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Blog by: Edward

Reading, Berkshire. Studying Modern and Medieval Languages (French and Spanish). Read more

Some summer French reading

Exams are coming to an end here in Cambridge, meaning that everywhere you go you can’t help but notice students enjoying a well-earned cup of coffee, rowers preparing for the May Bumps (myself included), and of course the occasional bitter finalist who still hasn’t finished yet. Thankfully for me, my last exam was on Tuesday, and since then I’ve been using the time to catch up on a few projects that I’d let lapse over the exam period. One of these is this blog, which I’m resurrecting in a blaze of glory: feel free to sound the trumpets / cheer in the streets / blow the year-old party horn that you found down the back of the sofa.

During exams, it’s important not to let your life get completely taken over by revision, and so I found myself doing a bit more reading than I usually do during term. In particular, I found reading books in French to be very helpful, since it was (a) fun and (b) kept the linguistic portion of my brain ticking over.

Which brings me neatly onto one of these reads, Comme des images. It’s a French young adult novel, set in the prestigious (and pressurised) environment of the Lycée Henri-IV in Paris. I came across it for a very simple reason — I happened to know the author! Clémentine Beauvais is a postdoctoral researcher here at the University, where she juggles teaching and research with her writing career. In fact, she’s a published author in English as well as in French: her children’s series, The Sesame Seade Mysteries, could not be more different to Comme des images, but is equally compelling. Incidentally, the Sesame Seade books are set in Cambridge, specifically in Christ’s College, and are well worth reading.

But back to the French. While reading Comme des images, I found myself thinking that it would be an excellent first book for people coming to French literature for the first time. With that in mind, I decided to ask Clémentine Beauvais whether she’d be prepared to talk about the book, as well as to share some insights on all things relevant to people thinking of applying to university, to linguists in general, and to anyone who just really likes a good story.

And so, scone and pot of tea in hand, I caught up with Clémentine Beauvais, upstairs in the Michaelhouse Cafe.


So to start, would you be able to tell me a bit about yourself, and how you got to this position where you’re writing books in two languages? You started in 2006, right?
I came here in 2006, after doing a literary Baccalauréat in France and a year of classes préparatoires. The French system is relentlessly complicated, but basically the way it works is that while university is entirely free, and open to anyone who’s got a Bac regardless of how well they did, the tertiary education system is split between the universities and an alternative route that has competitive entry standards. That is called the classes préparatoires, and they prepare you over two or three years to take national exams for a number of grandes écoles. These schools are extremely competitive — to give you an idea, for the École normale supérieure there are generally 100 people admitted every year from the whole of France. So if you’re an arts and humanities person, and are into that system, the aim is to get into the ENS, the École des Chartes … It’s a really bizarre and competitive system, and it’s one which is in appearance meritocratic and republican, as we like to think, but in fact is hugely in favour of the upper-middle-classes.

Was that what made you turn away from the French system? Why did you decide to come to Cambridge?
Because I was profoundly unhappy with the system in France. I was always very interested in arts and literature, and was very good at school — but mostly because I was terrified. I was one of those people who copes with it all, gets top marks, does everything that is expected of them, but who is inside constantly terrified. Also, I was very interested in childhood, which I couldn’t study in France. I wanted to be a primary school teacher at the time, but before that I wanted to gain a theoretical, philosophical understanding of it. Then my mother, who had British colleagues, learned about the British system, which was very different, more focused on creativity, and in a way more relaxed. It helped that I was fascinated by Britain, partly because of Harry Potter … So sort of randomly I went to the British Council in Paris, where they were doing a presentation, and picked up the UCAS catalogue. It sounds random now, actually, but it was! I applied for Cambridge because they had an education course that sounded interesting, and to my astonishment I was shortlisted, meaning that I went there four days later in December, and then I was accepted. I had to stay for an extra year in France because I was too young to get into Cambridge — I was fifteen at that point — but actually staying that bit longer was great: although the French system is very rigorous, it confirmed to me that I was very glad to be leaving.

