Monday, November 22, 2010

Working On

1. I'm reading Volume One of Karl Marx's Capital again. This is the second time I'm reading it cover to cover; it will be the third time re-reading many of the more famous sections. I found a copy of David Harvey's lectures about Volume One and am reading it as if I were taking his popular seminar. It reminds me of the class I took at University of Denver (DU) with Robert Urquhart. I miss that man's company. A lot of fun reading Marx and watching John Wayne films. Well, his love for John Ford and Wayne always made me groan, but his screenings were a kick.

2. I'm trying hard to get reinstated as a student at DU while finishing my dissertation. It's difficult trying to do this from Korea. Handling registration and, as a result, student loan issues from overseas is a real headache. What would have taken a day or two of walking papers with signatures between departments on campus is a year-long odyssey of unanswered e-mails and phone calls. I blame nobody on this one, but it does illustrate how educational and financial institutions have failed to usefully implement technology in order to make the students', teachers', consumers' and employees' jobs a little easier.

3. Reading Slavoj Zizek has become a hobby of mine. I follow his lectures as well. I really like the guy, especially his ability to piss off establishment academics and right wing ideologues. His recent work has become much more readable, I think. Whether we agree with everything he argues, his take is creative, aggressive, and concerned. I like the fact that he insists we revisit Hegel. Hegel is one of the most abused western philosophers. He's often misquoted and misunderstood because researchers and theorists use two or three of his most famous works without fully understanding his conception of logic and his entire project. The abuse could be prevented with a little more reading and decision to cease using other authors using other authors using other authors. And of course, literary theorists are always misusing him. Anyway, my engagement with Zizek has me revisiting Kant, Marx, Hegel, Butler. Makes me happy.

4. Wrapping up another semester at Samsung High School in Seoul.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Right to Assemble & Speak & Distribute Information

From The Boston Globe, "SKorean police arrest 4 people over G-20 protests." (I'll try to get out and snag a few photographs of protests and other activities in the next few days and during the summit.)

The G20 looms in Seoul and Koreans will show up in thousands to protest.  There will likely be hundreds of arrests and as many news stories about the protests and arrests--as many as will be published about the political and corporate interests that are represented at the Summit itself.

I think we should remember what's at stake as Korea and Koreans continue to become more significant to the global capitalist market: Korean well-being. For me the highlight of this G20 Summit is the Korean people who have accomplished so much in the last 40 years yet continue to struggle with the cultural impact and realities that a fair and just democratic society imposes upon them as it promises to more or less liberate them. In my opinion, Koreans are at odds with the capitalist market and its ability to exploit democratic institutions to make a profit. Of course, foreign interests in Korea often get blamed and foreign laborers often receive the rhetorical force of the blaming rhetoric. We should not forget that conservative elements in Korea that are not Nationalistic but Corporate are at work behind organizing and disseminating the nationalist fear and rhetoric because it serves their purposes well: it makes the majority of Koreans, the working poor to working middle classes, look immature, petty, bitter, and unable to effectively lead. The resulting sentiment offers a slimy protection of Korea's ruling elite.

We should insist that the highlights of the G20 protests in Seoul, organized by Koreans, are the labor activists protesting cuts to social welfare programs. The Korean left is correct to be concerned and their early protests are a sign of their precise action rather than their often reported disorganization and vitriol.

Nevertheless, the conservative Korean press is likely to highlight any and all nationalist rhetoric within the Korean protests and amongst public Korean dissent. Such press serves an important cultural purpose: it protects Korea's elite. The unfortunate result is that the shitty expat blogging community will find further reason to hate on Korean activism via blogs regarding unfair treatment of foreigners by Korean bigots or regarding behavior non-Koreans find silly, stupid and offensive. It's always one or the other with foreign bloggers: criticize bigotry in Korea or illustrate their stupidity. Especially white bloggers: white folks love to illustrate others' bigotry. You know, it's white power's only effective use: Scapegoating.

Please support Koreans' right to organize, distribute information, protest, assemble and speak in public. Please celebrate that attempt to preserve their rights. In this celebration maybe we can find a little more energy to afford looking after our own back home, which are in fact in jeopardy. The democracy movement is alive and still struggling here. Without positive portrayals, like the Boston Globe's piece this morning, we cannot expect the remaining love of nationalist sentiment and protectionism to lose its popular appeal. And rather than the protests being about how the rest of the world envisions and represents Korea's nationalist sentiment, this should be about insisting Koreans are able to distribute information to shape policy and rhetoric.

Please do stop highlighting the minority nationalist interests as if those ideas are passively supported by the majority of Koreans. They aren't. It's about as silly as claiming the Tea Party represents the majority American sentiment regarding economic and social policies because the press pays so much attention to it. It's damaging to the progressive left (even the progressive right) who's image is often smeared in the right wing/corporate popular press.

Monday, November 8, 2010

시끄러운 교실

The longer I teach in Seoul the more I'm learning about classroom control management as an active and sometimes aggressive yet covert struggle between between my expectations for my students and my students' expectations for me.  I say covert because the traditional classroom does not permit never mind encourage student dissent.  In other words, I don't see the students and me meeting each other in an ideal public space we call a classroom in which we work together to complete a series of tasks and conversations in order to learn.  I see my and my students' expectations meeting in a rhetorical space through which we communicate with each other about lessons I'm more or less obligated to teach them.

I've quickly described two classrooms; neither is an actual room we could call The Real Classroom.  One is an ideal classroom and the other a rhetorical space.  Teaching in an ideal public classroom is an experience I very much want to have.  I'd love to see the promise fulfilled, the promise of democratic discourse in a public classroom that results in learning and an exchange of ideas many of which derived from the original social difference of the individuals in the class.  The latter space, which I refuse to call a classroom, is the space I'm obliged to maintain.  It's a space wherein cultural difference, contractual obligation and the State all work to create turbulence that is always just slightly less than the natural noise in an actual classroom: students, teachers, desks, chairs, the A/V, the fan.  For the students, this turbulence registers in anxiety and discomfort heard in their voices, seen on their faces.  Some simply sleep through it.  A few react violently to its presence.

I don't now how most teachers handle this.  Actually, I do.  Most teachers use their power to maintain order in their classrooms with more or less successful results.  Most teachers teach to maintain order: order in the tradition, order in the room, order in their assumptions, order in their lives, and so on.  In addition, I always assume, and I think I'm correct in making this assumption, that most teachers don't believe this turbulence (as opposed to the everyday noise) exists.  Most teachers I meet seem willing to accept the classroom space a school district provides for what it is and that their task is to instruct students on how to do specific tasks more correctly, more efficiently.  In effect, our public classrooms are nothing more than training students how to be good employees and consumers.  I don't want to pick on most teachers, but I do have a problem with the attitude that for all its claims to appreciate the importance in education actually reinforces the notion that ranking is much more important than understanding and appreciating knowledge.  I don't think it's good for us and I know it's not good for our students.

Most days, teaching public school in Korea is a lesson in humility.  Even when what I teach entertains and educates my students, an honest assessment of the quality and usefulness of my lessons can lead to slight, if not heavy, depression.  I never question my dedication to teaching; don't misunderstand me.  It's that I get depressed when I think of the dirty rooms, decaying infrastructure, smelly uniforms, unhappy employees, horrible food, and incomplete lessons.  Of course, there's much more we, as in society, can do to improve the horrible situation(s) of public education.  In Korea, as in the US, much public discourse concerning educational reform embraces the ideals we all think a healthy democratic society has to offer the classroom.  But much if not all the talk about teachers and students is focused squarely on the outcomes of tests that evaluate performance of students and now teachers.  These ideals are, then, not at all about education, pedagogy, practice, knowledge, discourse and rhetoric.  They are market ideals that help explain, encourage, inculcate, and distribute capitalist cultural myths.  I don't care about these ideals when it comes down to it because I find them facile and vacuous; in the sense that we all know them already, some of us agree with them in spirit, and yet do absolutely nothing to insure we shall attain them.

I'm going to post a lengthy description of my last lesson and attempt to examine what I'm doing here at Samsung High School.  I want to examine the usefulness of the language work I attempt to accomplish on a weekly basis. 

I have titled this post "The Noisy Classroom" because I encourage noise in my classrooms.  The noise in my classes is bilingual--Korean and English.  The noise is outbursts, questions, casual conversation, friendly banter as well as scolding address: all the typical noises are present.  I tend to have students work in groups.  My high school students tend dwell "behind the curve."  They are nowhere near proficient enough to meet Korea's standards for students their age.  In each class, I can expect anywhere from 2 to 6 students who are at a solid intermediate level or above.  I can expect 5 to 10 students who are at a low intermediate level.  I can expect the other students to be at a beginner level or have little to no desire to use English at all.

This poses a problem for me. If I were a teacher who made demands of my students based on the standards, as most teachers do, I'd get no satisfactory work accomplished, no matter how good my lessons were.  No matter what my colleagues think of ESL/EFL standards, theory and praxis, I'm not teaching in an environment where I can use traditional teaching methods to gain positive results.  First, the students aren't at the level that Korea's standards insist we (teachers and students) maintain; second, I have no instutional support.

In addition, the standard serves to remind my students how poorly they perform in comparison to the standard.  It serves no other purpose; I'd argue even at the schools where students outperform the standard the standards do not encourage learning instead instilling habits of competition.  Students are, in fact, oppressed by the standard.  I found in my first year at school that the lessons the Korean teachers encouraged me to instruct were of two kinds: 1) informative lessons meant to encourage students to memorize and repeat certain linguistic structures and/or vocabulary and 2) games meant to entertain as much as teach.  These lessons fulfill two concerns Koreans have about classroom management:  learning and entertainment.

I do believe that Korean teachers, in this respect, are very similar to American teachers.  They want students to enjoy their lessons.  The problem is that the kinds of lessons I was encourage to design, implement and teach do not take students into consideration.  The lessons are actually much more about satisfying what the teachers, administration and culture of education demand.  This is the turbulent noise that most adversely affects my classrooms in Korea.  In the US, in my university classrooms, I could control this noise more effectively.  I am, in fact, part of the problem in Korea.  I'm the colonial presence in Korean culture, the physical manifestation of all that worries Koreans about English-language culture in Korean society.  And my voice, if it is in tune with standards, is a repetitive You're Not Right.  Most teachers I know are unwilling to work this into how they teach, this consciousness of oppression.  Some are unwilling to admit it's presence.  Still others seem to take pleasure in treating students like slaves to their cause.

With the next few posts, I want to share my lesson, consider my classroom, come to a better understanding of what it is I'm doing here and what my work means.  Feel free to participate in the comments.  Share your stories, questions, concerns.