Monthly Archives: November 2013

American Thanksgiving in Ochang

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Fulbright Thanksgiving Dinner! Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy Seoul

It’s American Thanksgiving and I’m in a small town in South Korea. I can honestly say that throughout the now over 4 months that I’ve been in Korea, I have felt far less homesickness than I expected. While there have been occasional bouts of loneliness and isolation, both mentally from culture shock and physically from being far from ETA friends and family, the majority of my time here has been stimulating and enjoyable.

Mulling over the past year, without any cheesiness implied, there is a lot to be thankful for. Over my final year at Pitzer I forged a wonderful group of friends. I graduated from college. And, of course, I was given the opportunity to teach Korean students conversational English and American culture on this Fulbright Fellowship.

Today is bittersweet. While there is a lot for me to be grateful for, it is moments like this when I want to share my experience with family and friends. Luckily, Fulbright did offer us a good opportunity to celebrate 2 weeks ago, when they hosted the ETA Thanksgiving dinner. Bringing all of the Fulbright ETAs together with the Fulbright office, American Embassy staff, and U.S. Ambassador in Seoul was a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday. However, that event still left me wanting and waiting for my family’s thanksgiving traditions—meeting up with old friends for drinks on Thanksgiving eve, waking up to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the morning, and finally tucking in to an epic feast at the end of the day.

This week, I tried to share Thanksgiving with my students. I taught them about thanksgiving traditions and foods. I reviewed the history of thanksgiving and, like a good Pitzer alumnus, covered the true history of ghost suppers and the Native American Indian influence. After teaching over 10 hours about thanksgiving, and as excited I was to share this holiday (perhaps even more so than my students), I am missing friends and family a lot.

Wherever you are in the world right now, I hope that you have a wonderful and fulfilling Thanksgiving Day. Eat delicious food, celebrate, and stay in touch.

Happy Thanksgiving from Korea!

SNOW: Changing seasonal associations

photo-3I woke up this morning to my host mom calling for my host brother and I to go eat. As I groggily shuffled my way to the table, blinded by the light after only waking moments before, I saw my host mother standing by the table. She stuck her arm out, pointed to the window, and, with a look of horror and a tone of disgust, said:

“Jon! SNOW.”

I haven’t experienced a “real” winter in four years. In college, the sun was quite literally always shining and temperatures rarely dipped into the 40s. My only brushes with the cold came during winter break; each year I would board my plane home to DC and, without fail, arrive just days before a snowpacolypse would hit. At that time, going from 70s and sunny to teens and a foot of snow was almost comical; an amusing escape from SoCal weather. My trips home came without transition, instead coming as immersion that left no time to reflect on the feelings that come with changing seasons and environmental shifts. I haven’t experienced a transition from summer to autumn to winter in four years.

Some of my strongest memories are associated with fall—cooking applesauce from scratch with my mom, picking pumpkins and apples, and decorating the front yard for Halloween with fake gravestones and putting dry ice in a plastic cauldron with my dad. I associate autumn and the transition to winter with particularly strong memories. I’ve only just recently come to the conclusion that Fall is perhaps my favorite season. In college, the weather did not trigger any of these feelings. I remember talking to my parents about their fall plans back at home, but Southern California continued to feel the same; perhaps there was a little bit less dry heat than usual, but nothing resembled autumn in DC. I rarely got homesick in those 4 years.

In Fall 2011, I spent the semester abroad at Peking University in Beijing, China. China was perhaps the most homesick I have ever felt. While I missed my family a lot, the more intense feeling was that of sensational confusion; I felt the temperatures dropping and I saw the leaves changing color, but none of the other things that I associated with fall were present. In a disjointed state, I found myself craving all of the trappings of autumn to fit with the environment. Sweater weather is powerful.

Korea is giving me those feelings of confusion and wanting again. As it gets colder, I find myself craving apple cider, hot chocolate, and, somewhat embarrassingly, pumpkin spice lattes. I want fall traditions. However, unlike China, where I was living in a dorm and could only reminisce, in Korea my homestay is helping me form new associations with autumn. Now, I think of coming home from my school and eating roasted chestnuts fresh from the oven, of hiking the foothills near our apartment, and smelling sweet potatoes as I wake up on Sunday mornings. They aren’t replacing all of the things that I associate and crave when fall comes around, but these experiences do give new meaning to the season.

