Frozen Knowledge

Student-centered learning is one of the hot buzzwords in higher education these days. The idea is universally accepted, and it is almost heretical that a professor, as a superior being with knowledge to disseminate, looks down on students and yells at them. Oh, I hate to be one of those professors. In principle, therefore, I understand and agree with the idea of repositioning students as the active subjects of learning. But the phrase “student-centered learning” accompanies other sub-tenets that I am less sure about “Don’t teach difficult material that doesn’t interest students. They won’t learn anything from it” is one of such tenets.

I am not saying that I expect Ph.D level research from a freshmen writing seminar. I am not advocating the teaching of material that is so removed from students’ interests as to fail to engage them. I understand that we can expect maximized educational effects when we properly engage students and adopt material that is appropriate for the student body’s intellectual calibre. What I want to ask today, though, is whether or not to teach material that students don’t get right away is such a lost cause as we are led to believe? My answer is negative.

When I was a student in Korea, I was bombarded with tons of lessons. I was a very good student with a good record of achievement, but nevertheless, I could not understand everything I was taught. Nobody would be able to process that much knowledge and information. When judged by the standards of student-centered learning, therefore, my Korean education must be pronounced a total failure. But I really don’t think it was a failure or a waste of my time. I rather appreciate having been taught a lot.

Do I remember everything that I was taught in high school? No. Two decades after graduating from high school, the retention rate of high school knowledge may not be higher than 20%, I think. Then, does it mean that the other 80% totally vanished out the window? I don’t think so. I think that the 80% of knowledge is stored somewhere in my brain, in the form of retrievable knowledge. To me, retrievable knowledge is like frozen food. You freeze food when you know that you don’t need it immediately but will need it some time in the future. Frozen food is not a waste. It is storage. It is there for the day when you need it. When you need it, you take it out from the freezer, thaw it, and voila, it becomes edible food.

Let me throw another example. As a literature major, I read a lot of novels. Do I remember everything I read? No. Also, some novels require certain types of life experience, and they may mean nothing to people who lack such life experience. Even then, however, I don’t think it is a waste of time to sit down and read them. True, they may fail to engage you the day when you read them. You may think that you wasted your time. Yet life throws all kinds of shit, and ten years after reading the novel, you may experience in your life what the novel portrays, and that’s when it rings the bell in your head. You will want to re-read the novel and gain some insight. If you had never read the novel 10 years ago, I don’t know how a chance to gain insight from the literary text would become available to you all of a sudden.

A novel which does not speak today may say many, many things ten years later. That’s why I try to read voraciously today, and that’s why I appreciate my high school education that bombarded me with knowledge I could not absorb then.What we read and are taught – once we experience it – never disappears. It becomes frozen and put on the shelf, waiting to be thawed some day.

This is why I believe that student-centered learning does not necessarily mean teaching material that is of immediately interest to students. One goal of education is to expand a knowledge base that will serve the students in the long run through their lifetime. From your education, you want to get something that you like and is useful right away. But don’t you also want to get something that will serve you well 10 years later?

Grannie Summarizes Juliet Schor

A few days ago, I wrote a post to defend academics’ use of jargon. I argued that using jargon helps to jumpstart a discussion on a complicated topic, instead of having to start from the very beginning, and also helps to develop further our thought on the topic. (https://kimchiforthought.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/is-jargon-necessary/)

Today, I want to argue the opposite viewpoint. Sometimes, an observant person in the middle of real life can intuitively see through what an academic says through long, elaborate arguments and analyses. I am comparing my grandmother, who was illiterate and did not finish even elementary school education, and Juliet Schor, one of my favorite sociologists as of today.

I spent this afternoon, reading Schor’s discussion of consumption patterns. According to her, income inequality is a big problem, and we have to try to overcome it. At the same time, however, this effort to close the gap in incomes should be accompanied by an understanding of our consumption patterns and, more importantly, an effort to reduce our scale of consumption. According to Schor, when many American families talk about the difficulties of making ends meet, yes, we can solve their problem by distributing resources more evenly (by seeing to it that the top 20% shares more with the bottom 80%) and getting these families more money. However, this solution alone is limited, because we are living in an economy which drives us to buy more and consume more. Schor points out that it becomes more and more difficult to keep up with the middle class standards. In the past, you could have one TV at home and be considered middle class. Today, you need two TVs or more. In the past, you needed one small passenger car. Today, you need two cars or a SUV. In the past, you could visit Niagara Falls for family vacation, but today, you need to book a trip to Italy. Given this “upscaling of consumption” which compels us to buy more expensive things to keep up, Schor argues, it is possible that someday, an average American family generates a six digit income and still finds itself struggling to make ends meet. This is the reason why Schor calls for the reduction of our consumption. Instead of working an extra hour and spending the extra income to buy a pretty dress, let’s not work the extra hour and instead spend the leisure hour to read a book or play with your dog. Forget the dress.

I think this is a fascinating argument. And here is a moment that made me laugh in the empty room like crazy. Schor says, “when people care only about relative position, then general increases in income and consumption do not yield gains in well-being.” My uneducated grannie used to say, “when you make more money, you create more reasons to spend money.” One line summary of Schor’s long book. Crystal clear, free of jargon, yet without impairing Schor’s argument even a bit. Brava, grannie!

Is academic isolation justifiable?

I sometimes wonder about these questions: Are academics, trapped in the ivory tower, removed from reality? Do academic discussions have any meaning outside academia?  Is academia blinding?

To address these questions, I want to start by sharing an anecdote. This is a story about my friend’s advisor. Please note that I did not attend the conference that Professor A attended and the story is twice removed (the Professor told her story to her advisee, and this advisee told the story to me.) Professor A is a renowned scholar in her field. She went to a conference. A lot of people recognized her and wanted to shake hands with her, talk to her, etc. She did. And it was the time for the first panel presentation. At the end of the presentation, there were Q&As, and Professor A asked a question to one of the presenters. The presenter answered the question. Professor A said that the answer did not fully address the question that she raised (“no, you’re not answering my question”) and asked the presenter a more pointed question. The presenter tried once again. But alas, Professor A still did not find the answer satisfactory enough. They went back and forth a few times. That was it. At the end of the 3 day conference, however, all conference participants were invited to a trip to a nearby beach, and Professor A was the organizer of the trip. People signed up for the trip, but when Professor went to the meeting place at the designated time, she found that nobody showed up. She went to the beach by herself. She hired a taxi, talked to the taxi driver on the way and had lunch with the taxi driver at the beach. She came back home, and she said this story in tears to one of her advisees, who told me this story.

I shared this story with another friend of mine, and he was not sympathetic with Professor A. He said, “People in academia may be A students in institutional schools, but a lot of them are F students in the school of life. They really don’t know how to speak in a non-academic language.” In saying this, my friend was not questioning the validity of Professor A’s question. He understood that the question itself could have been legitimate. What he was questioning was if Professor A was tactful enough to present her question. Or, if Professor A could have asked her question without coming across as dismissing the presenter’s idea. My friend thought that she totally failed in this regard.

I agree with my friend. At the same time, however, I see where Professor A was coming from. She wanted to have a rigorous conversation about the topic. When she saw that the conversation did not go as far as she thought it could, she wanted to push it further. Yes, too bad that she did not push it more diplomatically and tactfully, but I appreciate her desire for intellectual rigor, because, well, that’s what academics are there for.

I see that academics speak in a way that gains acceptance in academia but not outside it. But is this necessarily evidence of their elitism, snobbism, and isolation in the ivory tower? Does this necessarily suggest that academics engage in their own game that has no relevance to real life? I am not sure. Not all academics are intellectuals in the way I understand the word intellectual, and I agree that some academics do nothing but enjoy their inflated ego. Down with those scum! But there is the other group of academics, who genuinely think, try to expand our knowledge, and test the boundaries of our habits and feelings. I think that this type of academics – I consider them true intellectuals – need a language of their own, a language that may not be comprehensible to everyone but should not be disparaged for its opacity. What these intellectual say may not be immediately clear to us, not because they are arrogant and refuse to communicate with us, but because their ideas may be based on certain premises that cannot be all explained to us in a given time.

