Sitting above the Green Elephant, Part 2

New elephant statues under Buddha’s Birthday lotus lanterns

This is an account of my experience teaching English as a Foreign Language at Dongguk University, the Buddhist university in Seoul, and producing textbooks for my classes.

At the beginning of each term, I had the students bring in photos to class and glue them to 4 x 6-inch index cards containing their names, ID numbers and contact information. When class started with the student desk-chairs arranged in a semi-circle.  I sat at the same level in front of them. In Korea in 1989, this was radically new. Most of the professors stood on a podium behind a lectern and the students sat in rows below. I felt the new seating arrangement made for a greater sense of equality. It gave the students more access to me and gave me immediate access to any kid who was not paying attention. For small group discussions—Korean students would not speak “in public” before the whole class—the chairs were rearranged into groups of four while I made the rounds, listening, taking notes, answering questions and making comments or corrections. (Not the sage on the stage, but the guide on the side. ) Everybody talked, everybody worked.

Buddhist elephant statue below my office (now removed)

Korean parents famously believe the family’s passage up the socio-economic ladder is through the education of their children, and they push. There’s also widespread unemployment and underemployment among Korean university graduates, so young people have to compete. As children, the kids cram for years. Middle school students function on four or five hours of sleep because they’re studying all the time. High school students often leave school at midnight after studying all day and all evening—or at least being at school, goofing off with their friends and pretending to study. For years their lives are dreary, anxiety-ridden and deprived of the basic human requirements of relaxation, joy and carefree fun. When they do pass the exams and come into the university, years of pent-up energy is released. Some continue to study hard, some take part-time jobs, but many take a semi-vacation from their studies for three and a half years until it’s time to start cramming for the exams to get into a company. Almost all the males take a leave from school for mandatory military service.

Early in my stint at Dongguk, so around 1989, my friend Frank said, “Never ask students what they want to do in class.  They’ll run all over you.”  I just looked at him. We’d both started teaching in the mid-60s, when English teachers thought it was cool to stroll into class, write a few words on the board and sit on the desk to watch the students respond.

As a teacher of German I’d never developed much of a free-wheeling manner. There’s not much point in strolling into a beginning grammar class and saying, “Well, do you want to talk about nouns today or verbs?” At the English Language Institute at the University of Pittsburgh—the only place I ever taught which was really well-organized—a supervisor once balled me out for spending fifteen minutes on an activity I’d never done before instead of twelve. After that, I taught my classes at Pitt with a stopwatch. At Dongguk I did sometimes ask the kids what they wanted to do in class, but there was never any question about who was in control.

Somewhere I read that there are two types of teachers, the ones who teach from a textbook, and the ones who teach from a filing cabinet. I was definitely the filing cabinet type. At Pitt we’d had a huge supply of materials to use as supplements to the textbooks. Now that I was on my own and teaching upper-intermediate and advanced conversation classes, I didn’t have to use a textbook someone else put together. In China, I’d learned that the available books were not suitable, either because they were intended for use in a very different culture or because the writers’ English wasn’t very good. I wrote/adapted/stole my own material, always giving proper credit, of course. In 1990 the textbook situation in Korea wasn’t much better, and the students were very different from Americans. They might panic if you skipped around in the textbook or omitted a set of questions. So before every term I’d take my typed, single-spaced reading selections with pictures and discussion questions added, and I’d go down the hill to the copy shop and have them run off and bound into books for the students to buy. That way we could start with page one and plod our way down to the end of page sixty or eighty, covering every selection and every question, and still do a course designed for the students.

The first project was an introduction to American culture which I called American Pioneers, a collection of articles and stories on ethnic diversity, women, labor and political and social reform. My students often felt they understood the United States because they watched us on television or in the movies, but something was certainly lost.

For example, someone might say, “Well, driving might be bad in Korea, but it’s not as bad as it is over there.”

“What do you mean?”

Then you find out the kid is talking about chase scenes in cop shows. He’s not distinguishing between real life and television. Your attempt to explain the difference is met with skepticism.

Photo for the chapter on getting along

So when that was the level of comprehension, you can imagine the difficulty in explaining life in a multi-racial, multi-cultural country to students living in what anthropologists call “ethnic nationalism.” I did my M.A. paper for Pitt on language as a component in the Korean ethnic boundary, so I knew Koreans saw themselves in terms of a shared heritage, a common language, and a common ethnic ancestry. “Outsiders” included not only white-skinned people like myself, but ethnic Koreans who grew up in Los Angeles and didn’t speak Korean at a native-speaker level. In addition you had internal division between regions—which was not seen as prejudice similar to racism—and sexism and multiple generation gaps. It became clear immediately that as the one outsider in the room I could not be an advocate for anything. I needed to provide the materials and put the kids into groups so they could battle out the issues among themselves.

I saw that racism was a problem for them, sexism was a problem, regionalism was a problem, ageism was a problem. Then came the 1992 Los Angeles riots, with the Korean press covering the issue entirely from the side of Korean-American shopkeepers. I immediately brought in articles showing another perspective.

“Why?” you ask.

Well, it wasn’t just that I’d always been a crusader. What else were we going to talk about? I saw my job as increasing students’ fluency in English by giving them more vocabulary, conversation practice and understanding of the people they might eventually communicate with in English. If they were going to find and keep jobs which required interaction with foreigners, they needed some idea of where those foreigners were coming from and why. There was not going to be much communication from kids who said, “I think white people are the cruelest tribe in the world.  And the Americans are the worst.” Soon I started getting feedback like, “I used to despise black people, but now I don’t feel that way.” Eventually it became, “This class has made me more of an international person.”

