“THAT’S Romance?” and other classroom stuff

 Attention saver: this post is about stuff from my classroom: an amusing comment about defining romance; thoughts on homophobia in the classroom; and a discussion of transparency, anonymity, and freedom in one of my classes. For those not interested in such things, skip ’em.

Heard a lot of funny things in class this week. The best line has got to be, “THAT’s romance?”

Students were in a discussion being led by a student who was trying to explain the difference between making life decisions (like marriage) on the basis of logic or “realism” and making them based on emotions or “romance.” This guy was doing that typical extremist thing of saying romance is totally about emotions, and reality is all about logical thinking, and one of the women in his group looked at him funny and said, incredulously, “That’s romance?”

On a frustrating note, one of my students did some research about gay & lesbian student societies in Korean universities, which, you know, is not something most students would look into. She’s been getting into human rights volunteer organizations, I think she said, and while googling around (1) she discovered gay and lesbian student organizations at a couple of the big universities in Korea — I think it was Korea University and Yonsei. At those schools, the GLSS is treated like any other student society as far as the administration is concerned. They have the same rights and entitlements as any other student “club” or organization: they get a “club room,” and, one would imagine, perhaps a little bit of funding, and they have the right to set up booths in club festivals and have tables during club week to announce their existence and invite interested students to join.

Which both surprised me — that they would be accepted to that degree by administration — and impressed me, since I thought tolerance for gays and lesbians in Korea was much farther behind than that.Hearing some of what the students had to say about it, though, was distressing to me. The least tolerant thing I heard was verging on scary — confessions of fear at the very notion of homosexuality existing in the world, and expressions of disgust — while the most tolerant things were still vaguely judgmental and patronizing, of the kind where I imagine a strong gay person might reply, “Wow, gee, thanks!” — on the order of, “I don’t mind if someone’s gay, as long as they let me know early in our friendship,” or, “I wouldn’t oppose a gay student organization, but I wouldn’t support it, and would say they have no right to any funding from the university.”Because, you know, kendo fanaticism, a love of comic books, and liking the French language are all okay, but banding together with fellow members of a reviled minority is reprehensible. I found it understandable that they might think it odd that a Catholic institution might have issues with a gay students’ society, of course, but their attitudes were not in line with what the Catholic teaching on homosexuality is — that there’s nothing wrong with the people, just with what they do. (My own issues with that teaching aside, many students seemed to take issue with gay people themselves, their very existence, and not just their actions.) Catholic principles would suggest a society for gay students might be fine, as long as it’s also devoted to Catholic principles — ie. not a club functioning as a pick-up joint. Given how some clubs are, the Catholic objection would be just as strong to more “mundane” clubs in which people meet and hook up and — let’s use the Biblical word — go on to fornicate with.

In fairness, one or two students had very tolerant attitudes. One guy and two women said that during their travels abroad, they met lots of gay people and found them generous, considerate, friendly, and even — ??? — good at basketball. However, they were relatively quiet in the discussions.

The thing that really frustrated me was that, for the task in which both the romance discussion and the GLSS discussion occurred, students were doing peer evaluation. The GLSS discussion wasn’t relatively less interesting or engaging than the other discussions, yet… yes, the grades looked as if they were lowballed to me. Of course I will make an adjustment, but I think I’ll inform the student of it. I’d rather she’s a little more aware of the risks of going outside of people’s comfort zone, while, of course, I don’t want her to learn by receiving a bad grade for her efforts.

Lastly, she showed students the pink triangle sign, which is apparently used by these student clubs mentioned earlier, but she was surprised to know that the sign was used in Nazi Germany to label homosexuals. I expected her to bring that point up at the end of the discussion, as it might remind people of the kind of intolerance these people have endured in the past, but unfortunately, she didn’t know the fact until after the end of class, when I told her.

(1) I say googling, but Koreans tend to use Korean portal sites to search. Google’s great for English stuff, but I find the Korea portal searches work better for lots of Korean stuff. Still, googling for me now means “searching online,” so “googling” includes searching Naver and Daum and Yahoo Korea and so on. Interestingly, students who rarely use Google also seem to understand this word perfectly well in this context. Which is odd, because I remember when Google was a new, neat thing that people were mentioning on email lists and so on, and I remember trying it once and thinking, aha, this is more effective than Yahoo’s directories. Funny comparison, but it tells you a lot about how I searched the Net for goodies back in the old days.

In my evening class, we had a discussion of freedom, anonymity, and transparency. We talked about it in terms of the real-name system that some people in Korea seem to think will solve the “social problems” that arise from the combination of anonymity and impunity online — things like gossip and trolling. I gave students a handout, one purposefully difficult, but after the reading, I broke it down for them really simply. We arranged the desks in a circle, and I said to everyone, “Close your eyes!” When they did so, I said, “If you are in love, put your hand up.” A few students put their hands up. “If you are not in love, put your hand up.” A few put their hands up. “If you’re not sure, put your hand up.” One hand.Then I had them open their eyes. We talked a little about anonymity, and how nobody could see one another’s information. Then I asked them whether they were anonymous. They said they were, because nobody could see one another’s answers. But, of course, they weren’t, because I could see everyone’s answers, and when I reminded them of that — and further, of the fact anyone could cheat by opening his or her eyes — I asked them whether it was fair. After all:

  • They couldn’t see others’ answers
  • They couldn’t see my answers
  • I could see everyone’s answers

We agreed that this wasn’t “fair.” I asked them to solve the problem. Finally, two solutions emerged: one was for them to cover my eyes and then everyone cover theirs. We noted how there would be ways of working around that — a hidden camera mounted in the room, or some partners in the group who cheat by allowing one another to peek.

