Friday, December 31, 1999

lack of autonomy

[Originally published around August 25, 2014.]

At my previous uni job, people who were senior to me liked to talk on occasion about the amount of "autonomy" we had as teachers. Over the course of a year, I was, frankly, hard pressed to find that autonomy. I tried to design an improved version of the department-sanctioned midterm and was told no. I wanted to add quizzes to the list of graded activities; I was given a grudging yes and was allowed to assign a value of only 2.5% to the average of three quizzes. (In other words, a student could fail all three quizzes and would lose only, at most, 2.5 percentage points off his or her final grade.) I had two Chinese students who deserved to fail for their poor performance; I was not allowed to fail them (in fact, I was asked to give them "C"s, which I found preposterous). The textbooks were assigned to us; we were even told which chapters in the textbook had to be taught. This wasn't autonomy at all.

Dongguk University appears to be a very similar animal. I just discovered, thanks to a text-message conversation with our department's lead office assistant, that there's no need for me to write up a course syllabus: one has been written for me. Let that sink in for a moment, boys and girls: I don't have the freedom to plan out my own classes. This is completely new to me, and not even my previous job, despite its constrictive atmosphere, went so far as to dictate, day by day, what I should be teaching. I imagine I'll adapt, but I'm still getting over my shock.

We have a new-faculty orientation coming up on Friday, August 29, followed by a general-faculty workshop that same day, fifty minutes of which will be devoted to sitting in groups and designing evaluation formats for the midterm and final exams of the classes we are to teach. This also strikes me as strange. At my previous job, the formats of the midterm and final were sanctioned by the department (as I said: no autonomy there), which I suppose made a certain amount of sense because it held all of our students to similar standards. This time around, though, it seems that, if we're divided into seven groups of about six each, we're going to come up with seven exam templates, implying there will be no across-the-board departmental standard, but that there will be a sort of parochial standard that will apply not to all forty-one faculty members but to only six of us.

This is a strange no-man's-land to find myself in. I normally think in extremes: there are either across-the-board standards or absolutely no standards. Personally, I'm on the fence about having standards at all; part of me thinks they're a good idea, especially if your language curriculum involves any sort of leveling: you need to have some way to determine how students move from level to level, and the hurdles placed in the students' paths need to be consistent in nature. Another part of me thinks standards can be stultifying, and they encourage teachers to "teach toward the test" instead of engaging the students more creatively. But a "standard for six" is downright strange. Why not a "standard for forty-one" or no standards at all? Perhaps the people leading this bizarre workshop activity think we'll all converge on roughly the same sorts of exam formats, which is entirely possible. The best way to kill diversity and breed mediocrity, after all, is to do things by committee. Everything gets watered down into a banal, depressing sameness after everyone's opinions have been considered. My plan, during the workshop, is just to shrug and go with the flow. Basically: fuck it. Once I'm in my actual classrooms, actually teaching, I'll do what I can to individualize my instruction, despite the suffocating lack of breathing room. And who knows? Perhaps I'm wrong about how all of this is supposed to go down. Perhaps I've misunderstood the policies and goals. I'm open to being wrong; in fact, I'm dearly hoping that I am wrong.

Dongguk's rather thick manual of policies and procedures also seems obsessively focused on performance evaluations: there are two student evals per semester (which I've come to expect at every university), but there's also an evaluation done by the head profs and the bosses. This latter evaluation involves a tallying-up of one's sins over a four-month period: was the prof late to class? Did the prof fail to attend faculty events? Is the prof working outside of the university? Etc., etc. I can't stand going to faculty events unless they're explicitly about professional development, i.e., learning new techniques that aid my teaching. Parties, gatherings, dinners, and other supposedly "fun" activities are just not my cup of tea, but it now seems that, if I'm to receive a high performance evaluation from Dongguk, I have to attend these events. So for at least a year, I'm going to be spending time holding back my vomit. Of course, it may be that my fellow faculty members truly are as cool as the office assistant insists they are, but being forced into a situation where I have to meet and greet them is not how I'd prefer to get to know people: I prefer to get to know people more, you know, naturally. On my own.

Some of this can't be helped. This is Korea, after all, and the stilted, self-conscious, over-earnest Korean manner of socializing involves the creation of artificial social situations—contrived opportunities to meet and generate faux conviviality. For Koreans, this works well because the culture is already group-oriented. For individualist Westerners, it's just a pain in the ass. At such get-togethers and events, I always find myself thinking that I could be off doing something more enjoyable instead of enduring this bullshit.

But again, we'll see. I'm just getting my moaning and groaning out of the way now; it may very well be that my time at Dongguk will be fantabulously enjoyable. But my inner realist is shaking his head no. That manual of policies and procedures is a bad omen.


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