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On Teaching Writing in a Korean University — Part 1: Sarcasm, and a Recognition

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series On Teaching Writing in a Korean University

I just been working through the final articles submitted to me by my Journalistic Writing class, and I have to admit, I’m mostly pleased and impressed. Even though there are a few pieces that have me baffled — how could someone hand in something that was obviously not proofread, was written at the absolute last minute, and so on — I am overall quite surprised by the quality of the work I’ve been reading.

One thing that’s especially interesting is how a number of students have taken it upon themselves — yes, after urging from me — to find some other way to write an article than just earnest, preachy exposition — a particularly common form of self-expression in young nonfiction writers, and perhaps even more common in Korea than, in my experience, in Canada. A number of my students this semester seemed to have decided sarcasm was the way to go… and I’ll say, this is the first time that, while reading a pile of student essays in public, I’ve really laughed aloud at more than one or two things that were intentionally funny in the articles submitted. They were harsh, they were honest, quite critical, and they exhibited a surprising amount of creativity.

In one article, a (fictional) game-promotion agent argues for the popularization of an apparently new “hunting game” in Korea — where participants (mostly businessmen) pay for the opportunity to have a wild animal let loose to attack them. When it attacks, they can shoot it dead… what a rush! Another article is written from the point of view of a colonial conqueror with his sights set on conquering South Korea — and his name is Louis Vuitton. A third article argues that accepting and dealing with multiculturalism in Korea is a horrible idea, for… no reasons that make any sense. A fourth piece is a sort of pseudo-murder mystery, which really criticizes universities’ overuse of adjunct professors and what the student believes is their generaly shoddy treatment. And one more article was written from the point of view of a “Wellbeing” (er, “health food”) snack that not only argues why the fact it’s full of fat and cancer-causing chemicals is a great thing, but also curses like a sailor and threatens pretty brutal violence to anyone who criticises it online.

This is particularly interesting given the state of comedy in Korea. That is — as far as I understand it — it shies away from big issues, from rage and anger and public criticism of fuckwits and assholes. When I show students clips of American, Canadian, or English comedians (such as for example Bill Hicks, a personal favorite), they’re surprised and claim that such comedy would be impossible in Korea. Hell, I had a class once that said even a pretty oblique form of criticism, like the kind against Bush that was embodied in the TV show The West Wing, would be impossible in Korea.

My handle on Korean comedy doesn’t go much beyond what looks to me (as an outsider, yes) like kiddie slaapstick. So I don’t know… but sarcasm doesn’t seem to be a big part of it. Of course it’s more observable “on the street,” as it were: I know a few who are pretty sarcastic in the way they speak in Korean and/or in English, and I know others who praise this oratory skill in their Korean friends — but I am pretty sure even there that sarcasm in Korean works differently.

Not being fluent (or even that great) in Korean, I can still get some idea from what students write in English — reconstructing what their aesthetics of writing might be in their mother tongue, as an archaeologist might do. I could be completely wrong about this. I’d love, actually, any feedback on any of the comments that follow.

From what I’ve read over the years — especially the work of the brightest and most creative students — I suspect that the Korean form of sarcasm is probably less edgy/offensive/politically-incorrect in general, and that there’s more hand-holding of the listener. (Students, on reading “A Modest Proposal” — in English, mind, a foreign language to most of them — tend to be puzzled why I’d make them read something so horrific and hateful, and make analogies to Japan’s occupation of Korea, until there’s a discussion of why Swift made the insane suggestion that the Irish living under English occupation eat their children.) I suspect that the limits of propriety still apply to sarcasm in Korean, in a way they don’t necessarily apply in English — especially when it’s clear one is transgressing those boundaries knowingly, purposefully, to make a point. (When Stephen Colbert mumbles a racist epithet while in-character, we tend to know he’s putting words into someone else’s mouth because he thinks that word matches the attitude of the people he’s mocking.)

I’m not sure, but it seems that in the local form of sarcasm, one holds back just enough to not offend anyone too much, even if one is taken seriously. And when students experiment about crossing the line, they seem to lack the model of making a statement and at the same time demonstrating that they, the author, also recognize it is utterly ridiculous.

(Such as, “Never mind what the whining, bleeding-heart liberals, scientists, and say: oil spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico right now are great for the parts of the world economy that matter! Let the fish and plankton start their own businesses and compete with us on an even footing, if we are to care about them at all!”)

I find it truly unfortunate that I find myself and other foreign teachers in Korea relying on speculation to understand what Korean writing is like. As much as I’ve studied the language, I started late, and am busy writing feedback for students, so my grasp of what Korean writing is really like is simply poor. But one needn’t become fluent in Korean to understand structure, and yet I’ve never really seen a clear explanation of that in English, either. I’ve never heard of a workshop for foreign teachers of writing to Korean students that explains, clearly, the Korean model of writing to us so we know what patterns are there in students’ heads, or why they do some of the things they do. I’ve even asked the relevant office on my own campus (which provides assorted workshops for our new and growing population of foreign profs) to organize something like this… with not a word of response. Even some of the Westerners I know who have studied in Korean programs admit to not having a good handle on how Korean academic writing works structurally and argumentatively, though I should admit haven’t asked them all.

I’ve garnered a little. Korean students tend to say that in Korean writing, one saves the point for the end. There’s no thesis before then, just a sort of stroll through the main points. I wonder, though, if this is what modern academic writing looks like in Korean, and how much of this is just them saying, “We don’t write five-paragraph essay-styled essays in Korean.” Well, and we do’t write them in English, something I tell them first off, even in a course where I’m teaching them that format. It’s a pedagogical tool: no writer worth his or her weight in style manuals ever uses it in real-life writing.

Then again, I may be overestimating how much of an idea most undergrads have of what writing is supposed to work in their mother tongue, as well. An informal survey of my students in the courses I’ve taught this semester painted a pretty stunning picture for me: the sizeable majority of them claimed (claimed, note) that they had only one professor assigning any kind of written work at all this semester outside of a writing course — me. (And when it was focused to whether their Korean profs were giving writing assignments, the bottom dropped out of the bellcurve: a few gave any at all, and a few gave a ton, but the majority gave none.) Little wonder that most of them struggle so much when trying to write in English: they not really being shown how to do it in their own language, either, not beyond the stuff they mastered in high school. (Even Reading and Writing courses taught by Korean professors tend to focus on reading, not writing.)

(And little wonder they complain so much when asked to write little responses to classroom discussions, and a couple of essays per semester in lieu of exams.)

Well, and if that’s the case, I’m living in that Rome. Which suggests a few things to me. More about that next time.

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