Thursday, May 15, 2014

cluelessness update

I met my "F" student today. He's a bit of a mess, but the situation isn't entirely his fault. It's obvious to me that the boy belongs in the beginner level. As he explained it, he wanted to register for a beginner-level class (his entrance-exam results also indicated that he was a beginner), but there wasn't any room: the classes at Catholic had filled up, so he had no choice but to be shunted into intermediate level. He's been drowning ever since, which is why today's tutoring session was, unfortunately, about 70% in Korean.

We worked on basic grammar: how to put together a coherent sentence—subject, verb, object. I took him, step by step, through the wreckage of his "F" midterm; we listened to the interview sound file (my intermediate-level midterm was in the department-mandated, one-on-one interview format); the recording sounded a lot like me browbeating and interrogating the student while he offered little more than 40-second-long pauses and halting, incoherent utterances after hearing even the simplest of questions.

After an hour of intensive work, we stopped. I asked my student whether he'd learned anything during that time; he claimed that he had, but the proof is in the pudding. He's very weak in terms of listening-comprehension skills, and when I texted him before our meeting, it became obvious that his reading-comp skills were sorely lacking, too. Even more interesting was that his Korean skills were also subpar: we had begun our text-message exchange in English, but when it became obvious that the kid didn't understand what I was writing to him, I switched to Korean, and my interlocutor's replies were laced with rookie-level spelling errors—enough to make me question his mastery of his native tongue.

Comedian Steven Wright once joked about the French girl who was a bilingual illiterate: she couldn't read in two different languages. I honestly had to wonder whether I was seeing a living example of that joke. In any case, I give the kid credit for being concerned enough about his grade that he got off his ass and arranged for tutoring. I agree that, after an hour of tutoring, he was showing some small glimmers and motes of improvement. We've decided to meet again sometime next week. I can't guarantee that he'll be up to speed when it comes time to take the final exam, but I'm pretty sure that, in working with him, I can get him to a point where he won't be failing my class. As long as he remains willing to work and to learn, he'll progress. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.



BK said...

How does grading work at the university level? Do you have to grade on a curve?

Kevin Kim said...

Yes, unfortunately-- we grade on a curve. My disagreement with curving is well known in the department, and I'm not shy about expressing my distaste for it to my students.

For what it's worth, the curve gets looser and more liberal the more advanced the class is.

Charles said...

Wait... the classes filled up so they just shoved the kid into a higher-level class that he will never be able to handle? That's... awesome.

King Baeksu said...

When I was a university student I never once expected my professors to hold my hand or take out time from their personal lives just because I lacked the motivation to apply myself to the task of actually studying and trying to learn something.

You are a selfless martyr to go so far to help this slacker out, in my opinion, but at a certain point he's going to have to learn that he'll never be successful in life without embracing the essential value of personal responsibility. Surely this should be well understood by the time one reaches university, no?

In other words, perhaps a well-deserved "Ae-peu" might actually be the most valuable lesson you could teach him?

Kevin Kim said...


I'm thankful for whatever evidence of personal responsibility I see. The kid's choice to get tutoring was a prime example. It's a bit like how addicts must first recognize they have a problem before they seek help: without that mental "click," nothing will follow. For this kid, something clicked, so good for him.

Depressingly, I have four "F" students in the class in question. Thus far, this kid has been the only one with the gumption to seek help. The other kids seem to have slunk away, unwilling to do anything to change their destinies.

A further wrinkle in the "an 'F' will teach them a life-lesson" saga is that I might not be able to give "F"s to some of these kids. I can't go into detail here (this blog is being read by, uh, certain of my colleagues), but suffice it to say that, last semester, I tried to give "F"s to two students who richly deserved that grade, and I was unable to do so. I was prevented, basically.

Upshot: some students who could use the salubrious shakubuku of an "F" weren't able to benefit from tough love. The same is likely this semester; it's doubtful I'll be able to record as many "F"s as I'd like.

King Baeksu said...

"Wait... the classes filled up so they just shoved the kid into a higher-level class that he will never be able to handle? That's... awesome."

Forgive me if I remain skeptical, but this may just be an excuse. My understanding is that the students are assigned class level according to their test scores and that's that. I personally have a couple of Beginning classes with only 19 students, and the maximum is 20, and I'm sure I'm not the only foreign English instructor here among the 35 or so of us who has empty seats.

