How much do I love thee? Let me count the ways

I am talking about my freshmen students.

1. They cling to you. They say with their bodies, “we don’t know anything. Help us!” Something that you don’t feel with sophomores.

2. They are really good looking. Every, single, one, of, them. Both boys and girls. Just by looking at them, you feel rejuvenated.

3. They are curious. Their “what’s going on?” look is awesome.

Good night!

How to Prepare a Healthy Meal in 30 minutes

How to Prepare a Healthy Meal in 30 minutes

I am excited to write my first housewifery post on my blog. Yay!

Today, I read this article on the difficulties of home-cooked meals. ( The gist of the article is that cooking meals at home every night is a costly and time-consuming task. I am a housewife, and I cook most of the meals at home, so this article got me to think about the work that I do everyday. The article makes many different points, but in this post, I want to focus on two ideas: cooking at home is more expensive than eating out, and it takes a lot of time.

I can say with confidence that the first idea – cooking at home is expensive – is wrong. Eating at home definitely costs much less than eating at any sit-down restaurant, and it is still cheaper than grabbing a $5 sandwich for dinner. When you’re a family of four, sandwich dinner costs $20! The thing is that in order to cook dinner under $20 for a family of four ($10 for a family of two), you need to know how to cook. I remember that in a documentary, a poor family goes to grocery shopping, but they pass on cauliflowers, because a head of a cauliflower costs $4. The mother of the family says, “you can get a hamburger at $4. We cannot afford to spend $4 on just a cauliflower.” And the family goes to McDonald’s for dinner instead. What the mother does not know is that the $4 cauliflower can be spread over multiple meals, and a portion of the vegetable used for each dinner will cost less than $1. I think what the mother was really saying was that she does not know how to make a meal, using a cauliflower and combining it with other ingredients. Yes, groceries at the check out will tally up to be more than $20, but remember that she can make multiple meals out of the $20 worth of groceries.

The second idea is true to a certain degree, I think. To cook a healthy meal at home basically means a lot of fresh vegetables, and a lot of vegetables means a lot of chopping. And we should remember that no magician delivers groceries. In order to avoid waste, I need to have the right kinds of groceries at the right time. It means that on top of regular cooking time (at least an hour per dinner in my case), there are additional, hidden hours that I spend for home cooking. So, when the mothers interviewed in the Vox article say that making home-cooked meals is a challenge, I sympathize with them, because cooking dinner after 9 hour work is hard, to put the matter mildly.

So, here is my suggestion for the busy, tired mothers. I can totally see why they want to order pizza for dinner, but assuming that it takes about 30 minutes before the pizza shows up before the door, I want to suggest some meals that you can whip up in 30 minutes.

To make a long story short, Asian stir fry is the way go. And you need two equipments: a rice cooker and a wok.

rice cooker work

First, start rice. It will be ready in 20 minutes. Meanwhile, take out all the veggies that you have in the refrigerator, wash them, and chop for 15 minutes. When you’re done, heat the wok, and drop some oil, and begin to cook the veggies. When they are almost cooked, take out your secret magic helper. In my case, it is this: sesame garlic sauce

This sauce is awesome. Totally fool proof. You can mix it with any veggies, and it still tastes great. There are many, many bottled sauces that you can find at a grocery store. I am not saying this sauce is THE best sauce. My point is that have the bottled sauces stocked in your kitchen, and use them whenever you want to put together a healthy dinner within 30 minutes. By the time the veggies are nicely mixed with the sauce, I am sure your rice cooker will tell you that rice is ready, too. Hey, you beat the pizza guy, you spend less than $10, and your dinner is a lot lower in calories and fat and whatever than what’s in 2 slices of Papa John’s pizza!

