Caveat: Stonking Quantities of Dosh

The Tory candidate for Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, uttered the phrase "stonking quantities of dosh" (meaning, roughly, "large amounts of money") in a recent discussion on the issue of the vast income inequalities in the British capital.  It's a very memorable and colorful turn of phrase, and very much worth memorializing.  So there you have it.

Caveat: Blossomdrifts

I was walking to work and saw a large “drift” of pink tree blossoms on the sidewalk. Here is a picture.
“If you want to have a clear conscience, reflect on the good feeling you have toward your fellow man, but for heaven’s sake don’t do anything about those feelings. Don’t get involved because once you do you’ll be faced with conflict and decisions and the continued possibility of making mistakes.” – Robert Trebor.

Caveat: Speaking in Caves

It was an unhealthful-feeling weekend. I had an upset stomach or something in that vein. So I didn’t do much.

I had a repeating dream, both Saturday night and again last night. It was one of those very peculiar, semi-abstract dreams, kind of like dreaming a short excerpt from a philosophical novel. The kind of dream I deserve, given the sorts of things I sometimes read or think about, I suppose. But it wasn’t terribly coherent. Prominent in the dream were references to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I won’t try to explain it here – you can browse wikipedia for an explanation.

I am not a Platonist. But revisiting the Allegory of the Cave is not something unexpected in the life of my mind – I first met Plato’s Allegory on the pages of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I first read when I was 15, and re-read my first year of college. The book had a profound influence on me – arguably, it has been one of the most influential books I have read.

Platonism and I have had other encounters, and many of my acquaintances and friends have been put off by my almost militant stance against it – especially given the fact that I’m careful to make clear I don’t even fully understand it. But it’s all part-and-parcel with my anti-transcendent take on epistemological topics more generally. Most notable, perhaps, is the unforgettable, inconclusive argument I had with Michelle over the “nature of reality,” which began fairly early in our relationship.

It was in the spring or summer of 94 – before I went off to Chile for 6 months that fall. We were driving back from Winnipeg, through a thunderstorm somewhere in North Dakota. We had been visiting Michelle’s friend Gerry, who was one of the few of Michelle’s friends for whom I felt a certain affinity – he had been a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Minnesota, and Michelle had gotten to know him when he’d been a T.A. for a general education philosophy-type course she took. So, having been visiting with Gerry out on the Manitoba prairie over the weekend, philosophical topics were in the air.

Already, I knew Michelle was a hardcore Platonist. Though she wouldn’t have been comfortable using that term. Aside from not liking “labels” of that sort, anyway, she wasn’t really very comfortable with philosophical language, despite her strong inclinations to thinking about such things, and her capacious abstract intelligence.

So we argued. Plato versus Aristotle – roughly. It was, in some ways, one of the most painful, unrelenting arguments she and I ever had. It lasted the entire drive back to Minneapolis, and it never really ended after that – we were still having that same basic argument – different in vocabulary and tone, but substantially the same content – on the phone a week before she departed in 2000. It was quite central to her exit: that there was a place, beyond, where she better belonged. So much so, that in some weird sense, her suicide was an eerie sort of exclamation point – an irrefutable concluding remark – to the argument.

And Platonism inevitably comes up in a discussion of Spanish Golden Age literature. The Church was necessarily Platonist – one could argue that one of the great works in post-Plato Platonic philosophy is the New Testament, after all, and medieval and renaissance philosophers were committed to the relationship. But part of the Erasmian humanist philosophical current emerging in Europe in the proto-enlightenment that was nurturing in repressive, 17th century Spain, included a significant redicsovery of Aristotle. And for writers such as Cervantes, the struggle between the two currents is never far below the surface.

And dreams and cave allegories merge in a work such a Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño. In that vein, I’ve always been rather preoccupied by the coincidence of the names of the protagonists of Cervantes’ Persiles and Calderón’s drama: Sigismundo/Segismundo. Their namesake, a 6th century Burgundian king, seems to have been sainted by the Church mainly to acknowledge the dubious accomplishment of his having felt so guilty about murdering his son that he decided to retire to a monastery. Which makes him, in my thinking, perhaps the patron saint of feeling guilty?

So what was the dream? It didn’t really have a plot, although Michelle and Sigismundo both put in appearances (representing the excessively, woundingly real and excessively, woundingly fictional, respectively?). And I was in a cave. And some people were worshiping shadows, and speaking in tongues. Glossolalia. Or maybe, more likely, a xenoglossic manifestation, because I seemed to understand them, although they didn’t understand themselves or each other. Hmm, is this about my work situation, again? If so, it’s an ironic inversion of some kind.

I asked myself… does speaking in tongues, in a cave, constitute a special case of “speaking in caves”? Let’s call it grottolalia. This question, and answer, were actually a component internal to the dream, and both mornings I awoke with that neologism rolling awkwardly around in my head: grottolalia. A good Freudian could have a field day with this. But I’m strictly Deleuzional – post-Freudian, right?

The dream doesn’t seem terribly significant, does it? Not much plot, just a sort of ambient sense of philosophic unease. But the fact of its repetition is discomfitting.

My anti-transcendentalism remains central to my philosophy – of a piece with my unremittingly materialist view of the universe. But it’s perhaps more fragile now than it has been.

CaveatDumpTruck Logo

Caveat: Best Planet So Far

This planet is the best one I've been to. Really.

