Posts filed under 'University'

Second semester, final third

My classroomOn Monday March 3, classes officially start at Pyeongtaek University for the 2008 academic year.  We will have Convocation and the once every four year installation of the University President.  I will start teaching on Thursday the 7th and classes will run until the 13th of June.

I am excited to start teaching again.  My colleagues in New Hampshire are already giving midterms and thinking about spring break!  But I am also very aware that when this semester ends, I am going home.  I arrived in August and one week later plunged into classes.  I knew so little; I just rode whatever waves came and hoped for the best.  Then I had a two and a half month break, with Tod’s visit, illness, research, travel, and class preparation.  Now the last piece starts, the second semester, but the final third of my appointment here. 

Already I can feel the pull of home.  My Saint Anselm department chair and I have chosen my classes and teaching times for the fall, and I’ve written course descriptions and talked to students about classes.  I’ve signed my contract to return to Saint Anselm in the fall.  I have plane tickets home for June 30th.

Little Red Riding Hood's momThis feeling of being “caught between” two places is partly why I agreed to come for an entire year.  If I knew I was going home in December, I would already be thinking about it in October.  But thinking about home, does not mean I am unhappy here.  I have cherry and pear blossoms to see, mountains still to hike, an exotic island to visit.  My parents are coming for a week in May, I’m giving a paper on teaching in Korea, and I still have some Benedictine monks to visit here.  Who knows what will happen on campus.  Last semester we had Halloween parties and department plays, sports events and class dinners.  This photo is me playing Little Red Riding Hood’s mom.

The American Studies DepartmentMost importantly I will be teaching, and I am looking forward to the energy and excitement of a new group of students.  My two courses are outside my expertise - American Political Culture and Contemporary America (1945 to the present).  So I will be learning as much as the students!  I have been reading over break to understand the Korean political system.  I have also been trying to think “What would a person need to know about 1945 to the present to understand why America is the way it is today?”  With more than 50 students in one class and less than 10 in the other, the pedagogy or teaching techniques may be a challenge as well.  So bring on the semester!  Let the adventure continue!

1 comment March 2, 2008

Birthdays and Celebrations

Pyeongtaek campus at graduationLast month I turned 40, this month I turned 39, and I celebrated with 3000 people I had never met before.

Maybe that needs some explaining….

In Korea, age is counted differently than in the United States.  When babies are born they are considered to be one year old.  Everyone ages one year on New Year’s Day.  Therefore a person born in February would be one on the day they are born, 2 the next January 1st and 3 the following January 1st (rather than 22 months or 2 years old as we would say in the United States).

Therefore since I was born in 1969 and was thus 1, I became 40 in Korean years on New Year’s Day 2008. 

In U.S. years, I turned 39 on my birthday this month.  Having already turned 40, I feel like I’m getting younger all the time! 

flower sellers on campusMy birthday also happened to be graduation day at Pyeongtaek University.  There were food vendors all over campus, balloons, eight different stands selling bouquets of flowers, roving photographers, and thousands of very happy people.  No one knew it was my birthday, but it was a fine celebration all the same.

Graduations here are different than in the U.S., although I do not know if Pyeongtaek’s is standard for Korea.  The main ceremony looked much more like Saint Anselm’s Honors Convocation the night before graduation.  The top student in each major was given an award, a Presbyterian minister gave a homily, and M.A. and Ph.D. students received their diplomas from the President of the College and their advisors.  I was particularly struck by the nun who received her degree in full habit and full Ph.D. gown, and the band, which played Beautiful Dreamer and It’s a Small World After All, among other more traditional pieces.  The huge screen enabled everyone to see, even from the very back.

graduation on the big screenAfter the main ceremony, the ceremonies for the undergraduates took place by major in classrooms and meeting rooms around the University.  Almost every American Studies class is taught in the same classroom, Main Building room 207.  So today we met there for a celebration designed and executed by the students.  A student led us in prayer, we watched a video montage of the students’ four years, and we listened to the class President and each faculty member make a congratulatory speech.  Then the chair of the department handed each graduate a diploma and a gift.  The students walked the “receiving line” of faculty for words of congratulations and encouragement, and the occasional tissue for those whose tears got the better of them.  Sophomores and juniors attended, as did some parents and well-wishers; people signed cards for one another and took lots of pictures.  It was small (22 graduates, 65 people), almost familial (well, if you have a big family).  Even I got a bit choked up - I have really come to like some of the students, and they clearly returned the enthusiasm.

birthday flowersAfterward, I bought myself flowers (three kinds of orchids) and cake.  I ate a fine meal and opened paper and electronic cards (kudos to Aunt Anna who got a paper card to arrive here exactly today!).   Earlier my husband and parents had sung me happy birthday in separate phone calls.  

