Monday, August 19, 2013

discoveries while on walkabout

So I did two major errands today. They went like this:

I.    Shopping Errand

II.    Campus Walkabout
      A.  Admin Office
      B.  Staff Office
      C.  Faculty Office
      D.  Classroom Tour
      E.  A Conversation at Home

The shopping errand was simple and straightforward enough. Every day for the past few days, I've made a list and have gone out shopping for whatever items seem immediately necessary. Quite often I'll have forgotten something, so that something will end up on the next day's shopping list. Slowly but surely, though, I've been purchasing all the necessaries for clean, civilized living. I finally bought the proper cleaning material with which to tackle my dusty floor: I discovered that Korea has, thankfully, the equivalent of Swiffer products, so I used those yesterday to get rid of most of my floor's dust and grit. Today's trip to the local shop was mostly about buying some bathroom-related supplies; I then thought of a few more items to buy while walking home in the midafternoon heat.

Once I got home, panting and sweaty, I peeled off my already-soaked clothing and waited a good hour before donning my raiment again for my second quest: the sequel to my first campus walkabout (photos pending—promise). Today, my goal was to meet "Shirley," the admin contact who has been writing us new profs a slew of emails to help us get oriented. Her office, she had told me, was located in Room 306 of the Admin Building, a building I had passed on my first campus walkabout.

The walk to all the important buildings on campus is entirely uphill. It's not a steep grade, but it's steep enough to ensure that I'll be a sweaty mess by the end. I walked to Building A1, the Admin Building (every building on campus has both a name and a number), wearing my large, billowing black shirt,* loose jeans, and the dark-blue bandanna that I wore across 600 miles of the Pacific Northwest. Again panting and sweaty, I entered the building's lobby, hoping for some air conditioning because I'd seen A/C units churning away outside. Alas, it was not to be: the lobby's doors were braced open, and the windows all around the lobby were letting the heat and humidity in. The security guard at the front entrance saw my large self come in, looking for all the world like a hulking, perspiring biker; he solemnly pointed me to Room 306. No elevator in this building. More sweat. I trudged upward.

Once I got to the third floor, I hesitated. I didn't want to go in immediately because I felt I needed a cool-down period. At the same time, the third floor had no lounge area, no chairs or benches on which I could sit and rest (plenty of benches outside, scattered all over the manicured campus grounds), so I began to think I should just barge into 306 as I was, sweat and all. After mentally vacillating and physically pacing up and down a hallway for a few minutes, I decided to go for broke, and entered 306.

Room 306 was a typical Korean-style admin office, divided into cubicles with very low walls affording only the barest minimum of privacy. My eyes alighted on the cutest girl in the office, and I inwardly wondered whether this was Shirley.

"I'm looking for Shirley," I said in Korean to no one in particular. Some staffers, who had been peering timidly at my hulking, bandanna'ed form, pointed to the side of the office opposite the cute girl, to a woman who was, at that moment, on the phone.

Shirley, once she hung up the phone and faced me, turned out to be rather cute herself. I had come armed with several questions for her, but she preempted me by asking whether I wanted to sign my contract now. I said that would be fine, so she brought out two copies of my contract—one for me to keep, and one for the university to keep. After I had signed four times, twice per copy (each copy had both a Korean and an English version, so each version required a signature), Shirley told me I would receive my copy of the contract after it had been signed by our department's director, so I shouldn't expect to receive it until Tuesday next week.

I then unfurled my wrinkled sheet of paper and fired off my questions. Shirley couldn't answer the questions I posed her regarding textbooks and class schedules; she told me to wait until this Wednesday's orientation to ask those. She did, however—with the help of the other cute staffer—try to answer my questions regarding where to shop for bedding essentials and electronic items. The three of us used my laptop to navigate the town of Hayang visually through Naver, one of Korea's omnibus "portal" websites. Naver has its own version of Google Street Maps, and it was with this visual aid that both ladies guided me, vaguely, toward the stores I needed to hit.

After a while, I ran out of questions to ask, packed up my laptop, thanked all the staffers for their help, and left the Admin Building. As I stepped out, I met a Western guy—we'll call him Phil—who greeted me as if he knew me; he didn't, but he had thought I used to work at Wooseong University, where he used to work. (I had once interviewed at Wooseong, and had been accepted for work there, but I buggered out when I learned about Wooseong's awful schedule and soul-grinding duties, such as teaching classes of little kids and working split shifts.) Phil was a wealth of information about the next building I was going to visit: St. Thomas Aquinas Hall, a.k.a. Building A2, where the professors' offices are located. I learned I was in Room 409; Phil astutely advised me as to which staircase led most directly to my office. Phil had to see Shirley as well, so he and I parted ways.