It was a stormy, cold rain when I left work this evening.  Like a Humboldt or Valdivia winter rain, ripping at the umbrella and scattering the sodden blossoms from shaking trees. 

A very long week at work. More later, I guess.  I'm tired.

Caveat: Money vs Passion

We've been having our monthly debate in our debate program classes, and the topic is "Is money more important than passion in choosing a career?"  The kids seem particularly engaged in this topic, and fairly equally divided on both sides (unlike some earlier topics) – this makes for good debate.  I've heard some excellent and creative arguments, especially from the "passion" side.  The best emerged today during a one-on-one discussion with a student (a sort of after-the-fact interview to help them learn to get more out of and put more into the debate next time).   She said:  "Money can't make passion, but passion can make money."

"That's brilliant!" I effused.  "Where did you come up with that idea?  Why didn't you use it during the debate?"  She shrugged and said she forgot it during the debate.  And she admitted it was her mother's idea.  Still… at the least, she did a great job translating it into idiomatic English, as her mother had apparently conceived the idea in Korean.

Caveat: Those Southern Californian Ojibwe

The name "Pasadena" doesn't come from Spanish (or from some hispanized Native Californian name or word), as I'd always imagined and assumed.  It certainly, and conveniently, sounds  vaguely Spanish, doesn't it?  Perhaps that's why I've never been able to discover the etymology.  Until today.  And now I have a new piece of useless trivia to clutter my brain.

The name "Pasadena" means "of the valley" and comes from the Minnesota Chippewa language (more properly, Ojibwe).   And all those other Pasadenas out there in the world were named for the California one – I've verified this, via a few minutes with google:  Pasadena, Texas;  Pasadena, Newfoundland; and Pasadena, South Australia – all named for the old California city.  So, probably the other Pasadenas, also (e.g. I know there's a Pasadena Park, Missouri, and a Pasadena in Florida, I believe).

So how did a Minnesota Ojibwe name get attached to what was originally an 1880's California resort community?

Caveat: Allegations of Entertainment

Or… Entertaining alligators.
I have expanded my alligator collection, much to the joy of my younger students. I guess it gives us something to talk about in class.
Here is the original alligator, waiting to chomp someone’s finger, and, much smaller, a little one kind of to the side closer to the computer.  That’s my desk at work.

Caveat: Flowers in a Largely Urban Setting

I went exploring today, and attempted some shopping. And I took some photos.
First, I walked eastward from my apartment all the way to Baekseok station (two subway stops eastward from my own “home” station of Jeongbalsan). I took some pictures along the way.
Some public art near the Jeongbal hill.
The Ilsandong district office (or “borough hall” – a government building).
Spring plants and advertising.
Near Madu station.
The entrance to Baekseok.
I went to the Yongsan electronics market, but I didn’t buy anything.  Just kind of browsed around.  I walked to Samgakji.  This is the entrance to that subway station, taken near dusk.  Note the faint view of the landmark Namsan tower (iconic of central Seoul) in the background.
Inside the Samgakji station I watched TV – yes they have large TVs on the walls of the subway stations, and these play banal advertisements and sometimes funny cartoon thingies, in continuous loops.
Then I went to Itaewon to that English-language bookstore there (at the top of a hill where you have to walk past a gamut Russian discotecs, African street vendors, south Asian food stores, and Korean women selling… stuff).
I browsed for a while, and bought some used novels to read.  After that I went on to Insadong to buy trinkets to give away as prizes to my students.  They like these little colorful handcrafted pens and pencils, with ends in the shape of animals and things like that.
On the way, I decided to record why it is that Line 1 (purplish) is so easy to get lost on.
Now I’m listening to Kings of Convenience (an alternative group I guess you might classify them); and Peter Murphy (old emo/goth stuff, always reliably narcotic for my soul). And that not-so-long-ago-released album by the group Spoon, called Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. I love that name. It’s very late (almost 2 AM). I should go to sleep.

Caveat: 애국심은 악한의 마지막 도피처이다

"애국심은 악한의 마지막 도피처이다" (aeguksim-eun akhan-ui majimak dopicheo-ida) => patriotism-[topic-marker] scoundrel-[possessive-marker] lastly hideout-[copula].  Does anyone recognize the immortal words of Samuel Johnson?  "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

The idea also appears in a Bob Dylan song, and for a long time, I mistakenly believed he was the origin of the quote.  Anyway, it's been on my mind lately, in light of the annoying progression of events in Tibet and China, and the constant posturing of ALL (yes, ALL) of our presidential candidates in the U.S.  I'm sick of it!

The world will be a better, happier place when the last self-declared patriot (of any stripe) finally recants or passes away.  "Patriotism" is almost always just a kindly euphemism for some brand of xenophobia or another:  hating other countries and peoples, or at the least distrusting them and devaluing their common humanity.  I know this is controversial, and it might get me in trouble to declare it so publicly, but on some things you must take a moral stand, right?

I made some curried pasta for dinner.  Kind of a makeshift using various things I had left in my kitchen – curry powder, garlic, onion, tomato, some italian pasta, and yoghurt.  It came out very delicious, and then I sat and watched the original Star Wars movie on KBS2 (dubbed into Korean) and ate my dinner, while running an upgrade to ubuntu 7.10 on my linux OS.   It was a good evening.

Caveat: From Behind the Redwood Curtain

I love wikipedia.  I spend at least a few minutes there almost every day, and sometimes several hours.  I love it the same way I used to love reading those big hefty paper encyclopedias as a child – it's a great way to learn new, random things. 