Emma Watson’s UN Speech


A couple of days ago, I noticed that Emma Watson became a popular figure on my Facebook newsfeed. She delivered a speech on feminism at a UN meeting, and it seemed that everyone was raving about her feminist message. I wanted to hear what she had to say, and I clicked on the play button on her video clip ( But I didn’t really finish listening to her speech. And I cannot tell you why I did not finish listening, without revealing my snobbism, arrogance, and elitism: I did not finish, because I found her understanding of feminism so rudimentary and shallow. I rolled my eyes, when Watson defined feminism as a pursuit of equality between men and women. And I gave up on her, when she said to men, “feminism is your issue, too. You’re negatively affected by gender stereotypes, so I hereby extend formal invitation to think about feminism to men.” Pressing the stop button, I was basically thinking, “just read some on feminism, okay?”

And then I came across this article, written by Julia Zulver, a graduate student at Oxford. ( About Emma Watson’s speech, Zulver felt basically in the same way as I did. When Zulver said that “for anyone who has ever attended a class even remotely related to gender, anything said in the speech was archaic” and that Watson’s speech was “30 or 40 years behind the times,” Zulver was complaining, as I was, that Watson’s understanding of feminism is not deep enough.  So, what kind of speech is Zulver interested in hearing instead? She addresses this question in her Aljazeera piece: if Zulver is invited to give a speech on feminism, she would

“rather trust in the intelligence of the masses, and (simply and accessibly) talk not just about feminism as it relates to equal pay, but rather as a complex, reflexive, and discursive system of power structures with the ability to both oppress and liberate.”

Oh, yeah, I would be excited about Zulver’s speech. But then, interestingly enough, all of a sudden, I felt bad about Watson.

Zulver’s statement drew my attention to something about Watson that I did not consider before. I totally agree with Zulver that Watson is not well-informed about feminism and as a privileged white woman in the first world, she’s blind to real plights that strike women across the globe. I agree with Zulver that it sounds quite frivolous that Watson speaks about girls worried about a muscular body, but nothing about genital mutilation and child marriage. I have so many qualms about defining Watson as a feminist. Simply put, she’s not there yet. But nevertheless, let me emphasize and underline and highlight, she’s trying to get there. Within the limits of her knowledge, Watson spoke about important issues of feminism as she experienced them. Again, as of now, her knowledge base is not exhaustive enough, but she’s trying.

Watson’s speech and Zulver’s response gave me a chance to reflect on my elitism. In everyday life, I get frustrated with people who complain about a social problem WITH total blindness to the “complex, discursive system of power” that generates the problem. For example, when someone criticizes the current immigration policy, because s/he believes that we Americans should be nice to immigrants, my blood pressure soars up to the sky. But I think that in reality and sometimes, these limited and ultimately problematic approaches bring in change. A few days ago, I read Howard Zinn’s description of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. He described uneducated, anonymous African Americans who refused to yield their seat on a bus to white passengers. I wonder if these blacks did sit-ins, with a full awareness of the “complex, discursive [racist] power.” I think that many of them refused to yield seats, to serve their personal interests or to copy what their fellow black passenger did or for some similarly frivolous reasons. Problematic as they may be, these small actions added up together to eventually end racial segregation.

I am not 100% convinced by my arguments here today, because I feel that my and Zulver’s critique of Watson’s speech is valid. But at the same time, I also think that instead of condemning Watson, we may need to allow some time to her, encouraging her to grow to be a better feminist in the future.

Learning to get help

This week, my students are writing their first formal essay of the semester. Theoretically, I am not supposed to have any idea yet of who’s a strong writer and who is not. Interestingly, I kind of know.  You may think that this knowledge comes from reading disconnected, short essays that the students wrote so far in the classroom. But it does not. The knowledge comes from seeing who comes to get help.