When you arrived in Cambridge, you studied English as well as Education, since you can’t study Education on its own. Could you explain how Education fits together with other subjects?
It’s changed a lot since I was here as an undergraduate, but generally speaking you could expect to do about two-thirds of your work in your ‘main’ subject and one-third in Education. Education is split into four subjects, History, Sociology, Psychology and Philosophy of Education, all of which you’re introduced to in your first year to give you an understanding of the general issues surrounding education. In the second and third years you can decide to do more education, finishing in the third year with a big research project. Of course, your third year of education would be your fourth year if you’re combining it with a language, as you spend the year abroad as part of the MML course. If you’re doing MML with Education, it’s worth mentioning that you can only do one language, so you can do French and Education, German and Education …

Do people ever ‘add in’ Education to their courses after one or two years?
I have quite a few students who’ve switched, actually, but I think there may well be students who switch to other subjects from Education too. This year I’ve got two people who’ve switched from ‘straight’ Geography to Geography and Education …

… and I assume they don’t all want to be geography teachers?
Not at all! And you can really do a lot of things after studying Education, although it leads onto the PGCE quite well, and naturally a lot of people studying Education do want to do a PGCE. A lot of Education students, although by no means a majority, do become teachers. The PGCE course in Cambridge is extraordinarily competitive, and the best in the country. But people do lots of other things; some go on to do MPhils and MAs in different places, and one person from my year became a nurse.

Could you tell us a bit more about the four subjects that you do in your first year?
You do History of Education, which traces not just the history of education but the history of childhood through the ages. Sociology of Education deals with things like the social structures and systems favouring certain types of students over others, and how education replicates (or doesn’t replicate) social structures. Psychology of Education ranges from how children develop language and neurology all the way to social pyschology. Philosophy of Education is my domain, and includes all the ‘big questions’ surrounding education: what is education? Why do we consider children to be a particular asset? What sort of asset are they?

Onto the book, then … could we start with the title? You can translate Comme des images literally into English as ‘Like Images’, but there’s more to it than that — the phrase ‘sages comme des images’, for instance, which means ‘good as gold’ but also carries a sense of children being ‘seen and not heard’ …
Yes, and it’s actually a very difficult phrase to translate. Titles are a weird thing: I actually had this title in my head before I wrote the book. I knew I wanted to write about high school and appearances, but I didn’t have the story in my head, so if anything the title might have motivated some aspects of it.

It certainly reads like that’s what happened, when you look at how images permeate the book. There are so many images: the phrase ‘comme des images’ describes how students at the Lycée Henri-IV might behave, for instance. But also, as I think the cover might be hinting at, the twins, Léopoldine and Iseult, are images of each other. But you were at Henri-IV yourself: would you say that any aspects of your school life there informed your writing?
A lot of people have asked me that question, particularly when it comes to the teachers in the book, but in fact my English teachers, quite unlike Monsieur Daguerre, were all lovely. There were still a lot of possibilities, though. In fact, Monsieur Daguerre is actually more inspired by one of my history teachers, however indirectly, but I could just do so much more with him as an English teacher. I really wanted his dialogue to be half in English and half in French … As for the Physics teacher, he represents a lot of the teachers who, in spite of their kindness, just seemed to be completely in another world: they were sweet, but there was this feeling of a complete disconnect between their experiences and ours. They felt bad for bringing us up to ‘compete’ against each other in that sort of way. A lot of the reviewers of the book picked up on that lack of communication between generations, which was a very important theme of the book to me.

Apart from all these questions about imagery and meaning, though, the book was also really interesting to me because of the way in which it was told. Not only do you start at the end, but the narration is also unique.
In my last book, La Pouilleuse, I was already experimenting with a type of narration where the narrator was not a central person, but on the periphery. This is much more developed in Comme des images, which is longer book: the narrator is part of the story, but is not one of the two central characters, Léopoldine and Iseult. This is really useful because it allows you to have what we call in French un narrateur décalé — a perspective that’s slightly different, slightly aside, and one that I find it fun to play with.

