The Rip-Off

Some weeks, things really do raise my hackles. It’s the concatenation of all kinds of things that are probably universal, but which in Korea are much more in-your-face or more, I don’t know, commonly accepted. What’s hitting me more and more is how the atmosphere of acceptability impacts negatively on individuals and on society in general. That’s what I’m focusing on now, here in this post.


I disciplined a case of plagiarism this week by having the student write me a 3000-word essay on the evils of plagiarism. My rationale was that this person is a good student, a very bright individual, and could perhaps learn something by thinking about it. That her having reached senior year without really getting the need to cite sources at all times, and without having it hammered into her head that copying-and-pasting is not really doing homework in any reasonable sense — that copying someone else’s words and thereby not thinking, not spending the time to consider something on her own terms (and perhaps master it) could ever be a value-neutral act — represents her being let down by the system that should have been making her a competent individual. And that’s a disservice to her — the fact that she is very smart, and could be a very competent human being given the opportunity, the impetus, the mental training and resources, the kind of person who could contribute a lot to her society, it looks as if some significant portion of her potential has been squandered by what looks to me like plain old apathy. That is what is the most offensive to me — the way students have been allowed to take the easy way so much so that at the end of four years, many have just mastered copying crap they don’t understand from Wikipedia.

So I told her, write me a 3000-word essay.

The result of two sleepless nights of feverish drafting and consideration was one of the most cogent, thoughtful essays I’ve received since I’ve started teaching. I was shocked. (And it was obviously not plagiarized itself — lots of little idiosyncratic grammar things, and references that only this person could have made.) I knew she was a good student — that was why I didn’t kick her out of the class right off the bat — but it just goes to show you what someone can do when she has real incentive. (I told her if I liked the essay, I would allow her to remain in the class.)

On the other hand, some of the content in the essay was depressing. Especially her comments about how rampant plagiarism is in other classes, and especially her previous major, a science-related major. She described a nightmarish scene of lab reports handed down over many waves of students, identical (verbatim), and the profs, she said, “just don’t care.” And then you end up with totally incompetent juniors or seniors who are leaving school because they have no idea what they’re supposed to know or understand before graduating.

That’s simply no way to fuel creativity, inventiveness, and professionalism. It’s the way to build up a profoundly unstable set of industries, stuck either buying or (yet again) copying technologies from others. You end up having to fake results (Hwang Woo-Suk) or steal them (Go San), but it’s not just that. You end up with people pretty much unequipped to argue about issues, or to pull apart any misrepresentations of the facts that are presented with even a modicum of sophistication or abstraction. You end up with an easily manipulated polity, a society that doesn’t know what it thinks. You end up with endless kneejerk reactions, with dysfunctional democracy, and with a chronic case of anomie.

Now I totally understand why Alvin Toffler was so respected by the Korean government during the days of Kim Dae Jung. Because Korea’s got a severe case of Future Shock, and unless some serious educational reforms happen, it’s going to become not just chronic but debilitating.

Makes me think this book on educational reform that I’m still thinking of writing is even more needed. Though, who’s going to listen to a foreigner, anyway?


Trying to think of a fair and doable exercise for my evening class. The first “free-discussion” led by a student ended up being what was, for me, a jaw-dropping exercise in spouting the most bigoted and racist stereotypes about people from randomly selected countries. After we got the wonderful nature of Korean society out of the way —

  • Koreans eat kimchi!
  • Koreans are very polite.
  • Korean students study hard. (In high school, it was clarified, after I laughed aloud. I couldn’t help it.)
  • Koreans are nice to foreigners. (White ones, anyway. This was actually clarified by the one student who’s lived abroad.)

— we moved on to stereotypes about all those other (obviously inferior) cultures in the world, which included such gems as these:

  • Chinese are dirty.
  • All Chinese food is oily.
  • Chinese are extremely superstitious. Thus, they like red, they don’t bathe for fear of washing away their luck, they’re obsessed with feng shui, and they don’t study hard.
  • Japanese are obsessive otaku-types.
  • Japanese are two-face: they’re polite to your face, but they want to criticise you and it’s only fear of public censure that prevents them doing so. (But, some claim, they’ll do it behind your back.)
  • Japanese are “too individualistic” and always insist on going Dutch. They don’t even like lending money to people who go out to dinner and then, after the meal, announce that they’re broke. (Ahem.)
  • Americans are individualists. They’re crazy about money and selfish. And arrogant. And eat McDonald’s.
  • French are sexy. But Frenchmen are womanizers. And they’re snobs. And think French is better than English.
  • English are gentlemen. (No definition or explanation of what this means.) But British are racists (ahem!) and colonialists.
  • Germans only eat sausage and beer. Ah, and they’re tightwads. And don’t forget the Nazis.