Way back when the wikipedia was young, I actually edited a few articles there – most notably, I was proud of efforts I made to expand the entry on my hometown of Arcata, California.  Most of what I wrote has subsequently changed and been improved upon many times (as is only right and good).

Earlier tonight, I was surfing the wikipedia using the "random article" button and ended up by pure chance on Humboldt County, Iowa.  This prompted me to go to the Humboldt County, California, entry, to see what was there nowadays.  And I noticed that there was a reference and link to a non-existent article on the "Redwood Curtain." 

At first, I thought, "they definitely need an article on the Redwood Curtain."  This is a frequently used term for the three most northwestern counties in California:  Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte, and is meant to suggest the ways in which the region's isolation is comparable to that of those Eastern European countries under Soviet hegemony during the Cold War, behind the Iron Curtain.

But upon reflection, I decided there wasn't enough interesting and notable information to merit a separate wikipedia article.  But I hated to see that "broken" link in the Humboldt County article.  So on second thought I decided to attempt a "redirect" – something that would point the missing "Redwood Curtain" article to something else.  And in the end, that's what I did:  now, when you go to "Redwood Curtain" in wikipedia, you get redirected to the "North Coast, California" article, where I added a single clarifying sentence that explains that Redwood Curtain is an alternate term sometimes used for the region.

And I've blogged the whole thing here, too.  After more than ten years, I'm back in the wikipedia editing biz – ain't that simply fabulous?

Caveat: Travels by Rainbow

I overheard a song lyric that I couldn't quite make out, but sounded like "she travels by rainbow."  And now the idea is stuck in my head.  Not the song – I can't even recall the melody.  The idea. [Update, 2008-08-10: I found the song: "Iris," by the group Hercules and Love Affair.]

I googled it ("travels by rainbow") and, except for references to that Lucky Charms Cereal spokesfairy (he travels by rainbow in his many TV appearances), all I found was a reference to a children's book and a character named Zucchini Spacestation who travels by rainbow.  This is exactly the sort of children's book I could conceivably find very appealing.  And it's what I was visualizing when I heard (or misheard) the lyric – a sort of wild children's story plot involving a fantastic character that travels by rainbow.

Which makes me think of the stories I used to make up for Jeffrey, about the ancient Sumerian time-traveling dogs, Enkidu and Gilgamesh, who had a multidimensional discombobulator that they used to visit other-dimensional realms, including a place called Legotopia (you can guess what that was about).  Their adventures were only in the remotest way connected to the "real" Enkidu and Gilgamesh of Sumerian/Babylonian myth.  Actually, their adventures probably most closely resembled Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker milieu.

Once I tried writing down some of the stories.  I wonder if I still have the files saved somewhere?  I know Jeffrey has a copy of one "book" that I "published" (I drew pictures and computer print-outed onto loose paper, and then bound it into a hand-made book using my rarely used book-bindery skills).

[Update 2013-06-20: I decided to add the video and lyrics. The lyrics do in fact include the phrase "travels by rainbow."

What I'm listening to right now.

Hercules and Love Affair, "Iris" ("Iris" means "rainbow" in Greek – she is the rainbow goddess).


She carries news travels
By rainbow
Bearer of peace with a
Message for all
Today you'll dance,
You'll share each other
Elders will stumble,
The babies will crawl

Put down your weapons, put
Down your chosen ones
Put on your best clothes,
Stand straight and tall
Don't give up on your desire,
I can understand your thirst
Put another one before yo,
Help someone else first

Today is a day for
Someone else,
Today is a day for
Someone else
Today is a day for
Someone else
This moment is yours and you
Can give it to someone else

Put down yout weapons,
Put down your chosen ones
Leave expectations at the door
You are your brother
You are your sister
Communication, start
Giving more

Don't stop believing,
Continue to give praise
Your exaltation is a good thing
Just take those teachings,
The ones of light
Of celebration, and start to sing ]

Caveat: Crossing the Plane of Immanence

I'm re-reading snippets of A Thousand Plateaus (by Deleuze and Guattari).  It's always been one of the most difficult yet absolutely central pieces of philosophy in my library.  It's crucial to my efforts at re-evaluating (and re-valuing) Cervantes' Persiles.

One of my guiding philosophical quotes is from Deleuze (on Spinoza):  "Ethical joy is the correlate of speculative affirmation."  This sounds difficult, but it's not, really.  What it is saying is nothing more than:  if you think positive thoughts, these develop and coexist with "ethical" (guilt-free) happiness.  Or, as I might paraphrase it:  guiltlessness implies optimism, and vice versa.

And speaking of ethics.  An anonymous author of the English-language wikipedia writes:  "An ethics of immanence will disavow its reference to judgments of good and evil, right and wrong, as according to a transcendent model, rule or law. Rather the diversity of living things and particularity of events will demand the abstract methods of immanent evaluation (ethics) and immanent experimentation (creativity). These twin concepts will become the basis of a lived Deleuzian ethic."

Hmm… "a lived Deleuzian ethic."  Guidelines for Deleuzional behavior?  Let's try it.

Caveat: Quote du jour

God's first language is Silence. Everything else is a translation. – Thomas Keating

Despite this, I'm glad for KCRW – I'm listening to the radio and enjoying it, and a chilly April breeze drifts through my window as I drift off to sleep.

Caveat: The Orphan Father

There is a social phenomenon in Korean culture that has been receiving some press recently, which goes by the name "orphan fathers."   It's the situation that arises when upper middle class and wealthy Korean families decide to give up on the Korean education system completely, and buy a second home abroad (almost always in an English-speaking country, such as Canada, the U.S., etc.), for the sole purpose of having their kids live there and attend schools in that country.

The fathers (it's inevitably the fathers) keep their well-paying jobs in Korea, and the mother and the kids move to the second home abroad, and he supports them.  Visas are less problematic since they're not actually working in the host country – they're just there pumping Korean-earned money into the economy, so host countries welcome the phenomenon.

But of course, it has led to more than one family break up, and the parents receive a lot of curiosity and sympathy:  the fathers working impossible hours and sending all their money abroad; the mothers in a foreign land, often without their own level of linguistic competence and socially isolated.  Lots of heart-wrenching documentaries on the topic. 

OK, we've covered the background.  What I'm really going to post here is a small little essay one of my students wrote.  Amy is a 5th grader, in the intermediate-to-advanced elementary cohort (we call it ER1).  She was asked to discuss her opinions on Korea's education system.  I post what she wrote, verbatim (errors and all), because it's remarkably apropos my own post of yesterday, and further, provides an example of the extent to which the students themselves, even at a fairly young age and with limited language skills, are conscious of Korea's ESL education shortcomings. Of course, I also like it because she agrees with me about the need for English-only classrooms (I think, if I understand her thoughts correctly).

Korean english study system is very old.  Because many students study abroad english.  They learn english and leave there homes.  There is left the father.  The father named orphan father.  Orphan father is only lives in home.  Orphan father is social problem.  The solution is Korea english system change.  Teacher and student speak english in school.  The textbook is variety level needs.

Caveat: Markets and Methods

I'm approaching the two-thirds (eight month) mark of my one-year commitment, here.  And so, I want to try to set down my reflections about what I came here to do, and what I have been doing.

I guess I'm not that happy with things.  There's the professional side – the desire to come and "try out" teaching, again – to try to replace the lucrative but ultimately frustrating and disillusioning career I'd been organically creating for myself in the world of database software development and business systems analysis.  Then there's the personal side – the various personal challenges I'd set for myself as part of coming here.

First, I can only say I'm pretty disappointed in myself, with respect to the latter category.  I haven't been using my extra-curricular time either productively or even particularly enjoyably.   My creative writing has been at a near standstill since arriving in Korea last September.  The work on my perennial never-started thesis on Persiles remains… never-started.

And my efforts to learn the Korean language keep crashing against the double barrier of – on the one hand – a lack of opportunities (and/or willing tutors) to have intensive real language practice, and – on the other hand – my own inexcusable deficit in motivation.

Not only that:  I haven't even been particularly prompt or efficacious in taking care of those small bureaucratic necessities, such as my income tax problem.  I procrastinate on doing paperwork, or miss the appropriate time to make a call to the states, or forget to follow up on an email to my accountant.

Meanwhile, I muddle along in the professional sphere.  Before launching into a diatribe of tribulations and complaints, however, I should underscore one important fact:  despite everything, I still enjoy going to work each day more than I did when working in Long Beach.  I enjoy the children almost without exception – even the most behaviorally obtuse 6th grader is a huge improvement over my utterly brilliant yet fearsomely erratic and eerily unsupportive boss in Long Beach.  And the school's staff politics are nothing compared to the backstabbing head-games prevalent at Paradise Corp in Burbank.  And the 40-something hours I put in each week are certainly an improvement over the 80-plus I was putting in before  – if I remain disappointed in how I am utilizing my off-time (see above).

So now, regarding the job:  a critical review of my working experience in Korea, so far.  At the outset, it is important to separate two things:  1) criticisms and thoughts about my own performance and behavior on the job, versus 2) criticisms and thoughts about my professional environment – the school, my supervisors and colleagues, the general situation of ESL education in South Korea.  These things are interconnected to a high degree, however – especially in the sense that the same subjective feeling or experience can be discussed in view of either perspective, and the former, above, always will color the latter.  For this reason, keep in mind that I combine these two issues indiscriminately in what follows.

First, I have some ideas about pedagogy and method.  My exposure to these concepts is not extensive. I would consider it extensive if I'd managed a minor or major in foreign language education, for example, instead of just several courses on TESOL taken in late 80's, and the one intensive course in teaching-Spanish-as-a-foreign-language at Penn in the mid 90's.  But, compared to my colleagues here, my theoretical range is deep and vast – which is not to say that such theoretical background is necessarily relevant, meaningful, or even helpful in the trenches.  But it cannot help but influence how I look at things.

Korean EFL education is, for the most part, in the grammar-translation dark ages.  Students are taught plenty of English grammar, and infinite lists of utterly de-contextualized vocabulary, but even after several years are frequently unable to construct more than basic sentences for conversation.  Of course there are exceptions, and plenty of parents have managed to send their kids off to relatives in an English speaking country, or to expensive vacation-time language camps.  But the hagwons (after-school academies) are almost exclusively in the Japanese "cram-school" model, and focus on rote instruction and test preparation.

Further, as far as I can tell, no one in my "chain of command" up to, at the least, the regional director of the schools I work for, has any evident training whatsoever in foreign language pedagogy, second language acquisition theory, and even seem to lack background in general linguistics and general elementary or adolescent pedagogy.