Well, in almost all literature written in the first person, the protagonist is the narrator: they’re the person to whom things happen.
Definitely for young adult fiction. Actually, in adult fiction I notice the narrateur décalé more and more often: Sherlock Holmes is an example of the person writing not being in the limelight. We don’t always notice it in adult literature, whereas young adult literature is so focused on the self that there are very few third-person narratives and the first-person is used to make you identify with the characters. I did not want anyone to identify with my characters!

The other thing I wanted to ask about the way you present the story is to do with the feeling of the place. There was this wonderful moment — the ressaisissement — when the narrator looks up at the ceiling and realises the beauty of the historical building in which she happens to go to school …
I remember when I was at the lycée, walking from the library to yet another dull lesson, and I would look up at the roof and think, ‘that’s beautiful! What’s it doing there?’. These buildings are functional: you go into and out of them every day.

It’s a very interesting book, and I think a very good way into reading in French. It’s at once an easy read and a challenging one: the themes and ideas are challenging, but in terms of language it’s very accessible, apart from some French school terminology.
It’s very plot- and character-driven. I think that in a way it’s an introduction to French society, particularly to an aspect of French society that you don’t learn much about in school. It’s interesting in the UK how a lot of people study La Haine in French. Of course it’s a really important aspect of French society, but this is essentially the other side of the spectrum: the über-privileged kids who are not at all like the children in La Haine. It’s actually an aspect of culture that France isn’t uncomfortable enough with. In the UK there’s a lot of wondering about how egalitarian (or otherwise) the education system is, but in France the system is much more insidious. Like Pierre Bourdieu would say, if you have the cultural capital, if you know where your kid is going to go, you know where to put them. It’s not a coincidence that my parents are senior managers and I went to Henri-IV! You don’t even have a choice; you completely internalise it, which makes it easy to claim that ‘the system is a meritocracy because it’s free.’

One final question, coming back to the practical side of things. I’ll ask this in French, since many of the people reading this blog will be interested in studying French … Est-ce que tu aurais des conseils à donner à un étudiant qui tente de lire pour la première fois en langue étrangère ?
Pour moi, le conseil serait de lire des choses qui te passionnent. J’ai appris l’anglais en lisant Harry Potter, parce que je n’ai pas pu attendre que les traductions arrivent en France. Un autre truc, c’est de ne pas chercher dans les dictionnaires, sauf si un mot revient continuellement, et de ne pas faire la traduction littérale mot-à-mot. Il faut s’efforcer de lire toute la phrase. S’il y a vraiment un paragraphe que tu ne comprends pas, il est très rare que ce soit un paragraphe qui est important pour l’intrigue : tu vas probablement pouvoir suivre l’histoire quand même.

Comme des images is published in France by Sarbacane. Clémentine also has her own website, which hosts a very interesting blog on all things literary, cultural and educational:

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Back to school: the Access Bus

The short terms in Cambridge provide a lot of opportunities for us to do exciting things during the holidays. Some people take on vacation work, others go on holiday using grants from their College … But what have I been doing this last week, I hear you ask? Well, I’ve been going back to school.

Okay, so perhaps a bit of explanation is in order. I haven’t been kicked out of university. I haven’t completely failed all my exams, nor do I have to resit some of my A-Level modules (again). Instead, I’ve been involved with Clare College’s very own Access Bus. The principle of the Access Bus is that, during the University holidays, a group of students go into schools and talk to pupils who might not think that Cambridge is for them, whether because of finance, background or any other myths about Cambridge admissions. We also do more general talks about university life, and try to demonstrate that student life is not all work, work, work. Every Cambridge College is linked with a certain area of the UK, and since two of our link areas are Coventry and Warwickshire, it was to the Midlands that we – that is, six current students and our two Schools Liaison Officers – set off on Sunday night.

