A Natural Part of a Balanced Page of Feedback

I just finished writing up the feedback on an essay that my class will be critiquing today. The title of the essay is “The Real Meaning of Marriage,” and it’s a good example of the wall I’ve been banging into lately in my work.

There are standard issues that are pretty much part of the job, of course: the sinking feeling when one is confronted by sentences that were written by someone who obviously doesn’t read (in English, at least) on a regular basis, the apparent lack of proofreading, the dictionary-itis.

Dictionary-itis, by the way, is a propensity some students have to sit there with their electronic dictionaries open. The electronic dictionary becomes a crutch, wherein students get the idea they can type in some random word and the dictionary will spit out some other word that they can simply plug into their sentence—a sentence that has been hanging unfinished in the middle of a conversation because they grabbed their dictionary and commenced searching. (Always with, “Sorry!” and then a long silence.)

The fact that I point out, time and time again, that it’s often better to struggle over that hill of inexpressibility—to use body language when speaking, to use analogy when writing, to simplify, simplify, simplify—doesn’t matter, because the message just seems never to sink in.

I’ll admit it: sometimes there’s no simple way to explain something. Abstractions can sometimes be very difficult to explain. But the problem is that the dictionary is often less than helpful. Students plug in a word, and some random, Latinate, not-used-within-a-million-miles-of-this-context word comes up first, and that’s the one they chuck into the sentence. (And, sometimes, remember, and reuse incorrectly for weeks on end, though that’s less common.)

This is much worse in writing than in conversation courses. Dictionary-itis is a disease that absolutely plagues EFL student writing. Take the first sentence of the essay I just wrote feedback on:

These days many people think marriage as factor can elect not essential system.

Yes, yes, it’s not so bad when it’s just that one sentence. You can figure out that what the person is trying to say is something like this:

These days, many people seem to consider marriage optional, rather than an essential institution.

But to tell the truth, I’d settle for:

These days, many people think marriage is optional, not essential.

… or even:

These days, people think getting married is a choice, not an obligation.

… or, hell, why not:

These days, people think getting married is a choice, not essential.

Such a sentence would be quite easy to massage into readability. But the first has not only syntactic problems, but also basic vocabulary problems. The student is trying to use fancy-sounding words, and what results is very near gibberish. And while it’s not so bad when it’s only one sentence, this essay is three pages of solid dictionary-itis.

But believe it or not, I’m pretty much used to that. The wall I’m frustratedly banging into these days is something else: the veneer of monouniurihomogeneity that students seem to feel they should present in classes, or that students take on when given a position to lead.

Let me unpack that word, first:

  • mono
  • uni
  • uri
  • homogeneity

mono, uni, and homogeneity should be pretty clear to my Anglophone readers. The odd word out is “uri” and it’s a Korean word that means “we” or “us.” This word is used so much it just isn’t funny. Uri mal (our language), uri nara (our country), but also uri ddang (our land, ie. “our territory”) and (with an alternate spelling) Woori Bank.

One blogger went so far as to punningly call Korea “The Uri-Nation,” because of the monolithic face that Korean students (and journalists, and commentators, and others too) so often try to paint onto Korean society for the benefit of outsiders.

Which by the way is, I suspect, one reason why Westerners here are so prone to using that phrase I abhor so much, “The Koreans”—I almost didn’t read reporter Michael Breen’s book about the country because that was its title. Westerners very often fall into that trap, and yes, there must be a component of it that comes from Western culture, since I’ve seen people fall into using the phrase, “The Koreans” monolithically within a few weeks of arriving here; but at the same time, when you are interacting with large numbers of Korean people, many of whom also speak about their society in that way, it’s all but encouraging a monolithic view of this  society.

This might be why it bugs me so very much when Westerners talk about “The Koreans”: generalize about “The French” and a French person in all probability might point out that you’re generalizing (as my students discovered in the videos below):

…but when you generalize about Koreans, you either “get it right” and confirm stereotypes—thus missing out on the somewhat hidden diversity here—or else you “get it wrong” and people stridently correct you. (That is, try to get you fired.)

I’m having students lead discussions in my “Listening & Speaking” course. I’ve been doing it for a few semesters now, basically because of my belief that the things students don’t get to do enough in their classes here—take charge of discussions, discuss things they’re interested in, take responsibility for what happens in the classroom, and so on—are precisely the things that would help them move along in the language learning (as well as critical thinking ability, which I also try to get them to focus on).

Well, usually it works out quite well. From discussions of whether universities should allow “Gay Clubs” (social clubs for homosexual students) to form on campus, to discussion of Noh Plays, to what your feces tells you about your own health (with diagrams!), the topics have tended to be quite diverse, as well as usually appropriate to the class level. (For example, in my lower level class, the student-designed question discussed the other night was, “Do you think your parents have affected your personality?” which allowed people to talk in basic ways abouttheir parents’ personalities, their own personalities, and causal relationships—all relatively doable for the class, but a stretch in that they’ve never discussed that sort of thing exactly before in English.)

But sometimes, the monolith thing comes in. I previously posted, for example, about how an entire class sat there smiling and rattling off what were (essentially) racist stereotypes about other cultures, without anyone (except me, at the end) finally saying, “Okay, but wait a minute…”

And when I did say that, it became apparent that most of the people in the room knew very well how problematic all of that was. They admitted that all Chinese people probably aren’t dirty—in fact, the guy who raised the stereotype actually admitted that one of his fellow inmates at the campus dormitory is Chinese, and that the guy takes a shower every day. (At which point I explained why one might not want to say, “I meet him in the shower every day,” since it implies a standing arrangement to meet and shower together.)