Efforts to apply curricula designed around more progressive ideas, such as a more communicative-based instruction (my personal preference), founder against a double resistance: staff members who are uncomfortable with it, and parents who are convinced that if little Iseul doesn't have a list of 50 words to memorize each night, she's being neglected by her teachers.  The ill-fated "debate program" I've been involved in test-flying has had exactly this happen to it, as it keeps being "cut back" and reduced in scope. 

But my most significant frustration boils down to a single core issue:  L2 versus L1.  In academic discussion of foreign language teaching methodology, L1 stands for the students' native language, and L2 stands for the "target" language.  For me, here, L1 = Korean, and L2 = English.  And the problem is that I remain deeply and philosophically committed to the idea that "good" foreign language instruction requires an unwavering dedication to L2-only classrooms.  And the fact is, that L1 is so dominant in the school where I teach, now, it's downright depressing.

Some of my colleagues seem to believe that my frustration with the predominance of Korean as the language of instruction and administration in the school is related to my own inability to speak it.  I wish they could have been present at the heated departmental meetings at Moorestown, New Jersey where I taught Spanish in 97-98.  I argued there, too, that a Spanish classroom should be a SPANISH classroom, even at the lowest levels.  And certainly my argument there wasn't influenced by the fact that I was weak in L1 (which there, and then, was obviously English).

There are reasons related to the nature of the job market here, however, that explain the predominance of L1 at least in part.  The fact is, truly qualified English speakers are difficult to come by, here.  At least several of my coworkers speak English at a level of competence and/or confidence that is inferior to some of their best students.  I in no way mean this as a criticism of them as human beings, nor even as concerned, dedicated teachers.  But when it is taxing work for ME to understand them and be understood by them, it is no wonder that in-classroom language devolves rapidly into Korean.

The Korean government seems to exacerbate the problem to some degree by, on the one hand squeezing supply through the injudicious creation and application of temporary worker laws, and on the other hand squeezing demand through mis-regulation of the private school markets.

I think that's enough, on theory.  Onto practice, where the shortcomings are more definitely my own.

Most notably (and depressingly), there is an emerging consensus that I'm not a very good teacher.  All the theory doesn't help much, in front of a bunch of unmotivated teenagers.  Coming from one or two people, I can dismiss such concerns as originating in either a misunderstanding or a lack of empathy, or perhaps in poorly understood cultural differences.  But not only have several people independently seemed to reach the conclusion here, but such feedback is not totally out of line with similar feedback I received in 97-98.

The core problem is:  1) I'm fundamentally too cerebral (which makes me "boring"), and 2) I'm too laid-back and too prone to attempt to interact with the kids as if they were adults (which means I have "classroom control issues").  I tend to try to tie the two problems together as both being features of my fundamental pedagogical philosophy, which is that I'm not supposed to be there to "motivate" students, but rather to "mentor" them – which is to say, I do great with self-motivated students who eagerly want to learn, but not so well with those whose own commitment to learning is limited.  All of which boils down to:  I'm only good at teaching students who are more or less the same type of student that I, myself, am. 

No matter how much I enjoy the company of the kids in class, and no matter how much I try to be more entertaining or "interesting," my essentially introverted personality causes me to disappoint my peers, my students, and myself. 

More than one of my friends and family have responded to these self-criticisms with the observation that I don't really belong as a teacher in a grade-school or high-school environment.  That I'm meant to be, and should be, a college teacher.  Easy to see, and to agree with.  But not an easy path to take, since the research-driven academic career clearly hasn't been my forte, so far.  I'm too unfocused, too much the dilettante or generalist. 

There are other criticisms, which I may have a better chance of conquering.  Most notably, people often complain that, more than other English speakers, I am "difficult to understand" and especially, that I speak "fast."  I get defensive about this, and return to the L2 acquisition theory I learned, pointing out that an unfamiliar language (and an unfamiliar accent within a given language) will always sound "faster" to the naive listener – this is a demonstrated "fact" of perceptual psychology, and exhaustive studies of speakers of different languages and different speakers of individual languages show a far smaller variation in "rate of speech" than what we perceive subjectively.  It is only familiarity and/or lack of familiarity that mostly impacts subjective perceived rate of speech.

Yet… surely to the extent it is objectively true, that must impact my ability to be an effective English teacher.  And in conclusion I have to admit that there are real reasons for this understandability problem that I have, that I can clearly identify, if I listen to myself with some objective introspection (is that a paradox?).

Firstly, I tend to use an overly large vocabulary, and I'm actually pretty bad at "dumbing down."  But part of the problem here comes back to the lack of a programmatic methodology to back me up.  If the curricula being applied in the school were sufficiently developed and sophisticated as to be able to provide clear lists of level-appropriate vocabulary (e.g. at level X, these words should be used… at level Y, these additional words should be known), I could use such lists to police my vocabulary fairly effectively, just as was done when I taught Spanish at the University of Pennsylvania, where each textbook had a teacher's guide with exhaustive lists of level-appropriate active and passive vocabulary, and all the texts were integrated into a broader curricular program. 

The other side of the "understandability" problem is more difficult – I also tend to use too much "fringe" grammar – that is to say, I get creative with things like word order and sentence structure, and experiment with the many regionalisms I've been exposed to over the years.  English "allows" this, but it is definitely not appropriate in an L2 universe.  And this issue does not recapitulate any issue I ever had with Spanish, which, despite my fairly high level of fluency, was still nevertheless always an L2 for me.  I do this "playing with grammar" almost unconsciously, and when I catch myself doing it, it's discouraging how pervasive I see it to be.

Perhaps, not all the news on the "boring teacher" front is bad news, however.  My colleague Grace sighed the other afternoon, "I'm becoming a boring teacher!"  Paradoxically, this complaint gave me hope – let me explain why.

First of all, Grace is the person at work whom I most respect.  She's not only the only person on the staff who is truly (i.e. "natively") bilingual, she's also a talented teacher who is clearly beloved and admired by her students.  If you ask our students who their favorite teacher is, the only answer I have ever seen in writing or in heard in speech is "Grace."  And their answers are well-reasoned – it's not just a matter of her being "easy" or "entertaining," which are sometimes features of popular teachers.  Instead, they will explain that she is demanding but fair, serious but kind, etc.  She's whom I would wish to emulate, if only I could figure out how.

And so, the fact that she was bemoaning the problem of becoming boring gave me hope, because it meant that perhaps I could blame the curriculum for at least some of my problem.  You see, this de-evolution of our curriculum toward the stone ages is in part the consequence of my original employer's having sold out to a large and expanding chain hagwon business.  Under its previous proprietors, the school was much less rigid in terms of curriculum, which had both advantages (such as the ability to be more creative in the classroom), but also disadvantages (such as a serious lack of guidance in terms of expectations).

The depressing side of the above is that if the big hagwon chains are being successful by pitching brutalist combinations of grammar-translation-style ESL instruction and Japan-style cram-school test prep, that doesn't send a very promising message about the current Korean ESL market.  And, as much as it pains me to say it, I believe very wholeheartedly in markets.  People really want this stuff.  So what does that say about the potential for enlightened ESL methodology?

None of which solves the underlying dilemma – am I going to keep trying to be a teacher?  Or go off on yet another tangent in life?  I've gotten some extremely discouraging feedback from my more candid (or perhaps less deluded) acquaintances:  something to the effect of, "if your blog is any reflection of your classroom personality, you really ARE boring."  And yet the bad news is, this is REALLY me.  This is how I write when I edit myself least, and these are the things I think about.

Caveat: Dreaming

I've had some strange dreams, lately.  This morning, I woke up after dreaming I was hectically trying to pack up all my possessions so that I could start a new job in a distant place.  This is an accurate enough revisit to the days before my departure, last August, from Minnesota.  But the place where I am doing the hectic packing is a sort of reconstruction of my apartment in Philadelphia from 95-96, not the place I was in last year in Minnesota.  And I keep losing my focus and going on these long, purposeless walks through an urban-industrial wasteland that looks like a cross between West Philly and Hibbing, MN (itself a sort of Eureka-on-the-Tundra, if you can visualize).  I find abandoned subway stations and randomly distributed boxes of old maps or books, that turn out to have been mine, once-upon-a-time.

I return to my apartment, only to drift away again.  The packing isn't getting done, and time is ticking away.  Finally I look at a clock and it's 23 minutes after midnight (what does THAT mean?).  I hurry to an attic space that doesn't resemble the Philadelphia apartment but instead looks exactly like attic in the H Street house in Eureka (circa 1974?).  But it's full of all my damn books, not in boxes and packed, as I'd left them, but back on shelves.  And then I hear music downstairs, and I go to see who's awake, and I fall down the stairs… I don't feel terror or pain at the falling, but a kind of visceral frustration at the lack of control.  And I reach the bottom of the stairs, and some unknown woman is standing there impatiently glaring at me, and I wake up.

Caveat: Poesía

Pablo Neruda, en su Poema de Amor #2:

En su llama mortal la luz te envuelve.
Absorta, pálida doliente, así situada
contra las viejas hélices del crepúsculo
que en torno a ti da vueltas.

Oh grandiosa y fecunda y magnética esclava
del círculo que en negro y dorado sucede:
erguida, trata y logra una creación tan viva
que sucumben sus flores, y llena es de trsiteza

Me puse a pensar en estos poemas tan magníficos hoy, mientras caminaba a mi trabajo, mirando los árboles que ofrecían sus flores a la nueva primavera.  Hace década y media que me dediqué a memorizar estos poemas, y lo cierto es que ya no los recuerdo.  Sin embargo, recuerdo algunos fragmentos, y traje conmigo a Corea mi pequeño texto de los poemas que compré en Temuco, Chile (lugar de nacimiento de Pablo Neruda).  Entonces cito unas líneas arriba.
Aquí una foto que saqué hoy de los árboles que me trajeron estas memorias:

Caveat: Rain

Yesterday was election day again – this time, legislative elections. The new president (I Myeong-Bak 이명박, elected in December) had a major victory for his conservative GNP – which means South Koreans are fed up with “soft on the North” policies of the liberal predecessors, among other things.  Though the most important issues were “pocketbook” ones – linked to the global economic downturn and especially that of the U.S. and Japan, with which South Korea is inextricably linked.
The day before yesterday, I So-Yeon (이소연) became the first South Korean in space, traveling to the International Space Station with some Russians on that reliable space workhorse, a Soyuz rocket. I learned about her from my students, yesterday, in a conversation about modern-day heroes, and then saw about in the news, too, once I realized what was going on.
It rained yesterday afternoon and into the night. A steady, spring rain, with zero risk of snow unlike the earlier late winter rains we have gotten.

