Interesting Homework: Service Center Calls

I just got myself caught up on the “Challenge” homework submissions for my Listening & Speaking course, which is essentially an English Conversation course. Now, there are a few things to consider about English Coversation courses in Korea, and my students in particular:

  1. Leveling is nonexistent. This seems to be common in Korean universities: for some reason, administrators (and some professors) seem to be hostile to the idea that a student’s learning experience will be better if he or she is instructed with other students of the same level. This is something I’ve experienced even when it would be trivially simple to arrange — ie. when scheduling is not an issue, when the conversational English instructors volunteer to handle the level sorting interviews, and so on. Over the years, I’ve fought this and finally given up: the system is broken and nobody wants to fix it in the standard, normal way it’s done in language instruction worldwide. So you accept it, and find other ways of making it work.
  2. The students in my department are of a very high level. Not all of them, but so many of them that it’s a waste of time to do anything other than guided “free talking” with a bunch of challenges to push them out of their comfort zones, and exercises for the finer (cultural) points many of them struggle with. (And besides, while they’re supposed to be taking the course as sophomores, some wait till junior or even senior year.)
  3. Most students’ biggest complaint is that they are losing their English from lack of opportunities to use it in Korea. Not that they are very aggressive in seeking out those opportunities, but, well, they are busy undergrads. So I can help them with that a little.
  4. Students are extremely sensitive to — and critical of — grading that is in any sense subjective. After a lifetime of multiple choice exams, they are very concerned with “fairness” and sometimes will go so far as to accuse instructors of favoritism, unfairness, and so forth. This is especially likely with any evaluation that relates to a subjective mark; even with a clear grading rubric in front of them, some will cry foul.

With this being the situation, one thing I do is try to make all grades in my classes either binary or trinary: Pass/Fail or High Pass/Low Pass/Fail. People who get High Pass on everything get top grades. People who get Low Pass on everything pass… just barely. People who  get a mix, end up in betwee. Those who fail everything, well…

But to address the other issues (1-3) I need to be a little more creative. So in this particular course, every semester I have students formulate their own challenges for every individual; they come up with a single challenge, in a small group, and then we check them out, dump the stinkers, and arrange what’s left in a list. The usual is five challenges for a 16 week semester, with the challenges being formalized in Week 2. Students can submit one challenge each two weeks, but sometimes they have to redo them, or face setbacks.

The really excellent thing about this set of challenges is that everyone can do them — none of them is particularly difficult to complete, though there is a slight increase in difficulty with each successive challenge. But — and this is the genius thing — not everyone does complete them.

Since each challenge is a simple Pass/Fail grade — you complete it, or you get a redo… or you never submit it, in which case you cannot proceed to the higher-level challenges — there is no arguing about subjectivity. You fulfill the rules and criteria, you get a passing grade for the challenge and go to the next level. No arguments.

It’s a pain in the ass to lay out all the criteria clearly, but once you’ve done it, it becomes — very frankly — a question of students’ time management skills and commitment to doing the practice and exercises necessary to broaden their English speech use and experience. Which, if you ask me, is a better way of evaluating them, sans leveling, than pulling out a rubric and giving high grades to kids who mastered their nitpicky grammar better, and lower grades to those who didn’t get sent to supplemental (and expensive) English classes throughout their childhood.

The set of challenges I just went through was pretty funny to listen to: students had to call the service center for some electronics company, inquiring for opening times and directions on how to get there — after explaining some imaginary problem with their favorite gadget… and doing it all in English, of course. The students experienced a lot of the same things we expats are used to now: the service center personnel hanging up when we try to talk to them in English; very curt discussions (bordering on rude); a long wait while some random non-service-center guy who happens to speak a little English is summoned from some other office five minutes away. One student complained it took an hour to complete the assignment (of which she submitted only the last few minutes in recording form.)

I was thinking about suggesting more TEFL teachers in Korea give this particular homework assignment out: if service centers were constantly getting such calls, they might actually, you know, start making a priority out of hiring at least one bilingual staffer. But it was amusing enough for me to hear the same woman at the Samsung Service Center office in our neighborhood get progressively better at handling these kinds of calls from one day to the next.

Now I have to run before I am locked in the office building for the night…

6 thoughts on “Interesting Homework: Service Center Calls

  1. I do like the communication over the phone bit. That really limits body language and other cues so that more and better English is required.

    I kinda, sorta like the way you are training service centre people so that you and I will have better experiences if we need to use them.

    I have a concern though:
    These service centre employees are being paid by a company that needs to sell product and your student’s calls are not helping them. As the problems are imaginary, it seems as the calls roughly fit the definition of fraud.

