French Dissertation Style: An Education Reform for America?

When I arrived to study the trombone at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels, now some thirteen years ago, I  was notified that I was required to take an academic course in world cultures. This would be my first academic classroom
experience in Europe. Something that struck me was the way in which students answered the professor’s questions. At the time I assumed that it was simply part of the “old world” style of the European conservatory (I had been told that in some universities it was still customary for the students to rise to answer). In time I came to adopt this style, which I learned not formally, but rather as an attempt to fit in.
     It was not until years later, while studying towards the doctorate in Switzerland, that I learned that this way of answering was, in fact, a highly structured and formulaic, European tradition. It was introduced to me as the “French dissertation style” in a class with Dr. Christopher Fynsk.
     When answering a question in the French classroom (I understand that this is true in both school and university) one answers in three distinct parts. The first segment states the question and offers a brief history and contextualization of the question. The second focuses, in more detail on one aspect of the historical contextualization of the question. The final, third part, allows the student to put forth their thought and argument about the question.
     I distinctly recall the impression that it later made when I answered questions this way in the American classroom. I had returned to the US from Belgium and took up psychology studies at a small university in Pennsylvania. Students and professors there were not accustomed to the format and comprehensiveness of this answering style. It made an impression. I also found that my assignment writing began to change. When given an essay in the class, I was disposed to write in the tertiary form (broad history, focus on one historical argument, and give my argument).
     When I began teaching I decided to make my students familiar with this style. The result was spectacular. Students not only improved in their essay writing, but also found that the format offered them an advantage over students in other classes. With satisfaction and self-confidence, students proudly reported the reactions from classmates and professors to their thorough argument style. They also found that their essay grades increased, because answering (orally or written) in this way requires not only a very accurate understanding, but also a hesitation in giving one’s opinion. One student likened it to proving that you have the right to make the argument, that you’ve “done your homework”. I agree.
     In preparing to teach this to my students, I did some research into the French dissertation style. I would like to share these formal guidelines so that, maybe, some students can make use of it.
     The written aspect of the dissertation style is somewhat different from the oral response structure that I experienced in Belgium. The three-part format follows a Hegelian Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis format.
     The problem or question (the French call this the problématique) is stated. One can state the question in one of three different styles: thematic type, interrogative type, or implicit subject type. I have always liked the implicit subject type best because one can explore paradoxical connections that are typically unnoticed.
     The next part is the presentation of the thesis or argument. Typically this argument is supported by three examples. An opposing argument or antithesis is then presented with supporting examples. Finally, the synthesis or presentation of the new idea, birthed from the thesis and antithesis, is given. This is where one gets to state their own ideas.
     Lastly, an introduction (say what you are going to say) and a conclusion (say what you’ve said) is written. I have always told students that the introduction and conclusion should be the final thing written -how could you know what you are going to say before you’ve said it (before writing it through)?
     The written dissertation can be as brief as five paragraphs (one paragraph for each: the introduction, thesis, antithesis, synthesis, and conclusion) or book-length. Much of Nietzsche’s writings took on this format, as did many Nineteenth and Twentieth Century writers.