Contents Disappointed Utopia 4. A Banlieue University

Not an unmitigated success

Not everyone’s ambivalence resolved into something so affirmative. Let us compare the structural optimism of a senior professor with the more tempered feelings of a more marginal teacher, a white French doctoral student whom I will call Marie. We sat down for an interview towards the end of my research work, in a North African tea shop on the grounds of the campus. It was a sunny day in early spring with cold shadows.

Marie had had an unusual trajectory for a Paris 8 philosophy student. What made it unusual was precisely that she had had a conventional French philosophy training. Unlike her peers, she had been trained by the elite part of the French educational system, the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS). She had attended a branch campus of the ENS that had recently been set up in Lyon, succeeding afterwards at a prestigious civil service exam for philosophy teachers (the agrégation). As a student at the ENS, she had secured a stable French teaching career from a young age, having signed a ten-year government contract, which provided a stipend throughout her studies and then offered teaching work afterwards.

After her studies in Lyon, she had continued with additional graduate work in Paris. Her reasons for moving there were “pretty practical,” she explained: she had two children and her boyfriend worked in Paris. Initially she had finished a master’s degree at the Sorbonne, advised by a prominent and well-connected Spinoza expert. Her master’s advisor had then suggested she could contact Patrice Vermeren at Paris 8 for her doctoral studies. Vermeren, she recounted, was always warm and welcoming, even though her dissertation project was not well-defined at that point. But arriving in Saint-Denis must have been a shock.

“I arrived at the campus without really knowing its history or its reputation.” In fact, Marie was not welcomed warmly at Paris 8’s Philosophy Department, precisely because of her own academic background. She was was a normalienne, a “pure product of the system”: that is, a representative of mainstream French philosophy and French elite education, the very things that Paris 8 had historically sought to overcome. (Needless to say, it was that same mainstream that had produced almost all of the Department’s famous professors…)

For her part, she found Paris 8 a very different institution from the ENS she had come from. She was used to a more functioning administrative system; in Saint-Denis she found an institution that was highly disorganized. It was often unclear which room to go to, where to find the key to the classroom. The classrooms were mostly kept locked for security reasons. Even the enrollment paperwork was a Kafkaesque experience.

And yet not all the surprises were bad. It was her first major experience as a classroom teacher. She found that she had “immense freedom” in terms of the content of her courses — more than in a more conventional philosophy curriculum. She agreed to teach philosophy to first year undergraduates; the first year was trying, but the second year, she reported, “things got clearer in my head.” She found it “really nice” to teach beginning students, and yet also “really nerve-wracking,” because the students themselves were in a perpetual state of anguish. She was struck by the gentler approach to giving student feedback — “you never correct in red pen here” — but also by the students’ lack of preparation. “They lack a framework.”

How could the students not have lacked a framework, a broad training in a discipline, in a department that was dedicated precisely to not giving them that?

But by the time I met her, in her third year of her doctoral studies, I found that she had actually become quite well integrated into the institutional life of the Philosophy Department. She was teaching classes; her teaching was funded by her ten-year national contract and thus did not require any university funding; she even took on departmental administrative work. We will see in Chapter 5 that she served as the primary organizer of an transnational philosophy conference — the logistics of which were all but flawless. The female professors knew her as a fellow academic mother.[9] Marie’s trajectory, in short, had taken her from being an unwanted outsider to being a community member. She narrated this trajectory in somewhat ironic terms. “They found out I could be useful after all.”

When I asked her to comment on the Philosophy Department’s political mission, she was openly ambivalent. “I have mixed feelings about it, I’m pretty skeptical. Paris 8 isn’t an absolute success.” I remember feeling, by that point in my field research, that I understood exactly what she meant.

Marie eventually became a professor at the Sorbonne, after a stint teaching in Guadeloupe and in a high school in Brittany. She was the only Paris 8 doctoral student I knew who ever had that outcome. She was only at Paris 8 for a few years, a relatively temporary member of the Department, and yet her transience was not a failure: it seems that she got what she came for.

  1. I wish I had asked more about what academic motherhood was like.  ↩

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