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Student Culture & Student Expectations

I recently posted about student expectations with regard to course difficulty. Students — the same ones — have been mentioning, again, how difficult my two content courses are. This is not surprising, really, since in one we’ve been discussing the contribution of African-American popular culture to mainstream American (and really, global) popular culture — in terms not just of tangible contributions like to the musical language, to language itself, to style, to abstract ideas like “cool,” but also how African-American culture (or certain understandings [and misunderstandings] of aspects of it) got taken up consciously by, say, the beats, as an explicit model for the formulation of rebellious, transgressive youth culture, and how this has reverberated in American culture ever since, and affected the development of other local youth cultures abroad. In the other, we’re still working our way through The Hacker Crackdown, and finally, student explications of the text are giving way to debates about the issues at hand: Constitutional rights, and whether one’s legal rights online ought to differ from one’s legal rights online, as well as why or how this matters. (I’ve been waiting for that to happen, and finally it is, and I couldn’t be happier.)

Really, things are getting really interesting, but of course, there are still some who are complaining that I’m being demanding. Not everyone — I had a chat with one student who was talking about how she’d been going home and looking related things up on her own, how she’d revisited elements of pop culture after the lectures I’ve given and they made more sense to her. (The Ted Danza/Whoopie Goldberg blackface incident, for example.) Another student, in her personal reaction to our class’s discussion of James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village,” confessed that she’s always had a bias against black people, for no obvious reason, and that reading Baldwin’s words, and seeing the images at the end of Bamboozled, drove home how wrong and baseless her attitudes were. That was one of those, “Woah,” moments. Yes, a bit of me wonders if she thinks that what I want to her, but from another part of me hope spring eternal that maybe someone had such a door as that opened up in my class.

Anyway, John — a guy with whom I was involved in theater productions in Saskatoon well over a decade ago — is teaching in Korea, and commented, in part, thus:

I’m not even certain that the expectations that class is going to be easy can be confined to Korea. Back in Canada, several of the professors I worked with complained about students approaching them with demands that their grades be raised. Some profs did, others didn’t. My favourite account of this was the professor who was approached with the line: “I’m smarter than this. I should have gotten higher than a 67%.” The professor’s reply: “Yes, you should have.”

Besides my immediate reaction, which was to grab that response and stick it in my back pocket, I began to reply when I found the comment I was typing had begun to take on the proportions and complexity of a post. So, instead, here are my thoughts on this.

Compared to Canada…

My students often ask me, when they first meet me, “Is X and Y or Z the same in America?” I have no experience in America, as John knows, but I can talk about my experience in Canada. While I was a grad student at Concordia University, I taught essay-composition courses. My official title was “Teaching Assistant” but in fact, I was nothing of the kind. I had a contract essentially like any sessional lecturer — except, I imagine, I was paid less, though maybe I was paid the same and the sessional composition teachers were all living in poverty, I don’t know. (It would make sense. They were a rather bitter bunch, and cynical, and jaded. And they didn’t really seem enamored of us grad students on our TAships.) In fact, I was the guy tasked with teaching the Advanced Essay Comp class. This wasn’t so advanced. It was more like the second compulsory comp class. But I was, if I recall correctly, and for no obvious reason, the only TA tasked with this consistently throughout my program. (Until the end of my second year, that is, when I was no longer eligible for TAships and had to get other work.)

Now, I was called a TA, but my students immediately called me “Professor,” and effectively, that was what I was. I was not “assisting” anyone but my department. I was teaching a course, for the first time in my life (if you don’t count private saxophone lessons) and it was a baptism by fire.

I had my students for three hours a week. I taught them essay-writing from the ground up. They often had only a rudimentary grasp of how to write anything beyond a paragraph. Among the anglophones that is; the Francophone and foreign students were often even lower-level. My essay-writing class involved getting them to do real research; giving them a basic handle on logical argumentation; teaching them how to cite their sources and produce a usable bibliography; how to organize their arguments; how to craft a decent introduction and a functional conclusion. It was not about art, phrasing, voice, tone, or anything else that is crucial to brillliant writing. Though I did push the outstanding students into these areas — areas I was struggling with myself at the time — for the most part this was about getting them to do serviceable writing. They assembled lists of grammar problems to look out for, based on my own editorial notations on their essays. They rewrote nonsense until it made sense. They did exercises establishing logical flow between disparate paragraphs. It was like shop class, but with words, sentences, and especially with paragraphs.