Staying in the local area allowed us to visit a lot of schools in a very short space of time. Averaging around five school visits every day between the two ‘teams’, we must have spoken to several hundred pupils by the end of our week. The talks that we did varied according to the age of the students we were visiting, but they typically consisted of explanations of what university ‘is’, the benefits of going to university, and daily life as a student. By the end of the week, I found that I’d got very well-practised in talking about Student Finance, having discussed it on more occasions than I could remember! This, though, was kind of the point: allowing pupils to speak to actual university students, and to ask questions about the nitty-gritty of student living, is one of the main aims of the Access Bus. During the week, I had really inspiring conversations with some wonderful pupils, and I can only hope that the advice and information we gave them will help them as they start to reconsider whether university is really full of poshos and rich people.

edwardOf course, the trip was also really fun to be involved with outside of the school visits. Everything was funded by the College, from the (very comfy) Travelodge we stayed in to our many breakfasts (and even more coffees) in the Morrisons Café down the road. We even found time to relax during the week: on our first full night in Coventry we went bowling together, which allowed everyone else to demonstrate their utter superiority over my ‘lob-it-in-the-right-direction-and-try-not-to-fall-over’ technique. As you can see from the picture on the right, my friend Robin (who, like all the other students, I got to know really well during the week) has mastered how to look really cool whilst also bowling pretty darn well. The fun continued throughout the week, as we made sure that our evenings weren’t completely taken up with planning the next school visit. One particular highlight was going to see ‘Henry IV: Part I’ in Stratford on the Thursday: even if we did need some quick history lessons on which Henry this was, it was worth it for the fight scenes alone.

This was my third year doing the Access Bus, and my first after a year away in France, but it’s still as much fun as it was the first time I gave up a week of my Easter holiday to talk to pupils. Coming so soon after my dissertation deadline, Access work managed once again to combine two really important things: working to raise aspirations of young people and simply having some good old-fashioned fun.

If you’re reading this and would like to know more about the links that Colleges have with different areas of the country, have a look here. Clare isn’t the only College to run an Access Bus, and all Colleges can organise school visits: I’m sure the SLOs would be delighted to hear from you!

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The Year Abroad Project

The last post on this blog was all about my time in France as a language assistant (if you missed it, click here), but since I returned to the UK the focus has shifted onto another aspect of my third year: the Year Abroad Project. The Year Abroad Project, or YAP, is a project completed during and after your third year, and handed in just after you come back to Cambridge. It’s separate to the (optional) fourth year dissertation, but many people use it as an opportunity to develop their independent study skills ahead of (*dramatic music*) final year. And even though I’ve not finished mine yet, I can tell you without a doubt that it’s one of the best parts of my course so far.

But why is it so much fun? Well, firstly you get a great deal of choice in what kind of project you do. It’s not necessary to settle on a title until the end of second year, which gives you six whole terms at Cambridge to find out what interests you. You can also choose whether to do a linguistic inquiry (perfect for those with a linguistics bent); a translation piece (for budding translators); or a dissertation. While I don’t have anything against the first two options, I’d become particularly interested in a specific topic during my first two years: medieval French literature. That option lends itself most readily to a dissertation, so it wasn’t long until I was meeting with a potential supervisor and discussing reading.

Over the past year, I’ve been trying to work as steadily as possible, fitting reading and note-taking around working as a language assistant. Of course, things are starting to come to a head now, with my deadline (late September) fast approaching, but with the work I’ve done over the past eleven months, it should all be perfectly manageable. This is a fairly unique experience for me, since next year there won’t be anything like this amount of time to write 8,000 words, so I’m making sure that I relish every second of it! Then, of course, there’s the experience of writing an extended piece of academic work for the first time, which is also something of a thrill, as it’s a great taster of what a postgraduate degree might be like. (And yes: I’d like to do a postgraduate degree in medieval French. I’m just that cool.)

More to come from me soon – for now, though, the local university library beckons …

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What is a language assistantship?

As I wrote my last post, I was on my way out to France, getting ready to start work as a language assistant. Well, guess what? As I’m writing this, I’m on my way back home again.