All in all, you couldn’t ask for a better day, surrounded by happy people, good food, and the warm wishes of friends and family.  And it was the first day in two weeks when I could be outside without gloves and a hat without risking frostbite.  It doesn’t get any better than that!

2 comments February 19, 2008

Teaching in Korea

After reading this blog, a few people have asked whether I am actually doing any teaching here in Korea! Yes I am, and I love it. Teaching students whose second language is English, or students from non-American cultures, was barely touched upon in my doctoral training. This was a major oversight given the makeup of the American population. I am learning many crucial lessons here that I will be able to apply back in the United States.

Teaching in Korea

In some ways, teaching here is no different than teaching in the U.S. There are some hard-working, diligent students with their eye on future success and there are some students with no clue why they are in college. Many students in Korea put in 15-18 hour school days from middle school onward (including Saturday classes) . Increasingly, children in wealthier families spend a year in the United States or Canada to master English. Since “school reputation” is the number one hiring criterion in Korea (60% of government officials and 70% of top company executives graduate from the “top 3″ universities), your score on the college entrance exam determines much of your future life. Pyeongtaek is not one of the top three. So my students are late-bloomers, bad test-takers, kids from less privileged schools and backgrounds or kids who simply wanted something other than the academic grind during their childhood.

Almost all of the students have studied English for 10 years, but most have only spoken it for 1 or 2 years and many have never spoken to a foreigner before. Their grasp of grammar is amazing, but also inhibiting to them as they deal with Americans’ highly ungrammatical common speech!

Teaching at a cafeI have one class and two study groups; the latter are informal weekly meetings to discuss culture and practice English. Here are some windows into my teaching here.

1) In one study group, a few students were too shy and nervous to get out a coherent sentence. Since some were urban planning majors, we headed out to the green where I asked them to describe to me their favorite building on campus. Soon we were discussing what buildings should be torn down, where to put athletic fields and whether to save an orchard or build a gym instead. Focusing on content enabled them to move past their embarrasment about their English, which consequently improved.

2) In another study group, I asked students to bring in debate questions. One student asked whether or not Koreans should be getting plastic surgery to improve their job prospects. Another asked whom should we blame : inviduals who forge their degrees or the society that values degrees over ability. A third asked why Koreans were buying so many high-priced luxury items - whether to show off for others, or reassure themselves. Each debate led to questions about values and to comparisons with American culture. Cross-cultural understanding is at the heart of what I do here.

3) My class is on Race and Gender in America. It is fascinating to teach about race to a nation that has long defined itself as mono-racial, but which is rapidly becoming multicultural and multiracial. In addition, I am teaching “Asian-American” history to people who question the concept of “Asian”. My students wonder how I can like America so much, yet also be so clear about our racial fault lines and injustices. Discussing such complexity would be hard enough with native speakers - making it accessible in simpler English is my greatest challenge.

4) In class, the students discuss the reading in small groups. Small group discussion is rare in Korea, so the students love the chance to help each other with translation, debate the main points, and answer my discussion questions. In order to enable deeper discussion of content, I allow the students to discuss in Korean. This is a bit of a problem for me though - how do I tell if they are on track or getting the right answer if I cannot understand the conversation?! I have been amazed to discover that a little Korean and careful observation makes this perfectly feasible - a timely intervention here or there works perfectly. The students then present their answers in English, so I have a second chance to check and correct their work, just in case I misgauged the small group!

Dr. Fish on my feet5) I try to get out with my students when I can, so I have taken one group to dinner and another to a cafe in town. As always the students teach me as much as I teach them. One group has two exchange students from Mexico in addition to my Korean students, so our cultural sharing takes on different depths. Once we went to a cafe to experience the hot new Korean fad - Dr. Fish. These little fish eat the dead skin off your feet and massage the capillaries. Not your usual history class, but we all learned a fair bit about China where the fish come from and Korea’s passion for the new.

Overall, teaching has been the easiest thing I have done here - I have years of practice and I love experimenting with teaching styles. But at times cultural differences are an issue. Professors are both elders (by age) and superiors (by status) and thus there are extensive rules for faculty-student interaction - none of which are obvious to me. Being a foreigner means those rules are modified for me, but the students are not sure how much or when. Even the question of name is an issue - am I Professor Salerno (American style), Salerno Professor (Korean style), Salerno Kyosu-nim (Korean words) or just Beth (as some other American professors are)? I opted for Professor Salerno. It is my American title (I am teaching American Studies after all) and I thought a little formality might make up for my complete ignorance of the other formal rules. It hasn’t. However, not knowing the rules has forced the students to articulate them. This allows us to discuss the differences between American and Korean universities.