That brought them to the second workaround, which was to have everyone just answer the questions with their eyes open. That way, everyone can see everyone else’s answer. The inherent flaw, of course, was that when I said, “Okay, everyone, who’s in love? Put your hand up!” only one hand went up besides mine. It’s hard to let all your information be public, and we agreed, maybe knowing whether someone is in love or not is not such a big deal, but knowing someone else’s bank account balance and history — while it might not really matter — is the kind of thing we want to keep private.

There’s a third answer, which is that everyone answers the question in a secret way — in their mind, or on a secret ballot. Even there, we can find workarounds, but it is possible, with good crypto, that in an electronic environment the workarounds could be useless.

Then the discussion turned to subjects like using one’s national ID number to get an account with major Korean portals like Naver — a practice which puzzled Chinese students to no end, which is interesting in itself if you think about it: Chinese don’t need to provide government ID to use their major portal sites and services, but Koreans do! Students also turned to the so-called social problems linked to anonymity and solutions that some people think we need, such as odd claims that pop stars sometimes kill themselves over online gossip and photoshopped images, therefore we need to give up all privacy online.

Discussions of whether specific kinds of information should be kept private — library records, for example, puzzled some until I brought up McCarthy, Park Chung Hee, and the Cultural Revolution — and of to what lengths students would go to protect their privacy were especially interesting. Mostly, I tried to keep out of the group discussions, and focused on asking occasional questions or explaining things briefly.

One student surprised me. I don’t know whether she was giving the answer she thought I wanted her to give, or was giving me her opinion, but she claimed, with a big smile, she’d be willing to arm up and fight a corrupt government to protect her right to domestic privacy.

One thing that was predictable, but saddening, was how many people expressed straightforward trust in their government. Not that it’s saddening that people have a government right now that they (relatively) trust, and not that I think everyone should be critical of the government all the time. It’d be nice, but it’s unrealistic. Realistically, we need to have a bunch of people being critical and reminding us not to trust the government too much. I agree that the Korean government, right now, might not be the kind of organization that would, say, black-bag and disappear people for reading the wrong books.

But can anyone guarantee that we can trust every government that will running this region through the next thirty or fifty years from now won’t be? In times of war, for example, these kinds of records are exactly what you don’t want left around in some database that a psychopathic dictator or regime might get ahold of. Maybe the Korean government would never go to those extremes, but it wouldn’t have to. Countries get occupied temporarily, during wars, and when you have access to the electronic records of a whole country, all it would take is a few weeks to track down all the anti-communists, or all the dissidents, or all the people who read books by X, or all the people with tax returns of higher than X million won per year, or whatever it is you’re looking for. (I heard this brought up in a panel at WorldCon, but I’d already thought about it since something of the kind happens in one story I’m working on right now, “A Killing in Burma.”)

When I brought up that issue of trust over the long-term, you could see the chilled feelings of students, and they started talking eagerly about this, or so was my impression. Here’s hoping they’ll go out and think about the whole question seriously.

As for me, I favor crypto and adulthood. Stars don’t kill themselves because of gossip, they kill themselves because their mental illnesses go untreated when mental illness carries a stigma. As adults, we can learn to (a) ignore gossip, or (b) band together and hammer gossipping morons into submission online, or (c) sue them into behaving responsibly, and as adults, we can take responsbility for our fates, instead of trusting our nanny states to protect us from the psychopaths of the future, by insisting on the right to anonymity and the best crypto available.

4 thoughts on ““THAT’S Romance?” and other classroom stuff

  1. I usually avoid gay and lesbian discussions because they tend to be quiet and everyone has the same opinion. The class usually bombs. Anyhow your post was interesting and on a related note I say a Gay/Lesbian poster at my university. The only reason I noticed it was because it was in English not Korean.

  2. Hey,

    Yeah, I don’t tend to bring up the topic either, partly because that’s policy in this religious school. I was told I can talk about it, but it’s best not to bring it up myself.

    In the exercise mentioned, it was the student who chose the topic. She hadn’t told me beforehand, but I wouldn’t have warned her against it anyway.

    I should add, though, that I don’t think everyone has the same opinion. There’s a range of variety, but the people with uncommon opinions almost never speak up on topics like this, so it leads to the impression that there’s only one opinion. Or so I’ve noticed.

  3. “and even — ??? — good at basketball.” I laughed. *G*
    I find some things Koreans say so completely random. It’s kind of endearing.

    (I didn’t know KU had a GLSS either. Pretty surprised.)

  4. Laura,

    It’s endearing in some circumstances, alarming in others.

    It may not be Korea University — I may have swapped one or the other Universities for Seoul University.

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