“Jon! SNOW.”

It was surreal looking out the window and seeing the trees covered in white. All day at school, snow continued to fall. In between classes, students reached out the windows to catch the snowflakes. After dinner tonight, my host brother, mother, and I took out the trash and ended up having a snowball fight, bringing back more memories. Even now, snow is still falling. As the transition from fall to winter continues, I know that I will leave with redefined associations for each season and that come next fall, wherever I am, I will be craving these memories from Korea too.

Coursera and MOOCs: Learning for the masses?

Coursera interorg 2013-page-0If you run in tech-savvy circles, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are heralded as the future of higher education. If you run in the liberal arts academia crowd, MOOCs are vilified as a great enemy to the personal nature of a liberal arts education. MOOCs themselves are an interesting premise—convert a university course, often lecture-based, into an online entity with self-grading assignments, and open it to anyone with a strong Internet connection for free. I find myself in between these two groups often.

As a graduate of a liberal arts college, I believe in the power of the small classroom. The experiences I had during college—grappling with classmates over an intellectual disagreement, asking professors questions, and leading group discussions made a valuable impact on the way that I approach the world and my work. I emphatically believe in the merits of having a relationship with your professors and the chance to have meaningful small-group discussions. So, can MOOCs replace this form of education?

Today, I received my first SoA. For the uninitiated, SoA stands for a Statement of Accomplishment, the digital document that one receives for successfully completing one of Coursera’s online courses. Coursera is one of a few private companies that collaborate with well-known educational institutions to put courses online. In simple terms, the universities provide the knowledge while Coursera provides the platform. For my first course, I chose to take International Organizations Management, offered by the University of Geneva. Given my background interning at an organization based on public-private partnerships, it seemed like a good match. The course was five weeks long: compared to many of the offerings on Coursera, it was short—an Introduction to Finance course from the University of Michigan clocks in at 15 weeks long.

The course material each week consisted of about 1 1/2 hours of video and a multiple-choice quiz. For Week 2, the instructors substituted the quiz with three discussion questions that one had to respond to in the course discussion forum. The lectures themselves were actually quite good and of high production value—this was not just a camera stuck in the back of the lecture hall, the University produced these videos specifically for the MOOC. The quizzes were fair, but the discussion forums were large and unwieldy—think of them as a more civilized version of the Huffington Post comments section. Discussion becomes difficult when thousands of people are involved.

International Organizations Management was not my first attempt at a MOOC. A few days earlier, I signed up for a course on Global Health, also from the University of Geneva. In comparison, that course had a heavy external reading load and the lectures totaled 3 to 4 hours a week. It more closely resembled college, sticking to a strict week-by-week set of deadlines for credit. If one held any kind of full-time job, it would be hard meet the requirements. I ended up watching some of the lectures and did the reading for the first week, but quickly fell behind.

Finishing my first MOOC, I can confirm what that I left the course knowing more than I did when I began. That is one key measure of success for the platform as an academic tool. However, MOOCs are far from being at the level where they can replace the classroom experience–they have little credibility. Although I feel good about having a document that says I completed the course, it comes with a hefty disclaimer at the bottom:

“PLEASE NOTE: THE ONLINE OFFERING OF THIS CLASS DOES NOT REFLECT THE ENTIRE CURRICULUM OFFERED TO STUDENTS ENROLLED AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA. THIS STATEMENT DOES NOT AFFIRM THAT THIS STUDENT WAS ENROLLED AS A STUDENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA IN ANY WAY. IT DOES NOT CONFER A UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA GRADE; IT DOES NOT CONFER UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA CREDIT; IT NOT CONFER A UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA DEGREE; AND IT DOES NOT VERIFY THE IDENTITY OF THE STUDENT.”

Kind of a buzz kill.

Coursera has started to address this by offering a verified certificate that checks your identity and typing patterns for around $50 per course. However, it is not accepted for any sort of credit, even by institutions that offered the course in the first place. Coursera is investigating other options, but as a for-profit company that opens up another debate for critics of education’s corporate shift—is a MOOC free when the benefits of verification cost money?