American Pioneers was my English majors’ conversation text for five years or so until I got the idea of constructing dialogues from interviews I’d done with Westerners living in Korea, the same stuff that appears on this website. I’d originally collected it for a book on Asia through Western eyes, but I was unable to find a publisher. My students were fascinated with what outsiders were saying about them when they weren’t in the room. (This may be a cultural universal. I’ve just gotten embroiled in a Facebook discussion on how U.S. citizens are seen abroad.) The reaction to the new book was more positive than the reaction to American Pioneers, as if the attempt to lower cultural barriers was in itself creating an atmosphere of intimacy and honesty in the classroom.

Photo for the chapter on personal questions

So I put my conversations together as reading selections, and my co-author Mary French provided invaluable, extended feedback on making the collection into a real textbook with proper definition of key concepts, signposts, reading tasks, discussion questions, crossword puzzles, pictures, quizzes and exams—everything that made it into a real textbook. She was a textbook-type English teacher, not a filing-cabinet type, with a real gift for those details of pedagogy which had never interested me very much. Bridges: Intercultural Conversation grew into a two-semester, content-based course which got revised twice a year for six or seven of the ten years I used it. I had everything, including quizzes and exams, on the computer before a semester started so that I could spend all my classroom energy with the students. It was very successful.

Photo for a chapter on the workplace

We couldn’t find a publisher. At that time the Korean publishing establishment was interested only in hiring native speakers as low-paid proofreaders or writers for the publishers’ projects. Many, many English teachers were churning out their own classroom materials, usually because their language school or department wanted something with their own brand on it, regardless of the quality. Some of the texts may gave looked like early drafts of American Pioneers. It was impossible to show people who were interested in protecting their own turf that Bridges was different. International publishers weren’t interested in advanced-level textbooks that were country-specific, not when the market was in lower-level books that could be used anywhere—something I compared with aiming for the imaginary C student and missing everyone above or below. Eventually I decided that Bridges had served me well at Dongguk for over ten years. Mary and I talked about it, and we let it go.

Students doing a survey for composition class

I was familiar with some of the publication problems from a previous project, a collaboration with a friend from Dongguk, Prof. Cho Eui-yon. In 1991when I started teaching composition at Dongguk, there was nothing in the way of a composition textbook for Korean students available in the bookstores. I would sail into class with ideas typical of Freshman Composition classes in the United States—extended definitions, comparison-contrast, place descriptions, narratives, that sort of thing. The students did ten compositions a semester. They would write, I would provide detailed suggestions, they would rewrite, and I would correct grammar and word usage. Some of the finished compositions would go in the next semester’s book as examples of how to do the composition. Of course this made the writers very proud. I also pulled errors from the students’ very own papers to correct as a group, which they found considerably more interesting than predictable, mind-numbing grammar book exercises they could do in their sleep without ever having to actually use the grammar.

My friend Frank looked at the heavily-marked compositions and said, “You know, Korean students aren’t used to getting that kind of feedback on their work. One student told me that during the four years she majored in English she didn’t get a single paper returned in any of her classes. What you’re doing for the students, for them that’s really special, like inviting them all into your own living room.”

On the sentence level, the main cause of student errors I found was not sentence grammar (like subject-verb agreement), but word choice. Typically a student would want a translation of a Korean word, look up a Korean “equivalent” in a dual-lingual dictionary and select an item at random, resulting in such gems as, “The teacher rectified the students’ papers” instead of “The teacher corrected the students’ papers.” They didn’t know about selecting the right word for the context. They couldn’t distinguish between near-synonyms like answer, reply, respond and react, while a native speaker will select the right word automatically. There was also the intrusion of Korean English, causing students to construct sentences like “I prepared you some flowers”–of course, I did an imitation of chopping up flowers and frying them with onions–when they meant “I brought you some flowers.”

I had a semantics-based, vocabulary project I’d done for linguistics at Pitt, a series of different types of exercises which at least made students aware of the problems. We did the exercises in class using mono-lingual student dictionaries like The Cobuild English Dictionary for Advanced Learners and The Cambridge International Dictionary of English, which provided lots of sample sentences so students had a better sense of the context.

I got together with Prof. Cho Eui-yon, my colleague and a linguist with a semantics specialty. We pored over the manuscript drafts and revised them. The results were a composition book, Find the Right Form and a workbook, Finding the Right Word. There was also a teacher’s manual with suggestions and quizzes. Prof. Cho found a Korean publisher and did all the negotiations. We got all three volumes out, and the composition book got a second edition. The problem was that despite the teacher’s manual, Korean teachers didn’t take to the textbook, and it wasn’t marketed to native speakers. In many schools, textbook selection was done higher up the hierarchy. But I think the publisher broke even. I was proud to hear that the textbook and workbook were used in Queens, New York, in a program for Korean students. But, hey—in publishing this is pretty typical. Good, even.

For a few years I used both the composition book and the workbook every semester until I realized that I was bored with them. Then I started writing two companion books to Bridges, a composition book and an upper-intermediate conversation book which used the same key concepts (stereotypes, nonverbal behavior, racism, sexism, workplace issues, collectivism and individualism) but with a lot of video, like scenes from Norma Rae and all of The Dead Poets Society. I had no illusions about publishing either of those texts.

I don’t regret the tens of thousands of hours I spent at the computer working on textbooks. I can’t imagine reacting to my environment or my experience without collecting it or writing about it. Certainly it’s far easier than writing non-autobiographical fiction, which is literally far beyond my experience—except on some psychological or mythic level. All of the texts were tailored to suit the teaching situation as I perceived it, so they made my job a great deal easier.