Like Building A1, Building A2 had no elevator. Koreans apparently don't believe in handicap access (or in easy access for us fat people). I recall, during my April-May sojourn in Seoul, that many of the campus buildings I'd visited had no elevator, either. I got to the lobby of St. Thomas Aquinas Hall and bought myself two small cans of soft drinks: a Pepsi and a Mountain Dew for W600 each. The price of the soft drinks reminded me that the cost of living in Hayang wasn't cheap: these were Seoul prices.

I trudged upstairs to the fourth floor; luckily, the ground floor turned out to be the second floor (hooray for buildings built on hills!), so I went up only two stories. The first room I saw, as I arrived at the fourth floor, was some sort of staff room. Frank (my driver) was there, as were several other staffers, including a plump, talkative lady who was the first to greet me in simple English as soon as she saw my looming form. This wasn't Room 409, but I was glad to have stopped there: the talkative lady, whom I'll call Frieda, proved very helpful. She gave me the rest of the textbooks I needed, the key I would need for Room 409, and a personalized schedule that showed every classroom I would be teaching in. Very helpful, indeed, that Frieda.

Another Western guy popped out of a side room while I was chatting with the Korean staffers. This was D, and like Phil, he turned out to be another of my office mates. D has been at CUD for three years, and he would be the main presenter at our orientation this coming Wednesday; he was, in fact, in the midst of prepping for that meeting. We shook hands briefly, then D stepped out.

Frieda led me to 409, where I again met D and also met Jerome (not his real name), my "team leader." Jerome looked to be in either his late forties or his early fifties; he had the laid-back air of an expat lifer about him. While D bustled about and pitched in occasionally to my and Jerome's conversation, Jerome gave me a worldly spiel as I asked him some of the questions that Shirley had been unable to answer.

I learned a few interesting facts. First, each of my two-hour classes would indeed meet with me only once per week—I hadn't hallucinated that. I would not be team-teaching, i.e., sharing the same group of students with another teacher. Each class was exclusively mine. Jerome said that I had a great deal of autonomy in the classroom. He also said that expectations for professional behavior were pretty basic: come to class every day, come on time, don't arrive drunk. He mentioned some horror story about a prof who went to the hospital after drinking too much, which incurred the wrath of our department head.

Jerome and I talked syllabi. For him, a syllabus is little more than a general outline of expectations; he doesn't believe in making a day-by-day plan because he wants the ability to alter it on the fly. I differ from him there; my own approach to a curriculum is much more rigorous, and I could tell, as Jerome was talking, that he and I stand at opposite poles on the pedagogical spectrum. Jerome mentioned that he prefers to get through the textbook material quickly during a two-hour session in order to devote the rest of the class to "talking." If he was referring to free talk, and he might not have been, I consider that the kiss of death in language learning. Free talk strikes me as something that lazy teachers do: they reduce their own role to that of a distant facilitator, and at the end of an hour of desultory conversation, students are left with nothing specific that they've learned. My own approach is task-oriented and student-centered: by the end of any given session, students will be able to say back to me what it was they learned that day. With free talk, the only thing being practiced—if it's being practiced at all—is a nebulous notion called fluency. About the only decent definition of "fluency" that I've seen stipulates that fluent speech is a matter of high speed and low error rate. That's about it. I'd rather that my students worked on specific skills—articles, tense control, "if" conditional grammar, frequently used idiomatic expressions, proper pronoun usage, and so on. Call me old-school, but it seems to me that, if the basic skills aren't there, students can strive for "fluency" all they want, but instead of developing greater fluency, they'll develop bad speech habits that won't get corrected (because in the sacred name of "oral proficiency," you can't constantly interrupt the student's flow) and that will, in time, harden into unbreakable patterns that they'll carry with them for life.

Jerome also mentioned something that shocked me: even though the students are scheduled for two-hour sessions, it's fine to let them go after only 90 minutes. "They'll hate you if you go the whole hour and fifty," he said. Well, sir: we'll see about that. I have absolutely no intention of letting my students out early just because they might moan and groan. If they come for English lessons only two hours per week, then they're already working against a deficit in terms of time on task. Why increase that deficit by allowing them to leave early? Two hours a week is already too little time to learn a language.

So while I appreciate Jerome's frankness, I side with the late Jaime Escalante who, if the movie "Stand and Deliver" has any truth to it, used to say that "The students will rise to the limits of your expectations." I firmly believe that. If you're a slacker of a teacher, the students will expect to slack off as well. But if you believe in per ardua ad astra (through effort to the stars), your students will, too, although they may whine along the way. Me, I don't consider myself a crusader; I'm not out to shake this department up or play the idealist. I'm just going to do my thing and strive for excellence, and let the chips fall where they may.

