For the most pretentious among us.

One of the main reasons I applied to Columbia was because of the too-good-to-be-true things I heard about their French department, and now, three years in, I am delighted to say they’re not too good to be true. The French department at Columbia (and at Barnard, though, as a Columbia student, my experience is more limited) is wonderful, and the major is wonderful, and the fifth floor of Philosophy is not wonderful but it is because that’s where the department lives. If you’re considering taking a French class: please, please go for it! And if you’re considering becoming a French major: do it!!

Note: Since I was a nerd in high school, I didn’t need to go through any of the pure language courses at Columbia (Intermediate French, Grammar and Composition, etc.), so I cannot speak to how those classes are conducted. 


Changes are afoot in the French department, as what were previously two distinct majors—French and Francophone studies and French language and literature—have now been merged into the single French and Francophone studies major. If you’re a current major, you have some leeway with which classes you take to fulfill core requirements, but for anyone considering majoring, your track will have to look like this. Pulled directly from the French department’s website with added commentary.

Core (12 points)

FREN UN3405 Advanced Grammar and composition

  • Depending on your ability with French, you might not have to take this—talk with the DUS (Director of Undergraduate Studies). Definitely applies to heritage and/or native speakers, might apply to the nerdiest of French studies students (it did for me).

FREN UN3409 Introduction to French and Francophone History

  • Replaces what were previously two courses, Introduction to Francophone Studies I and II, alongside a course called French Civilization. Will presumably be covering French and Francophone history, colonialism, and postcolonialism.

FREN UN3410 Introduction to French and Francophone Literature

  • Replaces what were previously two courses, Introduction to Literary Studies I and II. Will presumably be a survey of French and Francophone literature, starting with the Middle Ages (think Marie de France) and ending in contemporary fiction.

FREN UN3995 Senior Seminar

Electives (18 points, or 15 points in case of a senior thesis)

Six electives in French or francophone literature and culture at the 3000 or 4000 level of which one covers the period before 1800 and of which a maximum of two are “French Through X” classes (32XX). Though students should prioritize classes taught in the Department of French, courses with significant coverage of the French and francophone world in other departments (e.g., History UN2353 “Early Modern France”) may be counted with DUS approval.

  • Comparative Literature & Society classes on French or Francophone topics usually apply, as do History courses—always check with the DUS!
  • Barnard French elective courses will count, too.

Overview of the classes:

  • All French courses are seminars. Core ones are always taught in French, but for electives, it depends—especially if the course is cross-listed with another department, you might find yourself speaking English in class but having French-language readings and papers.
  • Core classes are frequently, but not always, taught by French graduate students, who are all wonderful people. The classes are not designed to break your back, and they won’t—you’ll do your little readings, talk about them, make a presentation, write a paper, nothing crazy. While you do have to be speaking French, these classes especially have a wide range of French speaking abilities, so don’t feel embarrassed! It’s likely your professor isn’t a native speaker, either. We all have to start somewhere.
  • I like to joke that there are two genders in the French department: pre-1800, literary French studies and postcolonial, historical Francophone studies. Of course, that’s not everything, but most of the department specializes in one or the other, so depending on who’s teaching each semester, the course listing will skew one way or the other. Spring 2022, we have a bit of both: your “Queer Medieval France” is next to “French Theory in a Global Context,” for example. 
  • There’s a range of French elective classes, both in terms of subject matter and how much work you’ll have to put in. I loved my “French through Paris” class, which let me write short stories instead of papers and had maybe fifteen pages of reading a class; I also loved my “Survey of 17th Century French Literature,” which had me reading upwards of 250 pages of, well, 17th-century French literature for each class. Grad/undergrad mixed classes require more reading, but are also some of the most engaging and exciting ones out there. No matter what, you’ll basically always be writing papers and doing presentations for a class. So it goes!
  • Nearly all French courses are three credits (barring the conversation ones)—even if they should be more (especially then). Why? “Because we work hard in the French department.”
  • I have earnestly and unabashedly loved every French professor I’ve had at Columbia. Graduate students, lecturers, tenured professors, everyone. But special recommendations: Madeleine Dobie and Thomas Dodman (as a pair); Eliza Zingesser; Alexandra Borer. At Barnard: Laurie Postlewate; Peter Connor. 

Department communications:

I know no one on earth who responds to emails as promptly as Eliza Zingesser, the current DUS. Once you declare, you’ll be on the department listserv, where you’ll get information about internships and upcoming courses. 

Applying for the major:

You just do your little thing in SSOL! But go talk to Eliza earlier, she’s wonderful and will give you a worksheet to chart out your progression in the major.

Last-minute tips:

  • If you’re taking a class in 507 Philosophy, the French department’s ancestral home, know that it will be hot as all hell.
  • The “conversation” classes don’t count for electives, but they’re great practice, and only two credits.
  • This is true of any department, but if you have any French-related questions—be they about the major, about your paper, about anything—reach out to your professor, the DUS, or someone else in the department. Again, I’ve loved every professor I’ve had, and they have always been willing to offer support, whether it’s scanning an entire play for me for a project when we were online, offering extensions, or reading an entire draft of my paper to assure me I can actually write.

Philosophy Hall, home of the French department, via Bwarchives