    At another university, not the one I am at now, a Korean ESL professor occasionally assigned her students to interview a foreigner and submit the results. This did mean the students were seeking out foreigners but the only foreigners around were instructors at the same university. We were hounded in our break time as several students mobbed every one of us. It might have been good practice for the student, but it was not enjoyable for us NESTs.

    I know you have been here around as long as I have so I am sure you have had similar experiences and I consider you to be more thoughtful and organized than I am. Is there some way you avoided loading up one service centre with too many calls or, well, what was your solution to the problem I outlined?

  2. Surprises,

    Oh, I don’t know about fraud. People call service centers for their location information all the time, and anyway these students are supposed to have real products from these places. (So in theory they may have to go there someday anyway.)

    And, caveat, I forgot to note: while my students got hung up on after calling and speaking in English, I sometimes get hung up on at the first impasse when I’m speaking in serviceable (but not great) Korean. I don’t intend it as training for service center people, so much as training in dogged persistence among my students.

    Anyway, the service centers are not selling product, they’re just providing service for people wo have those products and need service. I don’t think the extra phone calls are really causing an onerous burden — I have twenty students, not fifty, and it doesn’t cost the service center people much time or effort to give directions in English to their location, opening and closing times and days, and the like. And I found they mostly called a variety of places — maybe six different places between ten or more students so far? I figure the variety of products they own (iPhone, Android Phone, non-smart phone, various makes of computer, etc.) would naturally direct them to different places, and in the end it seems to have done so. But three calls were to the same Samsung service center, so I recognized the woman’s voice, and that amused me.

    As for students mobbing foreign professors — yeah, I hate that, and I explicitly limit that kind of thing. I let them know that most foreigners here are sick to death of that kind of thing, and that unless they’re going to make the conversation meaningful for both participants, not to bother. I actually block those kinds of assignments — the “interview the white English teacher” and ask students to do things like use English with foreign students who aren’t native English speakers, with their Korean (non-native English speaking) friends, and so on. Part of the point for me is disabusing them of this silly idea that the only people they can use English with have white skin. In the past, I did let students interview foreign professors on campus, but not the native English speaking ones: one French professor was the only one who got approached, and she didn’t seem to mind since she’d never been approached by a student for an interview in English. (Much less, to discuss the topic they were going after, which was what she thought about the popular Korean stereotypes for French people/culture.)

    Once, I had students approach non-native English speaking professors whom they knew to speak English well. The foreign profs — Japanese language, International Studies, and so on — were all fine with this; the Korean ones were very weird, and refused to speak in English until they were told WHY this Korean student was trying to use English with them. (And we wonder why students struggle to maintain or improve their English, when even those Korean profs who are fluent in English display so much antipathy to using it with them.)

    The acronym is NSET, not NEST, isn’t it? I noticed it crop up a while ago and now everyone seems to be using it, but I’ve always found it sort of cheesy. Was it popularized by ATEK or something? It’s like the acronym appeared overnight or something.

  3. I really apologize for the ‘fraud’ statement. I did not want at all to suggest illegal action should have chosen a word both milder and less used in legalese.

    I agree with this statement: ” I don’€™t think the extra phone calls are really causing an onerous burden… ” You had few students and they spread their calls over a few different centres so I do not think anyone would be overwhelmed. Perhaps an apt analogy would be that of parents letting their child handle the discussion and payment with the grocery store cashier. No problem at all except for the five days before Christmas when the lines are long and slow.

    However, your post did remind me of an article at Feakonomics about the use of fake resumes for academic research.

    “The researcher sends resume’s of artificial job applicants in response to job openings. Typically there is a crucial difference in some characteristic of the person… Is this ethical? Employers are deliberately lied to; and unbeknownst to them they spend time in an activity that cannot lead to a hire. ”

    In my opinion, I think you have a good idea and are free of ethical concerns unless you use this with a larger group. I was mostly curious how you approached the concern.
    I keep reading the acronym as Native English Speaking Teacher, rather than Native Speaker English Teacher. I first recall seeing NSET on Brian in Jeollanamdo’s blog and have just searched his blog. He used the term (including in quotations) 58 times between Nov11 and Dec 29, 2009

  4. Surprises,

    Oh, I wasn’t offended, really, but it is a charged word.

