Saturday, November 26, 2016

the best of times, the worst of times

I'm back from spending all day at the KMA offices in Yeouido, downtown Seoul, and I'm still not sure whether to describe today as one of the best or one of the worst KMA sessions I've ever had. I taught only one student, and that always sucks: when there's a single student, you have to put more effort into energizing the class. If there are twenty people in the room, a little humor can go a long way; you can coast a bit because the students feed off each other's energy. With one person in front of you, you must always bring your "A" game.

Normally, KMA cancels my classes if registration numbers are below three students. This happens about every other month. This time around, about a week before today's session, I got a text message saying that I'd be teaching a single student for reduced hourly pay. Cue the grumbling: spending eight hours doing the same thing I generally do, but for less pay, is always irksome. I nevertheless texted back that I'd be fine: some money is better than none, after all, despite the 15% cut.

My student arrived a full hour late, having come to Seoul from way out in Daejeon. I gave him a sour look, but he seemed too clueless to notice. I resigned myself to blasting through the day's curriculum by skipping plenty of sections, and I also noticed that my charge's level of English was much lower than that of the students I normally teach at KMA (high-intermediate to advanced). So the class started on a somewhat sour note, given that I had spent an hour essentially picking my nose over and over before my student arrived.

The course is called Persuading With Evidence, and it's basically an online-research seminar that teaches students how to wean themselves away from Naver (Koreans' preferred search engine) and get into Google. As much as possible, I've designed the course not to be a mere ad for Google; I've woven the research-skills component together with a cognitive component based on Bloom's Taxonomy, a cognitive map that offers a simplified hierarchy of cognition. I've found the taxonomy to be extremely useful as a teacher, and it's still in use today despite having been developed by Benjamin Bloom and his team back in, oh, the 1950s or so. For me, the point is to get students to do more than fact-find with Google: they should be processing the data they unearth, applying it to new situations, analyzing it deeply, and establishing creative connections between and among seemingly unrelated pieces of information.

Luckily, my student had some research needs: he's a doctoral student in the field of forestry science (yes, the phrase does seem to exist), and he's also getting married sometime soon.* This meant that we could spend time going over the ins and outs of academic research in English as well as doing some actual research on where a newlywed couple might want to enjoy a blissful honeymoon.

I liked the fact that my student—we'll call him Josh—seemed so willing to learn. I did not, however, like the fact that we were both speaking so much Korean. This was supposed to be an English class, after all, so speaking in Korean kind of defeated the purpose of coming to KMA. I did try several times to force us back onto the anglophone track, but with only middling success. This was not my proudest moment.

Josh claimed he had been an English teacher, but given how poor his English was, I had to take that claim with a big grain of salt. He also needed help understanding how Western grad students approach research, so we spent a lot of time talking about how grad students often have to wrestle with a text before they can be said to have mastered it. I talked about my own experience reading dense philosophical treatises,** and about the necessity of going word-by-word, if necessary, to make sure I had fully understood a point. To make Josh comfortable, I told him that, to understand long, densely written sentences, he could fall back on that old Korean standby: grammatical analysis. Figure out the parts of a sentence and how they interrelate, and you can figure out the sentence's meaning that much more easily.

We ended up having fun as we researched possible honeymoon destinations. Josh seemed to get more and more fluent with Google as the hours marched on. He said he'd obviously have to discuss all this with his fiancée, but he had narrowed his honeymoon spots down to Switzerland, Hawaii, and the Maldives. I gently promoted Switzerland, mainly because I spent nearly a whole calendar year there, and also because I've never been to the Maldives, and my memories of Hawaii date back to my pre-teen years. We concentrated a lot of our research on major Swiss cities, although I did put in a mention for two smaller cities: Fribourg, where I had lived with a Swiss host family for a year; and Interlaken, which is small but immensely popular as tourist destinations go. (Read my long post on Switzerland here.)

Josh thinks that, if he and his soon-to-be wife do their honeymoon in Switzerland, they'll be there next April. I told Josh I envied him because, in early-to-mid spring, the immense ice-melt runoff from the mountaintops beefs up Switzerland's many waterfalls to hypertrophic proportions, making them all as earth-poundingly thunderous as agitated gods. (Switzerland is the source for many of Europe's major rivers, largely thanks to its mountains, which include the Alps and the Berner Oberland. Although the country is landlocked in the middle of Europe, it knows water. Oh, yes.)

By the end of the day, Josh was raving about how great the class had been, and he even became the first KMA student ever to ask me for my phone number—something no other student has ever had the cojones to do.*** He and I are now Kakao Talk buddies, and even though he lives in Daejeon, he wants to invite me out for a hike sometime, somewhere. Will anything actually come of this? I have no clue. I've experienced Korean "friendships" that began with good intentions, but which then fizzled, so it wouldn't surprise me if nothing came of this (partly because of my own introversion as well, to be honest).

As for me, I ended the day with mixed feelings. Josh turned out to be an eager learner, but his poor English skills, his late arrival, and his over-reliance on Korean (partly abetted by my willingness to speak Korean with him) were not points in his favor. I dread the moment he fills out my teacher evaluation and notes "teacher was great because he spoke Korean so well!" That's going to piss off my KMA boss.

So I ended the class unsure of whether this had been one of my best KMA days, or one of my worst. And that's how life is sometimes: you just can't make heads or tails of it.

*He showed me pictures of his wife, whose numerous photos must take up about 80% of his phone's memory. And let me say: she's way, way too incredibly good-looking for him.

**I didn't say whose treatises I was talking about, but had I mentioned them, I might have cited people like Jaegwon Kim (philosophy of mind) and Bernard Lonergan (transcendental method as applied to theology), or even old-school thinkers like Aquinas, Kant, Hume, Plato-in-translation, and of course, all those goddamn postmodernists.

***A few students have asked for my email address, but since Koreans aren't in the habit of using email, this was more of a symbolic gesture than anything else. That fact has been borne out over time, as not one of the students who requested my email address has ever written me.

No comments: