Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Comment Moderation

Comments have not been working on DagSeoul. I discovered that the combination of settings I had selected was causing the problem on some browsers--most. I fixed the problem. Comments should appear in a pop-up box now after the Comments link is selected.

I really wish that I could get the comments to appear below my text so that readers could see their posts in conjunction with mine. I like that. But when I set this function in Blogger, it never works properly.

Please continue to inform me of any probs with the functioning of my blog. Cheers.

Back on the Bus with You (and Your Other-ing Elbow, too)

More than once on this blog, I have tried to address how quick US citizens, especially white folks, are to cry Xenophobia while living in Korea. It's true that Korea has a reputation for being rude to foreigners. People are pushy in the streets; they will look at you, but won't talk to you; they'll even talk about you while looking at you yet ignoring you.

But let's not kid ourselves: this is how foreign others are treated in the US as well as, well every other place I have been come to think about it.

I have yet to experience racism, though. Koreans have told me how rich I am, how lucky I am, how educated I am, etc. They like to draw rough caricatures of me: all end up representing me as an Ugly American of some sort. That is, until I get to know them.

I once got into an argument in my public school classroom with a teacher because I told a student who insisted Americans are all rich that I wasn't and the majority of Americans are not either. I told him, "in fact, we are poor." Speaking on behalf of millions of poor Americans, I felt proud of myself not permitting the nonsense in my classroom. My co-teacher stepped in and mentioned my clothes and then my wealth. After all, I was a traveler and living in Korea. Well, I stopped class. Turned on my laptop (a sign of wealth by the way, and it is and I must admit that,) turned on the projector, and connected the Internet. I showed them the poverty in the US. They shut up. The students ALL apologized. The adult teacher said nothing else about the matter. I had embarrassed her. It's not nice to do that to an adult here. Confucius still clouds daily life in Korea. On the other hand, I wasn't going to permit lies in our class to save her face.

I am a teacher. I am here to teach. I am not in this country to piss and moan about my personal treatment. I am here to work with others. If I were here to make money, to travel, to be tourist, I'd be at a hagwon (a for-profit, language education business) and tutoring. But I believe in public education and I am decidedly not a tourist.

I have found that by engaging my hosts, I am always treated well. Always. But engagement with others is difficult. I understand. I also understand that some people who travel are not cut out for traveling. What many travelers want is to be catered to in a manner that meets the satisfactions they are accustomed to in their native countries and as consumers in their local markets. Or, they want to treat Korea as their Zoo. I think it's unfair to come to a country like Korea and expect to be treated as anything other than other. Unless. Unless you are willing to take some shots, to be hurt, but to push back and insist your permanency in your new local environment.

Each time I return a shove in the street or a rude look or whatever weirdness I am given by a strange Korean I don't know yet, I try to return the action with a smile and some Korean language. If another return is offered it is always kind. The worst thing that happens is that I receive a grimace from an old man or lady. And I love the older Koreans. For what they been through in their lives--occupation and war--they have earned the right to grimace at foreigners in their land.

***5/27, 12:44 pm: It has been suggested to me that my use of "return" above makes it sound like I am returning a shove with a shove-with-a-smile. No. I am using return to implicate the return in discourse. The shove is a speech act. People push me out of the way rather than speak to me for a reason. It means many things, but one of the most significant ideas communicated by the shove is "I don't want to talk with you." I have learned that Koreans are incredibly shy and so are apt to appear incredibly obstinate. I return the shove with a speech act that invites a revision of their act. I think insisting that they "see" me again (revise) is important.***

AND LET US NOT FORGET KOREA'S HISTORY. You all do know that the Korean War has never ended. No treaty was ever signed between the US and Korea. We are still at war with each other. It's worth considering that Koreans know this and that Americans seem to not give a shit. Well, let's be honest. I am willing to wager that more than half of the foreigners in Korea, American or not, do not know this.

It is not an exaggeration for me to say that most foreigner teachers (not the students) I meet, including the Korean-Americans here know less than I do about Korean history, geography, and its local culture. Even the foreigners who speak the language well are not necessarily informed. How is this possible?!? Maybe they have read wikipedia. I think this is suspect. I did my homework before coming here and I assumed that others who wanted to live here would feel the same obligation. Well, I actually started doing the homework years ago when I wanted to come here. My point is that there are many reasons for Koreans' lack of trust. Foreigners come here to make money, eat, drink, have sex, make friends, buy stuff, and leave. And many foreign teachers make a lot of money. Many foreign teachers also often talk as if it is their right and privilege to come here and make as much as they want without doing anything. In other words, they do not behave as guests who are asked to be here and granted limited access; they act as if Korea is theirs to do with as they wish. Yes, they are little Imperialists and they are colonizing Korean space. And many Koreans hate it.

I am not going to surprise any high school or University teachers who read DagSeoul by saying this. But I will piss off almost every foreign teacher in Korea who will read this. We do not do much teaching here. The students in hagwons are studying for multiple choice tests. The majority of their teachers are teaching Idiomatic Expressions and some of their teachers are great performers and tell fun stories and use neat technology. In the high school I teach at, I see 20 classes of 35-45 students for 50 minutes once a week. Really. What can I do as a language teacher? Not much. Koreans do not work on composition and do not involve much reading in their language education. They work out of text books that target certain learning areas in language so the students can score well on tests. The students can read English and with prompts in the form of questions written in Korean language, they can tell you some basic things about English syntax and grammar. I do more for my students just talking with them in English, to familiarize them with the language, than I can teach them English.

It was shocking when I first got here. To the point, the majority of "native speaking English teachers" (NSETs) in Korea do not teach much at all. They work. We all work hard here. But most of the NSETs are not teachers. It's obvious talking to some of them that they don't know what they are doing. Now public school teachers here are more with it. But many are young and inexperienced--in fact, here to get experience. I don't understand what the Korean government is thinking bringing new teachers here to teach the English language. They should bring experienced teachers. (And this no offense to recent college grads coming here to teach, have fun, and get experience. Good for you.)

At any rate, the students are my concern. And many NSET folks care more for themselves and their lifestyles as travelers than they do care for their students. In other words, they are not teachers.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Your Korean Big Brother & You: Free Speech & False Courage

The Prosecutor's Office here, which has the kind of authoritarian power DAs and AGs across the United States salivate over, is looking to find ways to make any protest in a public space illegal that--no kidding--"might turn violent."  Basically, this means that any protest would be deemed illegal because the Prosecutor says it isn't a good protest.

***added at 2:24PM: Not many people have been smiling about the Prosecutor's Office seeking to harass and arrest peaceful protestors.  The Prosecutor's Office is looking for a means to be able to insist any protest can be illegal and the determination is to be made by the Office.  This isn't about violence.  If it were, there would be serious ramifications for several members of the police force in Seoul as a result of recent events.  This is about targeting activists and bullying them and/or arresting them.  Let me be clear, a violent protest in Korea is a protest where old people throw raw eggs and vegetable at cars and sometimes people.  Most protests are sit-down candlelight vigils, with singing and prepared speeches read over megaphones.  Moreover, we know how most nonviolent protests turn violent.  The police show up and harass people.  They have many tactics they use to provoke citizens to violent action.  And if those tactics fail, the police beat people with sticks.***

It's strange to live in a place that calls itself a Republic, a democratic republic, but has an elected government that permits such unethical use of power.  After all, a cornerstone for modern Democracy is the ability to peacefully assemble and freely speak.

In Korea, "peaceful assembly" is used against the assemblers.  Everything deemed inappropriate, read not in support of the government and corporate interests, is deemed not peaceful.  In addition, freely speaking is pitched against libel.  If an author publicly disagrees with a corporation on a web forum, for example, the corporation can file a dispute and for 30 days the posting would be suspended while the government, the corporation and you arbitrate about the validity of your claim.  The Korean government, and jawdroppingly many Korean citizens, will argue that this kind of arbitration protects free speech.

Such arbitration should not be considered free speech at any time nor for any reason.  Public criticism is the price of doing business and government.

It's simple.  We make claims.  Our claims, no matter how opinionated, have logic.  Something is explicit and implicit in each of them.  As well, whoever listens to our claims might find reason to, through inference, see things in our claims we did or did not intend.  By requiring real names to be used on blogs and Internet postings and by requiring arbitration about disputed claims, the Korean government proscribes inference from public discourse.  It's incredibly absurd. (I hesitate to write too much about politics on DagSeoul for a reason.  I'm not going to link to anything in this post.  Safe to say all news about protests, arrest of protestors, prosecution of bloggers, laws about blogging and posting online from mainstream news agencies in Korea will tell the story I have summarized whether the author or agency sympathizes with the laws/rules or not.)

In the United States and in much of Europe, free speech is an act.  We choose not to define speech acts because to regulate such acts might proscribe them and future acts, whatever they might be.  Such freedom permits and encourages active and aggressive exploration of the possibilities speech has to offer.  And much of our debate becomes centered on what speech acts are, not how to prohibit them.

In Korea, there is much handwringing about the difference between free speech and what we can call false courage.  Free speech is whatever is freely uttered in public that is proved to be correct.  False Courage, when applied to speech, is applied to anything the government says is not correct.  Or, that citizens find scary.  Certainly, I do not fully understand what Koreans who use it mean by false courage, but I understand what it means in the Western Tradition.  We might talk about false courage in an ethics course when we discuss the application of courage and the precision, accuracy, timeliness, what have you of its application.  The problem with associating false courage with free speech is that it punishes the person who is brave enough to step into the public discourse and speak his or her mind freely.

One thing we learn as teachers, even after only a few years of dedicated teaching, is that students who speak their minds make mistakes.  A good teacher has to come to terms with cultivating active learning in public spaces that permit mistakes.  A poor teacher in any department is inevitably a teacher who refuses to permit student mistakes.  Another way to put this:  the teachers who consistently punish mistakes by lowering grades or subtracting point are not good teachers.  Such teachers are good cops maybe, good purveyors of State Ideology maybe, but they never produce students who can critically think and write well.  Nor do they produce students who enjoy education.

Students who speak their minds will only speak their minds freely when they know they are permitted, at times encouraged, to make mistakes.  When we say that free speech that is mistaken, for whatever reason, is false courage--that to speak freely somebody must speak correctly, then we proscribe the freedom from speech.  It's really that simple.  And without free speech people do not speak, and people who do not speak do not learn.

And what is a public debate without the peanut gallery?  False Courage is a tool the ruling classes use to justify labeling any group or individual who disagrees with their minority conensus opinion as uninformed and stupid, a group or individual who should not be permitted to speak.

I often wonder why the Korean classroom is so silent.  Ask the students a question, they will not answer.  They will sit silently and await a cue that gives them permission to speak.  A teacher need not give them the answer, but the kids want a cue--they will often ask politely for a hint--about how they should answer.  That cue and the desire to receive it tears my heart in two.

What I miss about the American classroom is the noise.  Don't get me wrong, my classrooms here are noisy.  Adolescents are noisy.  The noise here is based in utter ennui.  My students--sophomores and juniors--get excited about playing bingo and winning prizes.  They are most definitely not excited about learning.  Their burden is learning because they are ranked as a result of their series of multiple choice tests into a line that will utterly determine their future.  The pain associated with this base ranking bleaches the joy from their educational journeys.  In many ways, the educational system infantilizes the Korean student.  And so the aging adolescents would rather play children's games and be rewarded with pieces of candy than be tasked to write three reasonable claims in English about what they think about something that affects their daily lives.

I grew up itching for an argument, I think, as many Americans do.  I couldn't wait to participate in adult discussion.  When I was younger I was always speaking up when I should remain quiet.  I was disobedient to the core.  Still am.  But I was encouraged to direct my energies in such a manner that permitted me to become the teacher I am today--a free thinker who wants to dedicate his life to service to his community.  The disobedient students here are pysically punished, forced to apologize for having a voice, and frightened with a future of poverty if they don't score high enough on their exams to go to a "top Korean university."

And you do know why this conversation turned from free speech to the classroom, too.  Because educational reform in Korea is the key to finding political leaders in the future who will truly transform the Korean government into the Democratic Government the people here have fought so hard for....I didn't write a post on DagSeoul commemorating the two important dates to Korea's struggle for democracy.  Now I have.  I love this country and am obsessed with its history.  I am learning why.  The longer I am here, I am figuring it out.

April 19
May 18

Important dates to remember.

So Free Speech is branded as False Courage here because it can be mistaken.  I think the point of free speech is that even when purposefully saying improper comments, we are free to do so and suffer the consequences.  After all, what does a Republic have to fear of such brazen incorrectness?  Oh wait, I know.  If people are permitted to speak without fear of punishment, they will undoubtedly speak about what troubles them most:  Oppression, Hunger, Poverty, Health, Mistreatment, etc.  All the things governments can't stand listening to.  The Korean Democracy suffers from what ails American Democracy:  both are intolerant of the poor, the working class, and minority interests.

And yes the education system here depresses the shit out of me.  In fact, I think many of the arguments I have had with my partner are based in my general sadness.  My disposition isn't quite right.  I am out of sorts.  But I love my students so much.  I care for them.  I wouldn't leave them.  And of course, I love my girlfriend.  And today I am remembering our trip to Gwangju and keeping in my heart all those who have lost their lives here fighting for their freedom.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Because I love you

My routine with second graders--high school Juniors--at my school: listening, group work, writing, and speaking.

Today, this week actually, we will be debating how strict teachers should be in the classroom. The teachers hit the kids here. I should say some are very strict disciplinarians and remind me of College Prep at Cascia Hall with the Sisters and Brothers throwing erasers, slapping and pulling hair. Also the punishments usually involve something physical like repeated low bowing or push ups, for boys, or cleaning the school, for girls.

Some teachers are not disciplinarians. There really is no grey area. They either yell, scream, smack or not. Now, Jansori (patronizing scolding) is something that everyone does. It's a bad habit, in my opinion, but catching. As in, I am catching it--for another post.

So, I finished a presentation on vocabulary to use when debating. Some discussion about using the word because effectively. We'll see how this goes.

Korean students refer to this sort of exercise as PROS & CONS. Some are familiar with the process, some not. I hope they get into the spirit of arguing about how their teachers treat them. It may flop, though: I believe the students here think the teachers do not deserve criticism even though the students do not like their daily regimen. It's the culture.

In addition, I have been slowly working on building critical thinking skills. The students here are woefully lacking the ability to argue with reason and to speak their minds. They often prefer to be given answers they can learn--memorize--in order to score high on multiple-choice exams. So, in my classes, the students write and speak opinions based in reason.

Because is an important word.