In the way that most first year writing classes are set, a formal writing assignment does not get the students by surprise on the due date. We work towards the goal in a step-by-step process. For example, there is a class day when we look for a topic, there is a class day when we gather related thoughts on the topic, and there is a class day when we work on the organization of the thoughts. In this process, some students experience difficulties, and some of these students come and ask for help. They visit me in my office hours, and they ask me questions via email. If they have a class during my office hours, they ask for an a separate office hour. In other words, when they ask a question, they get an answer in one way or another. The thing is that very often, these students don’t really need help. They are doing fine on their own, but they just want to do better. The problem is the other group of students, who really, truly, and desperately need help. And these students rarely ask for help.

I wrote before in this blog that asking questions is a difficult task that requires intellectual trainings. Today, I want to add that asking for help is another difficult task that requires intellectual trainings. I prod students to ask for help: all my students are required to have two one-on-one conferences with me. When I was a graduate student, I taught a special first year writing class where all the students lived in the same dorm. So, I had my office hours in their dorm, to make it easier for them to talk to me. When students are determined that they don’t need help, however, these props don’t amount to much. I think that first year writing classes are not so much about teaching writing as about teaching good intellectual habits that will serve the students in the long run. And to develop an ability to ask for help is definitely one of the goals in my writing class. My problem is that I just don’t know how to develop this ability. Every class, I pause about 143 times to say, “anyone with any question or any comment?” But nobody has a question. Everyone seems to think that everything is crystal clear. Similarly, I emphasize that I am here to help them and invite them to take advantage of my presence. But so many students seem to think that they are good without help. I feel that teaching to ask for help is harder than teaching to ask questions. You can ask questions to make your students ask questions. But can you ask for help from them to make them ask for help from you?

I remember that when I was a student, I was a gadfly for my teachers. Perhaps my American students are too polite to be a gadfly. But let me leak one big secret of my profession: teachers love gadfly students.

It Pains Me to Hear You Sing

I love Facebook, because I encounter so many different people’s so many different thoughts. Today, I really enjoyed reading a post by my ex-piano teacher. One of my former piano teachers is a choir director at a local church, and she wrote:

I was speaking with our oldest choir member tonight (91 years old!). And she shared something I consider so sad in my profession. She claims she has reservations about singing because a choir director from her youth told her “it pains me to hear you sing.” It bothered her so much that at 91 she still remembers those hurtful words and is afraid to sing out. What saddens me most about this, is that one of the benefits of participating in music is that fact that it can build self confidence! There is so much more to music than just music. Music teaches us about ourselves and each other, please teachers be careful what you say, don’t take the beauty out of music. Help people discover their musical selves, and what beauty music has to offer their lives!

My initial response was, “why was this choir director this harsh?” Apparently, my ex-piano teacher felt that way, and so did many commentators who replied to the post. Then, one person said, “Music is an art. Therefore express yourself in any way that strikes you. There is no right or wrong way to do so.” It was at this moment that I felt, “wait a moment, what’s really going on here?”

As you can guess from the phrase “my ex-piano teacher,” I learned piano, and I am still learning piano. I can go on forever to discuss the benefits and joys of learning music as an adult and as an amateur. I totally agree that “music teaches us about ourselves and each other” and that one of the goals of studying music is to “discover [our] musical selves and the beauty [that] music has to offer [to] our lives.” But, it is one thing to say these things, and it is quite another to say that “express yourself in any way that strikes you. There is no right or wrong way to do so.” When a professional musician makes the second statement towards an amateur musician, I smell condescending musical elitism. When an amateur musician makes the statement towards herself or another amateur musician, I hear the abandonment of effort for musical excellence. Both cases are sad and unfortunate.

When you sing as an amateur singer, you will sing mostly for its aesthetic pleasures, and your singing will be definitely and understandably different from a professional singer’s. It is absolutely ridiculous to expect a world-famous coloratura’s musicality from an amateur singer. If the choir director in the Facebook post quoted above expected such a thing from an amateur singer, the choir director is to blame. However, I am not sure if being an amateur musician necessarily means that she can sing in whatever way she wants and that no criticism is allowed because it can kill her passion for music. I think that all musicians – whether professional or amateur – work toward what they conceive as musical beauty and that the only difference between amateurs and professionals is that professionals can work on their own for their aesthetic ideal (hey, they already have plenty of training to do so,) but amateurs need some extra help from someone who is more musically experienced than themselves. Being an amateur does not mean, “okay, I sing Ode to Joy this way, I immensely enjoyed my way of singing it, and I am good. No thank you to any criticism. Don’t dare kill my joy of singing that beautiful song.”