I’ve actually been home twice over the last few months, both times unexpectedly and for family reasons. This time, though, I’m coming back for a little while longer, which will give me a bit more time to appreciate the differences between England and France. (Did I delay writing this post just so I could make that connection? Maybe. Please don’t hate me, blog admins …)

Reading my last post again, it occurs to me that I may not have gone into very much depth about what exactly I’m doing while I’m in Reims, France. Let’s start from the beginning, then: I’m on my Year Abroad. All MML (languages) students at Cambridge are required to take a Year Abroad after their second year, unless you have a very good medical reason for it. There are several main options: study abroad (à la my ‘armchair linguist’ friend); find a job or internship; or work as a language assistant. I went with the latter of these options, for several reasons: firstly, I quite like teaching; secondly, I wasn’t really all that confident in being able to find a job otherwise; and thirdly, the application process is, in comparison to the other options, pretty simple.

So what does a language assistant do? Officially, my job description is ‘to develop the cultural and linguistic capabilities of students within the framework of language learning’. In practice, this is a lot more complicated than it sounds, of course … My établissement d’affectation (host school) is a lycée, which is basically the French equivalent of an American high school. I’m teaching three age groups: secondes (Year 11), premières (Year 12), and terminales (Year 13). All three are looking to some degree (no pun intended) towards the Baccalauréat, which they take at the age of 18.

Different schools handle their assistants in different ways, and I have to say that I’ve been very lucky with mine. My school has given me quite a lot of freedom: teachers send me a portion of their class every week, and in this way I can work with smaller groups than the 20-30 in the average English lesson. Having spoken to the teachers a few days earlier, I’ll have devised a lesson plan, which I then work through with the group. Usually this lesson plan will tie in with what the teacher is working on, so as to offer a different approach to the same topic.

For instance, the other week a teacher asked me to work on the ‘American Dream’. After a walk around town and a think, I came up with the idea of analysing some songs, since it’s both ‘up-to-date’ and genuinely interesting. I picked three songs: American Idiot, by Green Day; America! from the musical West Side Story; and Born in the USA, by Bruce Springsteen. After listening to them through a few times, I devised a table for students to fill out, which you can see here if you’re interested. The lesson itself went rather well: the music made a nice change from textbooks, and proved a valuable aid in getting students to speak. I’ve actually launched a website for my teaching, which has been getting some lovely feedback from the students and teachers; one of our projects for next term is to get students interacting more with the site, rather than just viewing it and downloading content. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes …

For now, though, it’s back to the UK I go, to recharge my batteries and to relax for a while. After that, it’ll be back to receiving emails with titles like ‘Next week’s lesson’, ‘Registration update for the 1ES1’, and ‘Please come and see us in the office to sort out your apartment insurance’. For now, though, I should probably focus on different things. Like all the Christmas shopping I still have to do.

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What I did last summer … (and France.)

Hello everyone! If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably chanced upon my profile page; if not, then you can have a look here. So anyway – welcome to my blog!

My blog will actually be a little bit different from many of the other BeCambridge blogs this year, since I won’t actually be in Cambridge while I’m writing it. Instead, as a third year languages student, I’ll be on my Year Abroad. Every modern linguist has to spend their third year in countries where the languages they study are spoken, so I’ll be in Reims, France, working as an English language assistant in a local sixth-form college. With that in mind, I’ll be spending most of my time on this blog talking not about supervisions, or what’s going on in Cambridge, or clubs and societies; instead, I’ll be offering an insight on the less conventional opportunies that a Cambridge degree offers you.

As I write this, I’m in the car on the way to St. Pancras, getting ready to arrive in France later today. But of course, I’ve not just been packing non-stop since the end of the last term. For many of us, the summer holidays offer a chance to relax after an intense year, as well as to try and find some paid work. For me, that’s meant helping out with some of the summer schools that the University runs. During the summer, lots of external companies run summer schools set in Cambridge Colleges, although these aren’t affiliated in any way with the University; that said, the University’s Admissions Office does run a number of events that are publicised to schools and sixth-form colleges. In particular, I’ve been on two main events as a staff member: the Sutton Trust summer school, for Year 12 students, and our GEEMA summer school. Both of these were great fun, and I was just amazed by how smart everyone on the events was. If you’re thinking of applying to Cambridge but aren’t sure that it could be for you, then I’d highly recommend them.