In those two years, I experienced a lot of the things that anyone working as a teacher experiences. I had the slightly crazed, frantic student who needed a good grade, knew she wouldn’t get one and was likely to be barred from re-enrollment and stuck going home to Lebanon, and had finagled my phone number out of someone. (3 am is never a good time to call your professor. And I still shudder when anyone calls me “Mr. Gord.”) I had the Korean student who worked like mad but only improved slowly. I had the Jewish and Palestinian guy in the same class, clashing over their essay topics because, really, the essay about Chechnya and the essay about — was it Nicaragua? — were really about Israel and Palestine. I had the student whose boyfriend dumped her and tanked the course, despite being at the top of the class. I had the French girl who always was dressed scantily and always stopped to ask me some random question after class, calling me, “Teacher,” in a way that is reminiscent of a young Brigitte Bardot (and, thankfully, not the older version). I had students turn up for class drunk, had one guy who intimated he might hurt me if his grade wasn’t sufficiently high (apparently C was satisfactory), another who hinted she might bribe me. I even had a student accuse me of racist grading practices because she got a C on an essay I had to struggle to understand; she was an anglophone, and black, and she felt put out that her grade was not higher than the essay that a francophone black student had produced. How this was a sign of me being racist — the other black student had an A or an A+, I think, and despite tiny grammar points, had worked her ass off — was beyond me.

So I can say that I had a number of very odd experiences as a teacher in Canada. There was a constant stream of students approaching me with what I’d describe as strange, unusual, or bizarre demands and expectations. But the interesting thing was that there was little or no consistency. There was no constant stream of explicit complaints that the class was too difficult — I would remember, because I was very sensitive about that kind of thing — but there was a constant stream of unusual stuff coming out of students mouths. Yet it was, fundamentally, unpredictable.

Which is not to claim that Canadian students are wonderful or excellent. I met my share of lazy students. But this is not the same as saying that many of my students seemed to think classes, or university in general, ought to be easy, or had an expectation that they would be laxly graded. This seemed, rather, to be quite consistently weeded out of them by the time they got to my course — which is to say, by freshman year. Other expectations existed — I shared in some myself, such as the idea that a professor who works you like a dog will not give you a junk grade — in other words, that professors will not expect undergrads to perform at graduate-level expectations. (In fact, I’m personally a fan of this notion, since I think grades are less worth the time, and would rather focus on the content of the course. Of course, it only works when a class has grown beyond the need of a carrot/stick and are interested in the subject itself.) Another was that professors will not demand excessive numbers of essays but make them a trifling proportion of the final grade. The vast proportion of students agreed with me, or seemed to agree with me, on these assumptions and expectations, and whatever apparent strangenesses I encountered with them were much more often on the level of individual quirks.

This differs from my experience with students in Korea — not surprisingly, since I’m a foreigner here working in Korean classrooms with almost exclusively Korean students. It’s worth not skipping the step of figuring out whether a particular student’s reaction is cultural — something that should be considered a result of some mechanism or process, an assumption that must be understood as semi-consistently or consistently held among the population of one’s student body — or just individual quirkiness.

Korea Has Four Seasons

Anybody who has lived in Korea for any length of time has been told, with quite apparent pride, that “Korea has Four Seasons.” Among university undergraduates, it’s almost as if this is one of the set conversation pieces people memorize for talking to foreigners. It’s something of a shorthand among westerners in Korea when people want to bring up what one might (controversially) call groupthink, but could just as easily be called “culture.”

It puts me in mind of the gendered script books that Joanna Russ puts into the hands of several characters in her novel, The Female Man during a party scene — a party gone wrong, of course, as parties in books often do. The man pulls out a blue book, and starts berating the woman in question, except of course she’s from a feminist utopia devoid of men, and has never had a pink book in her life. The women around her, though, all whip out their pink books and start pleading for forgiveness and understanding, as I remember it. Hilarious feminist SF — the smartest and funniest I’ve ever read, really — but also manages to lay bare the almost-scripted nature of certain kinds of social exchanges.

One of these, something westerners in Korea hear over and over, is that Korea has four seasons.

Others include:

It’s not the truth of any such claims that I’m examining here — certainly, many Koreans like kimchi. Certainly, Korea cultivates a self-image as conservative despite all kinds of variety and social clash in terms of changing value systems, despite also boasting a sex industry of pretty staggering proportions. Korea markets itself to Koreans as dynamic, and Korean education seems to focus strongly on the victimization of Koreans by Japan, with relatively much gentler treatment of the victimization of Koreans by Korean elites and dictators since the Japanese occupation, or by various proto-Korean rulers and regional dynastic heads in the millennia prior to Japan’s twentieth-century takeover. Koreans do work hours that westerners not only refuse to work, but which legislation in Western countries has made explicitly illegal. (Comparable rates of productivity during those hours is another matter entirely.)