    As for worrying about adverse effect on businesses — ha, like they’re so efficient as it is? I’d say given the way business has been allowed to warp culture and life in our world so far — and is continuing to be allowed to do so — I have very little scruples about such things. Indeed, if we all flooded businesses with fake resumes and fake phone calls and so on, to the point where they were losing money, maybe they would be unable to afford all the crap they pump into our environment (against the will of most of us) in the form of advertising? One can only wish. I know when I get on the subway, I am not pleased to see dozens of plastic surgery ads, let alone all the use of women in bikinis to hawk tickets to water parks and skiing resorts. (Bikini. Skiing. WTF?) And that’s to say nothing of how the business world has warped universities directly and indirectly… especially in South Korea. Some of their policies — like hiring seniors months before graduation, and expecting them to (a) start full time prior to graduation and (b) just collect a free credit in 8-16 courses, because they got a job — are profoundly hostile to the integrity and quality of university education. You’ll have to work harder than that before I shed a tear for wasted business work-hours.

    However, I will say that one thing with this is the question of evidence. The second challenge for this class was for students to go to the only “English Bookstore” in Seoul. You know the one, that one in Itaewon? The assignment was for students to go to the store, and inquire about a book for which they don’t know the title. They can know the plot, the author, the names of characters, etc. It’s supposed to be a famous book, ie. one the clerk is likely to know. If that book isn’t in stock, then they should get a recommendation for something else. The assignment included buying the book and bringing it and a receipt. I figured, since they usually want to know where to find good English books, this would be a win-win situation: more people would know of the shop, the students would have an English book to buy.

    Supplementary to the evidence of a receipt and a book is a recording of the conversation, so students can show that they didn’t just go and buy a book.

    So two of my students went last Friday. The clerks got suspicious and weird, but someone who introduced herself as the owner (and wasn’t offended by their homework) was helpful and they got the books they were after. But after the owner left, and the students went to buy the book, the clerks FREAKED OUT on them. It was all, “It’s illegal to record us without our knowledge! I can call the police! Erase that MP3 right now! Are you testing our English? It’s illegal!” (And I’m pretty sure it’s not illegal; and even if it is, once they were told it was for homework, I mean, chill the fuck out… you’re selling books, it’s not going on Youtube, what’s your goddamned problem?)

    When they reported this to our class, I felt so annoyed I told them I’d make up another challenge. I may contact the owner of the shop, but I’m not going to send my students to buy books there if that’s how they’re going to be treated. The saddest thing is that one of my students actually said she was blown away by the fact such a store existed, she was excited to start shopping there — and then, bam! She got screamed at by a clerk there, and is never going back.

    After a few years of doing such exercises, I’ve never had a student report anything remotely like this. It’s pretty fucking sad. So… that bookstore just lost a few likely repeat customers, and 20-ish definite sales. Nice job, clerk lady with a hangup about your English.

    As for NSET, yeah, maybe I’m just getting old, but it has always struck me as a kind of unnecessary, jargony acronym… the kind that English teachers here would be prone to using because they need a term that makes them feel special and important or something. Not accusing Brian of that… I first ran across it on other blogs. But it’s the vibe I’ve always gotten from the term. It sounds vaguely corporate to me, though, I guess, and I hate everything that sounds corporate to me.

  5. I don’t know the law here, but recording a conversation is typically only legal in Canada or the US if both parties are aware of the fact before the conversation starts. There are exceptions for public spaces and such.

    Are you being deliberately sly* in not naming the bookstore? I lived in Seoul for two years, ten years ago. I think Abbie’s Bookstore has closed down but I know of one used bookstore and one new-and-used bookstore with a pretty good website owned by foreigners.

    *This is why I can’t be a writer. Are you being deliberately discrete/ disingenuous/ …? I’m sure there’s a word for “choosing not to use the proper noun” but I don’t have it in mind now.

  6. I don’t know the technicalities, but I doubt there are serious legalities involved in the recording of public service received at a shop. (If there were, then I think undercover/exposé reports would be much rarer in the media.) But in Korea, people seem to believe they have 100% full rights over any recording of anything involving them, and that’s not correct. As Michael Hurt explained somewhere or other, there is no legal prohibition against photographing people in a public place, and, well, have you seen signs up in Korea (as in Canada/US) warning people that security cameras are recording their every move and can be used in court against them? I haven’t.

    But anyway, it’s dumb customer service to freak out over a recording that a kid is using for a class. You laugh, and think, “Hey, homework that gets us sales? Cool.” You don’t threaten to call the police. That’s just dumbass.

    While I am being deliberately obfuscatory, this is the place with new-and-used books, run by foreigners. Who I suspect don’t know their staff actually behaved this way — the staff waited till the owner had left before abusing the students. I’m tempted to contact the owners, but am not sure any good will come of it. Too bad, I like the shop and all… but seriously? Threatening to call the cops, and shouting at the students, “Delete that file now”? That’s just dumbass.

    I just wish the kids had known the way shitty customer service gets dealt with, ie, “I’d like to talk to your boss.” Because I kinda suspect the clerks would not get away with yelling at paying customers just for recording the customer service they got, so they could prove they’d done their homework.

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