I have finished this course convinced that MOOCs are mostly beneficial. For those with degrees, they offer the chance to keep learning from the best. That I can access this material all the way in South Korea from experts in Geneva is a testament to the platform; it’s a great way to supplement my Fulbright experience. For those without access to college, MOOCs are not enough. Sure, they offer the knowledge and even a piece of paper, but they come without official recommendation of the university. MOOCs also seem to be having a sort of identity crisis; just who are they for? The courses follow the same week-by-week deadlines of a traditional college course, but the majority of students come from lifestyles precluding them from a full-time student workload and schedule. They are offered by some of the world’s best universities, but those same schools reject the credentials. If MOOCs are to be open to everyone, how rigorous should they be? How do we ensure academic integrity? And, do some subjects fit better with the MOOC model than others (STEM versus the social sciences/humanities)?

MOOCs are an interesting digital experiment that could have large benefits, but they are still in a beta stage. MOOCs still aren’t sure who they serve. As long as society and bureaucrats see MOOCs as a supplement to classroom-based education, rather than a full-on replacement, they will continue to offer learning opportunities to would-be students from around the world. There’s a lot of controversy to come as these profit/non-profit partnerships develop further. One hopes that we find a way for these innovative technical platforms and academia to peacefully coexist, rather than remain in tension as foes.

Have you ever taken a MOOC? What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments!

The Biggest Test

Tomorrow, November 7th, is the Suneung, or College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT), South Korea’s annual college entrance exam.

Although I’m a teacher at a Korean middle school, the test reverberates across the entire society. For me, that has meant odd start times and random schedule changes as many of the younger teachers at my school prepare to proctor the test tomorrow. Without going into detail, this is the most important test that many of these kids will ever take–it can literally change your life forever.

To give people a better sense of what the Suneung is all about, I’ve made a Storify combining various social media and web posts to help explain. The storify won’t embed on the blog, so you can check it out here:

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Countdown to Suneung 2013

Social Media and the Manicured Life

“Don’t compare”

Mrs. Shim, the director of Fulbright Korea, uses “don’t compare” as key advice on having a successful grant year. Her logic is that comparison leads to a fear of missing out, which leads to unhappiness.  Yet, I am in a country that embraces social media and smartphones, arguably even more than America does. The tools for comparison are everywhere. The kids that I teach have newer and nicer mobile devices than the teachers do. The social media culture in South Korea abounds—even my host family has their own private social network, called a BAND, to share each day’s best moments with each other. What this culture of social creates, to borrow from Walter Issacson, is a reality-distortion field. Life becomes manicured moments weaved together into a seemingly flawless narrative.

A few days ago, I was reading a short interview with Randi Zuckerberg in the New York Times. Zuckerberg, as you might have figured out by the last name, is the older sister of Mark and the former Chief Marketing Officer for Facebook. The most revealing line of her conversation comes when she notes how Facebook influences the way that people perceive her:

“I’m a marketer; I’m only posting the moments that are amazing”

The interviewer argues that Facebook is making us all marketers. Zuckerberg shoots back that she thinks social media is making us better storytellers. Nevertheless, if she’s right, just what kind of stories are we telling?

Judging from my experiences while in Korea and elsewhere, the stories we “write” are about entertaining. That’s logical, too—who wants to broadcast their complaints about the day? However, for people outside of our close friend groups who consume our social media content, for those that don’t have the chance to have a long phone conversation with you at the end of a stressful day, life takes on an alternate reality. Like television, our lives are then seemingly only made of our best moments or grandest failures, as the case might be.

We’re becoming better storytellers. However, as Jon Lovett emphasized in his speech at my graduation from Pitzer College, we need to reclaim authenticity in that process. We need to realize that a textured life can be just as, if not more, insightful as a manicured one.

I often don’t post about my struggles, partly because they are what I feel every new teacher or expat (or both) go through. But even if I don’t put them out to the world, my personal battles exist.

There are days when lessons feel like a complete failure, when I wonder if they left the class with more knowledge or less.

There’s the frustration  when the circular-communication model of using “maybe” and “possibly” endlessly to save face is too much and incites a burst of anger inside.

That moment when, even in a new experience filled with fresh faces, I feel very alone.

We don’t necessarily have to be all about doom and gloom. It’s important to entertain and to share the best moments, but sometimes those lesser times matter too. The rough times are when our commonality shines through–we need both to make a connection.

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