Saturday, October 06, 2007

the unusual request

On Friday morning, one of my students hung back after the 7:40AM class was over to ask me whether she could stand up during class from now on. "Why?" I wanted to know. She explained that she was working a full-time job and was a grad student, and that she rarely got more than four or five hours of sleep per night, which meant she was tired all the time. Then she said something that made me a bit suspicious: "My high school teacher used to let me do this."

The remark seemed calculated to push me to do her bidding, which made me bristle. It was also, I realized, interesting in its illogicality: she obviously wasn't in grad school or working full-time back when she was a high school student, which indicates that her problems with sleep deprivation (if that's really the trouble here) weren't related to work and study, but to a set of bad habits.

So I slapped my large belly and told her that I didn't have the right to say this, but that for her own health, she should think about improving her habits, budgeting her time better, and getting some more sleep. I hedged a bit, though, and added that I would consider her request; after all, it probably wouldn't detract from anyone else's ability to participate in the class, and in a conformist society, it was doubtful that the other students would suddenly all feel the need to stand during the lesson.

At this point, however, I'm leaning toward No, which is probably what I'll say on Monday. Maybe I'm being a dick, but I didn't like my student's tactics (eerily reminiscent of how children play one parent off the other) and felt that her request contained more than a whiff of bullshit.

Then I began to wonder how such an exchange would have gone in an American university. Most of us Yanks are normal Joes, but we're more likely to labor under some sense of entitlement, easily visible when things don't go our way, causing us to bitch and moan to anyone who will listen. Koreans can be obnoxious, too, but this is usually while they're in the process of achieving some goal (e.g., shoving people aside to gain a seat on the subway), not after they've been thwarted from it.

I recall one instance where my favorite prof at Catholic University pulled me aside and said he wanted to ask me about something (I was in the CUA Master's program in religious studies at the time). Curious, I followed my prof to his office, where we sat down. He then explained that an undergrad student had received a poor grade from him on a paper, and that the student had come to him to ask for a change in grade. As the two discussed their respective reasons for why the grade should or shouldn't be changed, my prof noticed that the student was becoming visibly and audibly agitated-- breathing harder, flushing, the works. By the end of the exchange, it was obvious that the grade wasn't going to be altered, and the student stalked off, incensed.

My prof shook his head and asked, "Was I too harsh?" I said that it sounded as though this kid had anger management problems, which may be true, but to be honest I really didn't know. I was raised to be fairly fatalistic about grades; I felt that I got whatever I deserved, and I can't recall ever arguing with a teacher-- much less a college professor-- about the perceived injustice of a grade I had received. Some people, however, are natural-born grubbers: they'll kick and scream and make noise even if all their effort results in the tiniest of gains, the smallest of victories. I saw this often both as a student and as a high school teacher in America, where cries of "That's so unfair!" would ring out several times daily. I also remember being challenged multiple times on grades I had given. That sense of entitlement again.

Letting my student stand during the lesson is unsettling for some reason. I can't quite put my finger on why. I'm not a drill sergeant; I'm not really a martinet (my students all think I'm a softie); I'm not fundamentally opposed to having one student stand for the sake of staying awake, but... something about our conversation rubbed me the wrong way. I'd like to say there are Larger Issues at work here, for example, What will this girl do when she's in the workaday world and tries to wheedle favors from her boss? Shouldn't I be breaking her of this habit? But in thinking this way, I can't help seeing myself as one of those fatuous, petty, frustrated villains in a "Woody Woodpecker" cartoon-- the kind where the forces of calm and order are the enemy while the chaotic and mischievous Woody is the show's hero.

Meditate on this, I will.



Anonymous said...

Now that many families are having only one or two kids, a lot of stress is being thrust upon these kids who never asked to be born into a world of never ending studying and being looked upon as the "future" of their family's fortunes. Also, the amount that kids today must learn is growing by leaps and bounds as technology continues to explode and besides learning various computer languages, kids must also learn languages that will help them get into college and the business world (English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, etc.)

Currently, there are an estimated 7000 languages with one dying out every 2 weeks.

Latin is almost gone. I wonder how long before the likes of French, Italian, and German fade away and the dominant language becomes a mixture of Chinese, Spanish, English, and Arabic. Too bad Esperanto never took off. Here's a listing of the top languages:

In regards to your upright student, maybe you should tell her that this is college and no longer high school, and in the working world, she will need to conform to the needs of the corporation over the needs of the one. Or, you can take the high road and let her stand. What can it hurt? Life actually is too short to spend time dwelling on most of the nonsense that tries to get under the skin of our daily lives.

When kids and parents try their moronic mind games on me, I just think of the lyrics to an old Christmas stop-motion cartoon. "Put one foot in front of the other, and soon you'll be walking out the door," and away from these bullying idiots and their crappy tactics.

Anonymous said...

