From Public School To University

Well, I’ve done it. My first semester at a Korean university is over. Excepting a mountain of paperwork that will probably require about four more full days in the office, as well as finals, everything is finished. I’ve taught my last class.

For those uninitiated few who know little or nothing about the Koreaverse, the Korean university is looked upon as the holy grail by most of the English-teaching foreigners who reside here. Only getting some sort of a cushy job in Western Europe could be better than the incredibly low teaching hours (twelve a week), the incredibly long paid vacations (like three or four months), the relatively grownup students (I no longer live in fear of the dong chim), as well as the professionalism, the accountability, and even the respect, that comes with donning a monkey suit and walking into the hallowed bounds of an institution of higher learning. Koreans look down on foreigners who work in hagwons or public schools, but not university professors. Tell your taxi driver you’re a professor—cho-nun gyo-soo ee yo!—and I can guarantee he will say ohhhhhh, belly gooood! But why is this exactly?

When I worked in a public school completely surrounded by Koreans, everyone was doing their best to save face—meaning that it was each teacher’s responsibility to maintain the dignity of all the other teachers at the school, regardless of their effectiveness. There was no accountability. I witnessed at least one “open class”—where outside observers (mothers, administrators, fellow teachers) descend upon a classroom to judge the performance of a single educator who has had several months to prepare for the encounter—which was a complete disaster, with the students doing everything short of jumping on their desks and attacking the unfortunate teacher who was crying at the front of the classroom. There was no consequence. These open classes are an exercise in face-saving, a mockery of accountability, and even when they go belly-up, the teachers keep their jobs, because everyone must save face. Even if everyone knows that nobody knows how to teach anything, everyone must still pretend that everyone else is doing a fine job—in this way, open classes typify the joke that is education in South Korea, where almost everything undertaken in the name of learning is mere face-saving pretense.

But now that I’m surrounded by foreigners—at least fifty Western-raised, Western-educated professors, work at my school—who don’t give a damn about maintaining the dignity of their colleagues, especially when these colleagues have demonstrated their utter uselessness both as educators and as human beings (as one fellow professor, who will probably lose his job fairly soon, has), I’ve noticed that students actually make progress in the classroom. Professors are generally interested in education, which also means that when they see something is not working, they ditch it and try something else; at my public school, at the behest of my Korean captors, I taught the same pointless lesson for two straight years, and contributed much to the philistine-i-zation of about two or three hundred young children, who because of me and my captors will now grow up despising all things intellectual as a result of their sad experience in a building which looks but does not act anything like a school.

Almost all of the students I’ve met in the university are not only capable students but fun, respectful, and even pleasant human beings. I found the majority of their papers and conversations to be so boring that I was ready, on several dozen occasions, to shove a pair of scissors through one of my eyeballs, but enduring the slow water torture of dull discussions about what happens during Chuseok is still preferable to covering my ass with my hands in the company of trigger-happy elementary school students.

I taught two classes this semester: advanced writing and advanced conversation. The former involves far more lecturing than the latter, but both require babysitting in the company of Koreans, who would not ask or answer questions in the classroom unless I cajoled or threatened them—again, out of a fear of losing face—and who had to be watched all the time during group activities, lest they start using their cellphones, which almost all of them whip out the exact moment my back is turned. Still, most of them did good work. They wrote decent papers and passed difficult exams—despite how fiendishly dull it can be to explain the different between going to and will, or how you can’t just vomit a stew of plagiarized facts onto a piece of paper and call that your midterm essay.

I feel so sad every time people start yawning when I speak in these classrooms. The subjects I teach are dull, and I know they’re dull, but I still try to make them interesting, and the students still yawn, and become catatonic the exact moment I open my mouth. Hopefully it has very little to do with me; one day I will teach literature, philosophy, or history, and people will stop yawning in my classes. Until then, there is a limit to how much a single person’s charisma can do in the face of learning English grammar or the format of a decent essay.

Although many of my best students became very bored very quickly, there were a few students in my writing classes who clearly did not belong there at all, and who would have been bored if Albert Einstein himself had materialized in my place to explain relativity to them in fluent Korean; I suspect even a reincarnated Ito Hirobumi, one of many Japanese bugbears of Korean history, would have had them slumping in their seats, dreaming of heading back to their rooms so they could catch an episode of Infinite Challenge.

Actually I want to say something sexist here: almost all of the women in all of my classes did a fairly good job and worked fairly hard, while almost all of the men did the bare minimum at the very most. There were several very good male students in my classes, but the men by and large not only seemed to strongly dislike me, but they also demonstrated an amazing ability to ignore almost everything I told them in class and then wrote on their papers, continuing to make the same moronic mistakes while the women around them improved by leaps and bounds. They fell asleep, they never smiled, they played on their phones every chance they got, they appeared to consider themselves better English writers than their professor, and at times they even challenged me for leadership of the pack. I had to throw one of them out of the classroom, while the other backed down after I asked him if he had a question he wanted to ask me. Both students plagiarized their entire papers on multiple occasions, actions I forgave because of their maturation in a plagiarizing-happy culture where everyone everywhere copies all the time—and where very few people are ever called out on their complete lack of rigor or creative thought, because to do so would cause a loss of face.

One of the problems with higher education, if this can be called higher education, is that a lot of people just don’t belong in college, and yet colleges need their money. I don’t think this problem will ever be solved, not so long as people look down on kids who go to trade schools instead of universities. Next semester I will probably have a similar mix of students in my classes: many are capable, while a few don’t seem to care that they are wasting my time, and their time, as well as their parent’s hard-earned money. It would be nice if I could get the email addresses of the parents of the worst students in my classes so I could tell them that their kids are sleeping through my classes and copying their entire papers from the internet.

I also realized yesterday, as I was entering grades into a spreadsheet for three straight hours, that it is extremely pleasant to listen to Westerners engage in smalltalk, and that while I worked in a public school, and found myself completely isolated, it was impossible for me to hear people talk about whether Prometheus was good or bad or what their plans were for summer vacation. The Koreans did talk about things, but I couldn’t understand what those things were, and so went several days at a time without talking about anything with anybody.

And then during a drive in a taxi I thought about how pleasant things are, how upwardly mobile my wife and I feel, and how I generally enjoy the company of my students and colleagues, and how much free time I have—I’m composing this on a Friday morning which my son has chosen to sleep through, rather mercifully—and how I see little need to return to the hard work and rigidity of America, where I will almost certainly have to work all the time at a job I despise for the remainder of my days on Earth just to get by. Seriously, fuck that. If things are okay here, there’s no reason to take a risk in another country; one should only move when one is desperate. I’m concerned about my son’s education and how he’ll grow up in a society that values saving face far more than accountability, but by spending our vacations in America we can hopefully expose him to the best of both worlds without sacrificing the sanity of his parents to the endless hours, the low wages, the total lack of a benefits, and the Republican Party that just simply will not die.

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