I want to be cautious about this kind of amateur self-complacency, because I believe it obstructs one’s intellectual growth. Sometimes, some of my students in my literature class say, “I read this novel in this way. I enjoyed reading it very much. Who are you, telling me my interpretation is not good enough?”

I don’t have much to say. I suggest that they study Plato’s allegory of the cave, as explained in Book 7 of Republic.


In this famous “allegory of the cave,” prisoners live in the cave all their lives, “with their necks and legs fettered and able to see only in front of them.”  There is a fire above and behind them, and between the prisoners and the fire, there is a wall on which puppeteers (Plato has sophists in his mind) show all kinds of things, tree, chair, dog, etc. The prisoners, because they can see only ahead of them, see the shadows of the tree, chair, and dog that the puppeteers show. And because they live in the cave all their lives, they believe that the shadow of a tree is the real tree. Plato contrasts these prisoners with a philosopher, who breaks the fetters and ascends towards sunlight at the entrance of the cave. This philosopher will see the real tree, the real chair, and the real dog under the bright sunlight. And here is one of my favorite passages from Republic:

He [a prisoner who is taken to the sunlight for the first time] would believe that the things he saw earlier [in the cave] were truer than the one he was now being shown, and if someone compelled him to look at the light itself, his eyes would hurt, and he would turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the one’s he’s being shown.

Oh, one more. “If anyone tries to free them [the prisoners] and lead them upwards, and if they could somehow get their hands on him, they would kill him.”

So, the music director might be a bit harsh, but I think her/his heart was in the right place. If you have a chance to hear me play piano, please tell me how I can fix my problems. Please don’t say, “I am glad you express yourself in any way that strikes you.” I will take it as an insult.

How Shall We Change English Ph.D Programs?

Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on Georgetown University whose English department decided to integrate non-academic job preparation into the fabric of its Ph.D program. (See The questions that the English department at Georgetown is addressing through the change of its English doctorate program are not new. It is old news, indeed, that tenure track positions for English professors are decreasing towards the point of zero and that a vast number of newly minted Ph.D holders fall into the inferno of adjuncts. I understand that given this reality, it makes sense to prepare English graduate students both for academic and non-academic careers.

If I were the Wizard of Oz, however, I would solve the problem differently. First, I would significantly reduce the number of English doctorate awarding institutions. People are complaining about the oversupply of Ph.D holders, in comparison to the small number of tenured English professor positions. This is definitely a problem, and one way to solve this problem is simply to reduce the number of Ph.D holders. Unfortunately, I sometimes see people who hold a Ph.D in English, while they don’t really need it or deserve it. They, while proudly claiming the title of doctor, stopped thinking altogether after a certain point or were never a rigorous thinker to begin with. I think that we need a system to weed out these people. At some schools, getting a Ph.D in English isn’t that difficult, if you’re school smart. But I think it should be really difficult, even for school smarties. So, I suggest that we make it a big challenge to get admission to an English doctorate program. Only a small number of really qualified people should be allowed to pursue a Ph.D.

Then, what do I mean by “really qualified” to get a Ph.D in English? This leads to my second point. For those of us who gain a rare ticket to an English Ph.D program, I would like to see that we intensify their intellectual trainings. It is my understanding that the intellectual trainings that English doctorate programs are traditionally designed to provide are still relevant and even more relevant to todays’ society.  We often emphasize the importance of abilities to understand and adapt to fast changing global society. I agree. But it does not mean that writing a 400 page doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf is becoming a useless task whose value does not exceed that of an intellectual masturbation in your bedroom. I think that today, we need true intellectuals more than ever. And I believe that pursuing a Ph.D in the humanities provides one of the best intellectual trainings available to become a competent, conscientious intellectual who can analyze problems and develop alternative discourses.

