At the beginning of May 2000, I found myself teaching at Université Montpellier 1 in the south of France, a few kilometres from the Mediterranean. It was at the end of a busy first year of teaching law in Canada, and I was excited by the prospect of going to Europe.
Montpellier had beckoned invitingly through the preceding winter. It is the home of an ancient university, founded in the 1200s. I had visions of Roman ruins and Gothic battlements, strong coffee and croissants, great wine and tremendous sunshine—and on the whole I wasn’t disappointed.
The afternoon I got to Montpellier my host—a professor at Montpellier 1—was late. It was an introduction to the way things are often done in the south, or “le Midi”, as the French call it. There, time is a relative concept. Things just happen.
My host eventually arrived and took me to the apartment that had been rented for me on the outskirts of the city and next to an orange grove bordered by tall cypress trees. Later that night we had dinner at his house en famille. There was sausage, a salad with capers, leg of lamb, green beans, a flan, and artisanal cheese—and, yes, plenty of red wine. We talked for several hours.
After a day of rest I was in a classroom at the faculty of law in front of 30 students. The original invitation indicated I could teach anything I wanted and that I could give half the month-long course in English and the remainder—please— en français. These minimal requirements were useful, but since I’d spent time as a student in France and later worked in Switzerland, I suspected that teaching conditions might be very different from the way they were in Canada.
My areas of interest are public international law, international trade and international business transactions, so my idea was to offer a course on “the contribution of the Americas to international law.” The subject was tremendously idealistic (I can still hear the “trumpets blaring”) but I wanted to do something different, something that would give French students exposure to subject matter they might not normally encounter. Consequently, before I left home I hired a French exchange student from Laval University to do some research. A month or two later he came back with many useful articles in French on my subject.
Once in Montpellier 1 quickly discovered that few of the students had any real ability in English, so I was thankful I’d planned ahead. Nevertheless, that still left me the task of preparing lectures on a new subject in a foreign language, something I did every afternoon after class, as the wet spring ripened into a warm, bright Mediterranean summer.
There were other challenges, too. The law library was located at another campus, which meant no new class materials. Computers were a rarity: I handwrote my lectures. The university’s information technology infrastructure was creaky, but I found an internet café. Later in my stay, I had a library assistant verify my translations and even undertook preparing a multiple-choice exam in French. The key was being flexible.
Montpellier itself is amazingly diverse, with its medieval Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Cathar, and Occitan past.
At the same time, I realized that there was this rich human landscape around me. My students were diverse, as was the old city of Montpellier. The European Union’s Erasmus and Aristotle programs encourage a high degree of educational mobility, and the result is a very varied student body. I had students from all over France but also from the “DOM-TOM” (France’s overseas territories) as well as Germany, Poland, Morocco, Senegal, Ecuador, Argentina, and Vietnam.
Law in France is often taught with greater attention devoted to its philosophical, historical and contextual underpinnings than in Canada, and this promotes course offerings that come at the subject from a more specialized and structured angle. There were courses in the law syllabus at Montpellier 1 that might look a little peculiar if offered by a Canadian law faculty—The History of Political Ideas, The History of Public Institutions, Social Science Methods, etc. The other big difference was the attention devoted to European Union law, which is a body of law that in many instances has direct effect in France. Therefore, it is very much the law of France.Not only is this different from our experience of NAFTA, which does not have direct effect in Canadian law, but it also gives European students an experience with transnational integration and unification—indeed, with a common European identity that has no real equivalent in North America. In class, this experience certainly added to our discussions about what international law is—and could be.
My contact with the local faculty other than my host was limited, but they were always polite. Sometimes we went for long lunches under the shade of giant fig trees where, over fresh bread, buckets of mussels and white wine, we talked about French law and the realities of the academic hierarchy. In France, academics in law, political science, and economics progress through the agrégation system, which means they must pass a series of central state-sponsored competitions (concours) to secure a chair. Three outcomes are possible. You secure a desirable chair, where you remain; you secure a chair in the hopes of securing a more desirable chair later on; or you fail to secure a chair and have to wait for the next competition. These conversations were fascinating—as the French academic system is, again, unlike anything we have in Canada— and made clear that so much of French academic life, like so much of life in France generally, is still centered on Paris.
What I’ve talked about so far concerns work. There was a world beyond, however, and that, too, was different in ways I could have hardly imagined. Montpellier itself is amazingly diverse, with its medieval Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Cathar, and Occitan past. It has been added to more recently by arrivals from the Maghreb and other African countries. The encounter among cultures has not always a peaceful, but it made me think about how people have lived and worked together there for centuries.
Looking back, the time I spent in Montpellier seems like a dream, but there was much to be conscious of, so I have a few pointers that may be useful for any academic contemplating teaching abroad.
First, be prepared. Good teaching presents many challenges, and those challenges are often magnified in a new locale, especially where student expectations, language, and life are different. You want to enjoy the experience, so try to think ahead. In addition, pick something to teach that you know well and feel comfortable with. This will allow you to remain open to all that the experience has to offer.
Second, it’s important to clarify teaching obligations. In Montpellier my teaching and course materials weren’t much of a problem, but that’s because I planned it that way. Notwithstanding the availability of the internet today, teaching abroad takes you away from the milieu you’re most familiar with, along with its books, photocopying, supplies, research, and administrative support. Consequently, you need to be ready to work without them. And hard though it may be to imagine, there are locations where internet infrastructure and student interconnectivity remain primitive. A Belgian friend went to give a summer course at a university in Rwanda and told me that his students there didn’t even have paper or pens. So be ready—and be ready to be flexible, with back-ups and alternatives.
Third, don’t underestimate the time it takes to get unplugged at home and re-plugged in a new location. Finding computer access, phones, grocery stores, a laundry, and other necessities can take a while. If you’re accompanied by family, schools and daycare may be issues. Weeks, even months, can be lost making the transition from one place to another.
Fourth, find out about pay. Many teaching opportunities abroad require you to front considerable money in terms of plane tickets, rent, and the like before you actually get paid. For some people this may require some form of bridge financing like a loan. When it comes time to actually getting paid, there are also frequent hitches. Many institutions of higher education require that you open a bank account for direct deposit, something which is hard for a temporary visitor to do. In France, it took an entire morning to set up a bank account. My host came to the bank with me and insisted on seeing the manager, who personally completed the paperwork in front of us. Without that intervention, setting up the account never would have happened. Ultimately, the pay was great once it was received—a few days before my departure.
Fifth, opportunities to teach abroad are increasingly common. For those who are either pre-tenure or who are tenured but lead busy lives teaching, publishing, and attending conferences, however, these opportunities can be rare. So take some time to enjoy. AM
Chi Carmody is an associate professor and Canadian director of the Canada-United States Law Institute in the faculty of law at the University of Western Ontario.