Thursday, August 17, 2006


Kongju means "princess"-- an apt descriptor for one of my advanced-level students. Unable to take a certain ethical poser-- the Mine Shaft Problem-- seriously, she gave her opinion in an offhand, couldn't-care-less manner. Smartass.

The Mine Shaft Problem* goes something like this:

You and a fellow miner are working deep inside a mine when the tunnel to the surface collapses. Using special equipment, you estimate that you have about eight hours of air. You call people on the surface to report the problem; they tell you that they're already digging for you, but it's going to take twelve hours to reach you. You and your coworker realize that there's enough air in the mine for only one person. Your coworker grabs some sleeping pills, tosses them back, says, "It's in God's hands now," and falls asleep. You have a gun. What do you do?

Most of my students pondered this question with varying degrees of seriousness. Some of them tried to find ways around the problem, suggesting creative but doomed solutions: "I'll use the gun to dig my way out by firing into the rock!" That one's a classic. A group of students last year said the same thing.

The logic of the problem makes it inevitable that either one or both miners will die. The power of life and death lies in the hands of the miner who didn't take the sleeping pills (i.e., you). It's too late for discussion: your interlocutor's asleep. Your choices seem to be:

1. Use the gun to kill your fellow miner, then get arrested for murder after you're rescued. You'll go to jail, but at least you'll live. (Variation: make it look like a suicide and pray the CSI team doesn't sniff you out.)

2. Use the gun to kill yourself. Your coworker lives.

3. Take sleeping pills, leaving things "in God's hands." According to the logic of this situation, you both will die. There simply isn't enough air.

4. Sit around indecisively until the air runs out. You both die.

One student said she would do her damnedest to dig her way out, even if the chamber ran out of air and she died in the process. For her, the point was to try. I was impressed with this answer in spite of myself. Another student confessed she wouldn't have the courage to kill herself, but might take the sleeping pills. I said that that was probably how I'd swing, too.

My princess rolled her eyes and said, "Well, it doesn't matter if I live or die, or if he lives or dies. This is just a game, and I don't want to think seriously about it. It gives me too much stress."

Got that? One of Korea's future leaders lays it out for us: I don't want to think seriously.

I'm pretty pissed off about this. The girl deserves a swift kick in the ass, but she didn't get one from me. I kept my temper and said in reply to her nonsense, "You don't want to think about ethics? We make ethical decisions every moment." We then moved on to Pictionary.

I have mixed feelings about this group of students. Some of them are obviously trying hard, but we've got far too many unmotivated duds. What boggles my mind is that they keep showing up. That's unusual; uninterested students tend to drop off. Two semesters ago, during the winter intensive, a colleague was teaching this same level and his class dwindled, over eight weeks, to two students (from about ten or twelve). I don't blame this teacher for the dropoff at all: he's excellent and has had very low attrition rates in other classes. Sometimes you inherit a bad group dynamic, and something doesn't click.

And that's what's strange about this advanced class. I haven't felt a single "click" this entire term, but the group keeps showing up. Attendance remains stable; we still average about six people per class; today we had seven. Why? I don't get it. Look at the negatives: there's a bit of tension among some of the girls, and they don't always appear particularly energetic. Many of them traipse in late, by which I mean not ten minutes late, but twenty-five minutes late. What, other than masochism, holds this disparate group together? While I'm tempted to guess that it's my undefinable mixed-blood charm, I know for a fact that that's not it: I've had classes dwindle down to almost nothing as well, which is proof I possess no magic aura.

In my experience here at Smoo, the higher-level students are generally pickier, choosier, and cattier-- harder to please than lower-level students. I'm tempted, at times, to correlate the students' linguistic sophistication with their emotional sophistication, as if my intro-level students were happy little Forrest Gumps capable of only simple, broad-stroke emotions. This is obviously untrue, and I know enough Korean to pick this out when the lower-level students start muttering their true thoughts in their own language.

At the same time, it's undeniable that the lower levels are, on the whole, easier to please. I suspect the real factor differentiating lower- and higher-level students is experience: students with a much higher level of English are more likely to have traveled around the anglophone world. Not only that, but they will have gone through more English courses, which makes them both more relaxed in the classroom and more demanding of subsequent teachers.

But even if experience gives rise to that special combination of pickiness and blasé attitude, it doesn't explain this group. Last summer, I had a group of twelve advanced students; the group dropped down to about eight or nine (and held steady there), but the level of focus never wavered. They were motivated, dynamic young adults, and not nearly as relaxed as this current group.

The upshot of all this is that I'm not satisfied with the way this group has approached the intensive course. The students are, overall, too unconcerned with their own progress for my taste. The fact that one of them possesses a princessy attitude doesn't ameliorate my assessment.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the other problem that provoked this mini-rant. In my advanced class today, a three-person team was supposed to put on their skit. As it turned out, one of the three skipped class, and the other two had prepared nothing. Only after some prodding did they give impromptu, 3-minute talks. Absolutely shabby, and yet another sign that they weren't taking the class seriously. They've known about the project since the beginning of the term. Guess how clement I was in grading them.

*I've stolen this ethical problem from The Book of Questions; I don't have the book with me in Seoul, so this is from memory and likely to contain huge discrepancies when compared with the original. I think, however, that I've preserved the logical and ethical essence of the original.


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