In sum, I have no objections per se with regard to keeping English graduate students open-minded about careers outside academia. I am afraid, however, that introducing practical education into English graduate programs may compromise the quality of education that they are truly designed for and still supposed to serve.

Let’s Talk about Practical Gifts

Let’s Talk about Practical Gifts

In her book The Overspent American, Juliet Shor observes that the average size of a car garage for a middle class American household has increased over years, while the number of cars that each household possesses has not increased. According to Shor, what this discrepancy suggests is that Americans use their garage space for storage, not storage of cars, but storage of stuff. I can think of many garages that support Schor’s theory. Very often, you find all kinds of things in someone’s garage, from an old coffee machine and cassette tapes to brand new bedding and a rain coat with a price tag still attached.

Does it look familiar?

Does it look familiar?

A garage filled with stuff may indicate the owner’s poor organization skills as well as his or her lack of determination to get rid of unused and unwanted items. But more fundamentally, I think that many of us suffer from a First World problem – that is, we just possess too many things. We keep buying stuff. We bring an overwhelming amount of stuff into a house. What exacerbates the problem of excessive possession is, I argue, gifts.

Let me take a short detour and talk a bit about my Korean grandmother. I was brought up by my grandmother, who was born in the 1920s. The Korean war broke in 1950, and all Koreans were driven into life-threatening poverty. Nobody, except for a handful of rich elite groups, could afford three meals a day, and to make the matter worse, my grandmother lost her husband during the war. She had to support her three children on her own, and I think it is an understatement to say that feeding a family of four as a single woman required “heroic” effort from her. By the time that I was born in the 1980s, however, Koreans overcame the utter poverty of the previous decades, to the extent that most middle class family owned a car of their own. Nevertheless, my grandmother remembered vividly what poverty meant. She remembered how hunger drove her and her children almost to death. As a result, I grew up in the 80s with the spirit of the 50s. My grandmother saw to it that I never threw away anything. When I was a child, I never had clean scratch paper. When I was allowed to throw away a piece of paper, it was because the piece was all covered with letters and numbers and there was no space to write one more letter on it. When I opened a gift, I had to be very careful with the wrapping paper, because my grandma wanted to save the wrapping paper for future uses. She saved everything. When she saw a tiny bolt on a street, for example, she picked it up and saved it at home. A tiny piece of metal wire, she saved it, because, to quote her, “you never know when you need it.” If I did not finish all the food on my plate, I had to listen to her long sermon on how a farmer had to work his ass off to put a bowl of rice on my table. And the food I did not finish eating went to the refrigerator for an afternoon snack. An interesting thing is that despite her obsessive habit to save everything, our house never overflowed with things.

There can be many ways to explain the differences between the scarcely packed Korean house from my childhood, on the one hand, and the American garage on the verge of explosion, on the other. Today, I think that one possible theory involves gift giving.

I love giving and receiving gifts, and I truly appreciate the warm heart of the person who gets me a gift. By the same token, when I buy a gift for someone, I select it carefully, hoping that it doesn’t go straight into my friend’s garage. Despite my hope, however, I know that it does happen. And I know that it happens, because some of the gifts that I receive go straight into my garage. After our wedding, my husband and I noticed that our storage got filled at an amazing speed. To make sure that things in the closet didn’t make babies while I was not at home, I went through what was in the closet. And I found that many of the closet residents, so to speak, were gifts: wedding gifts, Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, etc. Again, I appreciate the kindness of the gift givers, and it is unfair to them that I complain about their gifts on my blog. If I am nonetheless allowed to say a few words about their gifts, however, I would say that their gifts are such nice, luxury items that I don’t use them in my busy, hectic everyday life. Someone got us pretty, delicate glass decorations for a Christmas tree, but I am too lazy to make a Christmas tree every year. Someone got me a nice apron, but when I cook, I am so hungry and so in a hurry that I don’t bother with an apron. Someone got me a nice winter hat, but oh, I have such a big head and no hat fits my head. Someone got me a gorgeous pair of earrings one Christmas, but, alas, I have a metal allergy. The list goes on. These are all very nice things, and I abhor the idea of getting rid of these nice gifts, even though I don’t use them. This explains why my closet is so full.