But as I said, the truth of these claims is not the issue: the oddity is, rather, that these phrases and claims crop up again and again with Koreans, almost as if they are taught and memorized, rote-style or in formulaic fashion, for use in conversation with westerners. They crop up in conversations with people you’ve just met, as well as in conversations with people you’ve known years in a row. People who think you’re new in Korea will tell you Korea has four seasons, and seem befuddled when you nod and reply that Canada does too… but people who know you’ve been here several years or more will also tell you these things. I hardly imagine they think you haven’t noticed, after three or six years, that Korea has a standard temperate climate. You begin to wonder what mechanism has inculcated the belief that this is (a) significant, (b) unusual, and (c) worth mentioning to non-Koreans.

As it turns out, there is such a mechanism, if I read the satire right: it’s part of education — Civics class, I believe — and is savagely lampooned in the satirical movie Dasepo Naughty Girls (IMDB). This does match what at least some people have told me: that in school, they were taught the four seasons of Korea are significant for a number of reasons — essentially, all boiling down to the ecological specialness of Korea, expression a kind of aesthetics of nationalist identity, and complete with very odd justifications (like the baffling notion that the seasons are somehow “more distinct” in Korea) that allow such ideas to survive even brief travels abroad. (That the four seasons in Korea are more extreme, I might buy, if I hadn’t lived in Montréal for a few years.)

This scriptedness, by the way, is something that also jumps out at you among, for example, Canadians, when you visit Canada. It’s not as extreme, but then, you’re talking to Canadians in their mother tongue, and even so, there are routine comments, shorthands and formulae, that show up quite often even just in brief conversations. It’s tempting to go off on a huge tangent here, and posit a memetic/parasitic definition of “culture” that’s different from the celebratory, positive one we usually find ourselves having to embrace in this politically-correct world of ours: that culture is the complex set of viral subroutines that infest the software architecture that is our minds… and that what we consider individual variation is a complicated set of personal hardware quirks, plus whatever consciously chosen opinions we have managed to attain by thinking, a form of feeble antiviral self-analysis. In this sense, culture would encompass any of the “scripts” we acquire in any systematic way, be it among family members, peers, or from authority figures: manners and etiquette, national and ethnic identity, gender roles, notions of how educational institutions and workplaces operate, and so on.

That, in other words, culture is nothing more than software viruses that we allow our societies to program into us, be they a tendency to make small talk about the weather, or the vehement feeling that people should be allowed kiss on the subway as much as they like, or the conviction that every non-Korean should be informed of the fact that Korea has four seasons.

But that tangent will be resisted since it’s much easier to simply admit that within every culture — not just Korean, or Canadian — there are plenty of elements which seem to seep into members of the culture, and which most individuals don’t necessarily examine consciously, but rather take for granted. Culture is the stuff that we tend as groups consistently to take for granted, and which members of groups will recognize as conventional assumptions even when they themselves reject those same notions.

So the difference between an oddity and culture is simply its consistency throughout a population. Here’s an example: it’s extremely rare for a Korean student to expose his or her body to a teacher in an explicitly flirtatious manner. It’s only happened once to me, when a student leaned forward, seemingly as to provide a pretty clear view down her shirt, with a very strange smile on her face while looking me in the eye. This never had happened to me before, and has never happened since, and like with many odd behaviours I’ve encountered, I decided that pretending not to notice was easier than talking about it. Perhaps culture played a role in her decision to offer her teacher a peek, but it was not decisive.

Nobody could call that “culture” in action, because it’s an oddity, it’s unusual. It doesn’t happen like clockwork at the end of every semester, the way emails that begin, “I don’t mean to criticize you, but I checked my grade and…” or “I’m sorry to ask this, but I need and A+ in this class or else…” Or the way that students complain about homework — audible groans spreading throughout the room, as we stopped doing by the end of high school in Canada — or the way students so often say, “But I had perfect attendance! Shouldn’t that affect my grade?” even in classes where attendance is explicitly not part of the grading formula.

Sources of Culture

It’s worth noting at this point that Korean professors I know do sometimes complain about receiving impolite letters about their grades — and describe their responses to the same as stern — but also claim that, while they themselves experience some of the same behaviours, they find them as baffling as I do. I can recall at least two conversations during which I saw Korean professors doing basically the same thing that foreign profs do: tossing out random “theories” to explain these behaviours, ranging from, “Well, they must do it to foreign profs more often because they think you’re going to me more easygoing about it?” to “It’s this young generation, they have no respect for their teachers! I would never have acted that way when I was a student! Seriously!”

