Monday, June 08, 2015

unhappy campers

As one of my former coworkers once noted, Koreans have a saying about themselves: they boil up quickly and cool down just as quickly. Matt Van Volkenburg (not sure whether there's supposed to be a space after the "Van"; most Dutch names have a space, as in "van Gogh," et al.) runs a blog titled Gusts of Popular Feeling, which riffs off the same notion: collectively, Korean emotions tend to billow, bluster, and becalm themselves.

I saw this in class today. It's the first day of Week 15, which means it's final-exam review time. Today's class, my Monday kids, had the Buddha's birthday off, so they were a week behind my other three classes. Today, then, we finished Unit 10 of our textbook—the final unit. When I announced that we were now officially done with the book, there was much cheering, which made me smile. We transitioned into talking about end-of-semester matters: the final exam and final grades. For the grades-related discussion, I handed out a sheet that showed some hypothetical scenarios (rather closely reflecting the actual reality of my classes) for how I might handle such-and-such grade distributions. None of my classes is a perfect bell curve at present, and that's doubly true for my Monday kids, whose class is top-heavy with way too many "A"s, even after I took many students down a peg for their mediocre pecha-kucha work. So I told them outright that, given the lack of "C"s, I'd likely have to shunt some "A"s into the "B" range, and some "B"s into the "C+" range to satisfy the curving requirements.

As you can imagine, the kids weren't happy to hear this, and the joyful end-of-textbook mood evaporated almost instantly. This was a bit frustrating for me, because I'd been harping on the reality of the grading curve since the first day of class, so it's not as though any of this was a surprise. One girl in particular said loudly, "That's not fair!"—which is, as I reminded her, the very same thing I'd said during Week 1, when I first explained the curve and made my hatred of it known. "Can I talk to your head teacher?" she asked desperately. I said I'd be happy to email my supervisors, but that I already knew what answer they'd give. (Full disclosure: I did indeed email my supervisors about two hours ago, and the prompt reply was exactly what I thought it'd be: stick to the grading policy.) When it finally came time to talk about whether we were going to have a jjong-party, i.e., an end-of-term celebration, the students were too dejected and resentful to want one. So—no party, then. So be it.

It's sometimes hard to remember that, in Korea, college students really are kids. They aren't considered young adults in quite the way that American college students are.* Korean students—and adults, too—are moody and mercurial: gusts of popular feeling, indeed.

*This isn't to say that American college students act maturely. I saw way too many counterexamples as a Georgetown undergrad to believe that.

I think I've told the story, on this blog, about a guy in our freshman dorm, a Texan dude named Jim, who got puking drunk and vomited all over his dorm room—while his roommate had been trying to repaint the old, peeling walls. I was the only one who stood up to help the roommate, Dave, clean Jim's mess up, so I saw firsthand the horrid mixture of puke and paint that Jim had flung everywhere. Jim ended up in detox, then in rehab, and he eventually turned into a model student, but this took time.

Then there was JT, who got drunk one night, snuck into the Healy Building with some friends, and ended up falling, outside, from one stone balcony onto another. JT cracked some ribs, punctured a lung, broke a leg, and cracked his head. No one found him for 22 hours; anoxia and edema actually led to brain damage, and when JT finally came back to us, he was literally a different person: his voice was different, his speech cadence was completely off, and he'd ditched his boilerplate college-jock fashion sense for the late-80s equivalent of Goth.

I could dish about one of my roommates, who shall remain nameless. This guy fucked everything in sight. He was constantly juggling three to six "girlfriends." Fuckholes, more like, because that's how he saw women. Another guy, Bob, broke his neck over Christmas break after getting into a bar fight. The other dude apparently tossed poor Bob over a chain-link fence, which is how he broke his neck. Despite his neck brace, Bob was out hitting the bars—and removing his brace—the moment he was back in DC, and he ended up very loudly fucking a visiting female student in his dorm room. The grunts and cries were memorable.

Sometimes the Korean brand of social and sexual immaturity, with all its kindergarten-style moaning and groaning, has a sort of charming innocence about it.



John from Daejeon said...

As you are leaving, what would happen if you actually gave your students the grades they actually deserve?

I'm thinking that you should be teaching your students one last horrid English word, blackballed, as is what happened to me this year as I came back to the states to teach a grad course for my mentor as he needed a quick replacement. It also helped that I taught here/there long, long ago.

He'd helped me get a dream job in the biz of my degree while I was a grad student, as he was one of the few professors with real-world experience in what he taught. So, I decided to pass it on by utilizing the carrot of an internship in the biz for my grad students in regards to their grades (no curves here). With my, and my ex-colleagues', biz relationships, over 2/3 of the class took the internship as this would open the door to a future in their careers that most universities just can't do (well, won't do in my case).

After a great Fall semester with wonderful student reviews, I was given a long-term contract before I left for the break only to see it vanish and myself blackballed after the New Year because half of my class dropped out of the university to take paid, full-time jobs in the industry of their dreams. So, in doing my job too well, which is to shape young minds into productive, working members of society (and in their dream industry), I was kicked to the curb days before the new semester was to begin.

I remember when I got my original job (via an internship) in the biz while a grad student that I stuck with school because my employer actually paid for me to continue going, albeit at a snail's pace. Nowadays, though, employers don't really do this, so the university was worried about this bad precedent and their bottom line as their students futures really don't matter to them at this time.

I found out later that my mentor only helps one or two of his best students each year get an internship that usually leads to a job offer as to not rock the university boat too much while I had gone overboard in my attempt at a good deed at helping my students enter the adult world.

It is still far from the end as my lawyer keeps saying, but at least now I know why so many teachers are beaten down by the rigged, educational system as it actually pays not to teach to the best of one's abilities or else you may become jobless and unemployable in the profession.

Kevin Kim said...


Certainly in the Korean context, education is a racket, and there are moral compromises that one has to make just to preserve one's career viability. I would normally tell my students that "I don't give you your grades; you earn them"—but that's no longer strictly true when you're forced to fit everyone into a curve. The fact of the matter is that I'm going to have to jigger the numbers if I don't have enough students naturally brought low by the rigors of the final exam. And that just makes me feel dirty.

Sorry to hear that things turned out badly for you. Knowing you, though, I'm sure you'll pick yourself up and soldier onward.

Kevin Kim said...

Oh, as for giving the students what they actually deserve: my supervisor's email warned me that there is "no wiggle room" in the grading policy. So—a curve it is, like it or not.