By comparison, I think that my Korean house was not packed, because Koreans exchange consumable gifts. By consumable, I mean food, liquor, and….toothpaste, soap, and shampoo.

Popular Gift Sets

Popular Gift Sets

To Americans, Christmas is a big time for gift exchange, but to Koreans, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are big times for gifts. And in the picture above, you see gift sets that are popular among Koreans during the two big seasons. The last two sets are not that surprising: high end olive oil and balsamic vinegar make good gifts for Americans as well, I think. But the first one is quite surprising. Shampoo and toothpaste and soap. Yes, they can be gifts to Koreans, and we do like them! Also, gourmet food is another popular item for gifts amongst Koreans. A steak set for meat eaters, and mushrooms for vegetarians!

Gift for vegetarians

Gift for vegetarians

Gift for meat lovers

Gift for meat lovers

When I opened the closet door of my childhood house, I found a vacuum cleaner, paper bags that Grannie saved “just in case” but we actually used when we sent leftovers with guests at the end of a dinner party, and a supply of toothpaste and gourmet canned food for a year. Recently, I get to think more and more about these “practical” gifts that will never stay in my closet for months and years. As a dedicated housewife, I appreciate olive oil more than a pretty pair of earrings. If I can save money at CVS because someone got us 10 tubes of toothpaste last Christmas, I like it better than having a pretty apron in my closet.

Last Christmas, I asked my husband what he would like to receive for a Christmas gift. My American husband who is so unAmerican said that he would appreciate socks. SOCKS. By now, I am so Americanized and my initial response was “geez…” But why not??? Wasn’t I just complaining that there is no room in the closet? I think that I will get him socks this Christmas. And what would I like to receive for my birthday next year? Copy paper. I need a lot of it.

You don’t know you don’t know

Our knowledge distribution. The goal of education is to expand the red area.

Our knowledge distribution. The goal of education is to expand the red area.

These days, I am thinking about one quotation by the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi. He said something to the effect of “He who speaks does not know, and he who knows does not speak. How can I speak to the person who does not speak?” I am thinking of this quote, because I feel that the biggest obstacle to learning is that you don’t know you don’t know. As Laozi said, he who does not know speaks. And he speaks A LOT.

To me, Laozi sums up one of the biggest difficulties of teaching adult students. To teach young college students who are under 20 years in age poses its own challenges, but these students know that there are many things that they don’t understand yet about the world and life. I mean, yes, they think they know something, and they also speak a lot, but at the back of their minds, they know they don’t know. Relatively speaking, therefore, these young students are more open to criticism. On the contrary, I find many of my adult students quite recalcitrant about criticism.

I think that the grand goal of education is to know that you don’t know. We should be wary of the thought that we know something, because, as soon as we think that, it becomes so easy to lose sight of what we don’t know. When a student comes to a class with the mindset that s/he knows something, it will be difficult that learning happens.

To recognize our ignorance and to separate what we know from what we don’t know is a surprisingly difficult task. We need many years of intellectual training to develop these abilities. The trouble is, people who either already have these abilities or have the aptitude to develop them don’t speak. And those who speak now will probably continue to speak forever. Therefore, I raise Laozi’s question again in the middle of a loud cacophony that people who speak create: how can I speak to the person who doesn’t speak?