Caveat: Test-Driven Curriculum

I'd like to talk a little bit about the infamous TOEFL.  This test is an international standard "test of English as a second language," created and administered by the same people who bring us the SAT, GRE, LSAT, MCAT and many others:  the Educational Testing Service of beautiful New Jersey, USA.  Despite its generic-sounding name, this is a for-profit corporation that essentially holds a global monopoly on certain sectors of the placement examination market. 

The test that is all the rage here in Korea, even for students as young as middle-schools, is what is called the iBT – a clever little acronym that stands for internet-based TOEFL (see? it's one of those acronyms that embeds another acronym; and further, it plays unnecessary games with case – i.e. capital vs lower case letters). 

This internet-based exam includes a speaking section, where the test-takers have to speak into a microphone, and the recording of what they say is uploaded to the test's website and farmed out to some presumably (hopefully?) competent evaluator of spoken English.  I imagine some poorly-paid sod in India or the Philippines, sitting in a cubicle and listening to a minute-long speech every two minutes, and entering a score of 0-4 (that's it, that's the basis) for each one. 

Each iBT speaking test requires 6 speeches, each about a minute long.  Each of the 6 speeches is in response to a slightly different type of question.  So, in my speaking class for my medium-advanced 7th and 8th graders (TP cohorts), we've abandoned the "Debate Program" (which, despite its shortcomings, I enjoyed teaching and at least some of the students seemed to get something out of), we have now adopted a textbook very specifically focused on nothing more than preparing students for the iBT speaking section. 

I'll withhold my already rather extensive list of complaints about the text.  What I really wanted to talk about was "artificiality and spontaneous speech acts."  These iBT speeches are not "natural" or spontaneous speech acts.  But… I nevertheless think they are a huge improvement over what there was before this test came along (e.g. the traditional TOEFL) – since at least it tries to test actual speaking competence.

Above and beyond the annoying textbook, each class period I try to have each student respond to a randomly selected iBT-style question – I've put 49 questions of the "personal preference" type (the name of the first question "type" of the 6 on each iBT test) onto little folded-up pieces of paper, and placed them into a paper dixie cup for the students to draw one out and respond to.  In this way I simulate the feel of the actual exam, where you get a question, have at most 15-20 seconds to prepare a response (really only enough time to take a few breaths and fully read the question), and then have to talk for 45-60 seconds into the microphone. 

Of course, finding real iBT "personal preference" questions online is unlikely.  And, there's the matter of the fact that my students ability level really isn't close to what's required for a successful assay of the real iBT.  So I've created a list of my own questions that have the same feel and style as the personal preference questions on the iBT, but maybe a little bit easier.  Because of the difficulty I had finding good sample questions online, I decided to post these questions I made – maybe someone will discover them thru google find them useful.  Here is the list:

1.Describe your best friend and tell why he or she is your best friend.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
2.Describe your favorite holiday spot and why it is your favorite.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
3.Describe your favorite hobby and why it is your favorite.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
4.What is an organization that you think benefits humanity and how does it do so?  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
5.Describe your favorite school subject and why it is your favorite.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
6.What do you prefer to do between study time, to take a break or to relax?
7.Describe your favorite teacher and why he or she is your favorite.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
8.Describe the household chore that you dislike the most and explain why you dislike it.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
9.Describe your favorite animal or pet, and why it is your favorite.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
10.Describe your favorite icon or famous person, and why he or she is your favorite.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
11.What is your favorite type of movie and why?  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
12.Describe your favorite sport and why it is your favorite.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
13.Describe an event in the last ten years that you think changed the world in an important way, and explain how you think it changed the world.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
14.Describe your favorite food and why it is your favorite.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
15.Describe the kind of person you think would be an ideal neighbor and explain why you think so.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
16.Describe your favorite movie and why it is your favorite.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
17.What do you think will be the most important issue facing humanity in the next 20 years?  Why do you think so?  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
18.Describe your favorite television program and why it is your favorite.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
19.Given one-month time to do whatever you like to do, what would you like to do?
20.What was your most cherished moment at school?  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
21.Which of your parents do you think you most resemble?  Why?  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
22.Which country/city would you like to visit?  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
23.What was the toughest challenge you have faced?  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
24.Describe your favorite season of the year and explain why it is your favorite.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
25.If you could know your future, what would you like to know?  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
26.If you could have one wish, what would you wish for and why?  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
27.What would you send to an international exhibition? Your object should represent your country.
28.What has been your strangest dream.  Describe the details and why you think it was strange, and what you think it might mean.
29.What do you miss when you are away from your home?  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
30.Some people prefer to wake up early in the morning, while others prefer to sleep late.  Which do you prefer and why?  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
31.Describe one thing you regret not doing in your life and explain why you regret not doing it. Please include specific details and examples in your response.
32.Describe a major health problem that affects humans globally and explain why the disease or illness is so problematic.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
33.Describe a goal you have for your future and explain why this goal is important to you.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
34.Describe the person you usually go to when asking for advice and explain why you go to that person.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
35.Describe a learning experience which you feel was particularly valuable and explain why you found it valuable.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
36.Some students prefer university in the home region while others prefer studying abroad. What would you prefer?
37.Some only go to the movies if they know about the film, whereas others like to go to get surprised and watch movies they know nothing about. What do you prefer and why?
38.What are important considerations in choosing a job/career in your opinion?  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
39.Describe a favorite spot to visit in your neighborhood (a park, shopping mall, museum, etc.), and explain why it is your favorite.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
40.Describe the most interesting place you have visited and explain why you found it interesting. Please include specific details and examples in your response.
41.Describe your family and the differences and similarities between the people in it.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
42.Some prefer traveling independently, whereas others prefer traveling in a pre-arranged package tour. Which do you prefer and why?
43.Which mode of transport (car, bus, train, boat, airplane, hiking, bicycle, etc.) do you prefer when traveling, and why?
44.Describe a particularly memorable or unusual experience you have had while traveling, and why it was memorable or unusual.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
45.Who is your role model?  Describe this person and why he or she is your role model.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
46.Describe your ideal job and explain why you like it.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
47.Describe your favorite item of clothing and why it is your favorite.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
48.Describe your most difficult subject in school and explain why you think it is your most difficult.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.
49.Describe your favorite novel or story and explain why it is your favorite.  Please include specific details and examples in your response.

