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Sorbonne Confidential Paperback – February 1, 2009

4.4 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

Laurel Zuckerman has split the academic world with a book that relates her experience at the heart of the archaic French teacher-training system. Her account reveals the extraordinarily arcane and arguably irrelevant questions asked of would-be English teachers. And it highlights the ambivalence of the country s approach to English, which is seen, at best, as a necessary evil. --The Times

Absurd, ill-adapted, discriminatory. And dramatically funny…The French university system seen through the half naïve, half incredulous eyes of an American. The reader laughs a lot and concludes that reform is urgent --L'Express

Sorbonne Confidential... illustrates how objective measures can be far from objective a concept often difficult to see when looking only at one s own context. It illustrates how rigor by itself can distract, exclude, and alienate. By taking on an institution that began before the American Revolution, the book demonstrates how systems can develop around programs, allowing them to self-perpetuate without regard for their impact on schools and society. At some level, the book is also an argument for the power and importance of teacher education and of the need for systems that care more about creating good teachers than objectively assigning scores. --Education Review

About the Author

Laurel Zuckerman worked for 18 years in I.T. before turning to writing. Like her heroine, Alice Wunderland, Zuckerman is a Franco-American graduate of France's top business school, ex-city councilor and mother of bilingual children. Sorbonne Confidential is a thinly disguised account of her tragic-comic experiences at the Sorbonne in 2005. Originally published in French by Fayard in 2007 as a docu-fiction, it received enthusiastic reviews and generated considerable debate in France. Zuckerman s second book, Les Rêves Barbares du Professeur Collie, is slated to appear in French in 2009.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 300 pages
  • Publisher: Summertime Publications Inc; First Edition in English edition (February 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0615252893
  • ISBN-13: 978-0615252896
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,759,327 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
If you happen to be involved in teaching English in France, or in any foreign country, the issues raised in this memoir of participating in the French competitive examination ("l'agrégation") for teacher accreditation will pique your interest. If you've experienced some cross-cultural frustrations, you will perhaps find the humor in this book familiar.

The author is an American forty-something former IT professional, naturalized French citizen with a French husband, and mother of two children in French schools. She speaks fluent French and has a degree from a prestigious French university. Finding herself dislocated from her work in IT, she decides to challenge the uniquely French competitive examination ("l'agrégation") to become qualified for 'lifetime' employment as an English teacher. Up until making this momentous decision, the author had felt well-grounded in her own assimilation into French life, saying, "[I had been] accepted to a fine French business school, I had worked successfully for fifteen years in managerial positions in French companies and been elected to local government. My children were perfectly integrated, excelled in French, enjoyed school and their friends. I loved living in my town in France and appreciated the company of my neighbors. I probably thought that I had integrated."

She goes on to say: "What the year preparing for the agrégation showed me was just how superficial this all was. My French language skills, sufficient to manage multimillion-dollar projects, were insufficient to qualify me to teach English in a French public school...
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a fascinating exploration of the arcane and idiosyncratic methods the French employ to create accredited teachers of English and to promote an almost totally mechanical treatment of English/American works. I am enjoying it a great deal, but the Kindle formatting is very irritating. Paragraphs aren't indented consistently, and second lines of paragraphs are often indented instead. It makes for jerky reading and is distracting. I am very surprised that the translation into a Kindle version wasn't accomplished more adroitly.
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Well-written and makes some valuable points about how the French system and (forgive the generalization) the French psyche functions. It's a fast read, and I plan to pass it on to my local library. A little too confined to the particular issues the author was facing, but certainly offered a powerful look at the Sorbonne. We were given a visceral sense of how uncomfortable it could feel to sit in some of the classrooms. What you see from the outside of the prestigious Sorbonne is certainly a different picture when shown from within.

It is great to have the American viewpoint represented. I would have given more stars, but the book is a bit pricey and may not appeal to everyone...of course, what does?
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Format: Paperback
I was interested in reading this because I too am an American living in France. I have a doctorate in English linguistics from a French university and I am an English linguistics professor in a French university. In other words, I have a concours, not the agrégation but the concours for university professors, and I am a civil servant with a "job for life".

I agree with the author's criticism of the agrégation for the most part. It is indeed a strange method of choosing high school teachers, since there is very little focus on pedagogy or any training for the job. As many people in the book point out, it is simply a way of narrowing down a large field of candidates to the number required to fill vacant posts.

However, I disagree with a couple of points. First, I have never seen any evidence that the agrégation is designed to favor the French and eliminate the native speakers. I know several English speakers who have passed the exam. Certainly, it is important to master the French language in order to pass and to understand how to write a commentary and a dissertation. Contrary to what the author suggests, the commentary and dissertation are not designed to keep English speakers out of the agrégation, they are simply forms that are well-known in France to French students, who compose the majority of those taking the exam.

A second, and more important point, is the author's implied belief that a native speaker is always a better teacher than a non-native speaker. I will not try to claim that a non-native speaker speaks the language better or has deeper knowledge of the culture than a native speaker.
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Laurel Zuckerman's excellent "Sorbonne Confidential" is a lightly fictionalized account of her preparation for the French competitive examination that opens the door to teaching English at the best pay and in the best schools. Although that is fascinating in itself, the book also touches on questions with implications beyond the educational system.

American by birth, upbringing and education, Ms. Zuckerman's heroine, Alice Wunderland, is French by choice -- a naturalized citizen with fluent French who has also studied, lived and worked in France for most of her adult life. Nevertheless in the Wonderland of French public education, the exam to select English teachers places greater weight on competence in formal French than the ability to communicate in English. For example, a major component of the exam is a seven-hour essay to be written about English literature -- but in French and in the very specific style of a French dissertation. While Americans can learn to do it, because the exam is competitive, they need to do it better than the native speakers.

This practice does retain the best jobs for the French, but at whose expense? Make no mistake. Because it is the international language of business, the importance of learning English is essentially uncontroversial. Still, the French rank last among European students in English language skills. Those with money can send their children to classes out of the public school system and provide them with summers in English speaking countries. What about those without the means?

More generally, the book asks what integration into another culture means.
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