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Do students want foreign teachers?

Found at Simon’s ever-worthwhile Asia By Blog roundup: Scott Sommers has written an article about his perception that Taiwanese students don’t particularly want foreign teachers. There are some points in the comments section relating to the parallels in Korea, especially posts by our famous Blinger. I disagree with some of what Blinger says, such as the terribly superficial judgment on how real professors and teachers ought to dress, and I can say from experience that it seems to me professor who wear ties can, at least in some places, expect just as much ridiculous treatment from the Korean administration as those who dress as they please.

When I went to university, I certainly had profs who dressed in suits. I also had profs who dressed in jeans and lumberjack shirts. I found that dress consistently indicated absolutely nothing about the quality of the teaching. The cues were how the prof lectured, whether he or she offered office hours, how willing he or she was to explain things a second time, and how well they grasped the materials. Professors in sunglasses and army boots sometimes excelled. Professors in suits sometimes were nightmarishly mediocre or outright awful.

As for foreign professors not being taken seriously, there’s a corollary to that where foreign professors look around and see a lot of grounds for not taking Korean academia seriously. It’s well-known that at a lot of universities, a cash payout is involved in getting certain postgraduate degrees; that a lot of Korean professors’ classes are canceled far more often, and on flimsier grounds, than those of foreign professors (a constant annoyance in fact, since I’m pushed to hold classes on says when every other prof in my students’ courseload has canceled classes, meaning I teach to classes of three or four people and yet get in trouble if I cancel class). I’ve been told by the odd student whose name I manage to remember in my 10-course load that their Korean profs, with courseloads normally less than half the size of mine, never know them by name.

The teaching materials I see left on desks sometimes perplex me: how could this be useful in teaching English conversation? The vast majority of students come out of their freshman classes with nearly no ability to converse, beyond parroting dialogues from the book. I’ve met people whose English ability left me begging their pardon repeatedly, who are English teachers. I’ve also seen Korean teachers of English whose English is excellent (though not spoken exactly like a native) marginalized merely because they’re not foreigners.

I have to ask, in the end, should I not be taken seriously because I don’t wear a suit? If I wear a suit, then will the quality of my teaching matter? If I wear, say, semi-dressy clothes but don’t tuck in m shirt, does that warrant, say, a half-way fair (and half-way bigoted) evaluation of my work, then? Would it be judged on a scale related to the other professors at my university? Because I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t, and in response I feel very little inclination to go out of my way to wear a tie, especially in classrooms which, until recently, didn’t even have air conditioning (or heaters that worked more than half of the time).

I don’t mean this above as a criticism of my university, by the way, as much as a criticism of the attitude, “Well, if you approach things on ‘their’ terms, you’ll be more respected.” Of course there are excellent Korean professors: I’ve met one or two in my time here. There are excellent foreign English teachers and professors too. But the foreigners are never judged on the same scale as the native teachers, and slapping on a suit won’t change that. Students, Administration, other Faculty, they all see a panoply of things, good and bad, that aren’t actually there. Foreignness clouds all of these perceptions to some degree, and manner of dress, manner of speech (even in Korean) and just about anything else you do will not change that.

But all of this, of course, is a detour from the question of the significance of what students say when asked whether they prefer foreign teachers.

I think it’d be unsurprising if a majority of students preferred not to have foreign teachers, but I think their reasons for that might not be good reasons… ie. not questions of their perception of how best to learn. Some students figure Korean teachers will give them an easy ride when foreigners actually demand more. Some students find working with a foreign teacher “harder”, which it undoubtably is, though harder classes sometimes result in more learning, don’t they? I have seen a number of students so academically juvenile that they whine and gripe at even being assigned homework at all, let alone more than one page of homework, and I seriously doubt such a student can reasonably be thought to make declarations of preference based on the academic benefits of this or that sort of teacher.

And finally, I think, as I mentioned above, that so many misconceptions cling to Foreignness, and I think nobody (not even foreigners, who see Foreignness in their Korean colleagues) look past it to judge the quality of individual teachers and their methods.

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