What is less easy to sympathize with [than economic considerations] is the acceptance of an appreciable number of students of the pressure and their using it to avoid 'unnecessary' work. The willingness of the faculty to assist graduation by generous marking has the deplorable effect in class of making many students complaisant towards their work. Why work, after all, if examination passing is more or less automatic? Students have frequently come to me with their names and vital statistics written on a piece of paper and asked me to give them an 'A' or a 'B' grade because they had been unable (or unwilling?) to attend any classes during the semester.
Most frustrating of all in this respect is what my friend and I have called 'the conspiracy of mediocrity.' This is a description of an apparent tendency to control the amount and the quality of work done in class in order to facilitate revision for, and the passing of, examinations. The 'conspiracy' manifests itself in complaints that work is too difficult, failure to do assignments, the arranging of class picnics for weekdays instead of weekends and numerous delaying and diversionary tactics in class---the favourite being to ask one to tell the class all about England and English university life. This is made the more annoying by the fact that there are many excellent students in class who went to get on but find that their loyalty to their classmates is stronger.
An offshoot of the economic handicap is the business of the education industry in Korea and its effect on classes, on the students, and hence on the teacher. Koreans tell me with pride of the widescale interest in,and concern for, education here. Everybody either wants to have or wants to give his children as extensive an education as possible. The pressure upon university students does not merely come from the need to present a graduation certificate to their potential employers. It also comes from parents and relatives and the social atmosphere in Korea that insist that a university education is necessary for one who wishes to become an acceptable member of society regardless of whether he is equipped for university or not. I find this objectionable if only because it is bursting with snobbery. I also find that it adversely influences the atmosphere in class.
I used the phrase 'education industry' advisedly and unpejoratively. There is an enormous demand for education and therefore it is supplied on what amounts to a commercial basis---unlike in England where education is largely in the state. Subject ot certain government controls universities must think in terms of fees paid for services rendered of profit and loss. Classes are large and for the reason given in the previous paragraph, they are often filled with students who, perhaps, should never be in a university in the sense in which one usually understands a university. They seem to be willing cogs in a credit-card filling machine. Other students for one reason or another find themselves studying a subject in which they have lost interest but in which they must continue since to change faculties is so difficult. The two kinds of student were neatly blended for me in a student who once told me that he enjoyed English literature very much but hated reading books.
Naturally enough this contributes to the casual approach towards study that is often found in class, to the ever-ready cutting of classes by all students for slight excuses like inter-university football matches (even though few students from the class may actually go to watch the game), to the attitude that if there is a street demonstration in the morning then there can be no classes in the afternoon, to the slipshod work that is done during the five minutes before, and the first five minutes in, the class in the name of assignments and finally to the feeling on the part of the teacher that the students are for these reasons schoolchildren not students.
There is another totally different handicap that students suffer when learning English at university, especially from a foreign teacher. It is the totally inadequate instruction given in middle and high schools in the practical use of English. Students, through little fault of their own other than lack of private initiative, are unable to read English quickly enough for university purposes. When I asked some graduate school students to read a short book as background material for my lectures one of the students said that it would take a fortnight to do so. This I think represents average ability. The problem is aggravated by the difficulty of obtaining books. Students, as a rule, are unable to borrow books from the university library. The choice of books available in city bookshops is limited and those books which a student can afford are even fewer in number. Students are not by English standards well read. One sophomore class of English Literature department students had not, when asked, heard of a poet called Alexander Pope.
Few students have a sufficient mastery of the language to understand a lecture given in English. Most classwork has to be done on the blackboard---what I wrote on the blackboard constituted the whole of what a sizable number of my students learned---and literature and other texts had to be selected according to whether they could be conveniently duplicated or not. All these are very constricting to a foreigner who initially expects to be able to do much more advanced work. It is a little depressing to reflect when one marks examination papers that all that has been understood of one's lectures h as been the notes one wrote on the blackboard, and that therefore one might just as well have written up a term's notes, have had them duplicated and distributed, and then simply not to have bothered to hold the classes.
The answers to the problems that these handicaps cause are hard to find, and it is quite possible that I never found them. Inattentiveness in class I ignored though other professors say that they throw daydreamers out of the classroom. Noisiness, a perpetual problem, and petty cheating during class assignments---students here do not look upon work done communally as dishonest, let alone see that it does them individually little good---one had to stop schoolmaster fashion and to me it was a loathsome business.
Most of the work I had to do was under the vague title 'English Conversation' and I know that the university administrations had little idea of what they wanted me to do. One thinks immediately of small classes and interesting discussions, but in practice one is foiled by the large size of most classes---classes sometimes contained up to sixty or seventy students---and the almost negligible grasp of spoken English by the majority of the students. The better students often implored me to have discussions in conversation classes, but less than a semester of this---my first---showed me that the discussions were held primarily between myself and a handful of good students, and the weaker brethren, even when called upon to speak, seldom said more than that they could not speak English very well.
There is in fact almost no way to bridge the large gap between the able and the poor that exists in the average class. Many people sing the praises of sentence-pattern study, but, though most of my students needed it, most thought it was too elementary after seven or eight years of English. The kind of work I did was basically oral so that there was some advantage in my being a native speaker of English. At the beginning of each semester I did a lot of dictation work. The dictations grew more difficult later and then were turned into story reproductions---I read a story two or three times and they had to reproduce it in their own words. A permanent fixture throughout the semester was pronunciation exercises, based on pairs of similar words chosen to contrast both vowels and consonants that Koreans find especially difficult in the English language. Towards the end of the semester I had students---usually volunteers---tell stories of Korea or explain things that peculiarly Korean and then, using this as a basis, I asked questions of the whole class in the hope, sometimes realized, that discussion would follow. For the rest I did oral exercises based on miscellaneous features of the English language. I used any opportunity to broaden the exercise out into free discussion if any seemed likely to be forthcoming and wrote everything that the students found difficult on the blackboard. This kind of work met, if it did not answer, the problem of large classes since it was possible to refer two or three times to every member of the class in every class. Moreover it gave the students something tangible to revise, and me something to mark out of a hundred, when it came to the examination which pure discussion classes never could.
The bulk of my teaching was, therefore, a compromise between the ideal and what I actually found in Korea. It was only for my students to say whether my compromise was adequate, useful, or successful. Some may have better answers to the problems discussed here, others, Koreans, may say that I have shown Korean education in an unjustly bad light. From the first I can learn, to the second I apologise and to both I can only say that this has been my experience.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
In honor of the professors giving midterms.
In honor of professors giving midterms this week---a practice that spawns all kinds of face-palm-inducing threads on the forums about cheating, inflating grades, and overall indifference---I'll repost an excerpt from an account of teaching English at a Korean university in the 1960s. It comes from a piece titled "My Experiences of Teaching English in Korea" from a 1965 edition of Korea Journal.