I sometimes have students in my Intermediate classes who in terms of listening and speaking are probably Beginners, but even they can keep up if they simply try a bit and apply themselves. This kid sounds like he can't even manage that.

In any case, we're at Week 11 out of 16 weeks in the semester. Doesn't it seem odd that he would only bother to mention that he had been "misplaced" now?

Kevin Kim said...


In another conversation, you and I have been batting back and forth the notion of fatalism as a cultural trope in Korean society. The kid's 11-week-long passivity could be viewed in that light: he knew there was a problem, he knew he should be doing something about it, but it wasn't until I told my "F" students to contact me about tutoring that he felt he could gather up what few scraps of initiative he possessed. Fatalism could be strongly linked to passivity. (Or vice versa; we might be looking at a feedback loop.)

Kevin Kim said...

"I sometimes have students in my Intermediate classes who in terms of listening and speaking are probably Beginners, but even they can keep up if they simply try a bit and apply themselves. This kid sounds like he can't even manage that."

My student's Korean-language text messages to me looked as if they'd been written by a five-year-old. I began to wonder whether the guy had a few screws loose, mentally speaking. It's not obvious that he could bootstrap himself by simply working harder; he's really, really behind the rest of the class.

I have no idea how true the kid's explanation of his placement into the intermediate class is. All I know is that he was poorly placed, and so were his three partners in crime, all of whom seem just as clueless as this boy.

King Baeksu said...

Yes, it could be a psychological or developmental problem, but then how was he admitted to university in the first place? The bottom line is that he has studied English for a minimum of six years, perhaps even nine, and should at least be able to form simple sentences at this point. I have around 57 or 58 students in my three Beginner classes and they are all well able to get up in front of the class and speak clearly in complete sentences, as well as answer questions from me and the other students. Quite a few of them are actually closer to Intermediates, in my opinion. It's not all that difficult, really.

It's a tough situation, but the first thing to figure out is if he was admitted to the wrong level rightly or wrongly, since it would seem that he is clearly a Beginner. If it was allowed to occur through a flaw in the system, it would help future students to bring this matter to the attention of administration (I remember asking once if I could reassign students to other more appropriate levels and was told that it would be "impossible."). As for your problem students, perhaps they might want to cut their losses and drop out now so that they can take the correct class next semester? At least they would save five more weeks of wasted effort, if nothing else.

In any case, "Intermediate" students who cannot form simple "SVO" sentences in English do not deserve to be passed in my opinion, and they devalue the grades of all the other students who have put in the necessary work and earned the appropriate grades for the class. After all, such-and-such a grade in such-and-such a class should actually mean something, should it not?

Kevin Kim said...

Most of my students are pretty good, but my poorly performing students—four of them—are pretty damn bad. Statistically speaking, the likelihood of having at least one student who, despite years of English training, has "fallen through the cracks" is high. (Landing four such kids in a single class may be more on the statistical order of a lightning strike, though...)

Meanwhile, something is indeed fishy about an incompetent student being placed directly into the intermediate level.

King Baeksu said...

Perhaps he just has a man crush on you.

Does he ever call you "오빠"?오빠.jpg

Kevin Kim said...

Oy vey.

King Baeksu said...

What I mean is perhaps he liked you so much personally that he determined to take your class consequences be damned?

Kevin Kim said...


When this semester began, I asked my students whether they'd heard of my reputation as a hardass (one of my classes, last semester, had no "A"s, and most of them had no more than two "A"s). Not one of them had.

I doubt this clueless kid would have had the common sense to bother to research his potential teachers before registering for classes.

King Baeksu said...

CUD must have a student site where they all go to exchange news, gossip and information. A few years ago I did a TV interview about instant coffee in Korea and now there are dozens of posts about it online. For example:

Anyway, this week students in all my classes were suddenly asking me, "Do you like instant coffee?" and showing me those photos on their smartphones. Someone must have posted about it on a site used by CUD students. Do you happen to know the site name or URL?

Kevin Kim said...


It makes sense that such a site (or sites) would exist, but I haven't ever gone looking for them.

King Baeksu said...

I'll have to ask next week. There could be all sorts of interesting information there.

One thing I learned this week is about "penalty cups," which in my understanding are alcoholic beverages in which mayonnaise, kimchi and other items are added and then chugged down. Truly disgusting.

Could be a virtual cornucopia of fascination!