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15 Sep 2013

A new experience – The second week of the semester is now over, and tomorrow begins the third week. I think I can say that we are officially underway. I have a fairly light teaching load this semester at HUFS—only four classes, as opposed to the five or six that I usually have. This is rather fortuitous, as I was asked by one of my seniors over the summer to teach a class at his university. This is also a graduate class, but unlike the classes I teach at HUFS, it is related to my major. The official title of the class is “Korean Literature Research Methodology,” but I was given the liberty to interpret this as I saw fit, and I was specifically asked to help fill in some gaps in the students’ knowledge of Western theories and methodologies. Since my (and my senior’s) major is oral literature/folklore, I decided to do a class on mythology and folklore theory and methodology in the West.

“If you really want to learn a subject, you should teach it in your second language.”

This may seem like a rather loose interpretation of “Korean Literature Research Methodology,” and perhaps it is, but it is the only one that really makes sense to me. After all, I think if my senior wanted someone to teach Korean theory to Korean students in Korean, he could have easily found someone more qualified to do it. In other words, I was brought in for specific reasons, and those reasons are 1) my knowledge of Western folklore theory and 2) my ability to read, understand, and (perhaps most importantly) teach texts originally written in English. I think this is the primary weakness of Korean language and literature departments these days. This wasn’t always the case, of course—the early Korean pioneers in the field had extensive knowledge of Western theory, in large part because native Korean theory had been suppressed during the Japanese colonial period. But once prominent Korean scholars emerged with their own theories, the importance of Western theory diminished. As time went on, students satisfied themselves with relying on what those early pioneers had achieved, and instead of doing the research for themselves they simply recited (that is, cited again) existing research in Korean. I’m not saying that everyone did this, but there is no doubt that mere recitation became more common and actual reading and studying of the original (Western) theoretical texts became more rare.

This, apparently, is where I come in—at least in one class in one graduate school at one university. On the first day of class, I met with the students to find out what they knew and what they expected from the class. My idea going in was to start the semester with a series of lectures covering what I assumed they had already learned, then moving into seminars where the students would read and discuss some of the more (relatively) recent research being done in folklore studies in the West. But during that first class I realized that the students did not have the knowledge I expected them to have. It wasn’t the students’ fault, of course. Instead, my expectations were unrealistic; in addition to doctoral students, I also have first-year MA students, so it’s only natural they would not have detailed knowledge of these things yet.

After a brief panic I calmed down and set about retooling my plans for the semester. In a moment of clarity I realized that getting the students into the seminars as soon as possible, so that they could come face-to-face with the theories, was the most important thing. This realization was triggered by something one of the students said on the first day when I asked them about their expectations for the class: “I’ve never had the opportunity to systematically study Western theories and methodologies. That’s what I want from this class.” Knowing that 99% of what I learned in grad school was what I studied on my own, as opposed to what my professors told me during lectures, also helped me reach this conclusion.

I pared down the intended lectures to a single lecture that would cover folklore studies from the beginning of the 19th century to around the mid-20th century. Obviously I would not be able to cover everything in excruciating detail, but that wasn’t the point—the point was simply to introduce the big ideas and give the students a frame of reference into which they could incorporate the papers we would be discussing in the seminars. Thus I spent more time on the earlier (and largely discredited) theories that we would not be reading, to lay the foundation, and covered in brief the theories we would be dealing with in the seminars, so they could see how the pieces fit into the larger puzzle. I gave this lecture on Tuesday and, while there are definitely things I will do differently if I ever get another shot at this class, I was overall pleased with the way things went.

I have to admit that I was very nervous going into this—and by “this” I mean both the class and the lecture. The classes that I teach at HUFS are a different thing entirely, so even though I’m in my sixth year of teaching now, I’ve never done anything like this before. There is also the minor detail of the class being in Korean. My Korean is sufficient, of course, but actually teaching a graduate class in Korean is yet another thing that I have never done before. I’ve heard it said that if you really want to learn a subject, you should teach it. Well, I’d like to take that aphorism one step further: if you really want to learn a subject, you should teach it in your second language.

Next week we will be having our first seminar. I met the students (and my senior) on Friday for lunch, and although the group responsible for leading the seminar next week (I divided my nine students into three groups of three) did tell me that they were finding it very challenging, they did not seem discouraged or negative. In fact, they seemed to have a rather positive outlook. It’s like when you’re standing at the foot of an insanely steep mountain, and you know that the climb ahead of you is going to be hell on earth—but you also know that when you get to the top it is going to feel awesome and you are going to have views like you’ve never seen before. That was sort of the feeling I got from them: Yeah, it’s going to be hard, but we’re all in this together, so let’s just do it. Mostly I think they were just excited to be learning new things, even if the learning was a bit painful.

This is what I like about grad students. I haven’t ever taught undergrads, so I don’t really have any basis for comparison, but grad students are generally very motivated. The more you throw at them—within reason, of course—the deeper they dig in. And, to be perfectly honest, I am throwing a heck of a lot at them this semester. But I think we’ll all be better for it when we emerge on the other side in December, and I’m looking forward to taking this journey with them.

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