December 27, 2006

Martin, Thomas
[FREN W1101] Elementary French I

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

Thomas Martin is a genial, somewhat Falstavian guy with an extensive background in, and a passion for, all kinds of literature. His good humor, occassional wit, and accentless English effect a much better classroom atmospheric than you'd find in the other sections of 1101. Unfortunately, while Thomas may be the kind of guy that you'd like to make good friends with, he's less interested in putting in an honest effort to teach to his students the rudimentary French outlined in the 1101 syllabus. To his credit, he's a talented and fun pedagogue - the lack of lesson plans hardly detracted from his ability to impart knowledge upon us - but halfway through the year, he seemed to stop caring about the class. The five minutes of French spoken at the beginning of the class gradually descended into literature and kitten discussion time, and we'd cover all the grammatical concepts, but since 1101 put such an absurd emphasis on random (and oftentimes useless) vocabulary, this would leave much of the rest of the sixty minutes open. A downward spiral of disinterest encompassed both teacher and students, which led to amusing class periods, but higher education at a place like Columbia should be more rigorous. And of course, there were still the tests.
Doing the readings out of the book was useful, but proved to be an insufficient method to score well on the four midterms, which again valued knowledge of random words over mastery of grammatical material. The final test of the semester, written by Thomas himself, felt like the ultimate betrayal, as he seemed to have spent more time making the test difficult than teaching us to do well on it. The blissfully lazy ethos of the class was subverted into something sadistic, leaving a weird distribution of grades and a smattering of disgruntled students.
On the whole, I would recommend against taking introductory French at Columbia, as there's almost no intellectual benefit to doing so, tons of people with (sometimes extensive) high-school experience take 1101 and screw up the curve for us neophytes, and getting a good grade is pretty tough, unless you're one of the aforementioned douchebags with prior experience. The rest of the French department must suffer through the same ridiculous tests that Thomas's students do, but under the unfortunate authority of a native French speaker, who probably also requires his or her students to complete the workbook, which Thomas does not. So if you must take 1101, do take Thomas, but do be forewarned that, in order to excel, you'll have to put in a lot more individual effort to learn the material than he does to teach it.

Workload:

Minimal - five short compositions that are very easy, so long as you stay within the scope of the material already taught. The four exams are awful and emphasize vocabulary minutiae over grammatical concepts; the final isn't so bad. Thomas stops giving quizzes after the first two weeks, and you don't actually have to do the workbook, either, which is awesome.