For now, though, my thoughts are turning towards the Year Abroad. Sitting in a car on the way to the train station is as good a time as any to reflect on what the Year Abroad is for: for modern linguists, it’s a compulsory part of the course. I’ve spent two years in Cambridge, developing my language skills and finding areas of study that particularly interest me, and now it’s time for me to use what I’ve learnt. A friend of mine, nervous about going away, recently described himself as an ‘armchair linguist’, and I’m starting to empathise with him: it’s very easy, when studying languages, to lose yourself in the intricacies of literature, or linguistics, or history, and to forget just how a language like French is actually used day in, day out, by hundreds of millions of people.

And at the moment, I’d suggest that that is the real purpose of the Year Abroad: to take something abstract, yet rewarding and useful, and to transform it into something concrete.

See you in France!

(And in case you’re wondering, my ‘armchair linguist’ friend is absolutely loving it.)

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Bumps, Blades and Jazz Bands: Easter Term in Cambridge

The end of term in Cambridge is marked by quite a few interesting events. I’m spending rather a lot of time this week playing gigs in our Jazz Band, Colonel Spanky’s Love Ensemble*; before our week of gigs started, though, I’ve been taking part in the May Bumps.

The May Bumps are, for want of a better word, awesome. They’re the single biggest student sport competition in the country, with about 2,500 people participating. The premise is fairly simple: eighteen rowing boats, each with eight rowers and a cox, line up one in front of the other. Then, when the cannon goes off (and it is an actual cannon), each boat tries to hit – or ‘bump’ – the boat in front before the boat behind can catch up. After each day, the boats involved in a bump swap places, and this is all repeated for three more days. The aim each year is for a crew to win ‘blades’, which you achieve by ‘bumping’ on each of the four days.

Rowing has a reputation as something of a ‘rah’-type sport, an activity dominated by ‘toffs messing about in boats’. Since starting at Cambridge a couple of years ago, though, I’ve discovered that it’s actually one of the most inclusive sports that there is here. Every College has a Boat Club, and every one of those accepts ‘novices’ – people who’ve never rowed before. In my College, the first term of this year saw as many people start rowing as there were members of the entire senior squad! These very same novices will often go on to row in the best boats within a year or so, which goes to show that you don’t have to have done the sport at school to get good very quickly. I spend most of my time at the Boat Club as a cox (the small person who sits at the back, steers the boat, and motivates the
rowers), and my entire crew had only started rowing when they came to Cambridge. Even in the Boat Race on television, there will always be members of the Oxford and Cambridge crews who began rowing with their College.

But back to the Bumps themselves. No-one who knows me would describe me as particularly sporty, but through coxing I’ve been able to experience a lot of the camaraderie and team spirit that comes with taking part in sport, in spite of my lack of muscles. Coxing is also really different from anything else I do in
Cambridge: the feeling you get when you’re sitting on the start line, ready to motivate eight athletes and steer them to a bump, provides a much-needed break from writing essays or completing Spanish grammar exercises. This year, I’ve even had a go at actual rowing, which is a very different challenge from coxing. Even in the lower boats, where I was put when I asked if I could give it a go, you learn very quickly to work with other people to make the boat move as quickly as possible. It’s a really worthwhile way to spend your time while you’re in Cambridge.

In spite of what I’d heard before starting at university, rowing certainly isn’t just for people who have watched the Boat Race every year since they were five, or own their own private fleet of boats. It’s a really good stress-buster, a fun way to spend your time, and a superb outlet for that competitive streak that so many of us feel.

Oh, and if you’re wondering – my crew did indeed get ‘blades’ this year. Don’t believe me? Here’s the proof, complete with me wearing ridiculous sunglasses and looking like an idiot:

Edward winning the bumps

*In case you’re wondering, Colonel Spanky is our name for one of the band members. He’s pretty cool.

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