This is to say that culture is definitely not monolithic. It’s heartening to see Korean profs almost as baffled as westerners, and reminds me of the rapidity of cultural shift going on here in Korea. It’s also heartening because it falsifies, at least in part, my grimmer assumptions about Korean standards of university teaching. The profs I’m working with now are people I generally respect as professionals, as experts in their field. When I was working at worse schools — places where the presence of unqualified teachers both Korean and otherwise was overwhelmingly noticeable, and where the student body in general was rather, well, ill-suited to the demands of post-secondary education — it was almost a habit to assume our students’ worse habits and assumptions were coming directly from their other classrooms, Korean-led classrooms. I am happier to think that, however top-down many Korean post-secondary classrooms still are, there could be other sources for the consistently odd expectations of many of my students.

One interesting possibility occurred to me when a Korean prof suggested it was our foreignness that prompted such “odd” behaviour as emails demanding higher grades. It’s worth considering if the dynamic at hand isn’t one that shows up because younger Koreans have essentially grown up with two sets of teachers: Korean ones in Korean schools, whose classes the grades actually matter, and foreign instructors (and usually younger, often female, Korean teachers) in hakwons whose classes are much less relevant to their lives, and whose job — mandated by the inherent business model of the hakwon and parental demands upon it, and divorced in many cases from any actual model of learning or education — is more to teach them stuff, have them jump through hoops that aren’t lifted too high, and advance them forward through the system. In other words, many kids grow up with one set of teachers who count, who are in the relevant system, and one set who simply aren’t, with whom grades are conventional exercises at best and a non-issue at worst. Maybe this sets up deep-seated attitudes that seem to express in oft-expressed demands — “perfect attendance = at least an A” or “classes without a grading curve will have inflated grades” — simply because those are their experiences in courses by teachers who, in their experience, have been in the non-relevant system, where grades could be assigned on random bases like attendance or “trying.”

However, and this is the bad news, this notion of a dual-tier system of expectations-assessment that students may or may not be using doesn’t quite explain everything. For example, while it might go some way to explaining part of how these attitudes form, they it cannot account for how such attitudes survive, with rather high consistency, right up to senior year or even into graduate school. Last year, I busted a total of about fifteen people for plagiarism. Several of them were university juniors or seniors who were (or acted as if they were) genuinely surprised when I told them that what they’d done was plagiarism and that plagiarism was absolutely unacceptable. How anyone can reach his or her third or fourth year of university without having a concept of the unacceptability of plagiarism can only be explained by what one Korean professor said to me: “We’re not teaching them about it. That must be it!”

Some of this is because of the quality of westerners hired to teach English — really, many anglophones hired to work as professors simply “are not educators” (as one of the few Americans I’ve met here who isn’t teaching once exclaimed). There are people, indeed, who start out in the hakwon system and whose work at universities is little different from hakwon teaching — people who simply would not last a week in any academic setting were it exclusively anglophone — and they may, perhaps, be helping to perpetuate lower expectations of academic quality from western professors. Even relatively competent professors can do this, through misplaced leniency. (Selective leniency can also cause quite a mess, as I described here and here in a case involved a foreign prof whose students I inherited a couple of years ago. Yes, mister, I mean you, oh linkfarmer. Though you only helped them turn out that way; it was still their choice.)

But I sometimes wonder if those who deal with students in their freshman year — the year of the drinkfests, the year when students recuperate from the hell of preparing for University entrance exams — might not account for skewed expectations for the rest of their undergraduate careers. In areas like plagiarism and academic dishonesty, generalized expectations of grade-inflation in small classes, and other routine expectations that seem commonplace among students, it seems to me it would be unfair to blame western professors, or the hakwon experiences of Korean students, exclusively. If certain things consistently aren’t being taught in the system, that’s an indictment of the majority not teaching it, not an indictment of the minority (Korean and otherwise) whose efforts cannot make a difference in a greater atmosphere of apparent indifference.

Most strikingly, in the constant struggle against plagiarism, all I can say is that the foreign profs I know all seem to be quite ardent in making a point of it to their classes, bringing it up and forbidding it explicitly, but also struggling with the fact that the departments we’re hired into tend not to have an explicit policy about it, and indeed that the apparent tendency when confronted with it seems to be relative leniency rather than taking it very seriously and taking simple, straightforward steps to eliminate the practice. That, too, is a “cultural” issue… though one that also may be turning into a “cultural” issue in North America as plagiarism has become so much easier in the internet era. (You don’t even need to go to the library to rip off an encyclopedia anymore!)

And before that pushes me into the economics of university admissions and enrollment in an era of population decline, I think I’ll end this.

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