Anyway, my talk with Jerome was very enlightening, despite the fact that he and I inhabit completely different pedagogical worlds. I'm glad we had that talk; it gave me a clear idea of what to expect when I begin teaching next Monday.

Eventually, I left D and Jerome and Phil (who wandered in while we were talking), and headed back home. But before I left the campus, I swung by Building B1, where my two Wednesday classes would meet. Jerome had mentioned that everyone loved teaching in B1, a.k.a. Thaddeus Cho Hall, because it was one of the newest buildings on campus and was truly teched up, filled with nifty multimedia doodads for teachers to use as teaching aids. I wanted to see the sort of space I'd be teaching in, and I eventually found Room 210. The door to the classroom was locked, but the windows were open; I could see a modern-looking lecture hall. As was true with the classrooms I'd seen in A2, the room was filled with two-seater tables arranged in very strict, German Protestant-looking ranks and files—not conducive to good language learning at all. Of course, I've functioned in such environments before, so I knew I'd be able to make something of the seating arrangement. To my delight, every classroom's front, not just Room 210 of Building B1, had a raised dais. Natural performer that I am, I find stages irresistible. My feeling, upon leaving Building B1, was that I would enjoy teaching my upcoming classes.

I walked home (so strange to apply the word "home" to these new digs), and right at my building's entrance I met a Canuck-Korean couple: Mark (again, not his real name) and Hyeon-mi (ditto). They were also housed in my building, or at least Mark was; because he was in a tiny one-room studio as I was, his girlfriend had to look elsewhere for housing. Mark and HM turned out to be quite amiable; HM came from a city close to Seoul (can't remember which one), while Mark, another colleague and office mate in Room 409, hailed from Vancouver. We talked for the better part of an hour, and I think I may have made a new pair of friends. Our conversation was productive, too: Mark told me about purchasing items (including cars!) online; I told him about how to establish a bank account. It was a good exchange of information. Expats unite!

After that, I could stand the heat and humidity no longer, so I said my goodbyes to the couple and went inside, my head full of things to ponder.

*Yes, yes, I know: wearing dark colors is probably a mistake in hot, sunny weather. Spare me the lecture and just buy me a damn white shirt.



Charles said...

I would also be wary of letting students go after only 90 minutes, but they will most likely have classes after yours--if so, you'll probably want to let them out five or ten minutes early, both so that they can get to their next class on time and the students (and possibly professor) who have class in your room after you don't have to stand outside. Nothing annoys me more than arriving at my classroom at the appointed time only to find my students waiting outside--and then we all wait as the instructor monopolizing the room cuts into our time.

Argh. Sorry, kind of a pet peeve of mine. As far as I'm concerned, ending class on time is as much a virtue as starting class on time.

Kevin Kim said...


I think the problem you're talking about happens only when a prof loses track of the clock and goes overtime. I'm not usually the type to wear out my welcome that way. Letting students out early makes me wince, partly because I feel the students aren't getting their money's worth if I stop short.

John McCrarey said...

So, Mark (NHRN) is also teaching at CUD?

Kevin Kim said...


Ayup. He's yet another office mate.

Kevin Kim said...


I've added a bit of text to make that fact clearer. Thanks.

hahnak said...

how do you come up with all the names? merely curious. do you often know people with the names you give out? (for example, do you know any other friedas, any other marks or franks?)

Kevin Kim said...


For the most part, renaming is a random process for me, at least at the conscious level. For all I know, there may be some sort of subconscious "method" guiding my choice of names. I do know that, in Jerome's case, I renamed him "Jerome" because his real name also happens to be the name of a Catholic saint. Aside from that, however, I can't explain how I came up with names like "Frieda" and "Mark." Maybe "Frieda" sounded like the name of a large, frumpy woman...?

John McCrarey said...

Ha, I had a German Shepard once named Frieda...

Charles said...


Some profs seem to let students out early. Some seem to let them out late. I guess I have more of a problem with the late ones because it affects me, whereas other profs letting their students out early doesn't influence me at all. A bit selfish, perhaps, but there you have it.

Kevin Kim said...


I completely agree that a prof who loses track of time and ends his class late is being selfish and inconsiderate. I'd be annoyed by such a prof, too. But if, for example, my class is scheduled to end at 10:05AM and the next class begins at 10:15 AM, I see no problem teaching to 10:05. Surely the other prof can bring in his/her class and set up within 5 or 10 minutes. If s/he can't, s/he should communicate with the prof from the previous class. That might involve doing some legwork, i.e., consulting the registrar to find out which prof is teaching the previous class, but if the legwork leads to clear communication, it'll be worth it. Profs who can't be bothered to do the legwork are just damn lazy. (And not very collegial!)