Caveat: Spring’s Bouquet

Spring is coming into effect.  There are buds and small white flowers on some of the trees, and the days are warmer.  It's rained a few times.

One thing I notice are the smells: organic smells of flowers, growing things.  There's an irony to the fact that one thing that happens in the Spring is that things begin to rot again, after a long winter when they lie frozen and undecaying:  piles of leaves and neglected bits of organic matter.  Once again, there are flies around the neatly bundled plastic bags of garbage that accumulate behind the buildings.

The bitter cold of winter often made me think of Minnesota, although it rarely would get as cold here as it does there, and there is much less precipitation here in the winter, too.  But the cold winds out of the north, and the little patches of leftover snow in shady spots that would persist for several weeks.

With the arrival of Spring and Spring's smells, however, Korea seems more "east coasty" in character.  In terms of the types and variety of plants, perhaps.  And the particular smells?  I don't know which flowers broadcast which smells into the air, but it just seems to have a more east-coast feel to it.

Caveat: Marriage

I went to my coworker Ryan’s wedding today.  Ryan is the youngest teacher I work with (he’s in his early 20’s), but his English is pretty good (he has a bachelor’s degree he earned in Brisbane, Australia), and he’s a very gentle-spirited person – I actually look up to him in a weird sort of way, as an example of how to keep a spirit of equinamity and calmness in the face of the small annoyances and frustrations of work.
So I went to the wedding, partly out of curiosity about what a Korean wedding would be like.  Ryan is pretty hardcore Christian, and the syncretism between Korean traditions and evangelical Christianity was interesting.  Some things surprised me:  it was in no way a solemn feeling ceremony – this was partly because, in contrast to any wedding I’ve attended in the U.S. or Mexico, the audience never really got completely quiet – there was a persistent buzz of chatter, talking, chatting, teenagers checking their cell phones for text messages, etc.   And no one seemed bothered by this.  I realized this may have implications for my low-grade annoyance with the way kids seem inattentive in my classes, and that it may be something more culturally complex than just teenage disrespect.
Here’s a picture of the two clans, at the end of the ceremony, with Ryan and his bride in the middle, and their mothers in traditional Korean dress, and some others, and a little ring-bearer (?) also in traditional dress.
It was fairly short.  Toward the end, a group of four students from our academy did a karaoke of a Korean song, that was very touching.  After the ceremony, I saw Danny and Diana, the former owners of the hagwon, and at the reception buffet we chatted a bit about their imminent move to the U.S., where Danny will be getting his doctorate in Christian education (or something like that).
They then drove me back to Jeongbalsan (i.e. my apt) which was a nice opportunity to talk some more about the school – I could tell they were at least somewhat curious about what changes had occurred, and how I was getting on.  I’ve always appreciated their genuine kindness, even if sometimes I felt they perhaps weren’t the hugest supporters of me, from a professional standpoint.

Caveat: ₩11100

I have become somewhat happy with my ability to understand spoken currency amounts in Korean.  When shopping at the quickie mart, I will deliberately avoid looking at the cash register when my purchases are rung up, so that I can test my ability to understand the clerk's recital of the amount due.  I've gotten pretty good at it, and most of the time, I can even give the correct amount of change if I have it and I'm trying to get rid of coins – which I often am.

But tonight's purchase amount threw me for a loop:  ₩11100.   The problem is that when you have one of something in Korean, you don't give the number – just the "counter" or the digit placeholder.   And there's a digit placeholder for each column in a long number, just like we have in English – hundred, thousand, million – but we're much less committed to using them.  So Korean has a ten-thousand placeholder (만 =man), a thousand placeholder (천 =cheon), and a hundred placeholder (벡 =baeg), and then the word for won (원 =weon).  So this price of ₩11100 (about 13 bucks) was 만천벡원 (man-cheon-baeg-weon) and there were no "digits" recited.

I was utterly nonplussed for a second.  It would be as if, in English, we said for, say, $1,001,100, "million thousand hundred dollars."

Caveat: Inconvenience is the mother of invention

Thus writes my student Ella, in a brilliant little essay on inventions.  She's perhaps the most linguistically talented of my students – not necessarily the most academically inclined, but she has what we sometimes call an "ear" for language – she is an excellent mimic of sounds, and has a great aural memory.  We'd learned the phrase "necessity is the mother of invention" in class, and she adopted it and made it her own aphorism very cleverly, and with a native-speaker's grace.  I was impressed – such linguistic insightfulness and creativity is pretty rare.

Back to Top