Since then, a few other discussions have had the same pattern. One was about the (completely silly) association of blood types with personalities. I swear, this urban legend refuses to die. I sometimes wonder whether I shouldn’t ask the biotech major I know who wrote an essay debunking it for a copy of that essay, so as to hand it out in conversation classes as a discussion topic. But the thing is—lots of people don’t actually believe blood type and personality are linked. This is the thing that really got to me: the class sat around for about 30 minutes without even a vague hint of disbelief in the topic, until someone asked me what I thought, and I said, “Well, I think it’s nonsense. There’s no evidence of a link, and people are such complicated beings that there are more than four types of us. How would blood type affect your brain, anyway? Aren’t those characteristics for each blood type a little bit true about all of us? And besides, if you research it, the idea comes from Japan, and Japan got it from European eugenecists.” [Then explain eugenics, and pseudoscience.] “So no, I don’t believe that blood type affects personality. Neither does the position of stars when you are born.”

And suddenly, two-thirds of the class or more admitted that they thought the whole notion was silly, that they (or friends) had experienced bad treatment because of this stupid urban legend, and that they didn’t really know why anyone still believed it. The other third of the class (or less: I can only remember one person  shrugged and said, “But it seems to me to be true, at least a little bit.” And then, for a while, we discussed the reasons why people might believe this stuff, the dark side of such beliefs… until the student who’d chosen the topic, and was leading the discussion, took over again. Then, suddenly, the assumption for the purposes of discussion was that blood types do significantly affect personality.

That’s an example where my presence perhaps did some good—in that it at least stirred up involvement in the discussion, some disagreement or diversity. But then the discussion defaulted back into monouniurihomogeneity, and everyone was once again asserting politely that blood types were interesting and important as a way of knowing about people—even the people who’d just said they thought it was outright bollocks!

Well, the other day, another of those topics came up, and it was the topic of voluntary single mothers. That is, women who choose to be single mothers because they want a child but not a husband (or haven’t met Mr. Right, perhaps), and who decide to visit the sperm bank. The standard question—the question that’s always trotted out in such discussions—is, “Do you agree?”

The assumption, of course, is that everyone is entitled to an opinion, and yeah, everyone is. But not every opinion is entitled to equal consideration. Anyone who disagrees is now obliged to go read the full contents of the websites linked from this page (those still online, anyway: here’s a Wayback Machine capture of the page) to do their philosophical duty to unheard opinions.

But of course, I’m a teacher, not a priest or a thought-crime policeman. While I do believe it’s an important part of my job to challenge people to think critically, to get them to question what they think they know, I’m certainly not in the business of imposing my worldview on my students, and if I were, I’d be a bad teacher.

That’s why I respond to these things, usually, in ways that force students to confront the self-contradictions in the things they say, and urge them to appreciate the value of speaking out when they disagree with what someone else is saying.

Sometimes, I go with the Socratic method; that is, I just ask questions, carefully chosen to make students both students explain what they think and why they think so, but also to lead them meanderingly, gently, over to the bubbling spring of their own self-contradictions.

At other times, I simply send them on a collision course with their own self-contradiction, like how I sent them off to interview people of the very races and cultures they’d disaparaged in class, about the very stereotypes they all seemingly took as facts (or at least, presented as if they were true).  None of them was out-of-tune as to not feel trepidation about that, and none of them was so blithe as to present those racist stereotypes as facts to the people they were supposed to describe.

The struggle for me, though, is to resist the buildup of frustration one feels when constantly hearing people assert the same misconceptions and muddled ideas over and over (which novelist Richard Morgan describes so well, as I mentioned in an earlier post), and to  keep good faith with them while I’m pushing them to go beyond the two barriers that surround them: one, the barrier of experience and knowledge, and two, the barrier against expression. Talk to enough Korean people one-on-one and you’ll know that Korean society is, well, perhaps not a riot of diverse opinions, but certainly more than the social monolith that so many seem to want to present to outsiders. Many Koreans have a different opinion from the “party line,” but simply decline to express it in public. The difficulty is to remember that everyone mouthing the same truisms is not the same s everyone believing them. Though, of course, at some point, the significance of the difference kind of erodes down into irrelevance… so it’s important to encourage people to express contrary opinions—and to seriously consider them—whenever you can.

Edit (3 December 2015): 

Seven years later, and I’m still reflecting on this. I think this particular issue is simply inextricable from the job of teaching in Korea, and/or living here. You’re inevitably going to run into a lot of the uri business, and people saying things they don’t believe so as to fit into their role in the Monolithic Machine. What’s interesting is how time diminishes one’s sense of whether struggling against it is worthwhile. Now, I shrug and say, “Lots of people are just thoughtless, and don’t consider their ideas and opinions.” I still point out the fact that something widely asserted as fact isn’t fact at all, but I don’t believe it’ll make that much difference anymore.

Then again, that could have something to do with the caliber of student I’m teaching now. (Which is much lower than it was when I originally wrote this.) You can lead a horse to water, though you can’t make it drink… but try leading a praying mantis to water, and you’ll see that the horse’s leadability—and your willingness to lead a horse at all—simply has to suffice.

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