Sunday, April 5, 2009

Prepping for France

Most of this blog is devoted to covering the world of study abroad for a growing audience, but my interest in the subject is more than journalistic — I'm also a professor who is leaving for France in three weeks with 11 students to compare French and American cultures and conceptions of good living.

This is the first solo-led study-abroad experience of my career. I've been on three previous travel courses to various locations in Europe, but always with the excellent folks at ACIS to make arrangements and put out fires on the road. If you’re thinking about study abroad for the first time without an on-campus office to help you through the process, ACIS provides high-quality service and a willingness to customize programs to your needs.

Still, cost is becoming ever more important to students and families, and I’m running our 2009 France course on my own to trim costs as much as possible. As things now stand, we’ll likely get our crew to Paris, Bordeaux and Nice for 15 days of meetings and exchanges with locals for about $3,000 a head.

Preparation is essential in study abroad. At Simpson College in Iowa, where I teach, time and resource restrictions limit our ability to prepare our students for abroad experiences to a 1-credit semester-before-departure course. It’s problematic, to be sure, in that there’s just not enough time to fully prepare my students — none of whom have been to France and only one of whom has been abroad at all (and, in her case, to the language-friendly confines of England).

Some of what we’ve covered in the prep course:
  • A book on French and American cultures, Gilles Asselin’s and Ruth Mastron’s Au Contraire: Figuring Out the French, which covers a variety of public and private social and cultural norms in the two countries.
  • Introductions to each of the cities in the travel course. These take place through discussion and video.
  • Basic French words and phrases (I jokingly call the list our stay-out-of-jail list...) for a group that includes 10 students with no meaningful experience in the language and an instructor who also has little skill with the language (but a willingness to try!).
  • How to avoid the “ugly American” stereotype that turns up with too much frequency.
  • Images of the French as propounded to us as Americans by American mass media.
  • Packing, money, electricity and the basics of everyday living in a culture other than your own.
It appears to be a good group of students who are eager to encounter the culture. We’ll spend good chunks of time together as a group but also give them plenty of time to explore in small groups on their own.

Now if I can just get the dining down... If you can recommend restaurants in Paris, Bordeaux or Nice that accommodate groups of 13 traveling on a budget, please let me know.

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