Friday, January 11, 2008

Ms. Stinky, sex talk, and a
look back at the first week

My smelly student, the 49-year-old Ms. Stinky, confessed that she felt awkward talking about sex in class. The topic arose as we were discussing "Three's Company," the series that is the basic template for our CBI course. Fans of 3C know that each episode is positively tumescent with sexual humor, including an issue that older Koreans find discomfiting: old people having sex. The character of Mrs. Roper, the strong-willed but sex-starved landlady, can be, as my friend and colleague Tom points out, a positive feminist role model. But her frankness is, for some of my students, hard to swallow. This is especially true for Ms. Stinky, who is having a hard time digesting "Three's Company" in general. When Ms. Stinky's group got to the question, "Who, at this point, is your favorite character?", Ms. Stinky ejaculated, "Nobody is!"

[NB: I should note that "talking about sex in class" doesn't mean that we discuss how best to flick and sweep the tongue, or what everyone's favorite thrusting rhythm is, or what positions produce the most explosive orgasms. No: in my class, what happens is this: I pause the DVD, mention that the dialogue we just heard included a sex joke, and then I explain the sex joke, which usually isn't all that nasty. We never get more personal or more detailed than that, because I'm sure the students would leave the class in droves, horrified at my salacity.]

Having older people in class can sometimes be problematic. On the one hand, the older folks often tend to be more dedicated to their studies than the young'ns. They're far less likely to skip class or to arrive unprepared. On the other hand, many of my older students are locked into a certain level of English proficiency; they have high hopes for improvement, which makes me cringe inwardly: making significant progress in a language when you're nearing or past the 50 mark is difficult work, and most of the older folks I've encountered simply aren't up to it. (For any of my older readers, I sincerely apologize if this observation sounds disrespectful, but I gotta call it as I see it.*) Some of my older students also exhibit a certain crotchetiness bespeaking a lack of openness to the new or unfamiliar, as was the case last semester with one ajumma student (like the current one, she was single), who was pleasant enough when speaking directly to me, but who had a habit of complaining to her classmates (within earshot of me) about the difference between the CBI course I was running and the typical conversation class, which places most of its emphasis on speaking.**

But despite Ms. Stinky's stinkiness, this first week of class went well. The CNN class was perky on Monday but a bit disappointing on Wednesday: one person arrived 20 minutes late; another was 40 minutes late. In such a case, I'm tempted to wonder why the student bothered coming to class at all. Despite these problems, I was nonetheless pleased with the general level of motivation. The 10:10AM CBI class has stabilized at four people, which one student proclaimed was exactly what she wanted (many students, quite understandably, hate learning English in large groups). This group also includes two returnees, which makes the hour that much more pleasant for me. The 11:20AM CBI class remains large (by our standards) at seven people, including Ms. Stinky; and my three-hour Intensive English class, which runs from 1:30PM to 4:30PM, has stabilized at five cheerful souls.

Skill levels vary, which is to be expected since the office decided to kill one level, reducing three levels to just two. This means that my classes, which were all originally Level 2, now include a sprinkling of 1s. I've been watching those 1s closely to see if they're thinking of giving up. If they are, I'm going to try to persuade them to keep on trying; if the "I+1" hypothesis*** is correct, then nothing beats a good, hard push when learning a language. My Intensive English class includes more than the usual share of gigglers this time around, which is good: it adds more levity to the ambience.

I'm hoping this will be a decent semester. At seven weeks, it promises to be short, but maybe that's not a bad thing. Soon, I'll have to notify the office of my intention to leave Smoo (they may already know; I haven't kept it a secret, but I also haven't made formal mention of my plans). One huge matter to discuss will be pension-- I've been paying into this program for three years and seven months (three contract cycles at Smoo plus seven months at EC, my old place of work) at a rate of about $100 per month. This payment is supposed to be matched by both the school and the government, which means I should have, in theory, 43 months' worth of pension coming to me, or $8600. Add to this the extra $1000 I'm to receive as the year-end bonus to my contract, and I'm looking at nearly $10,000 to kick my ass back to the States. All that money will have to go toward debt relief (I have no credit card debt, but I still have a mountain of scholastic debt that gnaws away at a rate of about $500 per month), a necessary thing if I'm to move forward with Kevin's Walk.

So that's the short- and long-range forecast for now, boys and girls. Let's hope the semester continues on an even keel. Let's further hope Ms. Stinky takes a shower and changes her clothes.

*In linguistics, Stephen Krashen's "affective filter hypothesis" partially accounts for this lack of progress by observing that one's emotional state plays a role in language learning: the more self-conscious, tense, and fearful one is while in class, the less likely one is to progress, and this holds true for any age group. One's emotional makeup is like a filter through which sense data pass, hence the term "affective filter."

Older folks, who may have grown set in their ways, therefore have trouble not so much because of dwindling intellectual flexibility as because of dwindling emotional (affective) flexibility: one acquires certain habits of emotional response to various situations, and those habits naturally come into play when one finds oneself thrust into the language classroom. I mention all this to point out that, whatever my experience in teaching older students might be, there are always exceptions. I don't want to be accused of bundling all near-50s and over-50s into a single, exceptionless category.

I should also note the obvious: older folks have lives to lead. They've got jobs, they often have families and other commitments; it's not easy to concentrate on language class when so many important things are competing for one's attention. This fact also contributes to an older student's lack of progress in a language.

**Older folks who've developed a habit of openness are far less problematic. I've had a few such students as well: they're cheerful, they're young at heart, they're unselfconscious and more than willing to let go and try something new. Such students are a pleasure to teach. There's no ego-driven tug of war.

***Krashen again. The idea is that a student of proficiency level "I" can benefit from being exposed to "I+1"-level input. The student is thereby forced to struggle both to understand and to produce the proper utterances. It's something of a sink-or-swim philosophy, but I think it has merit. My own experience in Korean class at Korea University bears this out: even though I ended up with a C in a class that was substantially over my head, my mother was shocked at how much my Korean had improved. My Korean still sucks, but the point is that I made significant progress in a short amount of time.



John B said...

I usually enjoyed having older folks in my classes because they are typically much more motivated to learn, and they've usually been studying at a steady rate for a long time. They may be less flexible, but they usually made consistent (although slow) progress, and they were always the most appreciative of my efforts as a teacher.

While the college kids often don't care if the teacher half-assed it, the older folks see the teacher as a professional, and appreciate it when you take your job seriously.

Kevin Kim said...


Good points.

I might add, in the spirit of your praise for older students, that their life experience also allows them to make more intelligent and perceptive contributions to conversation class than most of these college students can make.

I say "they" and "their" as if I were still some young 20-something myself, but the truth is that I'm 38 and therefore familiar with the deceleration of the learning process: despite the progress I made in 2002, I doubt my Korean will improve all that much, even with great effort. I've waited too long.


Anonymous said...

[Doing Homer Simpson voice]

"Mmmmmm.... explosive orgasms!"