Thank goodness nobody started declaring what a wonderful leader Hitler was, or I would have lost it and started ranting.

The thing was, all of these stereotypes were presented as facts. There was no attempt to ask, say, why Koreans seem to consider Chinese people dirty — despite having Chinese classmates in other courses who aren’t. Despite having Japanese friends who aren’t two-faced. Despite having English and French and American (or Canadian) teachers.

Hell, there wasn’t even any attention paid to how other Asian societies seemed to get all the negative stereotypes, while the European societies were given a little more credit. As it was, I managed to ask the odd question of clarification, and at the end, gave a brief comment about how I consider much of what was said to be disrespectful, and that students would not have appreciated it if I’d spouted some of the stereotypes that non-Koreans have about Koreans.

I’m seriously considering assigning them homework to remediate this issue. One idea is to have them interview non-Koreans in direct reference to their home countries. Ask a French person whether the negative stereotypes about French — arrogance, promiscuity, etc. — are true. See how offensive it is, but also, hopefully get educated about stereotypes regarding Korean society.

Another thought I had was to assign them all to read Wang Xiaoling’s book Korea Report (한국 리포트). It’s a book in Korean by a Chinese student who discusses all the positive and negative points of Korean society — the decidedly unstudious nature of college campuses and college students, the extremity of the religious evangelicals, and certain elements of Korean culture, even — like the insistence on doing everything in groups, or worrying too much about age differences. I figure that maybe having this kind of discussion modeled for them in Korean, by someone who speaks the language as a second language no less, might benefit them and even help them cast a more critical eye on their own stereotypes as well as that stumbling block of theirs regarding public critique of Korea.

But really, sitting through 45 minutes of people bashing random foreign cultures in sequence, and thinking this was an educational discussion, shocked me. And it made me feel like maybe I’m wasting my time doing anything but the plain old textbook crap that would save me a lot of trouble in preparing the class.

Yet, again, it’s the fact nobody’s commented about how, well, dumb, frankly, it is to spout bigoted stereotypes without examining, say, how those are acquired — misunderstanding, exaggeration, generalization from one individual, misattribution of causes, and so on — that has allowed these college students — some of them seniors — to remain at a level of critical sophistication that is lower than that of a fair number of my peers back in high schooler in Canada.

I’m not really bitching that my class is racist, you see, I’m just in awe of the fact that all those years of education, at worst, reinforced that ignorant, offensive spouting was okay, or at best, failed to teach them to critically consider this kind of idea. What did they spend all those years sitting in desks for, if not to learn to think a little harder than they did the previous year? That, at least, my own teachers pushed me to do, even in the crappiest of schools I attended.


I’ll be posting at greater length later, but a brief note to textbook editors: you’ll save yourselves piles of money by simply hiring competent people to do the jobs you need done. You wouldn’t hire someone who isn’t fluent in Korean to write a Korean textbook, would you? Why would you hire someone who’s not fluent in English to write the English content in an English textbook? (Because trust me, proofreading is not rewriting vast hunks of text that someone else got wrong, or inventing whole new dialogs at the last minute because, no, that’s NOT normal in English.)

I’m not complaining so much, because the gig I’m about to embark on isn’t like this, but the detritus of the last gig is floating in the air, and it’s just…

Well, it’s just that I am still stunned at the way so many other factors enter into how people get jobs here… so many, in fact, that when it comes to the most imprtant factor — competency — you’re stuck with a random die roll. It’s a crapshoot, like in Las Vegas! That can’t be good for efficiency or productivity. And, demonstrably, it just isn’t.

But anyway, that’s my week. There are good things too — interesting stuff poppping up here and there, so on and so forth — but they’re unrelated to all this.

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