Last semester, a student of mine gave me a paperback copy of the English translation of Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin. It was a very kind gesture, and I appreciated it very much. This whole culture of gifting professors–sometimes before exams, which is a little uncomfortable, but more often after–is rather nice.I‘ll be honest, though: while some mainstream Korean literature I’ve found enjoyable, a lot of it leaves me kind of cold, for reasons that remind me of things my own students say when I ask them to interpret texts. I find that the standard mode of reading, even among literature students, is one that puzzles me. That is, they tend to want to find a take-home message, and they tend to be satisfied with limiting a reading of a given text to that, as if all literature were essentially, at root, such Aesop fables: Men are untrustworthy. Women should be careful. Korea must be reunified. Power is dangerous.
(This isn’t necessarily all bad, mind: they seem, in fact, very much aware of what some Western students have to learn to recognize: that characters are not people, and cannot be discussed only on the level of plot and who they are. I’ve even seen graduate students back home in North America who’ve gotten themselves caught up in that kind of approach, which is comparably problematic. Korean students grasp at least that in the end fictional constructions differ from the real world; but they also tend to isolate it from the world, and read it in pretty limited modes. There’s a middle ground that readerly peopple seem to grasp, but which comes naturally to neither group generally speaking.)
Of course, what students compelled to read a text do, and what texts themselves are doing, are two different things. The majority of literature majors in Korea are not literature majors but English literature majors, with the emphasis being fundamental. One of the things I learned when I was studying up on the literature onm creativity a few summers back was how important motivation is. One experiment that sticks out in my mind is of a maze that test subjects were asked to solve–the usual type of maze puzzle on paper, where they had to find an exit. Some people found a single, simple exit, and in doing so, completed the puzzle as quickly as possible and declared themselves finished, while others spent some time in the leisurely tracing-out of multiple pathways through the maze.
Why the difference in behaviour? The surprising thing is that it’s not intelligence: it’s motivation. All external conditions being equal, if people are (for whatever reason) intrinsically motivated to learn about something, they tend to actually explore and search for interesting, multiple solutions to problems; when they are extrinsically motivated, on the other hand, they seek to achieve the task-completed state in the simplest, quickest way possible.
This should be familiar to anyone teaching TEFL: the students who actually want (and like) to speak and to learn English keep discussing long after other groups have declared themselves “Finished!” But, I’d suggest, this is also why Korean English literature majors are so often so devoted to the Aesop mode of reading narrative: the “moral of the story” formula is simply the easiest reading to construct for any text in the world. (Even when you need to squint to ignore all the contradictory or complicating evidence in the text.)
But when I read a book like Please Look After Mom, I can’t help but think that maybe this lack of intrinsic motivation to explore literature isn’t the only problem.