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23 Dec 2014

The semester ends – So the semester is now officially over for me. I submitted and finalized my grades yesterday, and the last of the paperwork is in. Tomorrow, HJ and I are leaving on a morning flight to Tokyo for a trip to Japan that I will talk about when we get back. But I want to leave you with something to read in my absence, something other than my depressing review of The Hobbit finale.

“I’m glad that I could play a part in my students’ experience in and of Korea.”

Toward the beginning of the semester, I talked briefly about the class I was tasked with teaching, the broadly titled “Korean Language and Culture.” I had big plans for this class, and although I did my best to stick to those plans, I also tried to recognize where I needed to be flexible and adapt to needs I had not foreseen. Over the course of the semester, we covered the Korean language, philosophy and religion (shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and various other traditions, including Korean Christianity), art and architecture, music and the performing arts (including one class on K-pop), literature, food culture, film, and “Korean customs and concepts” (a single, catch-all class for anything that got left out). If that sounds like a lot to do in one semester, congratulations—you are more realistic than I was at the beginning of the semester.

In truth, I did know that it was going to be too much. It was inevitable, really; give me a survey course, and I am going to try to cram as much as I possibly can into it. I (and HJ) approach travel the same way—we always tell ourselves that we're going to take it easy on our next trip, but we invariably end up packing our schedule with things to do, see, eat, and drink (tomorrow’s trip to Japan is no exception). And we invariably have an awesome time, but we are always wiped out when we get back.

I would like to think that this class was similar: jam-packed almost to the point of bursting, but still a fun trip. The informal feedback I got from students was positive, with a number of them telling me how much they enjoyed the class and how much they learned. That is, I suppose, the ultimate barometer of success, as opposed to how much material I manage to cover.

The students weren't the only ones who learned a lot. This was my first time teaching this class, so I went in with a lot of ideas but very little practical experience in bringing these particular ideas to life. When it came to the literature classes, I was quite comfortable, but some of the other topics we discussed were quite new to me. Korean film? Sure, I've seen some Korean films, but I knew very little about the history of film in Korea before this class. Now I know a lot more—and I'm motivated to delve even deeper. I also know a lot more about K-pop than I did (and ever wanted to), although I'm not sure how much deeper I really want to dive into that subject.

I also learned a lot from the students themselves. We had students from all over the globe, and they each brought their own experience and perspective. There were foreign students who were studying in Korea for only one semester, and there were foreign students who were full-time students here. We had students from Europe, Asia, North America, and South America, and there were a few students from Korea as well. There was variety among the Korean students as well—some had lived outside Korea for many years, while others had grown up here. Of course, there were also students of Korean descent who were born abroad or emigrated abroad when very young, and they always have interesting perspectives.

This diversity made for some very interesting discussions in class, although I find myself wishing that we could have devoted even more time to discussion; I'm already thinking about how I am going to rework things for next semester. The students—especially those who were relatively new to Korea—also asked some very interesting questions, and some that took me by surprise. Many of the questions were of the “Why do Koreans do this?” variety, and these were sometimes hard to answer because I felt a little uncomfortable speaking for an entire people. Thankfully, some of the Korean students in the class were willing to be part of the discussion, so after I gave my thoughts I would turn to them to see what they had to say. Looking back on the semester now, the most rewarding discussions were not those that I had planned to have with the class, but those that completely blindsided me. If nothing else, I learned a lot about what interests and fascinates the students who sign up for this class, and that is a very helpful thing to have learned.

The final exams were an interesting batch. I say “exams,” but I deliberately moved away from the idea of testing the students on their knowledge. For the mid-term exam, a lot of students memorized information from the textbook and then just built their answers from that—which is fine as far as tests go, but I realized that it was probably not the most helpful thing to do for this class. So as the semester drew to a close, I started talking about the final exam and what I wanted from them this time around. And when it came time for our semester review in the second-to-last class, I made sure everyone was on the same page. My guidelines this time around were, in short: it's fine, and even admirable, to study the information in the book and notes from our classes, but that information should be a foundation on which to build, not an end in itself. I told them that I wanted to hear what they thought about the various elements of Korean culture we had discussed. During the review class, one of the students asked if they could share their thoughts on Korean culture even if they weren't entirely positive, and I replied that of course they could—I didn't want them parroting back what they thought I wanted to hear, I wanted them to engage with Korean culture on more than just an academic level.

I'm pleased to say that the majority of students answered the call. And I can honestly say that reading their “exams” (“essays” would be a more accurate term) was a rewarding experience. A smile of pride spread across my face when I saw that one student, who had never before been to Korea and had never studied Korean or hangeul (the Korean alphabet) before this semester, wrote a term in hangeul—and got it right! I'm sure that I cannot take credit, but when I think back to the beginning of the semester, when this student expressed some frustration during our hangeul lessons, this gave me the warm fuzzies. Another student of Korean descent but born and raised abroad wrote about dealing with a culture that was at once familiar and alien. The essay was written with such raw honesty that I got a lump in my throat while reading it.

As I mentioned above, there are definitely things that I am looking to change for next semester. For one, I've realized that the exam is not the ideal format for this class. I'm also hoping to have fewer students. As I wrote at the beginning of the semester, I ended up with nearly fifty students, and that is too many to get everyone as involved in the class as I would like. There are things I can do in terms of changing the way the class is run to improve things, but fewer students would also help a lot. That is largely out of my hands, so we'll have to see how things go.

Anyway, I have to wrap this up and finish packing, but I just wanted to write the other bookend to this semester. I’m glad that I could play a part in my students’ experience in and of Korea, and I look forward to doing the same for another batch of students next semester.

(Oh yeah... Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone!)

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