Sometimes I do not know about the cultural issue until it is too late. In a lecture about the evils of plagiarism, I joked that I would flog students who copy from the internet. After students looked up the word in their electronic dictionaries I got very respectful and amazed looks. I later discovered corporal punishment is still legal in Korean schools (though it usually involves a ruler, not a cat o nine tails!). So once again I got to explain the differences between American and Korean schools.

In the end, that is the essence of my teaching style - even my ignorance is a teachable moment. Having humility and a willingness to listen have been the biggest assets I bring to my teaching (my friends will tell you I’m still working on the humility). As one student told me after class “I have learned a lot about America and a lot about Korea. This is really interesting.” Another slightly tipsy student told me at a recent department dinner, “You give me pride in my English and my thoughts - you listen, you understand, and you reply. Thank you.” I cannot ask for any more than this.

1 comment October 14, 2007

Why I am here

The American Studies DepartmentI think anyone who travels to a foreign country at some point asks the question, “Why am I here?” Perhaps they do not ask it in week two of a 40 week stay, but after 5 straight days of rain and three days of trying to arrange an internet connection with minimal Korean, I am asking.

The easy answer is that I have always wanted to live in another country, experience another culture, and the Fulbright program gave me that chance, complete with safety net. The Fulbright Program was established after World War II to promote international peace and understanding through academic exchanges and I am proud to continue that tradition in my small way. Rather than being a tourist, I get to be a productive member of South Korean society, supported by the U.S. State Department, the Korean American Educational Commission, and Pyeongtaek University.

Doksugun Palace in SeoulMy official duties are remarkably light. I teach one course this semester - Race and Gender in American Society - and I am currently setting up two study groups where students can meet with me once a week, talk about America and practice their English. Students are hungry for chances to speak English with a native speaker (though less hungry to ruin their GPA by actually taking my class!).

Myeong-dong Cathedral and woman in hanbokWhat I’m finding, however, is that my unofficial duty is to talk with people - to be a civilian American in South Korea. To listen when a faculty member takes the risk of speaking English to a stranger and tell them honestly that I understood every word. To share that Americans are even more afraid than Koreans to speak a foreign language with native speakers. To explain what Americans mean by “Asian” to people who have been controlled and invaded by China and Japan and thus do not see themselves as inherently similar to either.

Personally, my job is to experience - to simply experience. That is hard for a type A personality, always focused on the outcome, the product, the result. So I went to Seoul last weekend because I wanted to “check off” some of the places on my list of things to see - Namsangol’s Choson dynasty houses, Myeong-dong Catholic Cathedral, and Doksugun, one of 5 Royal palaces in the city. I walked a city of 9 million people (and far too many cars!) and gawked. Four lane highways packed with cars, twisting alleys full of shops, and everywhere, people breaking into English to help me find my way.

School girls at Namsangol VillageOther than a family from India and a couple from Germany, I was the only non-Asian I saw all day. Thousands of school children in identical uniforms, dozens of older men and women out walking in the rain, a few young couples (probably tourists from other Asian nations), but no single caucasian women. People stared openly until I greeted them with Annyeong Haseyo (hello) and then they broke into smiles and bowed. School children, male and female, giggled and practiced their English: “American?” “photo please!” “Good morning - how are you doing?”.

I realized that at least for some people that day I _was_ the experience. Even as I played tourist, my willingness to be stared at, to stop and speak English, to try speaking Korean - all mattered in a way I had never expected. I was told often before I left the United States ” to simply be open to the experience. It is not what you accomplish there, it is who you are that matters.” So I am being me. For the moment, that is why I am here.

3 comments September 5, 2007

Pyeongtaek University

View from my office
View from my office
Humanities and Social Sciences
My classroom
Pierson Hall - front
You have all been very kind reading through my word-laden posts. Here is a post that is almost all pictures. I can now call this “my University” since I received my formal temporary appointment from the President yesterday (and I could read my name in hangul on the certificate!). I hope the pictures convey how beautiful it is here.

This is the main administrative building. My office is on the fourth floor.

This is my office, complete with desk, table for six, chairs, a bookcase, computer, two large windows, and air conditioning. Faculty here buy their own printers - I’m still working on that one.

This is the view from my office. This is the central square. The building across the way has many uses, but I use the cafeteria. To the right is the library.

Here are two views of the humanities and social sciences building, where the American Studies (Miguk Hak) Department is located, along with my classroom. I love these trees.

This is my classroom, complete with computer and LCD projector. The computer interface is completely in hangul, but microsoft office is so standardized, I navigate completely by habit, rather than language.

Here are two views of Pierson Hall, the oldest building on campus. The building was originally built in Seoul in 1915 when the University was first founded. At that time it was the tallest building in Seoul. It was moved, brick by brick, to this campus.

I’ll post more pictures of campus another time, but that should give you a sense of the place.

1 comment September 4, 2007


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