For example, I think that feminist scholars are one of the intellectual groups that are least understood and do not get respect they deserve. As of 2014, feminism in academia has established itself as a very elaborate critical theory on how our society operates. Feminism is no longer about equal pay for equal work, or allowing women to do what they want to do. Maybe it was about 100 years ago, but today, feminism works as a critical tool that sheds light not only on gender inequality but racial inequality, LBGT inequality, global south-north inequality, and all forms of oppression. I can see why feminist scholars cannot engage people who understand feminism simply as a demand of equal pay. Feminist scholars need to develop feminism even further than what it is now. They owe us that intellectual job.

I want to say the same thing about scholars who study American exceptionalism or whose work draw on the basic premises of American exceptionalism. These scholars are viciously attacked for their “unpatriotic” writing, when they share their work online with a wider public. Again, these scholars owe us the intellectual job of developing a sophisticated critique of the American nation. Chances are, we are not well versed as they are about what it means to develop a social criticism and how it is supposed to function. That’s fine. That’s not criminal. But then, let’s be clear about the gap between their knowledge and our knowledge, and let’s not call them unpatriotic or offensive for not making their ideas clear by our standards.

Is Jargon Necessary?

On Facebook, there is a page called “Shit Academics Say.” One of its posts reads:

Homoscedasticity.
Heteronormativity.
Hermeneutics.
Hegemony.
Problematize.
Pedagogy.
Paradigm.
Praxis.

I laughed. Yes, academics use jargon. And they use it a lot, and sometimes unnecessarily. I hate people who use jargon as an index of membership, or to distinguish insiders from outsiders. It is like asking, “hey, do you know this word? Prove that you are one of us.” I hate this insistence on inclusion and exclusion.

But at the same time, I wonder if jargon has positive functions. Today, I think it does. I think there is knowledge that requires jargon. I understand that intellectuals have the responsibility to express their complicated ideas in a plain language. I am not sure, however, if all knowledge can be translated in laymen’s language without losing its point.

I have a relevant personal experience. When Margaret Thatcher died a couple of years ago, I posted an article on my Facebook page. Discussing Latin Americans’ reaction to the death of the former British Prime Minister, the article said that Chileans, who continued to suffer from Thatcher’s oppression and exploitation of the Latin American country, “celebrated” Thatcher’s death. One of my Facebook friends of the time revolted. She found it “poor taste” to celebrate somebody’s death. She said that her death should be mourned. And she added, “when I die, I don’t want my death to be celebrated for the poor choices of my lifetime.” I took time to explain to her that why she should not take the article’s discussion as a personal attack to Margaret Thatcher. I said that Thatcher the person and the Thatcher the politician are not interchangeable. I emphasized to her that Thatcher the person deserves mourning, as she suggested, but the article discussed Thatcher not as a person but as a politician. I told her that we could and should discuss Thatcher’s political achievements and failures without attributing them to the person.

I was not successful with my friend, though. And, because I had to spend time explaining the separation of Thatcher the person and Thatcher the politician, I did not launch a discussion on what I really wanted to discuss: how to understand Thatcherian legacies.

Chances are, I had nobody to blame but myself. Perhaps my explanation was not good or clear enough. But would the situation be different if I used the phrase “the separation of body political and body natural?” I think it would be. If I and my interlocutor had understood what this jargonistic phrase meant, we could have jump started a discussion on the meaning of Thatcher’s political achievements. Using the jargonistic phrase would have helped to clarify the direction and the goal of our discussion.

So, I don’t want to use jargon to exclude people, but I feel that sometimes it is necessary for rigorous discussion. Imagine that your topic is the American hegemony in world politics. You replace “hegemony” with the plain word “influence” and you go on to discuss the idea of consent. In this case, I am pretty sure it will take forever to get your discussion started.

Emma Watson’s UN Speech

watson

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 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-iFl4qhBsE). 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. (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/09/emma-watson-not-right-woman-job-20149245235239187.html) 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.

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 http://chronicle.com/article/Proposal-to-Offer-Job-Friendly/148779/?key=T2N7dVloZC5PYH1gb24RMz9QaHdqMU55ZCIcPS1xbl9UFw==) 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.