It's standard practice in military classes for tired students to stand. As a HS student she could have been doing the standard study till midnight thing. It was wrong of her to attempt to pressure you, but standing does help one stay awake and learn rather than drift off mentally or otherwise.

Kevin Kim said...

John & Richardson,

Thanks for the comments.

One thing that worried me about my student's question was that my class isn't straight lecture: there's a lot of pair work and group work happening. True: there's a good bit of "passive" work, too, as the students watch the video and read the script, but still-- they aren't passive the entire hour by any means.

This particular student, however, is rather quiet, and that could be contributing to the problem. She's not exactly a scintillating personality, and sometimes the quiet folks can bore themselves into a stupor. Such people are quiet even when engaged in small-group tasks.

Maybe I should make her do pushups in front of the whole class. That might get her going.


Anonymous said...

When I was an undergrad I have seen classmates request to stand during class. One of them I was acquainted with, and he was in the Navy, so it might have stemmed from the military.

Regardless, it never interfered with the course (although I suppose it might be a little unnerving to the teacher).

One of my hagwon students was a high school girl. One day she told me that her teacher had reprimanded her for sleeping too much, and not studying enough. She slept four-five hours a night. Her teacher told her that if she expected to succeed in school she needed to sleep less and study more, and many of her classmates were getting less sleep than her (as if that were a good thing).

There are so many things wrong with that, but that is a very common attitude here in Korea. It's poor study habits, you are right, but it is "common sense" here. Your suggestion that she should just sleep more probably struck the student as completely illogical and possibly insulting.

Also, the student apparently WANTS to be more diligent in your class. Take it as a compliment, man! Also, communicating in a second language like that comes out wrong sometimes. You felt pressured, but that might not have been her intention. Sometimes things just don't come out properly.

In short, it is your decision as a teacher, and if you judge it is not appropriate for your class I wouldn't second-guess it. But it probably seemed like a normal request to the student, and I wouldn't rush to infer about her character.

Anonymous said...

All kidding aside, have you considered that she could also have mental problems and really need some help which is almost impossible to come by here in South Korea. I have several students in my hagwon who have problems. Yet, there is no one I can go to and discuss the problems that these poor, troubled kids are going through. The owners know of them and try to look the other way, but the parents don't want to hear that their kids are sick or troubled. They would rather blame it on all the previous teachers' poor teaching practices than something that would bring shame on their family in the eyes of others.

In the United States, I was scared to bring this to the attention of the administration because of overkill. Medicate and ask questions later in many of the public schools there. However, here in South Korea no one in power is standing up to help; they are just removing access to any website with the word that deals with the act of intentionally terminating one's own life.

I wish I had some answers, but at least I have got a couple of kids' parents to pull them out of the endless cycle of hagwons for their kids' well-being. The owners weren't too happy at first, but those classes have really gotten better in regards to both learning and discipline.

A lot of the problems relate to an education system that is broken and needs remodeling for the 21st century. It's no longer the 1950's and not all kids are college material. We need trade schools as soon as high school to help those who aren't study machines or who have trouble with structured learning.

Her problems could also be personal in nature, as we have all gone through at one point or another. Relationships, family, money, and the like, or, maybe, she is just having the great collegiate party-time that many have or, conversely, having a hard time adjusting to college life. I'm no psychiatrist, so good luck.

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks for the further comments. I'm pretty sure she doesn't have any mental problems. I've had a couple wacko students (blogged about them, too), and she doesn't fit the profile.


KimcheeGI said...

Here at Army Sleep Deprivation HQ, we make Soldiers stand up if they are falling asleep in class. We also have a variety of physical activities to ensure they are reminded that the pleasure of a "power nap" will be greatly outweighed by the pain of physical reinforcement training....

The KimcheeDS

daeguowl said...

Maybe she's got piles...

Anyhow, if the problem really is sleep-related I think you should grant the request, because I think that it is more likely that she would turn to something chemical to stay awake rather than get the extra sleep she needs...

Anonymous said...

1. Consider this your first female response.

2. I'm also a former military service member.

3. I was well known for falling asleep standing up.

I'd say her story would hold water if whilst quietly standing she nodded off.

And I agree with daeguowl. Is it worth the risk that she either pop something to chemically stimulate herself? And to that I also add, is it worth the risk of her dropping your class, by you not granting the request?

If she's not interfering with the goings-on in the class and stands out of eyeshot, off to the side or in the back of everyone, is it that big of a hardship?

And if the speculation that she's partying IS the cause for her fatigue, standing for an entire class is not what I'd call "fun." Eventually she'll get fatigued from standing (depending on how long your classes are).

Just my two cents... whatever that converts to in Korean currency, I hope it helps.

Unknown said...

I agree with Richardson & Charlie; While I was in the military, it was quite common for instructors to tell the class that if anyone was in danger of nodding off, they could go to the back of the classroom and stand up. As long as she doesn't start tap dancing or doing jumping jacks, I say let her stand.