Having just returned to Reims from a restful break, the first reaction I and many of my 2A peers had as we took our seats this past Monday in LS01 was Oh god, not this again. If anyone outside of Sciences Po heard this, they’d think we were just griping about the normal things: the cold and windy weather, perhaps, or the arduous semester we have ahead of us, or the poor-quality espresso of the coffee vending machines, et cetera. In other words, one might just chalk it up to the complaints of any beleaguered university student. 

However, our premature fatigue actually had a very specific cause. ‘Winter School,’ as stated on our school’s website, is a mandatory “multidisciplinary core course” offered throughout the first week of the spring semester. It supposedly addresses “the links between academic disciplines and contemporary issues” and teaches critical thinking skills. The vague, idealistic prose that Sciences Po uses to describe Winter School makes it sound perfectly innocuous. 

But our reactions as we first sat down in that lecture hall were because we knew otherwise. They showed our resigned frustration about the failures that the Sciences Po administration had made when mapping out our lessons and the flawed reasons for which they chose to assign this curriculum to us in the first place. As a result of this module’s misguided purpose and horrendous logistical implementation, students have been detrimentally impacted by a course that no one asked for. So, in true Sciences Piste fashion, this article’s problématique is simple: Should we abolish Winter School? 

First, Winter School’s poor scheduling makes meaningful independent engagement with course material extremely difficult. I’ll take the example of Sciences and Societies, as it’s the class I took, but Ecological Literacy has a similar academic pacing. A total of 20 class hours was split over only four days. Yet even these five hours per day didn’t seem to be enough: amidst all the books our lecturer brought up, there didn’t seem to be any time to actually explain each. The TA sessions didn’t help: while I expected an elaboration of these books, arguments, or concepts, we instead spent all our time reading unrelated corpora of documents to come up with haphazard in-class mini-presentations. 

I understand that the goal here was to critically think on our feet, to apply the academic tools we’ve learned in the lecture to other issues. However, an incomplete or shallow introduction to these frameworks leaves us deprived of a way to meaningfully analyse such matters. Even if someone sought to gain a deeper comprehension independently by fully reading the books on the syllabus or researching concepts more extensively, there simply isn’t enough time in between lectures to fully absorb and process information. 

We’ve seen that Winter School’s current pedagogical planning is, at best, counterproductive. But it also needlessly stresses us out. Amid this hectic, cramped schedule we are also expected to prepare for an exam the day after finishing the last lecture. Not only this, but this “class” is worth three credits, the same value as a semester-long seminar or methods workshop! These are valuable points to our grade averages, yet Sciences Po admin bandies them about with little time for us to optimise our chances of success. 

In Sciences and Societies, making the exam open-note was a feeble attempt at consolation, but all the lecture notes in the world can’t replace the time one needs to let concepts solidify. For the 1As in Ecological Literacy, it’s not much better. While they do have extra time with an exam in March, having all the classes clustered at the very beginning of the year makes revision an enervating process of dredging up information they’ve already long forgotten. Because of poorly spaced classes, we are either overwhelmed with exams immediately after the course or left in limbo for many weeks—all with 3 credits in the balance. In both situations, students lose out due to Sciences Po’s preventable failures.

But I’m not writing this just to bring attention to a calendar problem. The case against Winter School, fundamentally, lies in that Sciences Po has no compelling reason to justify its existence. Let’s go back to Sciences Po’s own description. Winter School’s subject matter is undoubtedly concerned with the “contemporary” and “multidisciplinary.” But the reality is that it doesn’t give us much meaningful multidisciplinary knowledge that can aid us across our university careers. The concerns are quite niche and fail to enmesh themselves well in our other classes. Is there any other class in which eutrophication and the albedo effect, or the “politics of things,” are helpful to know? 

Even if so, it undoubtedly pales in comparison to the cross-pollination of knowledge that, for example, the 1A Humanities class gives. The deployment of different theorists and disciplines, and their linkage with a contemporary issue, is all already done to a much greater scale in our regular courses than what Winter School could ever aspire to. 

If Sciences Po believes that it’s necessary to devote extra resources to teach critical thinking and multidisciplinary connections in a week-long module, it would merely demonstrate their failure teaching it to us in every other class. With a curriculum too expansive to fit into one week and too detached to add enough value to our academic progression, Winter School represents nothing more than a stressful waste of our time and a pedagogical-logistical mess for the school. It’s better off gone, and for the sake of my 1A colleagues, let’s hope that Crystal Cordell Paris reads this sooner rather than later.

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One Comment

  • Milane Levacher says:

    I enjoyed reading your opinion on this course, and as I totally disagree I feel like it would be interesting to add some counter arguments 🙂 First, I hear your point on the density of hour. Nevertheless (and I speak only regarding Science and Society), we discussed about topics so diverse that from my point of view each class was something new, in lecture as in methodology (even if it might depend on the teacher) : astronomy, agriculture, medicine, cartography… The subjects were always embedded in a great network of political narratives while coming from every field of science. Hence, it was easy to find the course lively and stimulating. I have done all readings and lectures, and it was totally doable during the week (you can add the staffing of BDE night event I am part of). Thomas Tari was careful about that and adapted his course, like each year, to respond to different circumstances. Secondly, I shared with you, at least during the first lecture, the fear that I would not be able to go deeper in the details mentioned and that interested me. I realized quite rapidly, that is was not at all the purpose of the course. Examples, references, books were not what Winter School is supposed to give us, at least from what the exam showed us. You didn’t use your notes ? Me neither. Because it was not the point but understanding a mindset, a way of perceiving our interactions with science. As naive as you may imagine of this fact, I felt personnally touched by this moral of “acting in doubtful context”. Surrounded by first in class students, who, at least coming from french methodology, have learnt to solve issues by imput scientific facts, it was important in my career prospects to learn that sometimes, you should not take risk, but you must, because if you don’t, it can only be worse. I won’t extend my understanding of this class because it is surely subjective but to sum-up, I disagree, winter school should not be erased (not to mention the fact that 1 month and 1 week of holidays would have been too much for many).