided, often into three parts, so as to introduce one major argument plus shorter examples. In this way, the three main paragraphs will present an argument (“Audrey Tautou’s films are some of the best in French cinema”), a counter-argument (“Audrey Tautou’s films are some of the worst examples of French cinema”), and a synthesis (“Audrey Tautou’s films – whether good or bad – reveal a great deal about contemporary French cinema”).
Each paragraph will be of equal length (students are often penalised if there are word-count imbalances in their overall structure) and will contain a series of mots charnières (linking words) to help the writer sum up the last paragraph and introduce the following one, and provide an easy, comprehensible road-map to the reader so that they know which part of the problématique is now being discussed. For example, in French, common words and phrases that introduce an opposite or opposing idea include mais (but), cependant (nevertheless), toutefois (however), pourtant (yet), and au contraire (on the contrary).
Once the three main paragraphs have been completed, students will then go back to retrofit the Introduction and the Conclusion. As we have seen, the introduction will outline the problématique but must not contain opinions which are personal to the reader. An overview of the structure of the essay will also happen here, such as “In our opening part of this essay, we will look closely at…” and so on. It is only in the conclusion that students may finally offer up their opinion, by relating that opinion to the series of arguments put forward in the preceding four main paragraphs.
So, to sum up, French essays:
• pose the problem (la problématique) in the introduction so that it is immediately clear, to someone who has not seen the question, what the topic for discussion actually is.
• do not answer the question or give opinions in the introduction—that is left for the conclusion!
• do not, under any circumstances, introduce extraneous information: students may assume that the reader knows who the author/director is, when he/she lived, when the book was written/the film made, who the characters are and what the story is, etc.
Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi, The Creative Vision: A Longitudinal Study of Problem Finding in Art (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1976)
http://writing-poetry.knoji.com/how-to-write-a-french-dissertation-type-essay/ (accessed 15 August 2014)